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Showing posts from July, 2023

How Space Physics Really Works - Andrew May ****

This slim book has the appealing premise of looking at the basics of space physics, from gravity through rocket science to the nature of a vacuum, by using examples from 'well-constructed science fiction'. We are not talking about the typical movie or lightweight SF novel here, but rather the work of 'hard' science writers - most notably Arthur C. Clarke and Andy Weir (not to mention astronaut-turned-author Chris Hadfield). Andrew May uses extensive quotes from such authors showing how the real physics of getting into space and living away from the Earth is significantly different from the Hollywood version. Things start off with Jules Verne and his two Moon novels. May admits that Verne had to wildly fudge things over getting into space, using a cannon that would have mashed the occupants, but apart from that, Verne did his best to stick to the science as much as was known at the time, for example even putting in an equation giving a rough calculation for escape veloci

Romeel Davé - Five Way Interview

Romeel Davé holds the Chair of Physics at the University of Edinburgh.  Born in California, he got his bachelor’s from U.C. Berkeley, MSc from Caltech, and PhD from U.C. Santa Cruz in 1998.  He was a professor in Tucson and Cape Town before coming to Edinburgh in 2017.   He is a leading researcher in using supercomputer simulations to better understand the formation of galaxies, their co-evolution with surrounding gas, and the nature of dark matter and dark energy.   Simulating the Cosmos is his first popular science book. Why science? My favorite game growing up was Clue.  I’ve always enjoyed piecing together evidence to solve a mystery.  Science is basically just a big detective game -- the Universe leaves you a bunch of random clues, and you have to tease out the underlying perpetrator.  It’s good fun, and as a bonus it’s gratifying to be part of humanity’s never-ending quest to push the frontiers of knowledge. Why this book? Many people view science as grand proclamations from a c

Time is the Fire (SF) - Connie Willis *****

I've been reading science fiction since the 1960s, but I can still come across a writer that's new to me who has been in the business for decades - and that happened recently with Connie Willis' Time is the Fire . This remarkable collection is of stories, published between the 70s and the 90s, that have all won either Hugos or Nebulas - the big US awards for SF writing. I suspect one reason they are new to me is that they are all from US science fiction magazines, which I've never regularly read. There's certainly plenty of quality in this collection. Willis is a brilliant storyteller in the gentle narrative style, giving us stories that are strongly imbued with either humour or longing and sadness. If you haven't come across her writing, Ray Bradbury most directly came to mind as a parallel, though here the folksiness is joined by an enthusiasm for some non-US settings, notably in London, St Paul's Cathedral and the Underground. To pick out a few favourites

In a Flight of Starlings - Giorgio Parisi ***

This is very much an attempt to emulate Carlo Rovelli's success with short books containing seven or eight essays, beginning with Seven Brief Lessons in Physics . In this case, Italian Nobel Prize winning physicist Giorgio Parisi gives us a set of eight unconnected essays, some solidly scientific, such as the opening one on how his team studied starling murmurations, others more philosophical or memoir-like, such as his account of ‘physics in Rome around fifty years ago’.  I personally couldn’t see a lot of interest in the less scientific essays, but the detail of his work on starlings was very interesting - I had read about various computer models of murmurations but had no idea how actual flocks were studied, and Parisi gives us a good account of the methods used. Some of the other essays with a strong science content are a lot less engaging, though, because Parisi (or his translator) really doesn’t know how to describe topics like the particle physics of the 1970s in a way that

Worlds without End - Chris Impey ****

I was a bit wary when I saw this book because there seem to be almost as many books about exoplanets and astrobiology as there have been planets discovered around new stars. However, it proved a pleasant surprise, as a result of the approach that Chris Impey has taken, and I found it an enjoyable read. In four sections, Impey takes us through the search for exoplanets, the potential habitability of different worlds, from gas giants to Earth clones, what can be done to search for the existence of life in other planetary systems, and space exploration. The last section, to be honest, really is unnecessary - it's a distinctly different topic covered better in other titles, and I would have been happy to have had more on the earlier subjects. But in the first three sections, the great thing about Impey's approach is the way he drives the discoveries and ideas (there aren't, of course, any astrobiology discoveries per se as it is all theoretical so far) from the individuals invo

The Universe in a Box - Andrew Pontzen ****

Our attention was drawn to this book’s existence by a helpful nudge on Twitter following the review of Romeel Davé’s Simulating the Cosmos a few weeks ago. I gave that book four stars, as regards its appeal to a general audience, while saying that my own personal rating was a full five stars. That’s because computer simulation is, in a sense, my own specialist subject, and I thought Davé did a great job of explaining how cosmological simulations work, and what they can tell us about the universe. At the same time, I acknowledged that not everyone is going to be enough of a space or computer geek to care about such questions in the first place. Pontzen’s book deals with essentially the same subject, but approaches it from such a different angle that there’s very little overlap between the two. I’m giving this one four stars, too, but for pretty much the opposite reason. Personally, I found it frustratingly tangential to the subject it was ostensibly about, never really getting to grips

Translation State (SF) - Ann Leckie *****

It seems that Ann Leckie has won every SF award going, but this was the first of her books I'd read - and now I have, I can see why she has been so successful. Translation State features three key characters: Enae, a dispossessed scion of a rich family who is given a make-work job to hunt for a lost fugitive and decides to make something of it and really commit to the search; Reet, an adopted young man who gets into murky depths when trying to uncover his origins; and Qven, an apparently alien lifeform who is coming to the end of a strange and dangerous upbringing. The threads of those three characters' lives come together, with both Reet and Qven discovering they are not what they seem. All three are plunged into a dangerous political situation that is then made worse by terrorist action. It's all beautifully written, and Qven's upbringing and nature as a would-be Presger Translator (beings who act as intermediaries between humans and the very alien Presger) is some o

Girlfriend on Mars (SF) - Deborah Willis ****

This was a science fiction novel that was crying out to be written, inspired by the failed attempted by the now collapsed Mars One to combine reality TV with a mission to Mars. In Deborah Willis's novel, the company becomes MarsNow, but the concept is exactly the same: two 'marsonauts' chosen in reality TV knockout style are going to be sent on a one-way trip to Mars. The two central characters, Amber (the would-be space traveller) and her boyfriend Kevin seem designed to reflect the opening line of the Larkin poem This Be The Verse -  they both are seriously damaged by their parents (as is Amber's other love interest and reality show competitor, Adam). The book is divided into alternating chapters, swapping between a first person account from Kevin and a third person account of what Amber is doing.  This approach broadly works well as their lives diverge, with Kevin left behind in Vancouver and Amber taking part in rounds of the reality show that are located across the

Athene Donald - Five Way Interview

Athene Donald is Professor Emerita in Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College, University of Cambridge. Other than four years postdoctoral research in the USA, she has spent her career in Cambridge, specializing in soft matter physics and physics at the interface with biology. She was the University of Cambridge's first Gender Equality Champion, and has been involved in numerous initiatives concerning women in science. She was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1999 and appointed DBE for services to Physics in 2010. Her new book is Not Just for the Boys . Why science? Science is all about curiosity. It underpins so much of our world, yet many people – including the media – don’t trouble to think much about it or write about it and sometimes choose to pit science against the humanities and social sciences. This is unhelpful, to say the least, and I would like other people to share my enthusiasm for the subject, or at least recognize why it is crucially important. An

Tree Stories - Stefano Mancuso (Trans. Gregory Conti) ***

It's always interesting to see something new in popular science, and without doubt plants (and, in this case, trees) tend not to get enough of a slice of the biology market (I don't really count 'nature' as popular science as there's very little science in it). So I had considerable hopes for Tree Stories.  But in practice, although there are some genuinely interesting little snippets of information around the way that trees interact with each other through their root networks, the book was problematic. One issue I had was that each 'story' - each chapter in effect - is continuous, without any section breaks. There is no substructure it just goes on and on, which was quite wearing. Worse, though, was that despite this book being labelled popular science, the science content was extremely thin on the ground. Take the opening story. It comes across as a typical literary tale in which nothing much happens. Two academics become acquaintances after battling over