Skip to main content


Showing posts from August, 2023

Why Don't Things Fall Up? - Alom Shaha *****

At first glance, Alom Shaha's book is another of those compact hardbacks with six or seven essays that have done so well in the popular science field since Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons in Physics . Even the subtitle 'and six other science lessons you missed at school' suggests this. But in reality, Shaha is doing something far more original and interesting. Popular science for absolute beginners. The thing is, most popular science titles are written either by scientists or professional science writers who typically have a science-based degree. Shaha is, indeed, such a science writer, but he is also a secondary school science teacher. Scientists rarely grasp how to present science in a way that doesn't assume a reasonable amount of pre-knowledge. Science writers are usually better than this, but tend to favour the exotic and exciting bits of science, which often means going into more depth than many readers feel comfortable with. This is genuinely a book on science

Kathryn Harkup - Five Way Interview

Kathryn Harkup is a chemist and author. Kathryn completed a doctorate on her favourite chemicals,  phosphines, and went on to further postdoctoral research before realising that talking,  writing and demonstrating  science appealed a bit more than hours slaving over a hot fume-hood. For six years she ran the outreach in  engineering, computing, physics  and maths at the University of Surrey, which involved writing talks on science topics that would appeal to  bored teenagers (anything disgusting  or dangerous was usually the most  popular). Kathryn is now a freelance science communicator delivering  talks and workshops on the quirky side  of science. Her new book is The Secret Lives of Molecules . Why chemistry? My interest in chemistry comes from a combination of a great teacher, a fascination with fire, explosions and pretty colours, and a love of finding things out. For me, the science is a great mix of big theories and practical experimentation. I love learning and I also love maki

July 20, 2019 - Arthur C. Clarke ***

Surely there must be publishers kicking themselves that they didn’t republish Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of the future from 33 years earlier when 2019 came around. Of course, plenty of SF authors (and futurologists) have tried to imagine the future, but arguably Clarke was doubly qualified. Firstly, he had a big success in predicting geostationary satellites before they existed. And secondly his  2001, A Space Odyssey proved entertainingly far from the real world of the first year of the new millennium. Would an attempt at futurology rather than SF have the clarity of his satellite idea or the overreach of 2001 ? As this book was long out of print, I ended up buying a used copy - from the cover photo I assumed it was a paperback, but in reality it's a large format hardback with colour photos throughout. In a sense this remains more science fiction than anything else. As Clarke himself admits in his introduction, any attempt at futurology can only ever be an 'inquiry into the lim

The Man Who Organized Nature: Gunnar Broberg (trans. Anna Paterson) ****

There are some individuals in the history of science who everyone with a vague interest in the subject knows existed, but who remain shadowy figures, known for what they did but with little more to go on. One such was Carl von Linné, the Swedish scientist known far better by his Latinised surname Linnaeus. This is no lightweight study at 410 pages with another 44 pages of notes and sources. It's arguable it does go into rather more detail than the typical popular science reader would want - but it is generally readable and certainly puts Linnaeus into an appropriate context. In fact, I was surprised just how much I wanted to come back and read more, as I often find in biographies that after a while I get fed up and would prefer to have more of the science and less of the life. It might seem a little surprising that the one thing Linnaeus is universally known for gets relatively scant coverage. His binomial nomenclature - the species names such as Homo sapiens or Solanum tuberosum

Chris Impey - Five Way Interview

Chris Impey is University Distinguished Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona. He has won numerous teaching awards and authored textbooks and nine popular science titles, including Beyond our Future in Space, How it Ends and Einstein's Monsters: The Life and Times of Black Holes. His latest book is Worlds without End . Why science? Science is the best way humans have found to make sense of the world. It's not perfect, and the people who do it can be flawed too, but science is powerful in its reach. In my fields of physics and astronomy, it has let us understand the invisible world within atoms and the remote realm of the universe a fraction of a second after the big bang. Science is also a unifying force in society. The worldwide community of scientists speaks a common language, shares common goals, and maintains an optimistic view of human potential. But science is opaque to most people and its process is widely misunderstood, so I believe scientists have an obl

Doomsday Book (SF) - Connie Willis ***

Having enjoyed Connie Willis's collection of award winning stories, Time is the Fire , I thought I'd follow up with her 1992 novel (winner of both SF's major book awards). To be honest, I struggled with this one. In my review of Time is the Fire I suggested a couple of the stories were unnecessary long - this doubly applies to Doomsday Book . It is so slow, there's a feeling it's going to come to an absolute stop any time soon. I know the topic is time travel, but this made time go very slowly indeed. Just one example - a character bursts into a pub with an important piece of information and collapses. We then get what feels like 100 pages of him not quite telling us what he wanted to say. In his excellent introduction (the best bit of the book) Adam Roberts says 'Doomsday Book is a long novel, and it starts slowly; but its length is not egregious.' Well, no, I suppose it's not - but it is distinctly painful. I ought to mention that the underlying conc

Speculative Science Writing

As a science writer, I'm aware of the need to present information in a way that grabs people's attention. But sometimes articles go too far.  I admit 'A very slight improvement in our measurement of a constant' or 'A new theory with no particular reason to think it's true' is not likely  to have crowds rushing to read your latest output. And to be fair to other science writers, we rarely get to write our own headlines. Yet sometimes what's put at the top of an article is sufficiently egregious that there's a need to fight back. The August/September edition of Popular Mechanics magazine (I always think that is such a wonderfully Victorian-sounding magazine) carried the blaring A Warp Drive Breakthrough That Could Make Interstellar Travel Possible . Eyebrow raising in itself, though the tagline beneath was arguably worse in saying 'Scientists now know how we can travel faster than the speed of light.' Let's unpack those. First to note is t

The Secret Lives of Molecules - Kathryn Harkup ****

A number of years ago, the Royal Society of Chemistry began a podcast series called Chemistry in its Element . After completing the 118 episodes for the elements , they branched out into the much richer field of compounds . Kathryn Harkup did not contribute to the series, but this book feels like the next step from those podcasts - bite-sized, enjoyable pieces, in this case looking into each of 52 key molecules. (Even if you've heard the podcasts, the content here is entirely different.)  Harkup builds into each article a significant story that may be tangential, but makes the subject come alive. So, for example, when talking about sodium chloride - salt - she majors on the significance of salt to humans and Ghandi's protest against the restrictive salt laws in India in the 1930s. As you go through the book you will meet other familiar, big name compounds, such as water, carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid (oddly, this, and sulfur are written as sulphur, despite sulfur now being t

Scott Shapiro - Five Way Interview

Scott Shapiro is the Charles F Southmayd Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy at Yale Law School, where he is Director of the Centre for Law and Philosophy at the CyberSecurity Lab. He is the author of Legality and the co-author with Oona Hathaway of The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World. His latest book is Fancy Bear goes Phishing . Why information technology? Two reasons. First, I like playing with computers. They’re fun. Second, information technology is a vital interest.  As venture capitalist Marc Andreessen said in his 2011 essay, 'software is eating the world.' It’s transformed industries, businesses, and society. The ten richest people in the world, with a combined wealth of $250 billion, six are tech billionaires and two—Bill Gates and Larry Ellison—are founders of operating system companies—Microsoft and Oracle. That means a couple of things: first, vast global power is now in the hands of those who understand and control the

How to Expect the Unexpected - Kit Yates ****

The topic here is one everyone is interested in - getting a better handle on the future, and it's an interesting read. Arguably Kit Yates' title is a touch misleading. This isn't a 'how to' book - after reading it, you won't be any better at doing anything, but you may be less likely to make some popular errors. My background is in Operational Research, which includes a lot on forecasting and mathematical prediction, so I was slightly disappointed that this isn't really covered here. Instead it gives us mostly ways that we instinctively get predictions wrong, so it's arguably more a psychology book that a mathematical one. There have been quite a few others that tread the path of uncovering our biases, for example with a mathematical approach in Jordan Ellenberg's How Not to be Wrong and with a more psychological twist in Richard Nesbitt's Mindware . But Yates has a particular focus on our tendency to assume linearity - that things will broadly

Slow Time Between the Stars (SF) - John Scalzi ***

This is a bit of an oddity - it's a review of a single SF short story, available separately on Kindle (free to those with Prime/Unlimited). As I noted when reviewing Connie Willis's Time is the Fire   collection, science fiction is a natural for short stories and the concept here is both timely and interesting. Getting to the stars is going to take a long time - far too long for an ordinary human voyage. Over the years, SF writers have come up with all sorts of ways around this, from generation starships to warp drive, but the most realistic option is we don't send people at all. In John Scalzi's story, a fully autonomous AI is sent out with the ability to create human life if and when it reaches a suitable planet. We get to see the AI's decision making over thousands of years, how it decides to approach its mission and how its viewpoint drifts away from its human creators. Unfortunately, while a good idea is essential for a short story, so is engagement of the read