Monday, 27 October 2014

Book Review: 'Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything' by Theodore Gray

20729580Moving on from his wonderful books on DIY chemistry experiments (Theo Gray's Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do At Home - But Probably Shouldn't) and his glossy, beautiful and somewhat erotic (well us chemists get our kicks where we can) The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe, Theo takes us a step up in complexity and deals with the realm of molecules in his latest glossy coffee table book to end all coffee table books.

Sure there is less structural narrative here than in 'The Elements' because we lack the periodic table, but the themes selected by Theo are great and do tie together somewhat. What you find are sections on soaps, sweeteners, dyes, aromatic compounds and a variety of others. Each section is contains the beautiful photography of Nick Mann as well as lots of structures and weird facts. 

Another aspect that I love about Theo's books are that I am not bored reading them and despite my wide reading and years of education and educating in chemistry there are still a variety of weird facts that I come across in his books. Admittedly I was a little bored in the first couple of chapters of 'Molecules' because it did lay down the foundations of what molecules are and how the atoms bond. But it is always great to read how another greatly intelligent person explains these basics to a non-educated audience. It is part of my job to do this for fresh faced university undergraduates. 

Yes I am possibly a bit biased being both a chemist and a big fan of Theodore's previous books but 'Molecules' kept me fascinated for hours and it is a book that I will revisit quite often. It may not be quite as catchy and as structured as 'The Elements', but close to perfection is still a commendable achievement.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Book Review: 'Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus' by David Quammen

For the last few months now our news cycles have always had a little snippet of Ebola news hidden somewhere between the wedding of George Clooney and a dog that got stuck up a tree. The only visuals are dusty hut, a dirty warehouse that is supposed to be a hospital and some people with paper face masks. And while it seems like a big story, you know that it is being downplayed because it is in Africa, still the dark continent in the 21st century. Yet the story has been there for months. Enough for some alarm bells to ring, hey this might be serious. But oh wait, Miley Cyrus just did something.
Usually by this time I'd be Googling Ebola, or buying a New Scientist with a special set of articles on the subject, but I haven't. But luckily I had a quick browse on NetGalley and came across this book. So I approached this volume hoping that all my curiosities would be quelled; what is Ebola exactly?  How is it transmitted? What effects does it have on the body? Where does it hide in it's downtime?

Were my questions answered? Not exactly. But through no fault of the author's at all.

I had no idea how little we know about Ebola. 

David starts his new book acknowledging that it is a rehash of a section from his previous book from 2012 'Spillover' that looks at zoonoses or an infection that is transmissible from animal to human. The majority of this book is not new material and is taken heavily from the aforementioned volume, but it has some small sections updated until early September 2014 regarding the new outbreaks. And while cynics will see this as a cash in on a new range of deaths I saw this as being far from it as it was an informative piece of writing that answered all the questions that it could regarding Ebola and introduced me to a writer who I had never read before and will probably go on to read in the near future.

The small book takes us through a short history of Ebola outbreaks ever since the first recorded outbreaks in the 1970s. It is also interspersed with a first hand account from David when he traveled through one region that had previously had outbreaks with a biological survey. So not only was the overview of the history of outbreaks fascinating, but it had personal stories from the people affected inbetween.

But the most astonishing aspect of the disease is how little is known about it for various reasons. When you have a virus that stays dormant for years in a non-human host, and then sudden outbreaks happen in the most remote places of Africa, where there are minimal survivors, and those that are infected die very quickly you have a very hard virus to study. Not only that but it is one of the most deadly viruses known and studies done with samples in laboratories require large amounts of risk minimisation and therefore large amounts of funding. So while a known set of symptoms are present the exact mechanism of how the virus interacts with the body still requires a great deal of work. It is known to devastate the patients immune system and also cause uneven clotting in the cardiovascular system so that clots appear in some areas while other bleed uncontrollably from the slightest rupture say of a needle.

David presents a short volume that is engrossing, horrific and truthful. I have come away with a much greater understanding of the complexities of the situation in these west-African countries and how their political and belief systems are exacerbating the situation. However I also know that the rest of the world could be putting in a greater effort and not dismissing it as yet another plight of the African or having undue panic and believing that it is a sign of the oncoming apocalypse. 

Thank you to Netgalley and Random House UK for a copy of this book to review.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Podcasts: The Dollop with Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds

I came to know the name of Dave Anthony through Wil Anderson's FOFOP podcast which I am a great fan of. Dave was one of the most prevalent guests on the podcast and I enjoyed his humour and interaction with Wil.

But Dave has his own newish podcast that is just something that you have to hear to believe. It's hard to put some great adjectives to, but it really does appeal to me in so many ways.So the format is that Dave investigates a story, event or person from American history and presents it as a story to the audience and Gareth. Gareth is totally out of the loop to what the story is. OK sounds a bit dull? Sounds like Civil War reenactments right?

Well it does all come down to the stories that Dave picks. These are not your average events or people. To use the term 'quirky' is just so inadequate. And they are also helped by their fine sense of humour. Basically these are some of the most WTF stories you will come across.

I'll use a couple of examples, but I have to be really mindful about spoilers. I knew about one of these obscure people that had an episode dedicated to his shenanigans. I came across his story briefly while reading a chemistry book.  Davis Hahn was a special boy who was really into science, kind of like I was. But I didn't have the sheer willpower of David's nor did I have access to weapons grade plutonium.

I listened to an episode yesterday that dealt with John C Lilly, a neuroscientist during the fifties and sixties who pioneered work with dolphin intelligence. Unfortunately it all came to a head during his experiment with a woman and a male dolphin living together for 40 days.

There are cults, rainbow wigs, vampires, navy mishaps, french orphansand so many others,

The Dollop is my favourite podcast because it exemplifies the old saying that truth is always stranger than fiction. You just could not make this shit up. And not only is it informative, it's hilarious.

I urge you all so much to download an episode. Start with the David Hahn episode.

You can get The Dollop at or via iTunes

Book Review: 'The Chrysalids' by John Wyndham

11228582It is certainly easy to classify John Wyndham's The Chrysalidsas old school YA fiction, from before YA fiction needed a label, but it offers more than your average after school special between covers in that it treats the reader as an intelligent and reasonable person, and that while there is a touch of the 50s to the book, it was certainly way ahead of its time.

David Strorm is the only living son of a patriarch of an ultra-religious post-apocalyptic community. Faced a level of mutation in the their farming stock, both plants and animals, the community has twisted the christian faith into a fundamentalist view that any variation is a sin against god and must be burnt. This is handled by the community and by appointed inspectors. A few plants that don't quite grow to perfection and a whole crop is burnt to the ground. While this may have helped a little curb the proliferation of any mutagens that may be harmful to humans, it has certainly held back any natural selection processes. 

Unfortunately the rules do not end at the farm. Any human born not in god's image is not certified by the inspectors and is taken, hushed up and forgotten. There is also an unspoken rule that a female who produces offspring three times that do not get certified is taken away and quite possibly treated like the livestock that also do not produce. It is a frightening and terror filled community, one that brings back memories of Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale

So everyone in this community has a stamp of approval that they fit the image of god in all their looks. But what happens if there is a variation that an inspector cannot see? David learns from an early age that he can communicate with a small group of others telepathically. This small group of children band together in their fear and strategise to hide their differences in fear for their lives. But all is changed when people notice their strange behaviour when one of their kind is hurt and they come to their rescue with no seemingly way of knowing that the person was injured.

At a guess I have probably read The Chrysalids about a dozen times. Mostly in my teens as I worked my way through whatever John Wyndhams I could find in my local and school libraries after discovering The Day of the Triffids. So any John Wyndham is a comfort read for me. A mix of good sturdy SF with nostalgia. Truthfully this book probably deserves a 4 star rating, but it means a lot to me. It was the Wyndham that made me that much more confident as a teen who did not fit in. It introduced me to religious fundamentalism. And it also made it OK to be a daydreamer. I think all the John Wyndhams that I read as a teen have made me a better person in the long run. I certainly wouldn't be the same person had I not read and loved them.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Book Review: 'The Martian' by Andy Weir

So I'm completely too late for the 'The Martian' bandwagon. It seems everyone has already read it with a smattering of really likes to the 'meh' verdicts. 

What decided it for me was that one 'meh' from one of my friends on Goodreads said "Too much chemistry".


Being the huge chemistry nerd that I am it was a calling sign that I was probably going to enjoy it.

And boy was it fun.

The Martian tells the story of Mark Watney, abandoned for dead by his martian crew mates after an emergency when all his life signs showed he was dead. While they rushed back to Earth, Mark wakes up in his very damaged suit to find himself alone on Mars with no hope of survival and no way to communicate with Earth. 

And so The Martian is a suspenseful tale of survival. Watney is a trained botanist and mechanical engineer and he certainly uses his skills to the most. While the character is sarcastic, snarky and a bit immature, on the other hand he is humorous and entertaining. I often thought "Is this what a NASA astronaut would say? Is this how they would act?" And the answer is probably no. NASA astronauts tend to be calm yet charming people. If this is true through selection processes or as a result of running through simulations of terror for years and years we can only guess. But Mark Watney is far removed from Chris Hadfield. And while I may have found the story of an astronaut like Chris Hadfield fascinating, it may not have been a commercial SF success. Mark Watney is the perfect fusion of entertaining protagonist with smart and resourceful astronaut. 

And while the story is full of suspense, it is by no means unpredictable. A quote on the cover does liken it to the recent film 'Gravity' which is a fair call. 'Gravity' was a fun, suspenseful and predictable romp just like this novel. But I'd argue that this book is much more scientifically accurate and has much more heart. 

So despite these concerns, 'The Martian' kept me turning those pages in complete fascination. I was perched on the edge of my chair. I was cheering at Mark's victories, and concerned at with the disasters. And the science was wonderful. Top marks to Andy Weir especially if he isn't a qualified engineer or scientist. It passed my chemistry scrutiny with flying colours.

So I'd recommend this SF to lovers of science and SF. Some may say there is too much science, but others like me will bask in it.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't: Doctor Who 'Kill The Moon'

The Doctor has certainly come a long way. From the Fourth Doctor's dilemma in Davros' bunker; does he, the Time Lords or anyone have the right to decide upon genocide for the greater good? To the Tenth Doctor in Water of Mars having an egotistical view that since he is the last Time Lord he has the right and privilege to rewrite time. Both of the actions taken had their consequences, especially those of the Tenth Doctor.

"I don't want to go."

Damned if you do.

This weeks episode, Kill the Moon, sees the Twelfth Doctor in a similar dilemma. The moon has gained mass (handy for the BBC budget) and is causing widespread destruction on Earth due to increased tidal activity. NASA, in it's death throes, sends one last mission to the moon that has a cargo of nuclear weapons in the aim to blow up the moon and reduce it's mass.

Meanwhile the Doctor is in trouble from Clara for telling Disruptive Influence, hang on I'll Google her name, Courney, that she is not special. Courtney being a teenager is upset, as a teenager might be, but Clara is angry at the Doctor for telling the girl this. Why? Protection. I have no idea. So right from the outset the Doctor is in strife for pointing out the truth.

The Doctor attempts to make Courtney special by making her the first female on the moon and lands on the surface in 2049. There they intercept the NASA mission and the Doctor learns the truth of what is happening to the moon. The moon is an egg and it is about to hatch. What does this mean for the Earth? Well possible destruction from the shell fragments, which the Doctor points out may not be harmful at all and any mass that does approach the Earth will burn up on entry.

Here the Doctor does something that he hasn't done very often at all. He gives the power of the decision whether to destroy the moon and the lifeform and the knowledge that Earth is definitely safe or whether to risk the unknown to the three human females present; Clara, Courtney and the astronaut. He even leaves in his TARDIS abandoning them to their decision.  And while Clara umms and ahhs over the decision getting angrier and angrier at the Doctor, the astronauts sets the timer for the nuclear arsenal making her argument clear, while Courtney is on the side of letting the lifeform hatch. It's obvious what side Clara picks, and the Earth is all OK due to the egg disintegrating and the life form laying a new egg is it's place.

This is definitely a bold a new move from the Doctor. And I am sure his motivations of letting the humans take control of their own future also has a large part of letting Clara mature and make the right decision. And she does eventually. But this results in her being angry at the Doctor because she felt abandoned and in charge. Something that she has never felt with the Doctor before.

The final scene consists of Clara yelling at the Doctor to get out of her life and that she never wants to see him again. It is reminiscent of when the Doctor was helping Ace mature in season 25 and 26. And the thing is that the Doctor is astounded. He stands back with a look of lack of understanding and astonishment. He is quiet. 

Damned if you don't.

Last week's Caretaker revealed that the Doctor was stand offish towards Danny not only for him being a soldier, but also for his care of Clara and wanting whoever Clara loved to be good enough for her. This week we see the Doctor trying to make Clara grow up a bit more and make the tough decisions. But she failed. And he failed. And Clara has left the TARDIS in a huff and a bit of a childish tantrum.

Many have said that the Twelfth Doctor is too alien, rude and not likeable. I think he is the most human. Unlike his predecessors it seems like Twelve is striving for more than a play-date. 

Sunday, 5 October 2014

So, Long Time No See

This weekend my partner and I had a lovely trip down to Canberra to see one of our favourite comedians (more hers than mine), Bill Bailey. We do love our comedy and we do try to make an effort when an international act that we love decides to visit our far away and mysterious country. One decision that we sometimes have to make, if the artist is doing a multitude of cities, is where to see them. Or do we want to drive 80 km north to Sydney, deal with the traffic, pay a heap for parking, have the smell of urine constantly surrounding us, stay in a $300/night hotel and stumble back in teh morning OR do we want to go 200 km down to Canberra, a leisurely 2.5 hour drive with wonderful scenery and stay in a nice hotel for $200 right next to the venue and visit the great bookshops and yummy restaurants around the city and maybe take in a sight or two.

We often see people in Canberra.

People often know Bill Bailey from his most famous role as Manny in Black Books, but others may also know him as a regular guest on QI. He is a sometimes surreal comedian (but not on the level of Noel Fielding), sometimes political and always has his instruments with him. Yes he is a musical comedian and while I agree this often means a shit comedian, Bill is the only one I like.

Bill was great last night and I had a lot of fun. But he did cover versions at the end of his set, 'Poker Face' by Lady Gaga and 'Wrecking Ball' (maybe) by Miley Cyrus. I'm sure they were great, but I don't know these songs. I don't listen to top 40 type of music, not just because I'm getting old, but I have never liked it. And I really don't want to come across as a snob, because Bill asked us if we knew Dancing With the Stars (he was asked to go on it) and the audience booed and he called us snobs. I find it amazing that there is any overlap between Bill Bailey fans and Miley Cyrus fans. But I guess people just hear this stuff on their radios. But he did a cover of ABBAs 'Waterloo' as Rammstein. It was great.

While we were down there we visited one of our favourite second-hand bookstores, 'Canty's'. Canty's is in a weird industrial section of Canberra know for porn and fireworks. Look, both are really fun in moderation, but books are our thing. Some may say Canty's is a bit expensive, but they do have a great range of books and most of the expensive books are great quality. So new paperbacks that have been read once and look nearly new tend to go for $9.50. When you can buy the same thing online new for $13 or so it does make it a tough decision. But still greatly cheaper than the $24 or so that you would pay in chain bookstores in shopping centres (if you are even lucky to have one of those around). So I mainluy like to go for possible out of print finds or they have a great selection of remainders that are pretty cheap compared to other remainder places.

I picked up Theo Gray's 'Mad Science 2' in hardcover for $13. I got a e-copy to review last year and loved it and I have been meaning to get a softcover copy for a while. So this was a great find. I also found a hardcover of Dana Mackenzie's 'The Universe in Zero Words' which I have read some great reviews from  Goodreads friends (David's review of 'The Universe in Zero Words').

While in Canberra I also like to hit up The Games Capital in the city and also Impact Comics which is a couple of shops down. I have a great games store in my city now, but before it came along I was limited to my visits to The Games Capital. They are friend;y and have a great range. The only downfall to this is their popularity. Sometimes they might not have the game you wanted in stock because they have just sold out. And I have also gotten great recommendations from the staff over the years.

Impact Comics is just a really good comic book store. Not too many surprises and just what you'd expect from one. Also not overpriced from what I have seen which can be common. I picked up another volume in the DC Showcase range called "The Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights". These volumes are thick phone book like reprintings of comics from the 50s,60s and 70s that may not have stood the test of time, but damn are they entertaining in their pure schlock and badness. This volume revolves around stories set in a post-apocalyptic setting with Hercules thrown in and other shenanigans. I read the first couple of stories last night after Bill Bailey and boy were they hilariously and entertainingly bad.

 So this morning I made my partner happy and we visited a couple of markets, one with mainly hand-made stuff in the same location as the Bill Bailey concert the night before and we also went out to The Old Bus Depot Markets which we have been to before, and that is mainly food and some dodgy art.
The hand made market was fairly cool and big for that type of thing. There was plenty of naff earring and handmade jewelery but there was also some innovative stuff like funky dolls houses made from vintage suitcases and some nice wood worked stuff that didn't scream elderly retiree.

Overall a fun trip. We're doing it again in three week to see Brian Cox.