Saturday, 11 July 2015

I Love Laika

Let's hear it for Laika, the first animal in space, chosen from a pack of candidates because she was compliant and photogenic. A few days before launch one of the engineers took her home to play with his kids because he knew it would be her one last chance for joy.

On the tarmac her launch was delayed for 3 days after being sealed in the capsule. She had enough food and the scientists pumped warm air in there through a hose to stop her freezing overnight.

Her heart rate was monitored and jumped four-fold during launch. She died from heat exhaustion about 5 hours after launch.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Book Review: "Alan Turing: The Enigma"

This book has been on my radar for years now. I found it after one of those tipping points where you finally hit the nth reference to a person or idea and you find your ignorance about it embarrassing. By the way I find that these instances only increase with the more you act upon them. Ignorance really is bliss. Anyway, along comes the film starring Sherlock himself and I found myself highly entertained by the story and wanting to know more. So it was time to tackle this volume and I come to tackle the audiobook.
22551914Firstly I want to cover the book and it's difference to the movie, because looking at the words on the print cover, "The Book That Inspired the Film 'The Imitation Game'", it leads you to a sense that a biopic from a biography should be fairly accurate. It seems that the movie took a lot of liberties and while there were not many huge outright lies, there were plenty of distortions, simplifications and exaggerations. There is a little part of me that is offended, but there is another larger part of me that is not surprised. Alan Turing was not a stereotypical genius nerd in a world that did not appreciate him. He did have a huge battle to overcome adversity due to his work being outlandish and misunderstood. It seems like Hollywood latches onto the 'Beautiful Mind' + Sheldon Cooper cookie cutter a little too much. 

I feel that I should also say that I did enjoy the movie. As far as movies go it was entertaining and also a bit educational. But I guess going into this book I expected a bit more continuity. Cumberbatch's Turing is not Hodge's biography Turing.

Hodge's biography offers a traditional chronological look at Turing's life, from a short section on his lineage to his cremation on the last page. But there is a lot more in here than what you would bargain for. Turing's work and the work leading up to is is explained in great detail. Using the term 'in depth' may be a gross under exaggeration. There is also a large section focused upon the laws concerning 'perversion' a at the time, which Turing was convicted for. If you were to remove the sections concerning math, engineering and law you'll find a book that weighs only a small percentage of the original. 

I guess what I am trying to say is that this book is not for the layman. I can only imagine that there will be a lot of copies of this book abandoned on planes, trains and bookshelves because a fan of the movie picked this book up wanting to know more, just like I did. The large sections on mathematical logic I did follow the gist of somewhat, helped along by my greater understanding of maths than the average person. Large sections of this book would only be completely understandable by people with degrees in mathematics. I chose more mathematics subjects in my science degree than the norm, so I have some sense of what is going on in these passages. I pity anyone trying to make it through without some knowledge of this type of maths. If you are a person who hates 'info-dumps' you are going to loathe this book.

But on the positive side, this was the right book at the right time for the right person. I have often found that there is no better way to learn about a person than to find the highest rated biography of that person on Goodreads that is at least 500 pages long. I have been stung with too many shorter biographies that leave me unsatisfied and finding out more information on the person's Wikipedia page. I wanted to know more about Turing and my god I found out a whole lot more.

Of course it's not all about volume. Both the writer and narrator kept me entertained for just over 30 hours. The writer was sympathetic to his subject and yet portrayed his great failings also. I really do feel that I met a person who I can call a hero (I hate that word and I am sure that there is a far greater compliment). Turing had great determination, a high regard for the truth in his work and personal life, and  a scientific approach to everything he undertook. He may be known as being a mathematician, but he was an even greater scientist who straddled fields in a time when fields were clearly defined. He often found that there was no perfect audience for his papers and that some fields would only appreciate some aspects, while other parts would not be understood at all. He was converging the sciences with mathematics.

So despite all the negatives that I noted earlier, for me not only a book to be treasured, but an introduction to a man that is greatly misunderstood and hugely under-appreciated. I want a portrait of him up on my wall alongside my Darwin portrait. I am going to get my hands on some of his writing and try to get my head around more of the maths.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Top Ten Reads of 2014

Here are the ten best reads I experienced in 2014. They are in no particular order, nor were they all published in 2014 (but most were). These are just the ten best that I read this year.

The list is very personal, so expect a lot of Science and Science Fiction.

Lewis Dartnell achieves the near impossible by writing an instruction manual for rebooting civilisation. Sure there may be an awful lot of chemistry and science, but that is what civilisation is founded upon.  Learn the best way to preserve food, make shelter and make everyday goods. A great read for scientists, science enthusiasts and doomsday preppers.

See full review on Goodreads.

18490637Jo Walton's charming and moving "My Real Children" will make great reading for both SF enthusiasts and even general readers. Much the same premise as the movie "Sliding Doors" we follow one woman through two alternate twentieth centuries as her life unfolds. Full of lovely characters and intriguing situations. Oh and it is wrapped up with great finesse.

See my full review on Goodreads.

Jesse Bering, a homosexual evolutionary psychologist, pens yet another funny, insightful and thought provoking look at human sexuality. While his previous works have been great, this volume is more cohesive and presents a much stronger moral and scientific message than the others. Definitly not a book for gran, but one that deserves to be widely read.

See my review on Goodreads.

20729580Theo Gray is back "The Elements"-style with "Molecules". Another wonderful coffee-table science book that is pure nerd-porn in so many ways. Separate, the text or the illustrations or the luscious photography would be enough for a winning book. Together they make something wondrous. Buy it for a Professor or a 10 year old. Both will love it equally.

See my review on Goodreads.

Colonel Chris Hadfield surprised us all with his autobiography this year. Not only did we get to learn more about the magnificent man, but Chris laid out advice from a successful career in space administration. And the advice is very general and applicable to most of your pursuits. I went in with a certain expectation and came out the other end humbled, motivated and endeared. Great inspiration for scientists, engineers or mathematicians.

See my review on Goodreads.

20518872Finally translated from it's original Chinese, English readers experienced Liu Cixin's "The Three-Body Problem" for the first time this year. This SF story tells of a first contact scenario unlike any other and is genuinely haunting and nightmare-worthy to anyone in the sciences. A fascinating read and I cannot wait for the following volumes in this trilogy to be published. A must read for SF fans.

See my review on Goodreads.


Judith Schalansky has published "Atlas of Remote Islands" in English. Each double page is a map of a remote island followed by an interesting story about it's history or geography. Most of these islands are unable to be visited by us mere mortals and this volume may be the only way to reach them. A definite buy for map enthusiasts, armchair travellers and geo-nerds.

See my review on Goodreads.


Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant series has been out for a while now and while I was a great fan of his Doctor Who writing I was reluctant to try his 'urban fantasy' as I tend to despise this genre. I did eventually get around to trying it and I am sorry that I left it for so long. While the series is not ground-breaking nor likely to win any literature awards the stories are fascinating and the characters are well-drawn. And mostly they are just damn good fun. Recommended for SF and Fantasy fans even if they are fussy and discerning.

See my review on Goodreads.


Paul Bogard's, "The End of Night" is the author's lament to the dwindling night sky. Light pollution is taking over our skies and our lives. Paul takes us on a geographical journey from the brightest to the darkest night-times while along the way looking at how we deal with night culturally and biologically. A definite call-to-arms for those few of us that bother to look up.

See my review on Goodreads.


Randall Munroe has published a collection of witty answers to seemingly impossible questions in "What If?" Famous from his webcomic, Randall brings hardcore science, yet light-hearted and funny answers to problems such as what if the sun would suddenly cease to shine and from what height you would need to drop a steak to cook it with its kinetic energy. Brilliant reading for nerds from 8 to 80 years old.

See my review on Goodreads.

This list was difficult to decide upon and I feel I need to give honourable mentions to Andy Weir's "The Martian", "Moon Dust" by Andrew Smith and "Discovering Scarfolk" by Richard Littler.

Looking forward to new discoveries in 2015.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Book Review: 'The City on the Edge of Forever' by Harlan Ellison

23241668How do you create a new cut of a near 50 year old episode of Star Trek? In comic form of course.

I do not know the reason why the original author did not get the episode that he had written, nor have I seen the episode as I'm slowly working my way through Season 1 of The Original Series at the moment. So I guess that I am an unusual audience in that I am a Star Trek fan, who has been working his way backwards in the chronology and so I come across this new version of an old story before watching it myself.

And what a story! It is a brilliant read, with plenty of great Spock and Kirk moments and a very mature story for the series. It tackles some big issues without being cheesy or flippant. And the artwork is divine and very accurate. I guess the illustrator had the episode to choose stills from, but even then the likenesses in 95% of the cells are uncanny.

It's a pretty fantastic comic and a great way to while away a lazy Saturday afternoon. Maybe I'll be surprised by the differences when I finally get around to watching the episode.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Book Review: "The Three-Body Problem" by Liu Cixin

20518872Originally published in it's native Chinese in 2008, The Three-Body Problem has now been translated for English speakers to read and enjoy. It is the first volume in a hugely successful SF trilogy that has proved to be a popular seller in China.

No matter what our opinions are on the government of China, we all know that they have a history of controlling the media. It was not so long ago that I was reading articles on how even SF stories may not be published if they contain certain themes or SF tropes that the  government does not approve of such as time travel. Yet here we have a novel that Tor are willing to bring to an international English audience. So is it a matter of government restrictions being exaggerated or is it proof that art defies restrictions?

While I can think about these questions I do hit a brick wall after a short while. I'm no geography or political buff. I have no ideas on these matters. But I do know quite a bit about SF and I know a little more about science and I feel that these are the most import factors when reading The Three-Body Problem. Sure it would have been great to know what the hell was going on in those early chapters during the 'cultural revolution', but I guess I was lucky to follow the story when it delved a bit into quantum mechanics and orbital mechanics. And while a reader without this knowledge would not have a problem following the story at all and could easily skim those sections, they definitely were rewarding and offered a greater depth to the story. And I'm sure that someone with a knowledge of modern Chinese history would have felt the same.

Three-Body is essentially the story of two scientists, Ye Wenjie, an engineer working in a top-secret military base during the 1970's, and Wang Miao, a nanotechnologist in current day China. While events in current day China unfold for Wang, the story of Ye is told in alternate sections. The nature of the top-secret base is uncovered during the intricate story and don't worry, it's not a bad X-Files ripoff at all.

But I did find Wang's story much more interesting and frightening. It explores the idea of the failure of science. What happens if over time scientific endeavors consistently defy any conjectures or postulates, refuse to comply with any previously known laws and just keep on giving random and seemingly supernatural outcomes? It may sound a bit trivial here, but the more you think about it, the more frightening it is. And the author explores this and truly did convey the horror to me as the reader. The events of this book had me tense and on-edge at several points.

There really are some fascinating ideas pursued in this book and it is a thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking read in the style of SF greats such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Asomiv. The style of interchanging stories with historical aspects, as well as some of the style did remind me of Murakami, but I have no idea if this is being literature racist as this is the only other Asian book I have read other than those by Murakami. It also had echoes of Neal Stephenson in that it was an intricate and baroque plot full of subterfuges and technical writing. But maybe I'm just projecting two of my favourite authors onto another book that I enjoyed.

So here is one reader that is converted to the forthcoming volumes and possibly converted to reading more international SF. Both Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky brothers failed to take my interest, but Liu Cixin has managed to produce something that I really did enjoy and also made me think big thoughts.

Thanks to NetGalley and Tor Publishing for an ebook in the exchange for an honest review.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Book Review: 'Doctor Who: Lights Out' by Holly Black

The 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who was widely celebrated last year and the Beeb teamed up with Penguin to release 11 short stories celebrating 11 Doctors. A year later and a Doctor later they have teamed up again to provide a new short story featuring the Twelfth Doctor.

22845900The authors of these stories were a selection of high profile childrens authors and the latest is written by Holly Black who has written The Spiderwick Chronicles which I hear is quite well-loved. To tell the truth I did have a mixed response to the previous stories ranging from the utter brilliance of Neil Gaiman's 'Nothing O'Clock' to the utter embarrassment that was  'A Big Hand For the Doctor'. While I do appreciate the Beeb trying something new with written Who, there are already plenty of tried and true Who writers out the who could have done a much better job of the whole enterprise. 

So for completist sake, natural curiosity, hope and love for my Doctor I approached this new volume with some trepidation. How good could a writer capture the new Doctor when we have only just seen him unfold on-screen? And how would they go writing for one of the most complicated Doctors that we have met? There certainly no longer remains the facade of an upstanding moral fighter. There is a lot more ambiguity in the Doctors motivations these days.

Surprisingly 'Lights Out' is firmly set within the series with the Doctor travelling to a famous coffee-specialising planet in search for a couple of cups for himself and Clara after the events in Deep Breath. The Doctor soon finds himself a suspect in a hideous murder and meets a being called '78351' who was also witness to the murder. 78351 becomes his companion for the duration of the story.

While the plot itself is by no means new or original, Holly does manage to bring in some aspects of the Twelfth Doctor and more than just the physical eyebrows joke. The Doctor does seem morally ambiguous and does let events take a different course to what another Doctor may have done. He does seem nonplussed at the deaths themselves. There certainly is the Twelfth Doctor within these pages.

So while this is a light and unsurprising read, the surprise is in how the Twelfth Doctor comes across on paper - much like he does onscreen thankfully. While I have not had a chance to read the three full-sized novels  recently released featuring the Twelfth Doctor, I can say to anyone looking for some Twelve in print that you have come to the right place.

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.