Tag Archives: Science

Astronomers in Action

Astronomers in Action – another science book by Anne Rooney – has brought the action much closer to home than what I’ve found in general astronomy books. I kept recognising concepts and words that have surrounded me for the last eight years, and I still found it fascinating. I hope the book will inspire many young people, either to read more books like this one, or to take things a step further and study astronomy.

Anne Rooney, Astronomers in Action

The thing about writers like Anne is that they are good at explaining complicated stuff in a way that makes the reader understand. She is no astronomer, so perhaps that is why I suddenly ‘got’ the difference between Kepler and K2. Both have been mentioned almost daily in the Bookwitch household, but I was never entirely certain exactly what was what. (Sorry!) Or possibly I merely forgot.

This short, picture book-length volume shows us the people who work with astronomy. There are several ‘From the Field:’ pieces, telling us what normal people get up to when they work in this kind of area. There is the chap who turned up in Big Bang Theory, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who I gather is famous. And there is, well, Daughter, who has chased exoplanets for some years now.

Anne Rooney, Astronomers in Action

And others. Let’s just say I felt right at home with these people, their computers and their telescopes. I’d like to think that this good feeling will reach many readers. It’d be good for budding scientists, curious to discover more. They, too, might find an unknown planet rattling around in space one day. (The temporary working name for the ‘Bookwitch planet’ was Helen’s World. It has now been given a boring long-digit name instead. Now that it’s real.)

Anne Rooney, Astronomers in Action

You will know why I wanted to read Astronomers in Action, but I was surprised by quite how much fun it turned out to be. Short enough to be an easy read, and interesting enough to capture your attention.

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Mapping the Universe

You like art, don’t you? And you like space too? Then you’ll like this book by Anne Rooney.

Yes, it’s Anne again. She can do books on so many subjects, and subjects in so many ways. This is astronomy again, looking at countless old images – art – showing us space.

Anne Rooney, Mapping the Universe

You could easily just look at these pictures, treating them like so much art. You probably already have, in many cases.

In Mapping the Universe Anne tells us a bit about the old men of science. You know, old Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler. Yes, I’m afraid it is mainly men.

This fairly large book is full of old space art. It’s the kind of thing you can look at again and again. Cosmos for the coffee table.

Astronomy

This is the book I’d have wanted as my course book in Astronomy at school. That is, if I’d been able to take Astronomy, which I wasn’t. In my day this was the subject of the last chapter of the Physics book, and we never got to it.

Anne Rooney, Astronomy

I don’t actually know who the book is aimed at, except for the 14-year-old witch. How The World Works – Astronomy, From plotting the stars to pulsars and black holes, by Anne Rooney, is an excellent book. It seems to do what that front page description suggests, and according to the Resident IT Consultant it could well cover 80% of the GCSE Astronomy course.

That’s presumably why I am itching to read the book with a view to learning all of it, and then maybe sitting the exam.

It’s mostly words, so we get descriptions of everything astronomical, from historical backgrounds to what we know now. There is [mostly] none of those scary equations or difficult diagrams and things that would have turned the young witch off. Well, not off so much, as just making it incomprehensible.

Beautifully illustrated, this is simply a very attractive book. In fact, it’s quite goldilocks-ey in that it’s neither too much, nor too little. I like authors who can introduce a subject for those of us who’ll never be specialists, and make it seem quite normal.

Towards the very end of its 200 pages there is a ‘recipe’ for how to find exoplanets. I discovered I sort of already knew most of that.

While this strikes me as being most suitable for the secondary school student, I imagine that it can be more than readable for the really keen, and much younger, space nerd. If they’re interested, try it early, and before you know it you could have a little astrophysicist on your hands.

The Search for Earth’s Twin

Whenever the Resident IT Consultant says ‘I thought you might want to read this’ to Daughter, she never does. She made an exception for this book, however. Stuart Clark’s well-written The Search for Earth’s Twin, was a book she read, and then said she might read again.

The Resident IT Consultant had bought two copies, one for her, one for us, because it was going cheap at The Works. First he read it and then I did. I didn’t want to commit, so started by giving it the once-over, which resulted in me reading all of it as well.

Stuart Clark, The Search for Earth's Twin

This is Daughter’s world. ‘Everything’ in the book is relevant, and I kept coming across names of people that pop up in our daily conversations. I feel I finally know what it is she does, and I intend to put this book into the hands of anyone careless enough to ask what it is she does.

It goes from Doppler in the early 19th century, and from there on most of the names you might recognise from school physics books have done their bit. Published in 2016, Stuart even covers some of what is happening right now, like TESS, which was launched in mid-April this year.

So not only could I read about the acronyms I’ve had thrown at me for nearly three years, but I half understand some of the physics, not to mention the agony for the people involved, when they were not believed, or when they were scooped, or the funding disappeared despite theirs being a very good idea.

The one thing that made me uncomfortable was finding Geoffrey Marcy being used as the red thread through the history of searching for exoplanets. Stuart Clark’s compelling first chapter describes the young Marcy in 1982, with his doubts for the future, and this would have been a great opening, were it not for more recent developments. Bad timing, but these things happen.

Still, a fantastic read about astrophysics today for the layman. And we seem to have another two copies of the book, in case of emergencies.

Black holes and other fun

The image of Stephen Hawking, who died yesterday, that generally comes to [my] mind when I think of him, is the happy one of him floating weightlessly inside one of those planes where you can simulate being in space. It tells you that this was a man who was up for fun, and not someone always weighted down by his reputation in science or the fact that he’s very famous, or even as ‘someone in a wheelchair.’

In other words, Stephen was a role model to lots of people, in many different ways.

If you only encountered him as the ‘Stephen’ who writes about science in his daughter Lucy Hawking’s books about George, you’d probably think he sounded like an OK guy. Not old, not filled with his own importance. And if you’re ten, which you could well be as a reader of the George books, that might be the only thing you know about him.

But he did get to grow fairly old. All right, 76 isn’t that old, but to outlive a life expectancy of a couple of years by another fifty is pretty good going. And I admired his public – and political – stance on what the government is doing to the NHS. It needs people of some importance to speak out, because the rest of us don’t seem to count. And as a user of the NHS, Stephen had more of a track record than many of us.

It’s also heartening to know that a man considered to be so brilliant now, was seen as more average or mediocre when he was young. That, if anything, is a sign that you can pull yourself together, and that you can turn into someone who inspired many young scientists, my own little one included. Nine years ago in Edinburgh Lucy Hawking shared an early opinion (school report, maybe?) on her father, just after he had received the Medal of Freedom from President Obama. ‘This boy will never amount to anything.’

He showed them.

I have no idea how close to the truth the Eddie Redmayne film The Theory of Everything came, but in it you will see some of that playfulness. On Wednesday’s Today programme John Humphrys seemed taken aback at the idea that Stephen Hawking might have danced in his wheelchair.

I don’t see why not. Just because you can’t walk doesn’t mean you have to be boring. Or not want to dance.

Lucy Hawking, 'with' Stephen Hawking

(I borrowed the above photo from Lucy. It’s such a great illustration of how she travelled the world on her father’s behalf, even if he turned into a hologram on occasion.)

Gravity – Cracking the Cosmic Code

I’ve had to get in my specialist science reviewer again. It’s nice having all these complicated books come my way, but I have no wish to ruin what could be a perfectly good review by doing it myself. So, to kick off non-fiction month, here’s the Resident IT Consultant:

When I reviewed Nicholas Mee’s last book, Higgs Force, I mentioned that not much of his book was actually about the subject of the title. The same cannot be said for his new book, Gravity – Cracking the Cosmic Code. This book focuses much more tightly on its subject, following through the development of human understanding of gravity from classical times to relativity, quantum mechanics and string theory. But unlike the Higgs boson, the subject of this book has already been explored by countless other writers. What makes this one special?

Nicholas Mee, Gravity - Cracking the Cosmic Code

The first half of the book covers the well-trodden path from Babylonia to Newton’s Principia. The story is well told, nicely illustrated and helpfully enriched by a series of short puzzles (with answers), which encourage the reader to engage more actively with the content. The text is well supported by copious notes and I particularly appreciated the cross-referencing of the notes to the pages to which they related (in many books you have to work out which chapter you are reading, before you can find the corresponding notes).

The second half of the book covers more recent developments including relativity, black holes, the role of symmetry in physical force, string theory and cosmology. This part of the book is more descriptive with fewer puzzles to test your understanding on. The clarity of explanation remains good but it gets progressively harder to keep up and I found that the chapter on string theory did not provide me with the same level of insight as the rest of the book.

Nicholas Mee’s book should be accessible to anyone with a basic understanding of science, and would be good background reading for a bright GCSE or A-level physics student. Mathematical concepts are well explained, but there is no real mathematics in the book and there were one or two places (for example the explanation of gravitational fields within a hollow Earth) where I would have welcomed a little more mathematics (perhaps in a note, or by following a reference).

Well, I’m glad the book was enjoyable – I love the title! – and I’m relieved the Resident IT Consultant didn’t quite get the string theory, either.

I will have more non-fiction during November. It will mainly be on a somewhat easier level.

Bookwitch bites #104

Waterstones Children's Book Prize Winner Annabel Pitcher

When Jimmy Savile trumps US murderers, you know it’s a strange world. Very pleased for Annabel Pitcher who has gone and won something yet again. Her Ketchup Clouds won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize this week. ‘Unsettling’ story is how the press release described it. Then I read in the paper that Annabel had had a narrow escape, by abandoning plans to have her heroine write letters to Mr Savile. Death row prisoner is nowhere as awful.

El Mundo es Nuestro is about another world. Daughter and I went to see this Spanish film at Cornerhouse on Monday night, enjoying both it and the Q&A with the actors and the director and the producer that followed. The world the film is about is the [imagined] financial crisis in Spain (this was in 2009), and it is very funny. It’s been ignored by Spanish television, presumably because you don’t talk about stuff like this.

Alfonso Sánchez

The actors were relieved to find the Manchester audience laughed at the same things as they did. In fact, they have a facebook page where they were quite interested to see what the ‘English journalist’ thought of the film. (That’s me, btw…) What I think I’m trying to say here, is that we are more alike than we think. And it’s good to have learned languages, especially when visiting actors do their Q&A in Spanish. (Not to mention the DVD the week before that came sans subtitles. But ‘anyone’ can watch Spanish OAPs learn about sex…)

I did a book review over on CultureWitch yesterday. It felt more appropriate doing it there since it was the 1986 autobiography of Roger Whittaker, So far, so good, and it was Roger’s 77th birthday yesterday. I reflected on how much easier buying books from across the other side of the world is today, than back when I needed to find it (a local bookshop said they would, but failed).

On discovering Mr Decorator working down the road from Bookwitch Towers, I summoned him to come and relieve me of more books. The poor man staggered out of the house with another three bags of reading material. Not only am I trying to keep track of his children’s ages, but I’m targetting their cousins, too. Baad witch.

Lucy Hawking and Helen Giles

After a pretty lengthy delay* since she conducted her interview with Lucy Hawking, Daughter has now published their January chat. The additional wonderful news is that Lucy and her Dad are writing another two books about George. That’s the thing about trilogies. Some are longer than others.

And now Daughter’s off to chase more scientists in Edinburgh. The Science Festival begins today.

*Random House needed time to formalise all the Georgian plans before they were released.