Thirteen: the Apollo flight that failed – Henry S. F. Cooper Jr. ***

Most of us probably think we know all we need to know about the Apollo 13 mission – after all, we’ve seen the movie (which isn’t bad at all) – but inevitably the Hollywood Thirteen__The_Apollo_Flight_That_Failed_eBook__Henry_S__F__Cooper__Amazon_co_uk__Kindle_Store-2treatment skims over a lot of fascinating detail, while this book, written just two years after the event, gives us the true nitty gritty.

I found it absolutely fascinating, seeing the disaster unfold in slow motion, with all the messiness of real life. For instance, the ground controllers, unaware that an explosion had taken place and had disabled a lot of the equipment went quite a while making incorrect assumptions, still hoping they could get the mission to the moon. In fact what the book makes clear is that in some ways the astronauts were just bit part players and it all the different individuals on the ground who were making the decisions and calculations and generally trying to sort things out.

On the whole this works very well – by relaying the conversations on the ground, the arguments between the different specialists and so on, we get a real, in-depth feel of what really happened here. This makes it a genuine page turner, as the reader feels to be present as the disaster unfolds. The only downside of this is that we are showered with with acronyms for all the different controllers, referred to, for instance, as CAPCOM, TELMU, FIDO, EECOM, GUIDO, RETRO and so on. To add to the confusion, because there are four shifts of controllers, there are four persons per title, leading to a cast that it is very difficult to keep sorted in the mind.

I have two niggles with the book – one small and one significant. The small one is the author’s affectation of spelling re-entry as reëntry, which is for some reason very irritating. The big one is the science, which the author clearly hasn’t got a clue about. Two specific examples. He says ‘One amp-hour on the spacecraft’s twenty-eight volt current (sic) would keep a 40-watt bulb burning for one hour.’ Anyone with high school science should be able to see at least two things wrong with that. But the biggest howler is ’so it was difficult for the computer to work out vectors, a vector being a point in space where the spacecraft was known to have been’. It’s not rocket science. Well, okay, it is rocket science, but it is not exactly postgrad physics to realise that a vector is not a point in space.

The book doesn’t suffer particularly from its age – in fact it is only apparent in two ways. One is that it thinks the computers of the day are impressive bits of kit (dwarfed as they now are by any smartphone), and the other is that when the book was written it seems that one of the most iconic quotes of modern times (misquoted though it often is) had not become well-known. There is no direct reference to Swigert’s ‘Okay Houston, we’ve had a problem here.’ (Or Lovell’s near repeat ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem.’) All Cooper says is ‘First, Swigert reported over the radio that the seemed to have a problem.’

Although I can only give it three stars because of the bad science, I have no doubt that anyone interested in the history of space flight should give this book a go.

Note, paperback is original 1972 edition while Kindle is a new edition

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Review by Brian Clegg

Beam – Jeff Hecht ***

Beam‘s subtitle is ‘the race to make the laser’ and this was a story that was crying out for a good popular scientific history. Not only is there really interesting physics behind the laser, there was a Beam__The_Race_to_Make_the_Laser__Amazon.co.uk__Jeff_Hecht__Booksgenuine tense race, strong personalities, bizarre problems with security clearances and more to make for a gripping story.

I’ve come rather late to Beam (first published in 2005) because, frankly, the book doesn’t seem to have been very visible – and I’m afraid I can understand why. Although there are all the elements of a great story there, Jeff Hecht is probably not the right person to tell it. On the physics side, while there is a lot of detail of the precise excitation processes required for masers and lasers, there isn’t really enough background on quantum physics to give it context.

As for the story itself, the book suffers from kitchen-sink-itis. Hecht seems to feel it necessary to mention ever single tiny contribution to the research, whether or not it had a direct impact on the key players. And though the story really does get interesting when, for instance, we get onto Gordon Gould’s you’d-laugh-if-you-didn’t-cry security problems that meant he wasn’t able to read his own work, much of the storytelling gets horribly bogged down and repetitive, making it hard to follow the narrative.

The final problem is limiting the book to the race to create the first laser – it would have had a wider interest if Hecht had brought in the development of the solid state lasers we all have littering our homes in CD players and the like.

All in all, there is plenty of good stuff here, and I’m not aware of anyone else who has told the story in such detail, but you have to work quite hard to get to the nuggets.

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Review by Brian Clegg

The Rocket Man – David Darling ****

The full title of this book is ‘The Rocket Man and other extraordinary characters from the history of flight,’ and David Darling has got that right, sure enough. These are Screenshot_29_06_2013_16_22amazing individuals from the earliest days of flight, through the amazing barnstorming aerial performers, via the risk-taking test pilots of the first supersonic jets to the people who jump off buildings wearing wing suits.

Two things seems to unite these people – an urge to live on the edge that puts them at very high risk of death, and remarkable stories that are both uplifting and horrifying in equal parts. I really don’t know whether to class these people as very brave or very stupid. Certainly they have to be people who aren’t too worried about their long-term survival, given the number of stories that end with the main character dead.

David Darling has cleverly avoided wheeling out all the old familiar names. It’s not that the likes of the Wright brothers and Chuck Yeager, for instance, aren’t there, but they come in as sidelines to the more dramatic stories of others. So, for instance, it is Lincoln Beachey, showman and record breaker, we discover in the era of the Wright brothers, while Jack Woolams and John Walker take more of the X-plane story than Yeager (or Neil Armstrong, an X-15 pilot), even though we do inevitably get Yeager’s story of breaking the sound barrier.

If I’m frank there is very little science in here. The subject is all technology, and there is much less on how flight and these specific planes worked, and much more on the lives, adventures and (all too often) deaths of these remarkable individuals. But then, the stories are remarkable enough to cover them. The only slight surprise was not to have more than a throw-away one liner on the rocketbelt, given that made such a great subject in The Rocketbelt Caper. Don’t expect to learn a lot of science – but do expect a rollicking, rip-roaring tale.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Star Chambers – Melanie Windridge ***

I was a bit wary when I saw the cover of Star Chambers, as it looks like a typical self-published cover illustration, but inside I was pleasantly surprised to find a nicely laid out and generously Star Chambersillustrated (in colour) book.

The aim is to give the intended audience of GCSE and upwards students some background in nuclear fusion and a feel for the long slog we face to develop a fusion reactor. Melanie Windridge provides plenty of good information on fusion – mostly tokomaks, but one chapter on inertial confinement (the mega laser zapping method more favoured in the US). She puts her information across in a friendly, informal fashion and some of the illustrations are delightful – a flipbook animation of plasma disruption in a tokomak, for instance, and illustrations of atoms with grapes for electrons, peaches for protons and apples for neutrons. (I’m not sure why, but it’s colourful and different.) She focusses particularly on the practical route to fusion power generation, with a lot on JET and ITER.

There are some issues. Apart from one slip-up (neutrons are negatively charged in one of the illustrations), the content is fine, but I would have liked a bit more on the quantum physics of fusion – it’s perfectly possible to present it to this age group, and to skip over it is quite sad. (Also slightly surprised there is nothing about helium-3 fusion.) But the big problem is the format. The chapters follow Windridge’s tour around the UK giving talks in schools and each section begins with an update on her location. These really aren’t very interesting unless you were there. Then, each chapter has a different topic, but these seem totally random without any structure. It’s as if a series of blog posts had been stuck together (which is, in fact, what it is). It would have been so much better if the time and effort had been put in to give it a more sensible and accessible structure.

Overall, then, lots of good stuff in here, and at just about the right level for the audience, but the structure could do with some work.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Imagine That… The History of Technology Rewritten – Michael Sells ***

Asking the question ‘What if…?’ is a classic approach to creativity and original thinking. As Michael Sells shows, it is also a good way to explore a whole range of subjects, from imaginetechtechnology in this book through to the likes of ‘Football Rewritten’ and ‘The History of Music Rewritten.’

What Sells does here is take a number of key events in the history of science and technology where a small change in situation could result in a major difference in outcome. So, we are invited, for instance, to consider what would have happened if Alexander Fleming had cleaned his petri dishes and penicillin was washed down the drain – or if Steve Jobs never visited Xerox PARC at Palo Alto and got the inspiration that would lead to the Mac.

It’s a fascinating approach and Sells brings us ten scenarios including the transistor, Facebook, cats’ eyes (the ones in the road) and the totally wonderful ‘Newspaper Radio’, an idea from the end of the 1930s of broadcasting a facsimile newspaper bringing, as Sells puts it, 24 hour journalism to 1939. Most of the ‘what if?’s did happen, though a couple – like that broadcast newspaper and Tesla’s wilder ideas having enough financial backing – didn’t.

There were a couple of disappointments for me. A minor matter was that the title grated. It would have read much better as ‘Imagine… The History of Technology Rewritten.’ But what was more significant was that very little of the content was ‘What if?’ According to the bumf we are taken on a ‘historical flight of fancy, imagining the consequences if history had gone just that little bit differently’, but in practice the text is almost all about what actually did happen. So, for instance, with Fleming, we get the initial set up of ‘Imagine if he cleans up his dishes’, but then around 90% of the text is a simple description of what actually did happen, with just a few pages on how things would have been if Fleming had got down to scrubbing.

I was also unhappy with the Tesla section, which suggested he would have gone onto far greater things if he had ‘received philanthropic support.’ However there is no evidence that Tesla’s ‘World System’ of ‘free energy’ and broadcast power and information that would span the globe would have worked. It had no scientific basis. Sells comments that ‘Tesla had an unerring habit of being right.’ But this just isn’t true. He was a brilliant engineer, and his work on AC was outstanding – but he showed several times that he had limited understanding of some aspects of physics. For instance, he refused to accept relativity. Not to mention his infamous claim to have a box containing a deadly energy weapon that in fact held a Wheatstone bridge. It’s true that Tesla predicted many things – but that didn’t mean he could make them happen, any more than Roger Bacon could have produced the aeroplanes, cars, television etc. he dreamed up in the thirteenth century if only he had philanthropic support.

So, an excellent concept with some very good entries (my favourites were cats’ eyes and the newspaper radio), but a little patchy and not delivering enough on the ‘what if?’s. Even so it’s a well-priced pocket-sized book and well worth taking a look.

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Review by Brian Clegg

A Piece of the Sun – Daniel Clery ****

I was a little worried early on in A Piece of the Sun as, frankly the science is borderline feeble. I was quite shocked that in describing the fusion reaction in the sun, the author was 41dwwltsaoL._SY445_very hand waving about quantum theory, not even mentioning quantum tunnelling in his explanation. Luckily, though, this isn’t a book about science, so much as about how science and technology is undertaken, and that it mostly does very well.

Nuclear fusion with its simple fuel and low level waste has always seemed such a natural energy solution I have never understood why we have been so slow at developing it – now I do. Daniel Clery beautifully describes the development of the technology and the parallel understanding of plasmas and fusion in the UK, US and Russia (for some reason, less so in the other big fusion player, Japan). By reading this you get a real feel for the difficulties and in some cases the dramatic stories of the developments and political infighting along the way.

The book also explains another mystery – why the US has put so much effort into the laser-driven inertial containment method which had never seemed a likely way to build a power station. It is, it seems, because it has been used to study the miniature fusion bombs that it uses, and has been strongly linked to military funding.

The way the story is told could have been a little better – the text can be a bit repetitive and there is perhaps a bit too much of the bureaucratic detail of how projects have been controlled and funded (in the end this is important to understanding how these mega projects work – but it makes the book less readable). It is also strange that we get the whole story in summary up front, then again in detail. It’s not the author’s fault but I was disappointed how far we still are from even having ITER working and with the conclusion of some experts that the technology is never going to be workable to reliably generate power for the grid.

Overall an essential book for anyone interested in fusion or who is involved in the politics of how we generate our electricity.

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Review by Brian Clegg

101 Things I Learned in Engineering School – John Kuprenas & Matthew Frederick ***

This is a classic example of one of those books that you are much more likely to buy for someone as a present than to know exactly what to do with when you get it. It consists of 101 small two 101_Things_I_Learned_in_Engineering_School__Amazon.co.uk__Matthew_Frederick__John_Kuprenas__Bookspage spreads with an illustration on one page and a short burst of text on the other. These are words of wisdom for engineers, or for ordinary folk who want to learn the engineering equivalent of the force.

Some of the entries are a little hokey, and sound more like a line from a self-help manual, (‘The heart of engineering isn’t calculation; it’s problem solving.’) but many are genuinely useful little engineering tips or thoughts that may have a broader application. Some give a little historical background, others showing, for instance, why roundabouts are better than conventional four-way intersections (because civil engineering is engineering too – in fact, according to another entry, the granddaddy of them all). You’ll find out why aircraft parts aren’t designed for perfect reliability (gulp) and how to stop a crack. What’s not to love?

The hesitation in that first paragraph really comes from the fact that I am an old fashioned, sit down and read a book end to end kind of person. Books like this work better as dip-in titles. Perhaps to keep in the smallest room in the house. A niche market, admittedly, but in this case a beautifully engineered one.

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2886768421_1aa9c94be2_oIn case any engineers, and especially civil engineers, get a bit full of themselves after reading this book (or even this review) I leave you with this genuine excerpt from Yellow Pages.

 

 

Review by Brian Clegg

To a Distant Day – Chris Gainor ***

It’s entertaining, in a way, that the expression ‘It’s not rocket science’ has such a hold because if there’s one bit of technology that’s not rocket science, it’s, er, rocket DistantDayscience. I am not saying that it is easy to get successful rockets into space – the many failures, crashes and burns of the early space programme attest to this, and space flight remains a risky activity. But the science itself is pretty straightforward – far more Isaac Newton than Einstein.

This is an effective and straightforward history of the development of rocket flight in the US, Russia and Germany. With some background on the history of rockets, we find out plenty about key characters like Goddard, Tsiolovsky, Oberth and von Braun. All the successes and failures along the way are carefully spelled out. There is enough about the people to avoid this being a purely technological saga – all in all, it does the job well.

This book is not really in competition with an in-depth study of the key US versus USSR period, typified by Deborah Cadbury’s Space Race. In fact it stops once manned space flight has begun. But it fills in considerably more detail about those early faltering steps than other books and is well worth adding to a spaceflight library.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Technology – A Byte Sized World – Dan Green & Basher ***

We’ve not been awfully kind about some of the predecessors of these strange little illustrated science books ‘created by Basher’ (whatever that means). The format is Screenshot_09_06_2013_15_08odd – very small in many cases (they do have some larger editions, like this one), half the space given up to illustrations that don’t add any information whatever, and a really irritating text that is written in the first person, apparently by the subject of the page. So in this case you will see entries by a molecule, an acid and so on. Cringeworthy.

But having said all that, like the chemistry version, the technology entry in the series seems one of the better ones. This is possibly because the topic allows a wide range of subjects – so we have the obvious trendy topics to fit with that ‘byte sized world’ subtitle, but also the basics machines like gears, springs and pulleys. There is  also, slightly strangely, a materials science section, not to mention one on ways to get around, from the petrol engine to the ion thruster.

Despite my relative enthusiasm, I can’t bring myself to be too positive, though. The text is too sophisticated for the age group the design seems aimed at – it’s a bit like the South Park of children’s popular science books (without the rude bits). So I’d say the text is probably 9 to 12 (apart from the first person aspect) while the design is more 6 to 9. And I still HATE the first person, ‘cool dude’ speech of the subjects. (For example, Light Bulb: ‘I am totally switched on – inventing me was such a bright idea!’) Oh, well. It’s definitely an improvement on some of the others.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember – Annalee Newitz ****

I’m not a natural audience for books about surviving disasters (even though I wrote the Global Warming Survival Kit). I can’t stand disaster movies, because I can’t take the newitzpragmatic ‘Oh well, some survive,’ viewpoint as I watch millions perish. So I thought that I would find this book, with its subtitle How Humans will survive a mass extinction somewhat unappetising – but I was wrong.

The Earth has gone through a number of mass extinctions, where a fair percentage of living species have been killed off. The most famous is the one that mostly took out the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago, but there have been others and, Annalee Newitz points out, if we want to see the long term survival of the human race, we need to be able to make it through one, should it turn up, whether caused by climate change, pandemics, a supervolcano or an asteroid.

What Newitz does surprisingly well here is weave together what are really around four different books, all in one compact volume. We start of with palaeontology, looking back over previous mass extinctions, getting a better understanding of what happened, what survived and how it survived. From here we segue into human pre-history and history, drawing lessons from the plight of the Neanderthal and the impact of plague and other pandemics. After this, in a transitional section we see the examples of the three techniques in the book’s title – scattering in the Jewish disaspora, adaptation in cyanobacteria (and how we could use it) and remembering on the part of the gray whale, before taking another transition into a more science-fiction driven view.

Newitz starts by pointing out the potential lessons to be learned from the SF writing of Octavia Butler who is apparently ‘one of the 20th century’s greatest science fiction writers’, which I was a bit surprised by as I read a lot of science fiction and I’ve never heard of her. The segue here is into the shakiest part of the book where it dabbles in futurology. This broadly divides into relatively short term survival approaches and longer term diaspora into space.

One of the reasons this is the weakest part of the book is that Newitz offers us castle-in-the-air solutions with no obvious way (and certainly no hint) of how to get there from where we are now. So she says we will need underground cities if we need to survive some kinds of impact, while we would be helped by building green cities that merge biology and construction… but it’s not clear how we would ever get started on such major, long term projects. She doesn’t address the reality that humans are very bad at taking the long view.

I was, though, pleasantly surprised by this book, particularly the first half. This is genuinely interesting and thought provoking, up to and including the Octavia Butler section. And though it goes a little downhill after that, it never fails to be readable and interesting – just a little far fetched. So congratulations to Newitz on taking the rare long view – and in having optimism for our ability to survive what the universe can throw at us.

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Review by Brian Clegg