The Stars In Their Courses

By Isaac Asimov

Rating: 3 stars

This is one of Asimov’s many non-fiction popular science books, covering astronomy and physics in an amiable tone, yet still managing to derive Newton’s laws of motions from first principles and easy for a layman to understand. My astronomy isn’t particularly good so this helped cover some patches there, and getting a refresher course in Newtonian motion was nice as well.

Book details

ISBN: 9780586041222
Publisher: Panther Books
Year of publication: 1971

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

By Charles Seife

Rating: 4 stars

This was a book about the history of zero and infinity. From its invention in Babylon, through its suppression in Greece and in the west during the Middle Ages to its flourishing in India and the Middle East and reintroduction in Europe in the Renaissance. Seife covers the history of the zero with an admirable narrative, showing how it is intimately tied with infinity before going on to discuss the most important occurrences of zero in maths (including calculus) and physics (the big bang, zero point energy, black holes).

Most of the book is very accessible to the general reader, particularly the history sections, but during the bits in the middle that were directly related to maths, I was very thankful for my own A-Level maths background, which helped me follow the equations and the calculus (even if some of it did involve dusting down some very old memories 🙂 ).

It was a very interesting read about something that most of us don’t think about very much at all. The history of zero in particular was very interesting, especially fear that the Greeks had of it, removing it from their universe entirely. Seife shows how they constructed their world around geometry and how the fear of zero follows on from that.

Interesting and very enjoyable. Just dust up on your algebra and calculus before you get to the middle chapters.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140296471
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2000

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments

By George Johnson

Rating: 4 stars

This book takes as its starting point the idea that an experiment can be elegant and simple and devised and carried out by a single individual. He choose his ten favourite and gives each one a short, descriptive chapter. Including Galileo’s work with gravity, Harvey’s discovery of the heart as a pump, Newton’s optical work and more, it’s a whistle-stop tour through some of the most interesting science since the Enlightenment.

Clearly written and easy to read, while remaining descriptive, it makes it easy to follow the logic of the experiments themselves. Well worth reading.

Book details

ISBN: 9781400041015
Publisher: Knopf
Year of publication: 2008

Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective

By Carl Sagan

Rating: 4 stars

Although nominal pop science, this certainly isn’t a primer for the general layman, since it seems to already assume a decent amount of knowledge on the part of the reader. It does provide, however, a very lucid description of the origins of the solar system, the development of life and its progression and wider place in the universe (at least as understood up to the early 1970s when it was written).

Our space probes are discussed, including the Pioneer probes which Sagan himself worked on — I hadn’t realised that there was such controversy over the plaques that were mounted on Pioneers 10 and 11 — and he describes how they were used to develop and test theories about the planets of the solar system.

Sagan isn’t afraid to speculate about the possibility of life on other worlds and the possible means of listening for them, and maybe even communicating with them. This willingness to delve into what a lot of scientists may consider unsavoury territory is part of what makes Sagan’s work so charming.

The only issue that I had with the book is its age. Some of his more optimistic predictions have already been proven wrong (like his suggestion of a permanent moonbase by now). I would love to read a contemporary piece that discusses the history of human spaceflight the way that Sagan has, but brings it up to date, charting all the successes and failures since Sagan’s day.

In total, a charming and well-written description of man and his relationship with the universe.

Book details

ISBN: 9780521783033
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Year of publication: 1973

River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life

By Richard Dawkins

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve said before about Dawkins’ work that no matter what you think of the man and his opinions, he’s an excellent communicator, as proved yet again by this compact volume. Part of the Science Masters series, it is a description of Darwinism and evolution from a genetic point of view, that of DNA and the ‘selfish gene’. It’s well written, easy to read and very lucid and understand. Biology’s always been the science that I’ve been least interested in, but Dawkins broaches complicated topics with ease. Highly recommended.

Book details

ISBN: 9780465069903
Publisher: HarperCollinsPublishers
Year of publication: 1994

Just Six Numbers The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe by Rees, Martin J. ( Author ) ON Oct-05-2000, Paperback

By Martin J. Rees

Rating: 4 stars

Subtitled The Deep Forces that Shape the Universe, this pop science book, written by the astronomer royal, discusses six cosmological constants that define the size, shape and structure of the universe.

An interesting book, but one that didn’t really teach me that much that I didn’t already know. The most interesting thing was the stress on how if any of these numbers were very slightly different, they would have resulted in a universe that would be unsuitable for life. Rees deliberately avoids the question of why this ‘fine tuning’ exists until the final chapter and even then, he remains fairly neutral on the matter just outlining the possibilities, including that of a creator.

Book details

ISBN: 9780753810224
Publisher: Phoenix Paperbacks
Year of publication: 1999

The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist

By Richard P. Feynman

Rating: 3 stars

This volume collects together three related public lectures that Feynman gave in 1963 on the theme of science, its role in society, its application to other fields of endeavour and its connection to religion. As well as being a Nobel prize winner, Feynman is an excellent communicator, and these lectures are easy to read and you come away feeling thoughtful about, as the title implies, the meaning of it all.

Book details

ISBN: 9780465023943
Publisher: Basic Books
Year of publication: 1998

Empire of the Stars: Friendship, Obsession and Betrayal in the Quest for Black Holes

By Arthur I. Miller

Rating: 0 stars

This pop science book tells the story of the life cycle of stars and the discovery of black holes. In particular, it focusses on the feud between Sir Arthur Eddington and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (Chandra). Chandra had concluded that white dwarves have a maximum mass, leading to the conclusion that a star above that mass would contract infinitely into a black hole. When he delivered a paper on this to the Royal Astronomical Society in 1935, Eddington subjected him to public humiliation and ridicule, which almost broke Chandra.

In the first part, the book goes into the background of the two protagonists and the events that led to the showdown. The second continues on from that, but takes a wider view at the science of the life cycle of stars and how it was gradually unravelled, leading eventually to the rediscovery of the black hole theory. The third part deals with Chandra’s later life, revealing a man who was embittered by his early showdown with Eddington, but one who still had a spark in him and went on to win every major science award going.

I enjoyed this book a lot, both for its biographical information, and the science. I have some elementary astronomy background which may have helped, but it seemed clearly laid out. Also, it was nice to see names which I knew off through equations and laws actually turning out to have real people behind them :-).

Book details

ISBN: 9780349116273
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Year of publication: 2005

The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography

By Simon Singh

Rating: 4 stars

Subtitled “The secret history of codes and code-breaking”, this is a fascinating history of codes and ciphers throughout history, from mono-alphabetic to quantum cryptography. Throughout, the writing is clear and concise, with good explanations of sometimes difficult concepts, simplifying where necessary. Definitely recommended.

Book details

ISBN: 9780385495325
Publisher: Anchor
Year of publication: 1999

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman

By Richard P. Feynman

Rating: 4 stars

This collection of writing and lectures by Richard Feynman really shows his delight in science as a means of understanding the world around us. Certain themes crop up again and again: knowledge for its own sake; his distaste of philosophy; the dangers of pseudoscience. His style is assured and draws you in. Well worth the read.

And it also taught me how to calculate square numbers around 50 in my head :-).

Book details

Publisher: Basic Books
Year of publication: 1999

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