A brief blog post about time

Just a quick blog post today to say that yesterday I went to see the film The Theory of Everything – the story of Jane and Stephen Hawking.

IT WAS BLOODY BRILLIANT!

Its two young stars – Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones were exceptionally good.

Theory-of-Everything_612x381Redmayne’s transformation as Hawking’s disease took hold was masterly, but Jones’ steely determination to make the best of their lives together, then later frustrations shone out of the screen too. Both have been nominated for Oscars – my fingers are crossed.

The film was well structured and beautifully shot with a great supporting cast including David Thewlis and Emily Watson amongst a group of other younger actors I am less familiar with.

I took my 14yr old daughter and she was transfixed throughout the whole film too. My eyes did brim with tears at several moments, but did manage to hold them in.

GO AND SEE IT IF YOU CAN!

Travelling to InfinityIt so happens, and not coincidentally, that I’m about quarter of the way through reading the new edition of Jane Hawking’s book Travelling to Infinity, which the film is based on.

Jane’s book is quite a chunkster at just under 500 pages, and carries on beyond the film, which stops in 1987 when Stephen was made a Companion of Honour. Originally published in 2007, this new edition published to tie in with the film has been abridged and added to.

I’m enjoying it so far, and can recognise many of the stories within from the film, which although having to compress things seems true to Jane’s life story. I hope the book continues to hold up.

Have you read the book or seen the film?

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
Travelling to Infinity: The True Story Behind the Theory of Everything by Jane Hawking. Abridged edition pub Dec 2014 by Alma Books, paperback 490 pages.

Three Slightly Shorter Reviews

I’ve got a series of posts lined up for the week in between Christmas and New Year with my hits, misses, finds and stats, so it’s time to catch up with my review pile backlog and some shorter reviews…

The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield

undertakers daughter For anyone who loved the TV series Six Feet Under, this is what it’s like in real life to grow up living in an American Funeral Home, and sometimes it’s not that different! Kate Mayfield’s family moved to the town of Jubilee in southern Kentucky in 1959 where her father could realise his dream of running his own funeral home. Kate was already used living in the same house:

Back in Lanesboro, I had been the first in our family to be carried as a newborn from the hospital directly into a funeral home. Birth and death in almost the same breath.

We grow up with Kate in the business. We experience the competition between the rival businesses, and the favours and kindnesses that her father secretly does for the owner of the funeral home for the black population – for Jubilee in the 1960s was segregated. Kate’s father is a bit of a conundrum, totally professional and controlled, yet charismatic and a real dandy and, with his own hidden secrets of hard-drinking and womanising, no wonder Kate’s mother is brittle and desperate to fit into this community where they are initially outsiders. We learn a lot about the funeral business with Kate as she grows up, becoming a quietly rebellious teenager in the 1970s. We also see how the business of death can divide communities, cause family feuds and rattle a lot of skeletons in closets.

This memoir was absolutely fascinating, I heartily recommend it. Source: Publisher – Thank you, (9/10)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

kjfI’ve read this for book group – we’ll be discussing it in early January, but I won’t post about that discussion because I don’t want to spoil this novel for anyone that hasn’t read it yet – is there anyone?

The story is told by Rosemary who, at the start is at university, and still trying to come to terms with the disintegration of her family that started when she was five and her sister Fern disappeared from her life.

Rosemary takes us back and forwards through her life and the details gradually fall into place. However the big plot twist happens on page 77, early on in the novel.

As it happens, I knew the twist and I can honestly say it wouldn’t have taken me by surprise. The clues are all there (don’t read the tagline on the back cover for starters!). I’ve read several other books over the years that cover much of the same ground – without the twist.

After that it’s all a bit inevitable. That said, I did enjoy this book a lot, although I didn’t like the way the author continually signposts where we are in Rosemary’s story by referring to the beginning, middle, end and points inbetween.  I’m still confused too why the Booker judges thought so highly of it as literature, but it is a good read. Source: Own copy, (7.5/10).

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

murakamiI’ve had mixed success with Murakami, but loved this beautifully illustrated novella, translated by Ted Goossen.

A boy gets an urge to find out about Ottoman tax collection and stops off at the library on his way home. Directed to the basement and the stacks of withdrawn books, he finds himself in the weirdest of horror stories featuring a sheep man, a cage, doughnuts and a girl who talks with her hands amongst many other strange things. It’s a very weird story – sort of Alice in Wonderland meets The House of Leaves.

The beauty of this little volume is in the illustrations, many of which are pages from old catalogues and text books. The end-papers are marbled and on the front is a pocket to hold the book’s ticket – Harvill Secker, the publishers have done a lovely job. I must admit I pored over the illustrations, finding the story almost as secondary, but loved the whole. (If you need a late Christmas present for someone this would be ideal.)  Source: Own copy, (9/10).

murakami spread

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To explore any of these on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate links):

 

My new reviews at Shiny New Books

The third issue of Shiny New Books came out on Monday. Now it’s time for me to highlight some of my reviews that appear therein and point you in their direction. As it ended up, I didn’t write as many reviews for this edition, but I shall still split them into a few posts in between others. Today it’s the turn of two novels of speculative fiction:

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

StationelevenUKHC

This novel by Canadian author Mandel has been one of the big hyped titles of the autumn – a timely vision of a post-pandemic world – not due to ebola though but a new flu strain which spreads like wildfire.

It ties in the lives of a travelling troupe of musicians and actors twenty years after, focusing on a handful of characters who all experienced touchstone moments in the past.

While it does include the usual post-disaster tropes of tribe formation and those seeking to take advantage, it is all done very elegantly and with a clear vision that seems true to how I would imagine things happening in this scary future.

I loved this book! (10/10)
Read my full review here.

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Desperate Games by Pierre Boulle

Desperate Games

This one is a reprint in a new translation by David Carter from Hesperus.

First published in 1971, this novel is a philosophical satire on science, politics and psychology of the masses, in which the scientists stage a peaceful coup to make a new world order and find that eliminating hunger and cancer etc doesn’t make its people happy. Their answer is what could be considered as the prototype of The Hunger Games.

Whilst not a work of great literature, this novel is BIG on ideas and a fascinating curiosity that makes it an essential addition to the dystopian canon!

Read my full review here. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publishers – Thank you to both.
To explore further on Amazon, please click below:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, 2014, Picador, hardback, 336 pages.
Desperate Games by Pierre Boulle, (1971) – Hesperus, 2014, paperback, 206 pages.

A’s HoB Q&A – Part Two ‘the science bit’

Book questionI challenged you to ask me questions and you did … see the previous post for a variety of bookish and Oxfordian answers. Today it’s time to answer the science questions that you asked me – and I shall go in reverse order.

Simon T (Stuck in a Book) asked: What is your favourite chemical element?

Really, I can’t better David Nolan’s stunning pun of a reply “If I had a favourite chemical element, I think it would change periodically!”, but here are a few thoughts…
I could say ‘Oxygen‘ a) because we can’t live without it and b) when you burn Sulphur in Oxygen it has a wonderful blue flame – but I won’t.
I could say ‘Carbon‘ – another necessary element for life, also because it’s graphite, and diamonds, and Buckminsterfullerene (C60 – a carbon molecule shaped like a football made up of hexagons and pentagons).
I could say ‘Tin‘ because when you take a rod of it and bend it, it ‘cries’ – it’s a distinctive sound, made by all the dislocations (faults in the crystal structure) propagating through the material.
I could say ‘Silver’, ‘Gold’ or ‘Platinum’ because of their beauty when wrought into jewels, relative inertness and worth – but that’s far too obvious.

Today, my favourite element is aluminium.

The third most abundant element (after Oxygen and Silicon). I chose it because an aluminium alloy known as RR58 was used to build the airframe of Concorde – crucially it oxidises to give a microscopic layer of alumina – aluminium oxide on the skin which crucially aids the structural strength. I learnt that fact in my very first lecture on metallurgy at university.

itv concorde

Susan Osborne asked: Can you recommend science writers for readers like myself who are reasonably intelligent but ignorant of the sciences? I realise that its far too wide a subject to recommend for all branches of science. Thanks!

I enjoy reading popular science books, but don’t have time to read and review enough of them. Two I have blogged about are Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik on materials science, and Bad Science by Ben Goldacre which blows the lid off pharmaceuticals – from drug trials to homeopathy.

Here are a few more great science books/writers you might consider (titles go to my affiliate link).

That’s just a few off the top of my head. Everyone else – please add your favourite science books.

And finally, that fiendish feline Dark Puss asked: Why is it still perceived to be OK to be uninterested in science but not OK to be uninterested in literature (if you wish to be seen as an “educated” person)? How did we get to that point in our world?

There are so many facets to think about in answering this question. Here are a few thoughts for further discussion if you’d like.  I warn you I’m going to make sweeping generalisations though and it’s going to sound simplistic …

Firstly, nearly all the big discoveries and advances in science these days are so high tech or on the quantum level that comprehending them in any meaningful way is beyond most people, so they just turn off unless it’s Brian ‘Smiley’ Cox on the tellybox. In the days before we’d discovered most of the easy stuff, the man on the Clapham omnibus had half a chance of understanding some of it.  Also more people worked in engineering and factories, surrounded by science and technology, there were more apprentices, etc etc – so more chance that some science would brush off on people perhaps. We don’t have the everyday exposure to science and engineering in the way we used to through manufacturing, so science is perceived as difficult, made especially so as maths is devalued as being not useful by those who don’t realise that without it we can’t make progress. Secondly, secondary schools struggle to get good science teachers. Less hands on science gets done because of uninterested pupils playing up etc. – less practicals, more demonstrations. Teachers don’t necessarily have time to go beyond the curriculum. The kids see science as a difficult subject, so possibly pick easier options. Uninterest in science is ingrained early – but paradoxically, we’re all better at using it in our everyday lives – we just don’t realise.

However, if you compare the amount of hours of telly that is science-based against the hours that is literature based (non-drama), science wins hands down. Nature programmes and medical programmes abound, physics gets some attention – but ‘The sky at night’ is still going strong, in fact chemistry is probably the poor relation in science programming. Literature is mainly a specialist channel or late-night subject.

It probably boils down to the fact that even if you read rubbish, it is easy to talk about a book, whereas science requires education of a sort – or enough to ask the question. Basically, Dark Puss, I have no real idea how to answer your question – but it was fun thinking about it!

 

 

How do you define an expert scientist?

Are We All Scientific Experts Now? by Harry Collins

are_we_all_scientific_experts_now_harry_collinsHarry Collins is a professor at Cardiff University, where he lectures on the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), and his areas of research include: the Nature of Scientific Knowledge and knowledge in general; public Understanding of Science; and the Nature of Skills and Expertise, amongst other topics.  He is one of our foremost thinkers in this area apparently, and this provocative little book is intended to challenge a lot of thinking about the nature of ‘expertise.’

He starts by throwing a few quandaries at us – for instance: ‘The quantum theory is said to be the most accurate theory ever, and it has quite counter-commonsensical consequences, thought absurd by Einstein, that turn out to be true – such as the instant ‘communication’ that happens under quantum entanglement.‘ (had to get that in after Jim Al Khalili talked about it at a talk I went to a couple of weeks ago).

He talks about ‘Climategate’ – the chatty and informal email exchanges between researchers at UEA about climate change which, when leaked, were leapt upon by every climate change sceptic out there.  It’s not until later in the book, that he reveals how they were taken totally out of context.  He refers to the scandal of MMR vaccines and autism that has led to a resurgence in measles, and the fact that a high profile celeb in the US said it made her child autistic, and people believed her, not the experts. Similarly the South African government’s decision not to offer anti-retroviral drugs to pregnant women with HIV.

Having set out these challenges to science, he goes on to explain how his own field SSK developed – there have been three waves.  He says: ‘In the 1950s, with radar, penicillin, nylon and all the rest, it was impossible to doubt the pre-eminence of science as a way of making knowledge. In this kind of atmosphere the job of history, philosophy and sociology of science was clear: explain how the scientific miracle worked.’  In the 1960s, orthodoxy was challenged.  In the 1970s SSK as a discipline began to take hold, and Collins himself was at the forefront. Science and the humanities were not so different after all, and ‘by the middle of the 1980s, there was less and less special about science. For those influenced by these academics – and the influence became stronger after the arts and humanities discovered the literary critique of science – the bar had fallen to the ground and we could all be scientific experts.’

This leads to the major theme of the book – what defines an expert. Well, Collins has his theories, and can categorise types of experts into a whole range of types.  At the bottom all of us are experts by osmosis at living in our own surroundings – he uses the naivety of The Midnight Cowboy arriving in town from the country – this is a ‘ubiquitous expertise’. So too speaking your native language. From then on in, it gets a lot more complicated and dry, if not a little confusing. It certainly confused me about my place in the scientific scheme of things!

I have a degree in materials science and after university worked in the microelectronics materials division of a chemical company for years – becoming quite a technical expert in my little niche – which was about getting the best performance from the particular materials I worked with that the R&D guys developed. Then I broadened my horizons, am now working in a school as a lab technician – where I am an expert in home-made bubble mix and the best slime recipes for science club.  I retain, however, a passion for science – hence embracing the local science festival, and I take an interest in programmes, books, and magazines etc – but would never dream to claim any expertise other than a good basic understanding outside my particular field. I may have been a proper expert once, but am not now – I’m into popular science, but I don’t mind that at all.

Where I got a bit cross with Prof Collins was that he wants to elevate the role of scientist back to that of the boffin in the white coat; for science to regain its respect. It is, perhaps, an admirable aim – however real life is not like that.  We are criminally short of scientists and engineers in this country now. Making science seem too difficult is never going to encourage teenagers into it. We do need the top scientists Collins argues for desperately, but we also need lots more everyday ones to keep the engine running.

Surely, popularising science is a good thing?  Or is a little knowledge just too dangerous a thing, as the cases mentioned above would suggest?  See, I told you I was confused, and this short book raised more questions than it answered for me. (6/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Are We All Scientific Experts Now? by Harry Collins, pub Feb 2014, Polity Press, 140pp incl notes and indexes, paperback.

What on earth is ‘Quantum Biology’?

P1020027 (2)

It was the second night of ATOM! Abingdon’s new science and technology festival last night, and off to Abingdon School for a lecture by renowned scientist Jim Al Khalili, who will be familiar to many for his programmes on BBC2/4 and his Radio 4 series The Life Scientific.

Jim’s day job is as Professor of Theoretical Physics at Surrey university, where one of the areas he is investigating is the new field of ‘Quantum Biology’.

To explain where QB comes from, he gave us a potted history of its development. It could have taken off in the 1930s but the leading chap was a Nazi, so it got subverted to the third Reich, and was ultimately buried as a subject for several decades.

What exactly is it though?  Because, as Jim said, ‘Down at the quantum level, things are very fuzzy.  ‘Quantumy.’ ‘ he said, waving his hands in the air and getting a laugh.  How did chemistry become biology? That’s the abiogenesis question (a new word for me that!).  Can quantum mechanics help to explain life?

He went on explain some of the key mechanisms that may be involved – quantum tunnelling (equivalent of going through walls), and quantum entanglement (where particles apart from each other have are linked somehow). He then went through some of the key areas in QB:

    • Enzyme action – confirmed in the 1980s
    • Photosynthesis – now established
    • Magnetoreception in birds – lots of work here
    • How we smell
    • DNA mutations (his particular area of interest).

Euro robinHe elaborated on magnetoreception in birds a bit because it’s a great story involving the European Robin which migrates from Sweden to Spain or northern Africa and really does fly south for winter, but is sensitive to the angle of inclination of the Earth’s magnetic field rather than the field polarity. This is all due to a particular frequency of blue light and signalling protein in their retinas.  The experimenters found this out by catching migrating robins and confounding them with different light frequencies and magnetic fields!

It was all fascinating, and given that the audience was from teenagers through to nuclear scientists, his explanations were both clear and interesting to everyone.  A lively Q&A session followed, led by Valerie Jamieson, features editor of New Scientist magazine, and Jim graciously signed books for all afterwards, (do excuse my slightly ‘fuzzy’ photo above!).

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Today I’m taking my daughter to the family science show ‘Visualise’, the closing event of the festival. It’s been a great success, and I sincerely hope it becomes an annual event. The organisers are hoping to set up an ATOM society – I’ve signed up!

Don’t expect many book review posts from me for a week or two. This week was Science Week. Next week sees my binge at the Oxford Literary Festival. I’m booked for events with Ian McEwan, Natalies Haynes and a quartet for women authors of historical novels for YA readers, led by Celia Rees for starters.  More reports to follow!

ATOM! Abingdon Festival of Science & Technology

diamond light

The Diamond Light Source

Our town of Abingdon-on-Thames is situated in one of the real science hubs of the UK. Apart from all the science faculties in Oxford to the north, just south of the town is the Harwell campus – home of the Diamond Light Source and the Rutherford Appleton Lab. To the SE is the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy home of JET – the Joint European Torus and other high-powered projects.  This is what Professor Frank Close told us on Thursday evening, introducing an evening of ‘Converscience’ the opening event of ATOM! held at my daughter’s school.

Frank_Close_2011Frank is a professor of particle physics at Oxford and the first ‘Converscience’ of the evening was with Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnett FRS – the noted cosmologist who discovered pulsars in 1967, despite pirate radio stations broadcasting on the frequencies reserved for astronomical research!

Bell told us about how she made her discovery.  As a post-grad radio-astronomer, she had to analyse up to 96 feet of paper print-out every day, and after about 3 miles of paper, she gradually realised that there was a regular anomaly of interference.  She worked out the pulsing was occurring in sidereal time – so it couldn’t be man-made.  Her bosses took a lot of persuading – what if it were an alien transmission?  She christened it the LGM1 – Little Green Man 1. To her immense relief, she found a second pulsar (her ‘Eureka moment’) and then two further ones which finally proved to her bosses that they weren’t of alien origin. They in fact came from neutron stars, which had previously been theorised, but pulsars were completely new.

'Miss Jocelyn Bell', 1968However, when the discovery was published, her name wasn’t first on the paper, and she didn’t get the Nobel prize, her boss did.  Instead, she got the Sun headline ‘Girl discovers little green men’ – the media attention was intense and she said, ‘I felt like a piece of meat.’

When the converscience was thrown open to the audience, there were plenty of questions about women in science – apparently only 12% of astronomers are women in the UK, compared with over 30% in Argentina.  She made a plea for more women to study science, and for engineers in particular – the Higg’s Boson couldn’t have been discovered without the engineers who built the Large Hadron Collider.

We soon returned to pulsars though and the question of how you would know if the pulses were from an alien intelligence. She replied that she’d expect some kind of code – a repeating pattern perhaps.  Anyway, over 2000 pulsars have now been discovered, and still no little green men.

robin inceAfter the interval, the comedian Robin Ince took to the stage, and gave us a high-speed short version of his 3 hour science stand-up routine!  Radio 4 listeners may be familiar with him through his programme The Infinite Monkey Cage, co-hosted with Professor Brian Cox – Ince told us how he is the ‘enthusiastic idiot, the antimatter version of him‘ (Cox, that is).  He was actually quite funny (although a little loud and definitely hyperactive). He told some great true science stories including about Darwin’s nose, Richard Feynman and the aurora borealis, and he showed some stunning pictures from a Tumblr blog called WTF Evolution! – do check it out.

This was followed by a final converscience between the three – and with three sceptics on stage, the question of whether science and religion could ever be reconciled came up. Professor Close put his reply rather well – there are ‘Hows’ and ‘Whys’ – science is a how, religion is a why, Bell (who is a Quaker) added that she had no problems with it as they both have sense of wonder.

I was helping sell books at the event, and of course I succumbed to buying a copy of Ince’s tome – Robin Ince’s Bad Books Club: One man’s quest to uncover the books that taste forgot.  Nothing to do with science, but it looks rather fun.  I got him to sign my copy, and he wrote:

‘To Annabel, beware lighthouse keepers posing as novelists. Robin Ince.’

Hmm! Cryptic…

Night two of ATOM! to follow this evening – a lecture by Jim Al Khalili about quantum biology.  I’m doing the book-stall again (natch!)

“Marvellous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World”

Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik

stuff matters cover What would we do without man-made materials?  We can’t live without them these days.

Mark Miodownik, whom some of you may recognise from his regular TV appearances on Dara O’Briain’s Science Club on BBC2, wants to tells us all about the things our man-made world is shaped from. Mark, like me (!), is a materials scientist. Unlike me, he’s a practising one, being a Professor of the subject at UCL in London.  In his book, published last year, now available in paperback with this gorgeous cover, he wants to persuade us that ‘Stuff Matters’.

Further down this post, you’ll find a competition to win a copy of the book plus a signed poster of the cover.

In the introduction, he explains to us where his fascination with materials came from and it’s a grim start. As a teenager, he was badly slashed with a super-sharp razor-blade by a mugger on the London underground, and couldn’t believe that a small blade could cut through five layers of clothing and so deeply through the skin of his back as he escaped.

mark miodownikIn the following chapters, he takes us through the development of some of the fundamental materials in our lives like steel, paper and concrete; materials that help us as we age, entertain us at leisure; also some of the most interesting new ones like aerogel and nanotechnology.

He’s great at explaining complex subjects making things like how the faults in the crystal structure of metal alloys are what helps to make it strong seem straight forward, (although at uni-level I remember struggling with atomic planes and dislocations at first) and that’s no mean feat. This is a wonderful tour around the world of materials science, it’s entertaining, full of facts, and easy to read. Mark makes for good company on the page and I heartily recommend it. (9/10)

Now for the giveaway:

Thanks to those lovely people at Penguin, I have a copy of Mark’s book and a signed poster of the book cover to giveaway.  I’m afraid it’s open to UK residents only.  Just leave a comment below – and if you like, tell me your favourite material that things can be made of, but that’s not compulsory. We’ll draw a winner at Wednesday tea-time.  Good luck!

I shall leave you with a clip of the front cover being assembled.

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World by Mark Miodownik, pub Penguin 2013, paperback 272 pages.

If you found Stuff Matters fascinating, you might be interested in the book below. The second edition, published in 1976, is still in print and still used today. It was the one book I was told I had to read before going up to university, and it was fascinating.

The New Science of Strong Materials: Or Why You Don’t Fall Through the Floor (Penguin Science) by J.E.Gordon, pub Penguin, paperback.

Through the keyhole …

Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About Youby Sam Gosling

I defy any browsing bibliomane not to pick this book up on seeing the arrangements of books and comfy armchair through the keyhole on its cover!

I’m sure that you, like me, sniff out the bookcases as soon as you go in someone’s house. If they do have lots of books, I believe you can get a feel for their owner(s), and even the most  dedicated library user will have some evidence of their bookish loves.

Snoop is, of course, about much more than bookshelves.  Gosling is an English-born Professor of Psychology in Texas, and his speciality is a kind of benign psychological profiling by looking at peoples’ possessions.  In particular, he researches into correlations between the big five personality traits: Conscientiousness, Openness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, and the stuff we own and how we treat and display it.

Initially, he recruited and trained a team of ‘snoopers’ and set them to work on volunteer students’ rooms. He ended up later on national television comparing the rooms of TV news anchormen. In between, there is loads of psychological discussion of the subject and case studies (all American).

Gosling is an entertaining teacher – his writing is straight-forward and free from jargon.  It’s also witty, and being a Brit, he is self-deprecating – we gradually get a picture of him too from his descriptions of his own stuff, (no TV – Shock!).

I was entertained, but was I transformed into a super-snooper?  For a man who  has spent his professional career trying to read peoples’ posessions, Gosling has largely proved how inexact it all really is!

  • You can only really deduce information about conscientiousness (how tidy you are) and openness (generally evidenced by a wide range of books, music, etc). You can tell tidy from tidied.
  • Stereotypes are useful initially, but be prepared to dump them – there are too many exceptions to the rule.
  • Popular musical tastes are largely irrelevant.
  • How can you tell whether the ‘you’ through the things you display is the real one?
  • You can be wrong-tracked as a snooper by stuff not belonging to the snoopee, just left behind or being looked after.
  • As a snooper, you need to be familiar with the cultural mores and brand awareness of the snoopee to get the most information out of it.  There’s no point in looking at someone’s music and film collections or make-up bag if you haven’t heard of the artists or brands.

I quite like pop science books, so I enjoyed dipping into this one. I haven’t learned much, and it certainly won’t stop me from snooping at other people’s bookcases, which I find usually give a clear indication of intellectual pursuits!  (6.5/10)

Do you enjoy snooping around other peoples’ bookcases?  Bet you do!

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About Youby Sam Gosling, pub 2009 by Profile Books, 288 pages.

The making of a scientist

Konstantinby Tom Bullough

When I met Tom Bullough at the Penguin Blogger’s Night last month, I was instantly taken with his reading from his novel Konstantin.  Later, talking to him, he was excited by the finished article and showed me the lovely fold out cover. An oversized paperback original, the dust-jacket is scattered with gilt planets, stars, constellations and little spacemen.  You can see it in full on Tom’s own website here.  I digress already – back to the novel…

Konstantin is the true story of how a boy grew up to become one of the founding fathers of the Russian space programme – a pioneer in rocket science. Bullough concentrates on the period of his childhood, going through to his mid twenties where we leave him as a teacher developing his scientific ideas.  Don’t worry about being blinded by science though; this novel is concerned about a man following a dream.  First however, let me introduce you to the man it is about.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) wasn’t born into a normal family. His mother was an educated Russian, his father an orthodox Polish priest, who had been deported to Russia. When he was nine he became deaf as a result of scarlet fever, and became largely self-educated after that, which allowed the boy who read Jules Verne, and dreamed of space to focus on his interests.  He is particularly known for his ‘Rocket Equation’ which relates the mass and power of a rocket to the velocity it can attain – the basics of jet propulsion.

The novel opens in 1867, and Kostya is taking food to his father who is working as a forester:

Kostya hurried down the bank towards the frozen Oka, fine and light in his heavy sheepskin coat as a sparrow in its winter plumage. On the river, the tracks of the woodsmen cut north through the even snow, steering a line towards the pine logs strewn along the shore beneath the forest. Kostya ran and slid on the exposed ice. From the darkness of the birch trees he emerged in the December sunlight, one arm extended for balance, the soup can blazing beneath his shirt and his coat, and nowhere beneath the ice-blue sky could he see any movement beside his own long, wavering shadow.

The long Russian winters form the backdrop to most of this novel. There is no denying the hardship it causes to the average Russian family, but when the sun shines, Bullough’s lyrical prose makes it seem like the best of days, a romantic time for tramping in the snow or going tobogganing. Here, Kostya is waxing lyrical to his brother Ignat on their way to the town’s sledging hill:

‘In my world, anyway, there wouldn’t be any gravity, so it would be easy to pick up anything we liked.  In my world, I would be able to jump versts through the air. I would be able to jump through the clouds and right out into the ether. If I wanted to go to Moscow, I would just have to run and jump and I could fly there, easy. The people in the train would see me zooming past like a cannonball! …’

Kostya was probably lucky to survive his encounter with scarlet fever, and the ensuing deafness frees him to think; later, he will make himself an ear-trumpet which allows him to communicate better and will rarely be seen without it.

Aged 18 he goes off to Moscow where he studies at the free library, and gains a mentor in its librarian Nikolai Federov, a philosopher and proponent of Russian Cosmicsm, which combined culture, religion and ethics with science and evolution to look forward to the future of mankind. With Federov’s encouragement and guidance Kostya flourishes in his self-teaching.

We leave Konstantin a few years later – he’s become an inspirational science teacher to his pupils, he’s married and has become a family man, but we can sense that his best is yet to come…

Set as it is during a period of great change, where science and engineering are beginning to revolutionise life, Bullough manages to combine one man’s dreams and achievements with the essential spaciness of the landscape into a rather fine Russian novel. To cap it all, an exciting coda puts Tsiolkovsky’s influence on those scientists who came after him, firmly on the map telling the story of Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk in 1965.

Kostya’s parents were both fascinating characters not being conventional Russians, and I did miss them in the second half of the book once he’d moved to Moscow.  No detail is missed in Bullough’s descriptions though – from felt boots to the use of the old Russian units of measurement (versts and arshins etc, approx 1km and 71cm respectively), everything is authentic.

Russia, winter and science – three subjects that, when combined with Bullough’s beautifully descriptive prose, made an enticing and charming read. Bullough is a writer I’m longing to read more of. (9/10).

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P.S.
– I received my copy of Konstantin courtesy of the publisher – Thank you.
– For another review, read Mark’s from Mostly Books write-up.
– Reading this book reminded me of another novel I loved (read pre-blog) about the Russian space programme – Ascent by Jed Mercurio (see below) – which tells how a Russian test pilot goes to the moon in a thoughtful and slightly detached spare style that is not afraid to use technical jargon without explanation, but is totally gripping.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Konstantinby Tom Bullough. Pub March 1st by Penguin Viking, 208 pages, paperback original.
Ascent by Jed Mercurio