1 May 2013 by Dominic Lenton
The newly released PA Statistics Yearbook for 2012 shows that the total value of consumer e-book sales increased by 134 per cent on 2011 to reach £216m. The massive success of titles like the Fifty Shades trilogy meant that fiction played a big part, rising by 149 per cent and contributing £172m.
When all formats, including audiobooks, downloads and online subscriptions, are considered, digital sales increased by a more modest 66 per cent. That accounted for 12 per cent of the £3.3bn overall value of printed and electronic products, continuing a trend that saw digital taking a 5 per cent share in 2010 and 8 per cent in 2011.
Readers aren't abandoning print completely though. Despite buying more fiction electronically they also increased their spending on paper copies of novels by 3 per cent to just over £500m.
The figures show that British publishing is a healthy industry, PA chief executive Richard Mollet commented, with the continued increase in digital sales illustrating the shift of readers to e-book reading.
"Such growth has been achieved as British publishers have been able to invest in new exciting, innovative products and in great authors thanks to the strong framework provided by copyright law, which continues to be the cornerstone of stability for a creative industry like publishing," he said.
The data comes from around 270 publishers, representing 78 per cent of UK sales, who participate in the Association's on-going Sales Monitor scheme, and from its an annual digital survey.
Fifty Shades Read
29 April 2013 by Dominic Lenton
Amazon has named the residents of Alexandria (sister city to Dundee in Scotland, apparently) as the most well read in America in its new league table of the country's biggest consumers of the written word.
The chart's based on all book, magazine and newspaper sales, in print and electronic, since 1 June 2012. On a per capita basis, and considering only cities with a population greater than 100,000, Alexandrians beat Knoxville into second place, followed by Miami in third.
Situated on the western bank of the Potomac River, Alexandria is influenced by its proximity to Washington, DC, a few miles away to the north. Much of the population work for the federal civil service, military or defence contractors.
Why so shy about its victory? Well, this being Amazon, position is heavily influenced by Kindle sales and the three titles in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy turn out to be the runaway most popular book purchases behind Gillian Flynn's blockbuster relationship thriller Gone Girl. Maybe not the sort of thing that all those government engineers want you to know they're glued to on their commute to work.
What good is sitting alone in your room?
25 April 2013 by Dominic Lenton
Designed to help audiences experience science and engineering through a combination of stand-up comedy, adventure, magic and mystery, the cabaret is the brainchild of Rhys Phillips, engineer, IET member and presenter of the eponymous show on Radio Cardiff where I pop up from time to time talking about new technology books.
Rhys somehow manages to fit all this in with his day job at the Lightning, Electrostatics & EMH Group at EADS UK, who are sponsoring the evening's entertainment at the National Museum of Wales.
It's going to be fun, he promises, but there's a serious side too. "The aim is to promote science, technology and engineering to a wider audience within the South Wales area. Wales' economy depends on a new uptake of these subjects which are currently experiencing low interest levels within the general public and young minds. This event aims to portray a variety of different science, technology and engineering related topics to a general audience in an interesting, entertaining and engaging way."
The acts, who are all performing for free, include neuroscientist and standup comedian Dr Dean Burnett, chemist Dr Rosie Coates, science junkie and adventurer Huw James, astronomer and 'Sky at Night' presenter Chris North, physicist Wendy Sadler, and systems engineer and professional magician Prof Jon Holt.
A bargain at £5 on the door, or only £4 if you book in advance at www.theiet.org/events/local/176809.cfm.
A matter of life and death
24 April 2013 by Dominic Lenton
The Romans are enjoying one of their periodic revivals in popular culture at the moment. I don't know how large the overlap is between viewers who enjoy reruns of I Claudius on BBC 4 as much as ITV 2's comedy series Plebs, but I fall in it. Timely then, that the British Museum's big summer exhibition, 'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum', is on the same theme.
I was lucky enough to have the chance to look round, and can confirm that it definitely deserves the rave reviews it's been getting. Rather than being a collection of artefacts, this is a show that puts everything in context as part of daily life in the two cities two thousand years ago. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the people who lived and died in Pompeii and Herculaneum weren't as different as we might think. And when you've seen the various bits and pieces that survived the eruption of Vesuvius in their natural setting, whether as part of a street scene or interior of a middle-class home, the final casts of those who used them, captured at the point of death, packs a big emotional punch.
'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum' runs until 29 September. Tickets are selling fast, but may still be available at www.britishmuseum.org.
It won't carry the impact of seeing everything in person, but there's the chance to experience it through your tablet or smartphone with an associated app developed by Apadmi, the company responsible for the BBC Radio iPlayer app for iPhone.
After a short introductory video, the app offers the user a map of the Bay of Naples, with three main areas to explore - the two cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the volcano, Vesuvius. Touching on Pompeii or Herculaneum on the map takes the user through to the street plans, on which are plotted over 250 of the key objects featured in the exhibition. Users will be able to filter objects and their background information by theme; urban context, commerce, religion and beliefs, wealth and status, grooming and adornment, relaxing in luxury, entertaining, food and drink. Touching an object marker leads through to more information about the object and fully-zoomable high resolution images.
Each of the eight themes has an exclusive video introduction by the exhibition curator, Paul Roberts. A selection of star objects is accompanied by audio commentary from experts in Roman history: Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Director of Research, both at the University of Cambridge, and Amanda Claridge, Professor of Roman Archaeology at Royal Holloway.
Users can touch on the marker for Vesuvius to activate the interactive timeline that plots the devastating progress of the volcano in the 24 hours of the eruption. Based on an artist's impression of a typical street in both Pompeii and Herculaneum, the viewpoint shifts between the two cities as time progresses. An immersive soundscape brings the animation to life and illustrates how the two cities and their inhabitants met their end. Specially recorded excerpts from the first-hand account of Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption, provide the narrative.
At each key point in the timeline users can access additional information about the volcano and the eruption, the people who died, and the objects recovered from the sites 1,700 years later.
Users can follow the story after the eruption, exploring the re-discovery and excavation of the two cities, recent archaeology and the development of the British Museum exhibition itself.
The app's already available from the Apple Store at £3.99 for iPad or £1.99 for iPhone. Android users have to wait until 2 May for a £1.99 that works on selected phones. (For those who prefer a more traditional souvenir, there's a beautiful tie-in book at £45 in hardback or £25 in paperback.
Tor marks a year of DRM-free science fiction
19 April 2013 by Dominic Lenton
It was a brave move, but one which Tor believed was essential for this genre. Writing in one of the special issues of Publishers Weekly brought out for this week's London Book Fair, editorial director Julie Crisp says that authors as well as readers had been expressing concern about the restrictions imposed by DRM.
"The genre community is close-knit, with a huge online presence, and with publishers, authors and fans having closer communication than perhaps some other areas of publishing do," she writes of the decision which Cory Doctorow described as signalling the beginning of the end of e-book format wars..
"We felt a strong sense that the reading experience for this tech-savvy, multi-device-owning readership was being inhibited by DRM, leaving our readers unable to reasonably and legally transfer ebook files between all the devices they had," Crisp adds. "We have very stringent anti-piracy controls in place. But DRM-protected titles are still subject o piracy, and we believe a great majority of readers are just as against piracy as we are."
If you agree, a raft of new titles and reissues released recently by Tor give you the chance to put your money where your mouth is if you prefer an electronic version to a paper one. (Or you could even buy both.)
For those who like their SF edgy, there's a new edition of Jeff Noon's Vurt out to mark the 20th anniversary of it winning the Arthur C Clarke Award, as well as a rerelease of 1995 sequel Pollen.
Both share characters and settings with the subsequent Automated Alice and Nymphomation, which actually come first in terms of fictional chronology, and revolve around an alternate reality accessed by sucking on various coloured feathers. Noon writes about the background to the series, and provides a track-listing of songs by The Fall, Buzzcocks and Sonic Youth among others that he thinks particularly resonate with it in a blog on the Tor website.
A more recent title getting a new lease of life is The Bloodline Feud by Charles Stross, which brings together two previously published books, The Family Trade from 2004 and The Hidden Family from 2005.
Stross has been forthright about the problems of DRM, which he believes reduces readers' freedom and hampers competition. He spent ten years writing for Computer Shopper magazine and is the author of The Laundry Files, a series of thrillers about an ex IT consultant turned spy who works for a government agency that uses technology to fight occult threats.
The Bloodline Feud brings together the first two books in his Merchant Princes series, originally published as six titles between 2004 and 2010 and now being reissued as a three volume trilogy. Set in a world where some people have the ability to travel between parallel Earths with different levels of technology.
Stross explains the background to the series, and how the new versions presents the books as they were originally conceived, in a blog that gives a fascinating insight into the world of SF publishing.
Still with the trilogies, Neal Asher's Zero Point, out for the first time in paperback, is the second part of The Owner series, described by one reviewer as being "like a turbo-charged mix of Total Recall and 'The Bourne Identity'. With despotic world ruling organisation The Committee and its robotic enforcers in ruins following the end of the previous novel, various characters are vying to grab power..
If you prefer your SF no narrower in scope but with a bit less mayhem, Tor's sister imprint Pan has also brought out a new edition of Peter F Hamilton's 2002 novel Misspent Youth to coincide with publication in paperback of last year's Great North Road. The covers of both proclaim Hamilton as 'Britain's number one science fiction writer', and certainly deliver as far as scope and imagination are concerned.
The message of Misspent Youth is that you should be careful what you wish for. At the age of 78, Misspent Youth's inventor and philanthropist Jeff Baker is given the opportunity to become the first subject of a rejuvenation process that leaves him the body of a 20 year old. As he soon discovers though, gifts like that carry a huge price.
A Newcastle detective attending the scene of a brutal murder doesn't sound like the start of a science-fiction story, but Great North Road is set in the year 2142, and the events mirror those that happened 20 years earlier on the planet of St Libra, a tropical hideaway for billionaires. It's also the source of bio-fuel that's the lifeblood of Earth's economy in the 22nd century, so a vast expedition is mounted which soon finds itself cut off in the mysterious planet's rainforests.
Monsters and robots
18 April 2013 by Dominic Lenton
First up is The Science of Monsters by Matt Kaplan (Constable, £12.99, ISBN 978-1472101150), a study of the creatures that have terrified us over the course of thousands of years.
This isn't an attempt to work out whether or not dragons, werewolves and vampires actually exist. Kaplan takes it as read that they're all the result of mythmaking and Chinese whispers that have turned an encounter with the inexplicable into something that our imaginations so often try and convince us might just possibly be true.
Sea monsters and giant beasts are easily accounted for in terms of exaggerated tales. Kaplan looks also at why those tales persist, and what's behind less obvious monsters like the snake-headed Medusa.
The Man in the Rubber Mask by Robert Llewellyn (Unbound, £8.99, ISBN 978-1908717788) is interesting in that it's an update of a 1993 biography, written at the height of Llewellyn's fame as the robot Kryten in Red Dwarf, now reissued with '43.17 per cent more smeg'. That new content - equivalent to a second volume, takes the story up to date and covers the actor's subsequent success as a populariser of TV engineering through programmes like Scrapheap Challenge, and evangelist for electric vehicles.
It's all fascinating stuff, even if some of the accounts of behind the scenes high jinks might be a bit much for all but the most ardent of Red Dwarf fans. And it's all been made possible by the internet: the update was crowdfunded through publisher Unbound, which allows authors to pitch books to the public, who then get to read them if there's enough support.
Edited: 19 April 2013 at 04:44 PM by Dominic Lenton
27 March 2013 by Dominic Lenton
Publishers and booksellers are understandably concerned that the ability to get a book on loan through a public library website which is to all intents and purposes the same as a brand new copy, and just as easily as buying it online, will hit sales. Some would like the public to only be able to take out an e-book when they're on library premises and not remotely, which largely defeats the object.
One compromise that's been suggested is for libraries to include links that encourage users to buy a book they've enjoyed or which is currently unavailable because someone else has the one virtual copy logged out to their account. The book trade's sceptical - how many books have you gone out and bought straight after finishing them and returning them to your local library, let alone if you'd only be investing in an electronic copy?
But what about the events of the 1960 Hancock's Half Hour episode The Missing Page ? Having finally got hold of the murder mystery 'Lady Don't Fall Backwards' from his local library, Tony Hancock finds that the last page has been torn out and spends a stressful but hilarious thirty minutes trying to find out the ending.
So why not warn library users (do they call us customers yet?) that e-books are free to borrow but missing their final few pages. My experience is that there's only a small proportion of paper books I've borrowed where I would absolutely have to read to the bitter end, but for the few I did, I'd be happy to pay a small charge. Consider it a gamble on how good the writing is - we could even have charts of the ones with the most gripping climaxes.
Some genres would lend themselves more to this approach. Then again, if you just want to find out who committed the murder, in which room and with which weapon, a few seconds in the company of Wikipedia ignoring spoiler warnings would be enough to satisfy your curiosity.
How hard is it technically to produce the electronic equivalent of the thing that so frustrated Hancock?
Edited: 19 April 2013 at 04:43 PM by Dominic Lenton
How the Harwell Dekatron got a second lease of life
25 March 2013 by Dominic Lenton
There was, of course a hiatus of nearly 40 years between that accolade and its first brush with fame when it was recognised by Guinness World Records as the oldest operative computer, just prior to its decommissioning in 1973. Now the fascinating story of this landmark machine is told in a book published by the National Museum of Computing, where it now resides, and written by two of the people responsible for its second lease of life.
In The Harwell Dekatron Computer (£6.99, ISBN 978-0956795625), Kevin Murrell and Delwyn Holroyd draw on the memories of many of those involved with the machine across the years, from the original designers through users to today's conservation team.
At the time it operated at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Harwell, Oxfordshire between 1951 and 1957, the relay-based machine was one of perhaps a dozen computers in the world. Weighing two and a half tones and as big as the wall of a living room, it was assembled from components more commonly found in a British telephone exchange and designed to perform the work carried out human 'computors' using hand calculators.
When the computer came to the end of its life at Harwell, the Oxford Mathematical Institute ran a competition to award it to the college that could produce the best case for its future use. This was won by the Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Technical College, later to become Wolverhampton University, where the machine was. Renamed as the WITCH (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell) and used to teach computing until 1973.
At that point it was retired for a second time to a Birmingham museum, dismantled and left largely forgotten in safe storage until it was rediscovered by chance in 2008 by TNMOC trustee Kevin Murrell.
Following a full refurbishment, the computer was rebooted on 20 November 2012, generating a huge amount of media interest and over a million views for a YouTube video of the event. It's now a star attraction at the museum, but if you can't visit to see it in action, Murrell and Holroyd's book, well illustrated and with plenty of technical detail as well as history, is a fascinating account of a computing milestone.
What's your big idea?
21 March 2013 by Dominic Lenton
Now Patrick, who's responsible for the Invention Of The Day blog, has decided to share some of his experience of trying to break into the UK and US technology markets in an e-book, Your Next Brilliant Product Idea.
According to Patrick, the advice in the book's three sections - Engines of Invention, Monetising Your Mentation and Roundup & Followup - is applicable anywhere in the world. "As an inventor, I'm keen to support companies and individuals in upgrading the quality and quantity of their ideas," he says. "I'm not going to attempt to give anyone guidance about how to market their particular protoproduct. I will however be offering tips about how anyone can plan to do that, given the available options."
Having kept up Invention of the Day for six years, Patrick says he thought is was time to see if he could extract and pass around some additional benefits from the process. "The reasons for doing this are to help other people accelerate their own creativity, to devise more 'insanely great' products and to make some money," he says.
Although he'll be delighted if he also happens to help reform the patent process, given his belief that it's inaccessible to every inventor who doesn't have large-scale financial backing, he says "I'm not holding my breath," about the possibility of that particular obstacle to innovation.
At £2.95, it's great value advice for any aspiring inventor.
Haynes' slice of Pi
20 March 2013 by Dominic Lenton
To the rescue come Haynes with a Raspberry Pi Owners Workshop Manual (£17.99, ISBN 978-0857332950) written by Broadcom engineer Dr Gray Girling, who's been involved closely with the device's development.
Since being involved in testing one of the very first BBC Micros for Acorn Computers in the early 1980s Girling's worked for Acorn and a host of other computer and technology companies, writing and designing his own embedded operating system and computer languages.
A lot of the basic information can be found easily enough online, but there's something particularly useful about having it presented in a single volume in the distinctive Haynes style. Aimed at those switching on their Pi for the first time, it guides the user through the full process of set-up and configuration before looking at various aspects of computing and programming and how they can be implemented.
Haynes says the intended audience is the 'capable but uninformed reader'. That should include engineers who aren't computing specialists but would like a straightforward introduction to the subject with the potential to take things much further.
With the Raspberry Pi providing such a welcome reminder of the DIY ethos of the early days of home computing, this is an ideal subject for a Haynes Manual. Just as the enthusiastic amateur mechanic who wants to know what goes on under the bonnet of their car will usually have one of these books to hand, the keen programmer - young or old - will appreciate its straight to the point advice.
The story behind CERN research
28 February 2013 by Dominic Lenton
Higgs Force: Cosmic Symmetry Shattered (£12.99, Quantum Wave Publishing, ISBN 978-0957274617) is a very readable account of how scientists are gradually revealing the hidden structure of the natural world by Nicholas Mee. In a revised second edition, Mee, who received a PhD in theoretical particle physics from the University of Cambridge and is currently director of software company Virtual Image, explains the fundamental components of matter and the forces that bind them together.
Described as "a tale that is woven around the symmetry at the heart of the universe and the mystery of how this symmetry is broken," it's a more accessible introduction than many similar efforts that takes the reader from the ideas of Greek philosophers thousands of years ago right up to current work at CERN.
If you find yourself wilting under the onslaught of "too much information", you might need a new survival manual that's been put together by an international group of experts from academia and industry. Information Overload: An International Challenge for Professional Engineers and Technical Communicators by Judith B Strother, Jan M. Ulijn and Zohra Fazal (Wiley, £33.50, ISBN-13: 978-1118230138) is the latest title in the IEEE PCS Professional Engineering Communication Series, designed to take a unique approach that combines theory with practical solutions.
With the emphasis on the role of engineers and technical communicators, 'Information Overload' starts with root causes and costs of this modern phenomenon before introducing proven techniques for tackling it and offering 'insight boxes' that recount different approaches to problems from various multinational corporations including IBM and Xerox.
The new, third edition of The History of Mathematics: A Brief Course by Roger L Cooke (£83.50, Wiley, ISBN 978-1118217566) is aimed at undergraduate students, but will be of interest to anyone keen on finding out how maths has evolved over the centuries. Examining the elementary arithmetic, geometry, and algebra of a number of cultures to show how abstract mathematics of the modern world arises from fundamental societal needs, this is just as much an analysis of social history as it is of how the way we handle numbers and concepts has evolved.
Finally, from Wiley comes the latest title in a series of books looking at the line of engineering research and practice which goes under the title of 'true sustainability'. Sustainable Resource Development (Wiley, £130.00, ISBN 978-1118290392), is a companion volume to another book by author Gary M Zatzman, 'Sustainable Energy Pricing'. In the new work, Zatzman applies his principles of 'true' economic sustainability to re - examine actual engineering practices in fossil fuel and as well as renewables such as wind and tidal power exploration and development.
150 years of Underground art
22 February 2013 by Dominic Lenton
(The Lure of the Underground by Alfred Leete, 1927)
In the year that London's underground railway celebrates its 150th anniversary, the London Transport Museum is presenting a special exhibition showcasing 150 of the best posters commissioned for the network over the years.
The Tube has been described as the world's biggest art gallery, an accolade that owes much to the foundations laid by Frank Pick, who was appointed publicity officer for the Underground Group in 1906 and rose through the organisation to become managing director of the London Transport Passenger Board in 1933. Pick developed consistent branding and commissioned brightly coloured posters to generate traffic and give people confidence in using what was for many an unfamiliar and possibly daunting mode of transport.
This was of course the age of black-and-white films, when colour plates in books were an expensive rarity and electricity in private homes was still far from universal. Then and later, these bright images in stations showed everyday travellers that new experiences were within their reach.
(123-Quickly away, thanks to pneumatic doors, by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, 1937)
Poster Art 150 is sponsored by Siemens and features works in a variety of styles, many commissioned from eminent graphic artists. They are grouped in themes that include Finding Your Way, Capital Culture and Away From It All.
Engineering is celebrated in Keeping London Going, reinforcing the message that the Underground is fast, powerful, reliable and safe. Edward McKnight Kauffer's bold image of the (now closed) Lots Road power station - "nerve centre of London's Underground" - appears close by a 1937 poster explaining the benefits of pneumatic doors on trains. Posters have also been used to manage passenger expectations when maintenance and upgrade works are likely to disrupt their journeys, with examples ranging from the post-war 'Rehabilitation - it takes time' to 2007's 'We are transforming your Tube'.
(We are transforming your Tube, Studio Oscar, 2007)
The London Transport Museum is in Covent Garden, just a few minutes' walk from the IET building in Savoy Place. Poster Art 150 runs until 27 October 2013 and admission is included in the entrance fee of £15 (£11.50 concessions, children free) for an annual pass. For opening times and other information visit www.ltmuseum.co.uk
If you can't get to the exhibition, a catalogue showing all 150 posters with accompanying information is available to purchase online for £25 from the museum shop.
21 February 2013 by Dominic Lenton
A leading figure in this work is Ray Kurzweil, whose latest book How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed (Duckworth, £20, ISBN 978-0715645376) is out now. We asked Kathleen Richardson to read it.
Technology needs its visionaries to imagine the future, to reason about its possibilities and to help to shape its direction. One of the most, if not the most important figure in epitomising this is Ray Kurzweil.
Described as "the restless genius" by The Wall Street Journal, and "the ultimate thinking machine" by Forbes Kurzweil's unbridled optimism in super intelligent computing is unrelenting. His passionately written arguments for human-machine merging into the Singularity, and a (near) future where uploading consciousness into machines is a certainty, not just a speculative proposition.
His new book titled How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, centrally focuses on an argument of the pattern recognition theory of mind (PRTM). The PRTM 'describes the basic algorithm of the neocortext (the region of the brain responsible for perception, memory, and critical thinking).'
What is the PRTM? Imagine the neocortex as a complex information processor, taking in information, sorting it into modules and then organising these modules into information hierarchies. Kurzweil emphasis on PRTM is combined with a theme he has outlined in his previous texts, such as The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999) and The Singularity Is Near (2005), technological advances will rapidly excel due to 'an evolutionary process [that] inherently accelerates (as a results of increasing levels of abstraction) and that its products grow exponentially in complexity and capability.'
He calls this 'The law of accelerating returns' (LOAR). Now what happens when the PRTM and LOAR coincide? Kurzweil argues modelling neocortex inspired algorithms combined with LOAR will result in supreme advances in computer and artificial intelligence.
The 'Biologically Inspired Digital Neocortex' chapter perhaps best expresses his key theme. He reasons that if the biological neocortex has 300 million pattern recognizers, then if this is augmented by a 'synthetic' version with no physical limits that are expressed in the physical limits of the biological brain, then it will be possible to use 'billions or trillions of pattern recognizers'.
The chapters on pattern recognition are the most intriguing in the book, often though the models are hypothetical, but nonetheless, Kurzweil's imaginative use of exploring PRTM and applying it to computers is intriguing and well worth a read.
Nor any drop to drink
19 February 2013 by Dominic Lenton
There's one entry on the list that will be the subject of an international summit to be hosted by the IET in London next month, however, that should have been sorted out a long time ago. In fact it's shocking that what should be the straightforward business of providing everyone in the world with access to clean water should still be considered a challenge still in need of a solution.
As Tony James reports in War on Water Shortage, which is part of a preview of the summit in the March 2013 issue of E&T, in a world where lack of clean water is responsible for more deaths than war, affordable, advanced technologies could make a difference for millions of people.
If you're interested in the background to the problem, why it's proving so hard to resolve, and how your actions might be having more of an impact than you think, James Salzman's Drinking Water (Overlook Press, £17.00, ISBN 978-1590207208) gives an excellent overview of the overlooked an often surprising history of drinking water.
Salzman is a professor of law and environmental studies at Duke University, so is as concerned with questions of social justice as the technical solutions, but follows the story through from Biblical conflicts to an age when consumers will pay over the odds for what is effectively tap water in a plastic bottle.
In fact, as one critic has noted, getting your water straight from the mains if you can and spending what you've saved on a copy of this book will make you think differently every time you run a tap in future. (As well as appreciating the ingenuity of the people who've made that so simple that you take it for granted.)
February radio roundup
15 February 2013 by Dominic Lenton
First up is The Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking the Case with Science & Forensics (Oxford University Press, £18.99), in which chemistry professor and Holmesian James O'Brien makes the case for the fact that science plays a part, however small, in all of the great detective's cases.
Even if it's stretching the argument a little to include codebreaking and animal behaviour, it doesn't spoil what's an enjoyable new take on a character who's enjoying a new lease of life thanks to recent TV and movie adaptations. Arthur Conan Doyle was of course a medic with a solid grounding in science, and his interest in emerging forensic techniques like fingerprinting meant that they often appeared in his fiction before being widely adopted by the police.
The packaging does undersell what's an accessible and timely book. The same text wrapped up with a few glossy photos of Benedict Cumberbatch poring over his test tubes rather than the original Strand Magazine illustration by Sidney Paget would attract a wider audience who probably wouldn't go away disappointed.
Coincidentally, Christopher Brookmyre, whose latest novel Bedlam (Orbit, £17.99) is out this month, is a previous winner of two Sherlock Holmes Awards, although describing him as a crime writer shoehorns him into genre that doesn't really capture the essence of his style. For this one he's taken on science fiction, with protagonist Ross Baker playing the part of the ordinary guy plunged into an unfamiliar and deadly world.
Baker's an overworked and underpaid young scientist working on new medical scanning technology who would rather by playing computer games, but finds that when he emerges from a test session apparently inside a real life game it's not the dream come true he might have expected. The story's packed with humour, a lot of it black but just as much gentle and laugh out loud. Surely Brookmyre's the first writer to have a character ascending a platform elevator in an alien battleground feeling like he's at the start of an episode of 1960s childrens' TV show Camberwick Green.
While Brain Cox's latest TV extravaganza Wonders of Life is great to kick back to and doesn't need any promotion for its own tie in book, The Universe Within: A Scientific Adventure by the less well known US palaeontologist Neil Shubin (Allen Lane, £20) is perfect for anyone who wants to dig deeper into the big ideas of how the extreme scales of the universe itself and the essence of life are related. "The one place where solar system and planet merge is inside your own body," Shubin claims. If you doubt that, think about how orbital fluctuations have led to Ice Ages that in turn have influenced evolution across the planet.
Edited: 15 February 2013 at 04:53 PM by Dominic Lenton
1 February 2013 by Dominic Lenton
Significant advances in the near future may, as many believe, lie in the development of the internal combustion engine, but interest in electric vehicles is unlikely to go away. So it's timely that Wiley have released a fully updated second edition of Electric Vehicle Technology Explained by James Larminie and John Lowry.
The complete guide to the principles, design and applications of EV technology includes all the latest advances, and as well as cars looks at motor scooters, buses and trains. New chapters cover pickup and linear motors, overall efficiencies and energy consumption, while those on battery technology and other rechargeable devices, fuel cells, hydrogen supply and ancillary system designh have been updated.
This isn't a book that questions the environmental benefits of EVs, and Larminie and Lowry have included new practical examples and case studies illustrating how they can be used to substantially reduce carbon emissions and cut down reliance on fossil fuels. They also examine in detail efficiencies, energy consumption and sustainable power generation.
Although it's aimed mainly at practising electrical, automotive, power, control and instrumentation engineers working in EV research and development, the book's comprehensive explanation of underpinning science and technology mean it may well appeal to the non-specialist engineer who's thinking of going electric and wants more technical detail than can be found in manufacturers' brochures.
Read all about it...
Buy Electric Vehicle Technology Explained (Second Edition) by James Larminie and John Lowry (£75, Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 978-1119942733) at Amazon.
How succeed by valuing science over reward
28 January 2013 by Dominic Lenton
Sir Peter Mansfield is a self-effacing man. While most authors are prepared to gush about their successes, Mansfield is reticent. For evidence, look no further than the inside back-flap of the dust wrapper of his new book. The only words you will find, beneath a typical author headshot, are the minimalist 'Sir Peter Mansfield, 2003.' It's tempting to add the citation for Mansfield's Millennium Medal that honours his 'profound impact on improving human health.'
His book - The Long Road to Stockholm' - has two subtitles. First is 'The Story of MRI', while second is 'An Autobiography.' You don't have to read far into his story to realise that magnetic resonance imaging and the man so closely involved with its development are intimately intertwined. His life and work would eventually take him to Sweden to receive the Nobel for his discoveries in the field of MRI, an award he shared with Paul Lauterbur.
Mansfield's autobiography supplies rich and meticulous detail about the Nobel process, from the first telephone call ('pull the other leg, it's got bells on it'), to the post-award dinner, when he sat between two members of the Swedish royal family. He doesn't tell us much about his reaction to the honour, other than to mention in passing a 'dazed state of euphoria' on first hearing of it. His modesty is of a bygone-age, but there are times when you feel there is so much more we could learn from the man behind the physicist.
Baroness Kennedy calls Mansfield's story 'incredible and inspirational.' She's right. Mansfield, the son of a gas fitter, left school at the age of 15 with a disrupted education caused by repeated evacuations during the Second World War. But his brilliance in the field of NMR spectrometry would lead him via a circuitous route to his PhD: the first step on the road that was to take in the influence of Charles Schlichter of the University of Illinois and the eventual production of images of the human body using MRI.
A recurrent theme in Mansfield's book is his stock response to requests from reporters to comment his work, the petty jealousies and rivalries that occasionally rear their head and embarrass him, and of course the sequence of events that led to the Nobel Prize. He declines with metronomic regularity, and on one occasion in 1993, even went as far as to think talking with an American reporter would damage the case for MRI's association with the Nobel system.
This quiet, self-effacing and sometimes defensive attitude is reassuringly old-fashioned and central to the psyche of a man dedicated to the advancement of science rather than reward. We should be glad that the now elderly Mansfield has slightly relinquished his grip on expressing personal views in the form of 'The Long Road to Stockholm', because it is in so many ways a remarkable book.
Read all about it...
Buy The Long Road to Stockholm: the Story of MRI by Peter Mansfield (Oxford University Press, £25, ISBN 978-0-19-966454-2) at Amazon
What price great science-fiction?
25 January 2013 by Dominic Lenton
I think the site's missed a trick with its list of 50 essential science fiction books though. The clever part, even if it's not technically earth-shattering, is that if one of them sounds intriguing you can follow a link to dealers with copies to sale.
Thing is, from Asimov to Wyndham most are reasonably well known stories that I don't think any fans of the genre are going to buy on impulse if they don't have them already. So why are search results set to return the cheapest copies available?
If I'm going to pick up a copy of Kurt Vonnegut's 'The Sirens of Titan' (which I've neglected to read before now) I might find it useful to know there are a bunch of dealers around the US who can sell me a 1970s paperback edition for around ten dollars including shipping. Or I could order it into my local library for nothing, or have a look on eBay, Amazon or wherever.
What I really want to know though is that a really nice 1961 first edition goes for around $4500, almost twice that if signed by Vonnegut himself. Only a single click to rearrange the results, but it seems such an obvious thing that anyone interested enough in classic sci fi to read the article would want, you wonder why it's not the default.
Pulps up to date
23 January 2013 by Dominic Lenton
If the opening paragraph of Jack Clemons's 1989 short story 'Tool Dresser's Law' is the sort of thing that floats your literary boat, you might be pleased to learn that Amazing Stories, the world's first science-fiction magazine, has returned in the latest incarnation of its turbulent history.
Amazing Stories wasn't the first magazine the feature sci-fi, but when it launched in April 1926 was the first title devoted solely to the genre. Fiction alone doesn't cut it these days of course, so the new website includes discussions and posts from more than 50 bloggers alongside original and archive prose.
Issues 1 and 2 are already available, or for a more retro experience lacking only the distinctive smell of a pulp magazine you can find the first issue of the original magazine from April 1926 in various formats at archive.org.
Take your pick
21 January 2013 by Dominic Lenton
You can listen to the roundup I did of a few of Christmas gift books on Rhys Philips's Pythagoras' Trousers radio show. Here are a few more that came my way at the tail end of 2012 but are worth considering.
The Royal Engineers at Chatham 1750-2012 by Peter Kendall (£50, English Heritage, ISBN 978-1848020986) was reviewed here earlier this month and as well as being a great choice for anyone who's been linked with the military in the Medway Towns is a great exercise in local history even if you don't have any military connections.
Another coffee table tome from English Heritage that will appeal to readers interested in the impact of motoring on society and the landscape is Carscapes: The Motor Car, Architecture, and Landscape in England by Kathryn A. Morrison and John Minnis (£40, Yale University Press ISBN 978-0300187045).
In a sumptuous book packed with period photography and even a few schematic diagrams of car parks, Morrison and Minnis describe the transformation that has affected England's architecture, infrastructure and natural environment since the motor car first came to England in the 1890s of the country. You don't have to be a Top Gear fan to appreciate this detailed look at the structures designed specifically to accommodate cars, from garages and petrol stations to car parks, factories and showrooms. Carscapes reveals the many overlooked ways in which automobiles have shaped the modern English landscape.
It's a long held belief in publishing that every equation to be found within a book's pages cuts its potential audience by a significant proportion. In The Universe in Zero Words: The Story of Mathematics as Told through Equations (£19.95, Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0691152820), Dana Mackenzie starts from the opposite premise and celebrates them by relating the history of 24 great and (in his opinion) beautiful equations that have shaped mathematics, science, and society. Examples range from the elementary (1+1=2) to the sophisticated (the Black-Scholes formula for financial derivatives), and from the famous (E=mc2) to the arcane (Hamilton's quaternion equations). For each, Mackenzie explains what it means, who discovered it (and how), and how it has affected our lives.
The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London by Judith Flanders (£25.00, Atlantic Books ISBN 978-1848877955) is all about people, and how the unprecedented technological transformation that shook the world in the 19th century affected life on the streets of London. For much of this period Dickens was famously walking the streets of the city observing its pleasures, curiosities and cruelties. Flanders tells how the revolutions in the transport system, sewers and buildings were reflected in the writing of the period's best-loved novelist.
Finally, a book that is surprisingly free of technology is The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios by Eric Rasmussen (£16.99, Palgrave Macmillan ISBN 978-0230109414). Of the 160 First Folios listed in a census of 1902, 14 were subsequently stolen-and only two of these were ever recovered. In his efforts to catalogue all these precious First Folios, renowned Shakespeare scholar Eric Rasmussen embarked on a riveting journey around the globe, involving run-ins with criminal street gangs in Tokyo, bizarre visits with eccentric, reclusive billionaires, and intense battles of wills with secretive librarians. You might expect that in the 21st century, the business of authenticating rare books would rely on complex technology, but in fact it's largely down to hard work and an encyclopaedic knowledge of your subject.
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