Book reviews

Our rundown of new technology books. 

The Correspondence of Michael Faraday Vol 5, 1855-60

Edited by Frank AJL James, the IET, 2008

There was a time when the publishing of archives, both public and private, was considered one of the great projects of civilised society. The creation of the Dictionary of National Biography, the Calendars of State Papers, and many similar 'library' publications was considered a vital step in making records that were only 'theoretically' available, genuinely accessible, readable and understandable. But today, such things are, sadly, rare. 

These projects require huge patience and an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject; publication is expensive, and the audience is considered by many publishers to be simply too elusive. Frank AJL James' brilliant editions of the Correspondence of Michael Faraday comprehensively prove such sceptics wrong.

The fifth volume in the series, covering November 1855 to October 1860 demonstrates admirably why such works should be published and just what a wealth of information can be gained from them. With over 70 per cent of the letters published here for the first time, James expertly guides us through the landscape of Victorian science, belief and society offering a unique insight into Faraday's world. Here are Faraday's private thoughts conveyed to the great names of the era - Alexander von Humbolt, James Clerk Maxwell, George Airy and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. 

We discover his experiments with the transmission of light through gold and his attempts to unify the forces of electro-magnetism and gravity. We also see his work for the great societies of the day, notably the Royal Institution, where he continued to give the Christmas lectures (on occasion, to Prince Albert and his sons) and his Friday evening discourses.

But the joy of this collection is that it covers so much more. As well as discussing his lecturing duties, here we have his letters concerning the minutiae of running these organisations - the blocked drains and the lack of good equipment which forced him to seek out wealthy amateur scientists to help in his researches. We also meet Faraday the Sandemanian, the fervent member of a strict non-conformist sect who, despite his distress at the death of the young daughter of an old friend, cannot bring himself to attend her funeral.

With the great man now in his sixties, this is also the era of Faraday the advisor - being asked to comment on everything from the location of the National Gallery collection and the gilding of the ceiling of the British Museum to the condition of the Elgin marbles and the alarming decay in the stonework of the new Houses of Parliament. Here we also have the extensive correspondence covering his lifelong interest in the provision of lighthouses around the British coast and as far afield as the Red Sea.

The real pleasure of this beautifully edited volume is that it offers a carefully collated and printed collection with clear, illuminating notes, which still give the feeling of leafing through the very letters themselves - entering the private world of a great mind and not simply understanding something of his work, but experiencing something of his life.

Reviewed by Justin Pollard, author, film-maker and historian

Why is Uranus Upside Down?

By Fred Watson, Summersdale Publishers Ltd, 2008

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but what about its title? This one - apparently chosen for its double entendre - originates from a question posed by a listener to the author's Australian radio shows. In fact, the entire book is based on such "real questions", as "Does the Earth wobble?", "Why do stars twinkle?" and "Could you dump nuclear waste into the sun?".

Its contents are grouped into 11 chapters with titles like "Stargazing", "Would-be spacefarers" and "Green cheese no longer", each of which has an introduction to establish the context for the questions that follow. The questions themselves are grouped under logical subheadings and are pretty much all one-liners. The book concludes with a 'further reading' section and, most impressively, a reasonable index. This means that topics, once read but only partially remembered, can be recalled without too much page-flipping.

So what can we learn about the universe from this book? Among the most fundamental questions is "Why is the Earth called 'Earth'?", which the author answers with reference to "the earth under your feet". He also takes the opportunity to mention that some people complain that this is "simply another word for dirt", adding that "for the most part, this is exactly how we treat it".

Another question asks "Is it true that there are more stars than there are grains of sand on all the Earth's beaches?", a suggestion attributed to Carl Sagan in his TV series "Cosmos". Here, Watson exhibits the skill of the true science populariser by not simply answering the question, but by providing the intellectual tools necessary to actually understand the answer (in this case "powers of ten" and techniques of estimation). He comes up with "roughly 1022"stars in the Universe and 1021 grains of sand, concluding that Sagan was right.

But what about the question in the title? Actually, Uranus is not upside down, but its spin axis is inclined eight degrees below its orbit plane, so it more or less rolls around its orbit. The book fails to illustrate its fascinating subject material with more than a few black and white illustrations, which is a pity considering the target audience.

Reviewed by Mark Williamson, space technology consultant

A Brief History of Computing

By Gerard O'Regan, Springer-Verlag, 2008

This shortish book gives a flavour of the key issues in the evolution of the computer - from 3000BC to modernity. Undergraduates studying computing will find technical chapters on the history of TCP/IP, logic, programming languages, software engineering and artificial intelligence.

There's plenty for the more casual reader, although an interest in mathematics would be a bonus. Good pictures and anecdotes on famous inventors lighten sometimes heavy technical content.

The book starts with the Babylonians in 2000 BC who recorded their mathematics on soft clay wedge shapes to form cuneiform numbers one and ten (only). The position of the wedge and combination made up the number.

The Greeks' contribution was massive and includes the Euclidean geometry theorem and the legendary Pythagoras; The Pythagoreans were a secret society who swore never to divulge the theory. Fortunately for us, someone broke the silence - although he was thrown into a lake and drowned.

Before touching base with the Romans, who developed our current clock system, the book moves on to the ground-breaking work of the 19th and 20th century inventors. Boolean logic, devised by Boole and developed by Shannon is considered fundamental to modern computing. But Babbage is considered the father of computing - inventing the Difference Engine in 1821, a mechanical calculator and in 1834 the Analytical Engine, the first computer, complete with memory and processor.

The book's middle section covers the birth of programming languages, software engineering and the influence of philosophers. Artificial intelligence, cybernetics and expert systems are explored thoroughly and this takes us up to modern times and the Internet revolution with origins in the 1940s, when an American Vanevar Bush devised an information management system called Memex.

A great book to dip into.

Reviewed by Cathy Firebrace, IET assistant librarian

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