Books

Our latest review of books out this Christmas. Including the latest from Mike Barfield - This Septic Isle.

This Septic Isle: A revised dictionary for modern Britain

By Mike Barfield (Ebury Press, out now, £9.99)

Mike Barfield's "irreverent reference book" is a powerful antidote to political correctness that has infiltrated all spheres of British life.

With the author's permission, we have reproduced several science and technology-related definitions as well as a couple of drawings from the book as a special Christmas treat for E&T readers:

Advance, technological - money for writing dull book about gadgets

Amalgamation - a gathering of dentists

Atheist - person who worships Richard Dawkins

Baby monitor - the modern child's introduction to surveillance society

Bling - noise made by Chinese telephone

Carbonation - process that renders liquids drinkable to the young

Carbon footprint - mark left on carpet by Santa

Claustrophobia - fear of Santa

Detachable - synonym for 'easily lost'

Diagnosis - a medicated guess

Electric chair - a not quite final resting place

Industry - the past tense of heritage

Metrication - process by which miles became kilometres and people over-40 nostalgia bores

Microscope - a credit agreement reading aid

Refrigerator - device for keeping salad vegetables chilled before throwing them away unused

Research - claim made by every actor caught in some criminal act

Scientist - any person in a white coat who isn't selling meat, ice creams or make-up

Surface tension - result of face lift

Yahoo - cry of delight at actually finding soothing relevant on the Internet

Zodiac - the first 12 signs of madness.

Readers are invited to come up with their own unusual definitions of habitual engineering and technology concepts.

The best and the funniest (judged by E&T and Mike Barfield) will be published. Please send you entries to Vitali Vitaliev, features editor of E&T (vvitaliev@theiet.org)

Bad Science

By Ben Goldacre (Fourth Estate, out now, £12.99)

The British trust journalists less than any other profession, even estate agents, say opinion polls, while doctors are respected the most. But evidence suggests the polls are wrong - why else did so many take the advice of journalists instead of medical professionals during the great measles, mumps and rubella vaccination scare?

National MMR vaccination rates slumped after surgeon Andrew Wakefield claimed they caused autism. The media portrayed Wakefield as a lone maverick taking on the medical establishment, seldom mentioning that consensus scientific opinion was ranged overwhelmingly against him. A dramatic spike in disease outbreak resulted, including the first English measles death for 14 years.

Junior doctor Ben Goldacre devotes a chapter to the MMR scare, a case study proving his book's thesis that bad journalism may also be bad for your health. 'Bad Science' is the book of his regular columns in the Guardian which crusade against the pseudoscience of 'alternative' medicine and supplement-selling nutritionists, overhyping results by drug companies and, enabling all of the above, the scientific illiteracy of the mass media.

Engineers should be interested in Goldacre's medicine-centred book because by implication it reveals much about public attitudes to science in general. One Science Museum media study shows that while engineering and invention were the most-written about scientific activities in the 1950s, in today's more self-involved age medicine dominates.

'Bad Science' collects some of the column's greatest hits - rigorous examination of homeopathy, bracelets to ward-off supposedly harmful EM fields and the outlandish claims of Channel 4 'food doctor' Gillian McKeith - but the bulk of the book is a detailed explanation of the scientific method as applied to medicine, taking in the placebo effect and other complicating factors. Goldacre's stated idea is to inoculate the reader to resist nonsense claims the next time they encounter them.

While Goldacre's quacks often employ what he calls 'sciencey' terminology to sound more authoritative, he stresses that science is anything but the monolithic authority they imply. It is, above all else, a process of questioning and testing to get closer to truth.

'Science isn't hard,' he writes. 'It just requires motivation.'

Reviewed by Sean Blair, editor of Flipside magazine

Tomorrow's World: Genius Gadgets and Gizmos

By David Stubbs (BBC Books, out now, £9.99)

It was the BBC's longest running technology programme, and for several generations of engineers probably the best known. Between 1965 and 2003, 'Tomorrow's World' gave viewers the first sight of products such as the compact disc, breathalyser, clockwork radio, digital watch, bullet proof vest, mobile phone, Walkman and bagless vacuum cleaner. Less successful were a snake-like snooker-playing robotic arm known as 'Hissing Sid', cybernaut sheep shearing devices, not to mention those flying cars that we're still waiting for.

David Stubbs celebrates both facets of one of Britain's most fondly remembered shows in a nostalgic book. It's an ideal present for any engineer who gets misty-eyed at the thought of ex-fighter pilot William Woollard slipping the latest prototype 'car of tomorrow' into gear.

Although the subtitle is 'Weird and Wonderful Contraptions from Yesterday's Future', there are plenty of examples of inventions that were to catch on alongside those that fell by the wayside. The Moog synthesiser first appeared in 1969 ("the days of the one man band are back", the voice-over reported), followed in the 1980s by the debut of a bagless vacuum cleaner designed by a then unknown James Dyson. In an example of a good idea succeeding against the odds, and an on-screen demonstration by Kieran Prendiville, Dyson defied resistance from an industry happy with bagged cleaners to license his design to Japan from where the new generation of cleaners took off all over the world.

With the benefit of hindsight, the most interesting section is James Burke's 'Diary of the Future'; a year by year exercise in technology crystal ball gazing reproduced from the 1970 'Tomorrow's World Annual'. (How many E&T readers have a copy of that tucked away in their loft?)

Looking ahead almost 30 years, Burke predicted that 2008 would see the Bank of England withdrawing cash and notes in favour of a credit card economy. Despite the economic misery of the past year, we're not quite there yet, but then Burke was just as premature with his forecast that legislation to abolish the use of fossil fuels for heating would have been in place since 1996.

Reviewed by Dominic Lenton, managing editor

The Time Traveller: A Scientist's Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality

By Ronald Mallett with Bruce Henderson (Corgi, out now, £7.99)

When the ten-year-old Ronald Mallett's father died suddenly in 1955, it started Ronald on a path of scientific discovery inspired by the pursuit of a personal aim which might sound crackpot were Mallet not one of the foremost theoretical physicists of his generation. The possibility of returning to warn his father about the fatal heart condition - and thereby save his life - drove Mallett's obsession with the feasibility of time travel.

'The Time Traveller' weaves autobiography with an engaging exposition of how Dr Mallett's studies led him first to a credible theory of time travel, and ultimately to the construction of a 'time machine'. In very general terms, Mallett's theory is based on applying the properties of the light beam in a ring laser to the general theory of relativity. A circulating ring of light, Mallett argues, has the ability to 'twist' space by producing strong gravitational fields. Einstein's general theory says that if space gets twisted, time gets twisted too.

Mallett calls these time twists 'closed time loops'. A machine designed to generate such loops could create portals through which the intrepid time explorer could pass through to future, or from the future back to the past.

The closing chapters relate how Mallett set about building his 'time machine', and faced the challenges of turning a theoretical possibility into a proof-of-concept device.

Mallett's Space-time Twisting by Light (STL) project, still ongoing, has its limitations. If it works, it will be able to travel back in time no further than the moment that the machine is first activated; so Mallett will not, after all, be able to scoot back to the past and save his father.

'The Time Traveller' is an eloquent and accessible introduction to many of the tenets of physics - from quantum mechanics to Einsteinian logic-field equations. It does much to convey how big science ideas can excite young minds.

Reviewed by James Hayes, IT editor

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