Books

We peer through the pages and investigate the The Telescope: A short history and the hedonistic Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The science of pleasure - something for everyone I'm sure you'll agree.

The Telescope: A Short History

By Richard Dunn
National Maritime Museum, £12.99

It's 400 years since Galileo Galilei peered expectantly through his handmade telescope at the mountains of the Moon and the four large satellites of Jupiter, and the International Astronomical Union and UNESCO have designated 2009 the International Year of Astronomy. What better time to publish a book on telescopes?

Richard Dunn is well aware of this happy coincidence - or conjunction, as astronomers would say - because he is curator of the history of navigation at the National Maritime Museum and occupies what he calls "a superb office" in the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. He is also sufficiently astute to realise that most of the population, while fascinated by astronomical discoveries in short media bursts, will not wade through a treatise on optics. His 'Short History' of the telescope is the pleasing result.

As you might expect, the book charts the development of the refracting (lens-based) telescope and the mirror-based reflector, with a nod to radio telescopes and space-based instruments such as the Hubble, but it is really the story of the individuals who developed them. We read, of course, about Galileo, Newton and the Herschels, but also about the lesser known instrument maker John Dollond, and George Airy, seventh Astronomer Royal and inventor of the transit circle (a telescope used to check and correct Greenwich Mean Time). The author also mentions Thomas Harriot, an Englishman who observed the Moon "a few months" before Galileo, but credits Galileo with having the better publicity machine and the ego to request a court position from the Grand Duke of Tuscany (in return for naming Jupiter's moons after his family). Galileo's strategy worked, which is why most of us recognise his name and not Harriot's.

It takes a great deal of skill, when you know a lot about a subject, to condense it into a 200-page book that is readable and entertaining while retaining the subject's integrity, but Dunn has succeeded. He even finds room for a timeline of telescope development, a glossary, a bibliography and an index.

The book is richly illustrated throughout with colour photographs of not only astronomical instruments, but also a wide range of artwork and other illustrations depicting telescopes - like the one from 1811 entitled 'Looking at the Comet till you get a Crick in the Neck' by Thomas Rowlandson. It shows an old man squinting through his telescope at the comet, while a younger man makes amorous advances to a woman (perhaps the older man's wife or daughter, suggests the text). Watch the skies, by all means, but know when to stop!

Reviewed by Mark Williamson, space technology consultant and writer.

Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure

By Paul Martin
Fourth Estate, £16.99

Could a perfect state of pleasure be engineered, and, if so, would people want it? Anticipating 'The Matrix', in 1971 Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick came up with a thought experiment where subjects could be hooked up to an 'experience machine' capable of replicating any experience. 'Would you plug in?' Nozick asked.

His own answer was a firm no - Nozick intended the scenario as an attack upon the simple-minded assumptions underlying hedonism. But behavioural biologist Paul Martin is not so sure everyone would take the same view in practice, having surveyed the many diverse ways that humans pursue pleasure.

At the time Nozick was writing, it seemed science was well on the way to perfecting an experience machine. In the 1950s, researchers James Olds and Peter Milner succeeded in stimulating rats' brains to produce intense pleasure. In the following decade apparent human reward centres were located, with electrodes applied to conscious patients' brains to produce stimulating sensations.

The problem came when this was applied to remedying severe depression. No long-term improvements were observed because, says neuroscientist Kent Burridge, the sensations reported did not resemble pleasure so much as desire, including sometimes unpleasantly strong urges to drink or masturbate. Burridge's research established that people possess separate neurochemical pathways governing desire and pleasure, the first linked to dopamine and the second to natural opium-like opioids such as endorphins.

An experience machine remains some way off until our geography of the brain improves - artificially stimulating an ongoing state of desire would be anything but desirable, just ask an alcoholic.

But, as Martin recounts in this cheerfully omnivorous work, there are no lack of ways of gaining pleasure - sex, drugs and chocolate make the title, but he also covers gambling and eating, looking at history to see how attitudes have changed.

He devotes a chapter to disapproval and prohibition of pleasures, and argues that while today's society is less suspicious of pleasure many relatively harmless pleasures remain shrouded in anxiety and guilt. The fear of addiction is one reason, to which the author also devotes a section. Popularly attributed to a lack of self-will, modern brain scans confirm addicts have out-of-control dopamine circuits, indicating desire has a capacity to outpace pleasure. This is exemplified in the drug nicotine which creates addiction without any strikingly pleasurable effects whatsoever.

This is popular science with the emphasis on popular - Martin doesn't so much write as chat to you, and the life and death of Elvis Presley and Errol Flynn among others serve as case studies on pleasure-seeking given to excess - but, like finishing off a bar of chocolate, chances are the reader will find themselves craving just one bit more.

Reviewed by Sean Blair, editor of the IET's Flipside magazine

Paperback roundup

Landmark breakthroughs in mathematics have an impact way beyond that on the public consciousness. In fact, most people would be pushed to name an equation other than Einstein's summary of the relationship between energy, mass and the speed of light featured on the cover of Robert P Crease's 'A Brief Guide to the Great Equations' (Robinson, £8.99).

Yet the repercussions of what can be the culmination of years of intellectual toil, usually carried out in isolation, can be huge. Richard Feynman predicted that in ten thousand years' time, Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics will be judged as the most significant event of the 19th century.

It's the human stories behind achievements like Maxwell's that make them so fascinating and Crease manages to convey the passion of the dedicated mathematician in ten chapters that cover the meaning of 1+1=2 all the way to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.

Few of those featured made a fortune out of their work. If you've got a great idea - perhaps inspired by TV business shows like 'Dragons' Den' - that you think can make some money then a small outlay on a new title from Which? books might be a good place to start.

In 'The Bright Idea Handbook' (£10.99), Michael Gardner, a partner at London law firm Wedlake Bell, covers the basics of how to protect your idea and pitch for financial backing. Gardner covers dispute avoidance and resolution, and his book features a number of case studies to highlight the potential pitfalls of launching on the market so you can avoid having to call in the lawyers.

Some would have you believe that if you've got a plan with genuine potential there's no better time to get started with a business than in the lean times we're experiencing right now. If that sounds appealing, but you need a clear and quick summary of the task ahead, then this might be a good place to start.

Business relationships are clearly defined by who owns how much of the enterprise. What about the emerging ways of working on the Internet such as wikis and free software projects, which go out of their way to ensure that everyone is equal?

In theory it's a self-regulating world where members of a community earn authority depending on the quality of what they contribute. As Mathieu O'Neil explains in 'Cyberchiefs: Autonomy and Authority in Online Tribes' (Pluto, £17.99) the real virtual world can be far from perfect.

Using examples such as Wikipedia and the Debian free software project, O'Neil shows exactly why those involved see themselves as the 'tribes' of his title, and analyses the costs and benefits of alternatives to the traditional hierarchical organisation.

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