Books

Railways, rambles and the science of Stonehenge all feature in our review of new titles.

Britain from the rails - a window gazer's guide

By Benedict Le Vay, Bradt, £17.99

For a nation of train buffs, Britain has not been spoiled by quality railway traveller's guides. The latest noteworthy attempt goes to back to 1924 - 'Through the window: The Great Western Railway from Paddington to Penzance', published by Peninsula Press. With pearls like: "The people on the platforms [of Paddington Station], the scraps of conversation, the destination boards on the trains, the labels on the luggage - all have a strong West Country flavour…" it does sound out-of-date, starting with the "flavour" that is now more Middle Eastern and Mediterranean than "West Country".

The gap in this rather esoteric market has just been filled with 'Britain from the rails. a window gazer's guide' by Benedict le Vay. The richly illustrated volume is released by Bradt, publishers of quirky and informative guide-books, including 'Eccentric Britain', also penned by Benedict le Vay.

'The Guide' is a pleasure to read - whether you are actually on the move, with your nose pressed against the glass, or an armchair traveller (and therefore stationary). To paraphrase the famous adage, Benedict le Vay leaves no sleeper unturned: Britain's whole railway network, including the Far North Line from Inverness to Thurso and the Skye Railway, "the most beautiful line in Europe", are described with equal knowledge, passion and wit.

Among other sights a modern passenger is likely to see from the train window, the book, dedicated "to the great railway and women of Britain", lists hundreds of engineering installations and contains numerous fascinating facts from the world of engineering and technology. For example, I didn't know that the Great Western Railway is known among professionals as 'Brunel's billiard table', "because it is so flat - there are no tunnels...". Brunel also "famously and quixotically chose a broad track gauge of 7ft ¼, which was later abandoned".

You've got the flavour - now go and get the book. You won't regret it. Happy journeys!

Reviewed by Vitali Vitaliev, features editor, E&T

E&T readers can get a 25 per cent discount on this book by quoting E&T25 when ordering from www.bradtguides.com [new window].

Eleven minutes late: A train journey to the soul of Britain.

By Matthew Engel, MacMillan, £14.99

In writing this book, Matthew Engel travelled the length and breadth of Britain, attempting "to explore the disasters and delights" of the nation's railways. Remarkably, over 77 journeys, not one train was late - at least according to the official definition of punctuality - though Engel tells us that the title refers to a catchphrase of TV character Reginald Perrin.

It's an idiosyncratic book, starting out as a travel guide, then switching to history, and moving on to become a critique of the (mostly unhelpful) role of politicians and government officials. Dedicated railway enthusiasts - Britain is the natural home of the breed - will not find much that they haven't read elsewhere, but stick with it. Engel is a newspaper journalist by profession, and his coverage of rail privatisation is well worth the read - if only as an example of how not to restructure an entire industry.

Particularly fascinating are his interviews with John Major, the Prime Minister who oversaw the process, and John Prescott, whose multiple responsibilities in the following Labour government included transport.

Love of the railways is a peculiarly British affliction, Engel comments, but wholly unrequited - the people who run the trains do not love us. And if the politicians are largely to blame for "two centuries of ongoing fiasco," it's our fault for letting them get away with it.

Reviewed by Lorna Sharpe, news and transport editor, E&T

A mathematical nature walk

By John A Adam, Princeton, £16.95

Much as golf ruins a good walk, as Mark Twain claimed, a good book is capable of doing the opposite by brightening up even the dreariest stroll.

Mathematics professor John Adam has come up with a novel combination. This book will provide anyone with a solid grounding in mathematics with enough conversation starters to keep fellow walkers' brains working as hard as their legs.

The idea is to familiarise yourself with a few of the more intriguing questions, and mention them at appropriate moments. Whatever the age of your fellow walkers, there's something for them. The mathematics in some of the examples gets fairly complicated, but it's the most straightforward ones that will get the whole family involved. Never mind whether or not the Loch Ness monster exists; how long would it take to empty out all the water by hand to find out? And if you see something stirring in the undergrowth, it's a chance to explain the relationship between size and strength that proves King Kong could never really exist.

Reviewed by Dominic Lenton, managing editor, E&T

Mysteries and discoveries of archaeo-astronomy

By Giulio Magli, Copernicus/Praxis, £24.99

If, like me, you misspent a portion of your youth reading Eric von Daniken's 'Chariots of the Gods' (and sequels), your preconceived notion of a book on archaeoastronomy might involve little green men inscribing runway markers on the Plains of Nazca. But that's not the story here.

Archaeoastronomy is, according to one definition, the study of how past civilisations understood and used astronomical phenomena. Giulio Magli, a professor at the Politecnico of Milan and devisor of the only 'official course on archaeoastronomy' in Italy, calls it the "science of the stars and the stones". And he does mean science. Although he admits the subject is "still rough around the edges", he is at pains to depict it as "a science capable of developing models and testing its predictions in the field …[just as] all the other sciences do".

The author's recognition of the need to convince his readers is refreshing: "I will do so in an unusual way," he says, "by relying only on the facts." If he finds previous conclusions a bit suspect, he is not afraid to say so.

It is always useful to ground an unfamiliar subject by analogy with something more familiar, which the author does by reference to the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. In 1420, Filippo Brunelleschi won the design competition, not with a traditional hemisphere, but with a pointed arch on an octagonal base. Unfortunately, according to Magli, not a "single written word about his insights or his methods" remains, and as the cupola cannot be dismantled or reverse engineered, scholars have "had quite a time trying to reconstruct the techniques".

Effectively, the book takes the reader on a 'virtual tour' of the world's standing stones, megalithic temples and walled cities. If you've had a passing interest in such historic sites you will recognise much of the content. The nice thing, though, is to have it all in the one book, written in an authoritative but accessible way. Perhaps more importantly, the author's style is one of logical persuasion as opposed to reiterating dogma: he gives you the facts as he understands them, and adds a personal opinion or hypothesis.

Archaeoastronomy may never become what many regard as a science, but modern techniques such as high-resolution satellite imaging - including sand-penetrating radar - have been used to great effect. Distilled to its basics, however, the subject is about ancient civilisations constructing and aligning significant large objects for astronomical and religious purposes. Although the engineering of telescopes and cathedrals now represents two differing philosophies, astronomers are still doing much the same thing. They should acknowledge their forebears and understand a little of the culture that drove them to their engineering feats.

Reviewed by Mark Williamson, space technology consultant and writer

Paperback roundup

The latest volume in the IET's History of Technology series tells the story of one of the great pioneers of electrical science, an irascible genius whose ideas led to huge advances in communications and now form much of the bedrock of electrical engineering In 'Oliver Heaviside: maverick mastermind of electricity' (IET, £30), Basil Mahon recounts how a fiercely independent figure who cared little for convention defied his lack of formal education to create the mathematical tools that were to prove essential to the proper understanding and use of elecricity.

Proving that every cloud has a silver lining for someone, New York Times economics columnist Robert H Frank hit the market at just the right time with his 2008 bestseller 'The Economic Naturalist'.

The inevitable follow up, which again uses a series of real-life examples to illustrate how the apparent complexity of economics can be boiled down to a few basic principles is 'The return of the Economic Naturalist' (Virgin Books, £7.99).

Promising to explain "how economics helps make sense of your world", Frank shows the implications of actions as diverse as the birthday presents we choose and government policies.

As Bill Emmott, the former editor of the Economist and author of 'Rivals: How the power struggle between China, India and Japan will shape our next decade' (Penguin, £9.99), admits, a lot has happened since the hardback edition of his book appeared a year ago. All the more reason to get an update on how the new Asian giants are likely to dominate our future, and what it means during a period of global recession.

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