On our bedside tables this week - an eclectic mix of everything from Space Tethers and Space Elevators to the history of the common or garden London Bus.

Space Tethers and Space Elevators

By Michel van Pelt
Springer/Praxis, £18.99

Those familiar with the science-fiction novels of the late Arthur C Clarke will surely think of him as the great champion of the 'space elevator.' In his 1979 novel 'The Fountains of Paradise', a mountain top in a fictionalised version of his beloved Sri Lanka is linked to a platform in geosynchronous Earth orbit by a thin cable, 36,000km long, made from "continuous pseudo-one-dimensional diamond crystals". Electrically driven pods climb this eerie monorail, reaching space with none of the wasteful sound and fury associated with today's rocket technologies.

Clarke kept his fingers crossed as he championed the wide-scale use of exotic carbon materials for super-strong yet ultra-light cables and tethers. In 2003 the University of Kentucky managed to create something close to what he'd imagined: a 5km cable woven from microscopic carbon nanotubes.

Michel Van Pelt, a design analyst for the European Space Agency, tracks the history of space tether research in a detailed but accessible text. We learn, for instance, that, as early as 1895, the prescient rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovksy described an artificial "beanstalk" reaching up to a "celestial castle" at a height of 36,0000 km, the realm of geosynchronous satellites.

In 1960 another Russian, Yuri Artsutanov, described how to extend a cable downwards from a geosynchronous platform. He also added that the drag of the tether's weight would have to be centrifugally counterbalanced by an equivalent length of cable stretching beyond the platform and into the depths of space.

From this point on, the mathematics of space elevators took on a certain maturity. By the mid-1960s, NASA was experimenting with some of these ideas in earnest, albeit on a tiny scale. Their aim was to create artificial gravity by spinning two spaceships, linked by a tether, around a common centre of gravity. Astronauts on the last two Gemini missions tied their capsules to docked Agena target vehicles. Then they clambered back inside the safety of their cabins while the Geminis undocked, unspooling the tethers as they went.

Real life proved to be messier than the mathematical models. Unpredictable forces twisted the tethers into strange loops, while the Gemini and Agena vehicles tugged and fought each other in a vexing dance. In a second attempt, a Gemini crew eventually delivered a rotation rate of one revolution every six minutes, satisfying the honour of all concerned.

Pelt describes a surprisingly wide range of satellite and Space Shuttle experiments since those early tests. Conductive tethers have even been deployed from simple sounding rockets to probe the charged environment of the ionosphere, while those agencies concerned by space debris are studying how to deorbit unwanted satellites by commanding them to unspool thin cables. Over a period of weeks, or even months, electromagnetic drag effects (the Lorentz force) cause their orbits to decay.

Clarke's 'Fountains of Paradise' are a long way off yet, but as Pelt enthusiastically demonstrates, strings aren't just for subatomic particle physicists. Rocketeers are playing with them too.

Reviewed by space and science writer Piers Bizony

The London Bus

By James Taylor
Shire Publications, £5.99

James Taylor's short but enthusiastic story of the London bus charts its development from the early days of the horse-drawn vehicle of the 1820s through a series mergers and innovations to the present day.

The first merger took place in 1829 when a Frenchman bought up several of the independent operators. A more important consolidation took place in 1908 when the three largest operators merged to form the London General Omnibus Company, which took advantage of scale and standardisation to make the first volume-production bus. It introduced the petrol engine and also adopted a red livery; the red London bus was born.

World War One put a halt to expansion when 1,000 buses were requisitioned by the army, and conscription led to the recruitment of women. There was progress and consolidation in the 1930s, when the London Passenger Transport Board, given monopoly powers over more than 60 companies, oversaw the introduction of pneumatic tyres (1928), enclosed top decks and staircases (1926), diesel engines (1934), and passengers sat in forward-facing seats instead of rows.

In World War Two, factories switched to making tanks and lorries instead of buses. Recovery was slow after the war, control passed to the nationalised London Transport Executive, the London Transport Board (1963), then to the Greater London Council (1970). But this was the golden era for London buses. The RT and the Routemaster, with air-operated brakes and gears, larger capacity diesel engine and open rear platform, received great acclaim. They symbolised London.

Widespread car ownership, however, brought change as passenger numbers and revenues plummeted. The network was privatised; new operators introduced their own buses. The conductor was dispensed with; one person operation was the norm from 1971. Working on buses was no longer attractive; staff had to be recruited from abroad, mainly the West Indies. Operators also had to consider the needs of the elderly, wheelchair users and mothers with buggies.

By the 1990s, there were signs of recovery. More single-deckers were on the streets and the bendy-bus appeared in 2003. Recently, morale has been lifted by the Mayor of London's campaign for an 'iconic' bus for the 21st century.

Reviewed by Lawrie Douglas - read his feature on the next generation of London buses on p20

The other side of the night

By Daniel Allen Butler
Casemate £19.99

The centenary of the Titanic disaster will see a number of books published that try and explain the dreadful events that occurred that night. In 'The Other Side of the Night', Daniel Allen Butler sets the scene by cataloguing some of the 1,000 ships and tens of thousands of lives lost in the Atlantic between 1800 and 1900 due to lack of communications.

The invention of wireless and the part that the Marconi Company played, culminating in the saving of some 1,650 lives in 1909 from the RMS Republic and the SS Florida (as described in 'Saved by Wireless' in the Vol 4 #7 issue of E&T), are chronicled. The book then looks in detail at the personalities of Captain Arthur Rostron of the Carpathia, Captain Stanley Lord of the Californian and explains why the Carpathia docked in New York with 705 survivors and yet the Californian docked in Boston without even a body although it was only 10 miles from the Titanic when it sank with 1,502 persons lost.

Although Butler doesn't deal with the technical aspects of wireless - which performed perfectly - he does look at the situation and the personalities of those involved as the disaster was one of personal weaknesses. All three captains were experienced, so why did one stop his ship because of ice, one continue and collide with it, while the third was able to rush at top speed to affect the rescue?

Why did the crew of the Californian observe many of the eight rockets sent up by the Titanic and not respond? Butler provides the answers.

Transcripts from the American and British inquires add to the drama, and there are 22 photographs including the ships and crew involved and some of the lifeboats. In one chapter, Butler details the career of many of the ships and personalities involved and even notes that the Olympic was taken out of service in 1934, after she rammed and sank the Nantucket Lightship, killing all seven crewmen aboard.

Reviewed by IET member John Bowen (G8DET)

Secret London: an unusual guide/unusual hotels UK and Ireland

By Rachel Howard and Bill Nash/Steve Dobson
Jonglez Publishing, £10.99/£13.99

We think we know it all - about London, about Europe, about any other place in the world where we happen to be living. The truth, however, is that as a rule our knowledge of our countries and cities/towns/villages is sketchy and superficial. And the reason for that is simple: we seldom bother to look around us properly.

It is like poetry, for which, to quote Boris Pasternak, we don't have to look high up in the mountains, for there is plenty of it scattered in the grass under our feet: we only have to go to the trouble of bending down and picking it up...

It takes a new, ambitious and somewhat eccentric international publisher, like Paris- and Venice-based Editions Jonglez, to galvanise interest in our all too familiar environment.

The richly illustrated 'Secret London: An Unusual Guide' is one of a dozen or so books in Jonglez's 'Local Guides by Local People' series published in English and French. It is a treasure trove of little-known venues and sites, including a number of engineering structures, of the English capital.

I was fascinated to discover that within a small area off the Strand - a stone's throw from the IET's London offices at Savoy Place - one can find the remains of a Roman bath; London's smallest police station (inside a lamp post in Trafalgar Square); Britain's first patent sewer ventilating lamp, invented by JE Webb, an eco-pioneer from Birmingham; and the Division of Engineering of King's College's Materials Library - an archive of 800 remarkable materials from silicon nitride ball bearings to a simple putty. No wonder the newly-published Guide is already a bestseller.

Another new series from Editions Jonglez is called 'Unusual Hotels'. The second illustrated book to follow last year's 'Unusual Hotels of the World' - 'Unusual Hotels UK & Ireland' has just been released in the UK. Almost each of the 60-odd quirky hotels featured constitutes (among other things) an interesting, and indeed unusual, engineering creation: from Le Corbiere Radio Tower, a Second World War observation post converted into a funky B&B, in St Helier, Jersey, to The Old Railway Station, a luxury accommodation inside a lovingly restored Orient Express Pullman carriage in Petworth, West Sussex.

And even if not everybody will fancy staying overnight in a railway carriage, 'Unusual Hotels' - as well as all other Jonglez publications - do satisfy a natural human craving for the unknown and the extraordinary, one of the essential qualities of any true engineer.

Reviewed by Vitali Vitaliev, E&T features editor

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