Books

A pair of guides aimed at anyone considering building or upgrading an electric vehicle are among our roundup of new science and technology titles.

Build your own electric motorcycle / Build your own hybrid electric vehicle

By Chris Vogel/Seth Leitman
McGraw Hill, both £17.99

An electric motorbike is one of the purest forms of electric vehicle. There is no need to consider all the ancillary power demands expected with a four-wheeled vehicle, such as heating, air-conditioning, power seats, windows, etc. Instead you can focus solely on the powertrain solution and optimise the energy management issue. As a result the electric motorbike can be around an incredible 90 per cent efficient, only wasting 10 per cent of the energy carried in the batteries.

Chris Vogel's book, one of two published by McGraw Hill that aim to provide DIY guides to the practical side of green transport, is an excellent step by step guide for anyone wanting to build their first electric bike, or even for those more experienced who want to improve their design.

The book is written as a case study of the author's experience of building a large electric cruiser and takes you from the basics of motorcycle geometry and frame design, through to understanding the four key areas: batteries, motors, controllers and chargers. The author gives an overview of how these major components work and explains the advantages and disadvantages of what equipment is currently available to enable the reader to make an informed decision about the choice of component parts.

The key to being able to effectively design an electric vehicle is calculating the size of motor and battery pack to achieve the parameters you have set yourself, such as acceleration, top speed and range. This book clearly sets out all the fundamental equations that will allow you to accurately size the motor and battery pack for your chosen purpose. These equations hold true whether you are simply building a small commuter bike or you have aspirations of building a high-spec racing version.

After reading this book you will be able to put together a spread-sheet that can be used as a tool for generating a 'first cut' design or to improve an existing design. The reader must bear in mind, however, that the equations do use imperial units and careful conversion to metric units may be necessary.

The book also gives the reader a range of suppliers for the major components throughout the text, information which is also summarised in a separate chapter at the end. Again bear in mind that these sources tend to be focused on American suppliers.

I was responsible for the design and build of one of the electric bikes that took part in the first ever Zero Emissions Grand Prix - the IET-backed Isle of Man TTXGP - and would certainly recommend this book to anyone who is looking at embarking on the adventure of designing and building an electric bike for themselves.

Turning to four-wheeled vehicles, although Seth Leitman's book is entitled 'Build Your Own Plug-in Electric Hybrid Vehicle' it should really be called 'How to Modify Your Plug-in Electric Hybrid Vehicle'.

The book focuses primarily on the installation of battery packs that have better performance characteristics to those originally fitted by the manufacturer. It also looks at the issue of communi-cation with the original ECU and understanding the protocol of the CAN system on the donor vehicle. In reality, this requires bespoke equipment to be purchased and may be costly for a one-off.

To build a hybrid vehicle from scratch is no trivial task and requires an enormous amount of integration between the electric and the internal combustion engine drive train as well as an in-depth understanding of energy management, power electronics and control strategies. A programme of work that would take a major manufacturer 18 months to complete.

Leitman gives an introduction into the history of hybrid vehicles and explains the difference between series, parallel and multi-mode hybrid vehicles. There are chapters covering the selection of critical components such as batteries, motors and controllers. He also presents the reader with some basic equations but these are not exhaustive enough to design a vehicle from scratch.

Reviewed by Paul Brandon, senior lecturer in the Faculty of Engineering at Kingston University

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

By Richard Dawkins
Bantam, £20

Richard Dawkins is known to any watcher of serious television programmes as "that earnest academic dedicated to disproving God's existence"… or so it seems. He argues against organised religion with a passion that is his trademark, while simultaneously peddling evolution with what can only be described as "religious fervour". It would be a surprise if this book was any less dogmatic.

Having written half a dozen best-selling books on the theory of evolution, it's almost as if Dawkins suddenly came to the realisation that he'd presented evolution as a belief system, without scientific proof. "Looking back on those books," he says, "I realised that the evidence for evolution itself was nowhere explicitly set out..." As the bicentennial year of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of 'Origin of Species', he felt that 2009 was a good time to put the record straight.

He begins with the amusing analogy of a teacher of Roman history and the Latin language forced to cope with a group of naysayers who insist that the Romans never existed and a host of modern languages and dialects "sprang spontaneously and separately into being". He concludes with an appendix entitled 'The History-Deniers', which is what Dawkins calls those who deny evolution. According to a 2008 Gallup poll, 44 per cent of Americans believe that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so", and in none of the nine years sampled did this drop below 40 per cent. One can see why Dawkins is on a crusade against this widespread ignorance, especially given the removal of evolution from some textbooks and school curricula.

In between, he gives us the facts about evolution, illustrating his arguments not only with lucid examples and analogies, but also with line drawings and photographs. The writing style is entertaining, if a little circuitous and sometimes academic (Dawkins loves the footnote), and readers new to the subject will learn lot about evolution. At the same time, thanks to the author's love of a convincing side issue, they will read of physics, astronomy, computer modelling, continental drift and origami.

But will his book convince the sceptics? Probably not. He quotes an interview he did for a Channel 4 documentary in which the president of Concerned Women for America continually asked him for evidence of evolution. He provided names and locations of fossils of intermediate species offering proof of our own evolution. The result was a frustrating stalemate, not so much a conversation as an alternation of two opposing views.

Surely the most convincing discovery is the universality of the genetic code - "a tree of cousinship" as Dawkins puts it - and the fact that such a large proportion of our DNA is the same as that of other species. But then I was convinced even before turning the first page.

Reviewed by Mark Williamson, space technology consultant and writer

The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain

By Ian Jack
Jonathan Cape, £18.99

Privileged to be among the authors who contributed to Granta magazine, I recall with warmth my several meetings with its editor, Ian Jack, whose essays written between 1989 and 2009 are collected in this book.

As editor, Jack was gentle and soft-spoken, yet quietly determined to get his own way. The same qualities characterise him as a writer. The tone of his perceptive free-flowing prose can be deceptively soothing, yet some of the articles in the collection, like 'The 12.10 to Leeds' - his investigation of the Hatfield rail disaster in 2000 - are harsh and hard-hitting in their social pathos. As Jack himself claimed in his recent appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival, the Hatfield catastrophe exposed everything that was wrong with modern Britain and showed why it couldn't be called 'Great' any more.

This book should be of special interest to E&T readers due to the author's ongoing obsession with ships, bridges and railways. This life-long passion was sparked by views of the boats sailing across the Firth of Forth from the window of his childhood house in the Edinburgh suburb of North Queensferry.

His father, a book-loving mechanic, eventually moved his family to Lancashire, but in his heart of hearts Jack has always remained a little dreamer boy, with his face pressed against the window, determined to observe… No wonder his first ever job, as he recalls in one of the essays, was at a firm of civil engineers where "for the duration of the school summer holidays I was to be a chainman, a bag carrier and hammer-wielder for the surveyors who were planning the approach roads to the new Forth Road Bridge."

Some of the essays in the book - like 'Chimneys', 'Bus Conductors I Have Known' ("There are no more Routemaster buses on route 38 from Victoria to Clapton Pond. The last one ran last night…") and 'Blitz Sprits' - are short nostalgic histories of structures, concepts and professions that no longer exist.

Others - 'Signals at Red', the already mentioned 'The 12.10 to Leeds' and 'Women and Children First' - are what I would describe as not journalistic, but rather literary, investigations of rail and sea disasters (the latter deals with the tragic fate of Titanic and its legendary band leader Wallace Henry). What unites them all under one cover is Jack's engaging style and his never-ending fascination with the world.

As the writer himself said at the Edinburgh Book Festival, "…ships and locomotives can be beautiful things and railways and steam navigation remain Britain's greatest technical contributions to the history of the world. Still, I rather hate the fact that my gentle and sporadic enthusiasms now have words like 'anorak' and 'spotter' flung at them. You won't find me at the end of a Waverley platform with a ballpoint in my hand…"

Reviewed by Vitali Vitaliev, features editor of E&T

Dawkins' choice

No one's going to recommend Richard Dawkins' latest manifesto for evolution, reviewed below, as a book to dip into when you've got five or ten minutes to spare. Luckily for the casual reader, his anthology of extracts from what he regards as the most significant works of recent years, 'The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing' (Oxford University Press) is now available in a user friendly paperback edition at £9.99.

Even if you're never going to tackle books by the likes of Einstein, Turing or Schrodinger in their entirety, there's a lot to be learned from a few carefully chosen pages, and Dawkins puts each selection in context with a personal introduction. The only question is why there isn't an equivalent collection of the best writing by engineers on their own discipline.

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