The race is on: astronaut John Glenn and President Kennedy inspect a space capsule at Cape Canaveral in February 1962

Book reviews

The politics of space exploration, scientific siblings and a dramatic rescue

Discoverers of the universe: William and Caroline Herschel, 

by Michael Hoskin, Princeton University Press, £20.95 ISBN 978-0-691-14833-5

Many adjectives might describe the lives of the Herschel siblings William and Caroline, who settled in England from Germany in the 18th century, but 'dull' is not one of them.

William became famous for discovering infrared radiation, the planet Uranus and its major moons, as well as two moons of Saturn. Caroline is celebrated for finding nine comets and cataloguing the 2,500 nebulae that she and her brother found.

When they weren't cooking up different metal formulations for making telescope mirrors with their brother Alexander, they were sweeping the skies with homemade telescopes. George III funded their largest instrument, which was 40ft long, and then fell out with William when the project went over budget.

In this popular account (which would have benefited from a stiffer scientific backbone), Michael Hoskin – an expert on the Herschels – sheds light on the personal lives and unusual family background of this pair.

William brought Caroline to Bath in 1772 while he and Alexander were working there as musicians. Caroline, who was 22, was in effect rescued from their mother who had been treating her as a drudge. Hoskin's premise is that this rescue set the tone of their sibling relationship and Caroline's rather obligated life from then onwards.

When William became obsessed with astronomy, Caroline became his loyal and, at times, long-suffering supporter. As part of the nebulae-collecting effort, for instance, William would sit up half the night on top of a 20ft telescope, shouting his observations to Caroline who would be installed by a window, surrounded by reference books. William pulled a cord to ring a bell in her room to alert her to each discovery and she would open the window, note down the observation and give any information he needed. (One can see why Caroline occasionally regretted passing up a chance she had to become a professional singer when she was in Bath).

Not as rigorous as one might hope but a fascinating read.

Christine Evans-Pughe

 

The 33

by Jonathan Franklin, Bantam £14.99 ISBN 978-0593067710

When at the end of last year I was asked at a BBC World Service panel to name the best story we had covered in E&T in 2010, I answered without hesitation: 'The miraculous rescue of the trapped Chilean miners.'

It was a spectacular and rare story, which combined tremendous human interest element and an outstanding engineering achievement. Importantly, it also had a happy ending.

Two seemingly aloof numerals: 33 and 69 (the numbers of the trapped miners and the days they spent buried alive in the San Jose mine) – had suddenly acquired a multitude of emotional meanings for billions of people all over the world.

Chilean-based award-winning journalist Jonathan Franklin was lucky to have almost unlimited access to the engineers in the rescue effort as well as to the miners themselves whom he was the first (out of 2,000 accredited journalists) to interview within minutes of their release. He promptly put together, and his publishers, Bantam, quickly released, 'The 33' – a gripping account of the disaster which deservedly became a BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week.

E&T readers will be interested to find in 'The 33' descriptions and technical detail of the drills (it was only the 'Plan B drill' that had managed to reach the miners after the first broke down), of the Phoenix rescue capsule, which eventually took the miners back into daylight, and of the video conference system, supplied by the Chilean government, that allowed the miners and their families to maintain contact.

Franklin finishes his narrative by confirming the wide-spread rumour that it was he who was responsible for the miners receiving Oakley sunglasses to protect their eyes from the potentially damaging effects of sunlight after 69 days in pitch darkness: 'I wrote Oakley an email suggesting they send 35 pairs of sunglasses (two spares) to the Chilean rescue team. They complied and the rest is history.'

Vitali Vitaliev

 

Blogging the moon

by Paul D Spudis, Apogee Prime, £19.95 ISBN 978-1-926837-17-8

The release of nearly every new communications tool sounds the death knell of the printed book, but, pleasingly for those of us who like books, they refuse to die. It is particularly ironic that this one began life in the blogosphere!

Paul Spudis, a lunar scientist at Nasa, was asked to write a blog for Air and Space Magazine – entitled 'The Once & Future Moon' – which began with live contributions from the launch of India's Chandrayaan-1 Moon probe in 2008. Though the thought of reading more than 300 printed pages of one man's 'stream of consciousness' might fill the average reader with horror, Spudis reassures us that the blogs 'naturally gravitated towards a more quasi-periodic, op-ed column'.

The result is some 65 short and readable articles on lunar science, exploration and US space policy (or lack of), designed to present 'the importance of creating a sustainable space program through the use of the Moon's resources to create capabilities to live and work in space and move humanity off the planet'. Each chronological 'blog' is complemented by original feedback, sometimes running to several pages, which include a range of content from sycophancy to derision.

And for those requiring a nod to higher technology, the package includes a DVD containing a lecture video and personal slideshow of the author's geological travels. If you are interested in lunar exploration and enjoy blogs, you will like this book.

Mark Williamson

Also out this month...

When Yuri Gagarin became the first person to leave the Earth’s atmosphere on 12 April 1961, his journey kick-started the space race. Once the US had been beaten to that achievement by the Soviet Union, it prompted both countries to put huge effort into putting a man on the moon. To coincide with the fiftieth anniversary comes a new and updated edition of Starman (Bloomsbury, £8.99, ISBN 978-1408815540), a biography of Gagarin by documentary maker Jamie Doran and space expert Piers Bizony originally published in 1998. A 2010 survey of the public ranked Gagarin as the sixth most popular space hero of all time, alongside Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. And despite being one of the most important figures in the history of space exploration, he seems as much of a fictional character to us as the Star Trek crew because there’s been so little told about him. Prior to this book, biographies of Gagarin were based on information that had been heavily filtered by the KGB. Starman was probably the first look at him as a human who wasn’t perfect – as many iconic figures turn out not to be – but made a place for himself in history. What he’s done here is a real detective job, almost a Cold War spy thriller, of going through official files and restricted documents, tracking down people who knew Gagarin but were still very wary of talking about him. It’s raised controversy among space historians who think some of the people the authors talked to, often with great difficulty, had their own agendas. But that’s all part of the mystery of Gagarin’s life that in some ways makes it more interesting than his counterparts in the US space programme who we now so much about. The result reveals a man in turmoil: torn apart by powerful political pressures, fighting a losing battle against alcoholism and rebelling against the cruelties of a corrupt totalitarian regime.

For those who are more interested in the engineering behind a spacecraft than the people who travel in them, Haynes has a new addition to its range of workshop manuals with a book on the Space Shuttle (£19.99, ISBN 978-1844258666). The Shuttle s internal layout and systems are given the Haynes analysis, including the operation of life support, electrical power production, cooling, propulsion, flight control, communications, landing and avionics systems. The result, overseen by David Baker, who joined the US space programme during the Apollo years and worked on the development of the Shuttle,  is a fascinating insight into the design, construction and operation of the craft. And with the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic coming up, Haynes has given the liner its distinctive treatment in another Owner’s Workshop Manual (£19.99, ISBN 978-1844256624). An authoritative text by historian engineers David Hutchings and Richard de Kerbrech, accompanied by hundreds of illustrations, show how the leviathan was built, launched and fitted out. It also explains how the ship’s chief engineer managed its huge engines and other onboard systems, and what was it like to operate a luxury ocean liner from the perspective of Titanic's owner, the White Star Line.

The name of Mawdsleys, the company based in Dursley in Gloucestershire that was for many years one of the UK’s leading manufacturers of electric motors, isn’t a famous one among the public, but former employees will enjoy The Mawdsley Story by IET member LH Jones (Woodcock Press, £17.95, ISBN 978-0-954-2334-0-2). Mawdsleys’ products were initially DC, but increasingly AC, often with sophisticated control systems for use in specific applications or industries. LH Jones, a former employee, who started on the factory floor and became Mawdsleys’ chief design engineer of alternating current machines, covers the social side, the factories and the technical side of product development. Order from the author at ljones750@btinternet.com.

Le Corbusier, the architect who famously called a house "a machine for living," was fascinated to the point of obsession by another kind of machine, the automobile. In his ‘white phase’ of the 1920s and 1930s he insisted that his buildings be photographed with a modern automobile in the foreground. In 1936 he moved beyond the theoretical in 1936 and with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret entered an automobile design competition, submitting plans for ‘a minimalist vehicle for maximum functionality’, also known as the Voiture Minimum. Despite Le Corbusier's energetic promotion of his design to several important automakers, the design was never mass-produced and Voiture Minimum: Le Corbusier and the Automobile by Antonio Amado (MIT Press, £36.95, ISBN 978-0 -262-01536-3) is the first to tell the story of this adventure in automotive design. Amado describes the project in detail, linking it to Le Corbusier's architectural work, to Modernist utopian urban visions, and to the automobile design projects of other architects including Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Additional reviews by Dominic Lenton

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