Secret Florence

Book reviews

Florence's hidden stories, how the Internet alters our brains, and two space exploration pioneers.


Secret Florence

by Niccolo Rinaldi, photos by Waris Grifi, £10.99, ISBN 978-2915807332

Unlike Venice, with its all-permeating poetry and romance, Florence has always had a reputation for healthy pragmatism – both in its artistic scene and in real life. This is why 'Secret Florence' is a welcome new addition to the the Jonglez 'Local Guides by Local People' series. Written by Florentine writer and politician Niccolo Rinaldi, the compact volume is resplendent with little-known facts from the city's rich history, including many from the field of science and technology.

Did you know, for example, that mediaeval Florence had its own pre-metric measuring units: braccio fiorentino (58.4cm) and the canna agrimensoria (2.92 m) – as well as the 32.48 cm-long Florentine foot (piede fiorentino)? Traces of these ancient measuring units can still be found on two columns inside the Baptistery in Piazza del Duomo.

One can also spot the world's highest sundial meridian, constructed by the Italian mathematician, engineer and astronomer Leonardo Ximenes (1716-86), inside Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral.

Florence is also home to La Specola – an old Italian word for observatory – which came into service in 1807 and soon became famous for identifying three comets and carrying out numerous meteorological studies. The uniqueness of that observatory, however, lay in the fact that it was perhaps the world's only structure of its kind built at the foot of a hill rather than on its summit – a rare miscalculation on the part of the ever-so-practical Florentines! That was why La Specola had eventually to be relocated, but the original astronomical tower with am old telescope inside has been lovingly preserved – if not for professional astronomers, then definitely for amateur stargazers and collectors of historic curios alike. Vitali Vitaliev

Atlantic Books

The Shallows: How the Internet is changing the way we read, think and remember 

by Nicholas Carr, £17.99, ISBN 978-1848872257

Nicholas Carr's work is an erudite narrative about the impact of the Internet on human brains and behaviour, focusing on the themes of concentration and depth in human thinking. There is some sympathy to be shared with Carr's view that the Internet is making the human mind shallower. To argue this point, he takes the reader on a history of writing, reading and time and shows how technologies such as maps, books, and timepieces have all affected human beings' relationship with knowledge.

Carr is convinced that these new technologies reshaped human neurological processes. At the heart of his arguments are references to neuroscience studies which show how the human brain, once thought rigid, is in fact highly malleable. He gives the view that 'it is our intellectual technologies that have the greatest and most lasting impact on how we think'.

Here we have a situation where Carr, rightly acknowledges that technologies' products can act as analogical devices to think about the brain, but it does little to convince that technologies themselves reshape the brain, rather it shows how flexible human cognitive processes appear. Carr uses the work of scholar Marshall McLuhan (coiner of the term 'the medium is the message') to illustrate his point that 'tools end up 'numbing' whatever part of the brain they 'amplify''.

In short: computer-based technologies reshape human cognition by introducing mechanical and shallow processes to the detriment of reflection and contemplation – cognitive skills necessary for 'refined perceptions, thoughts and emotions'. If anything, 'The Shallows' is a powerful testament to the importance of technological metaphors and analogies in guiding research in other fields of knowledge production but, as Carr also argues, this is not unique to the current age. Nevertheless, Carr, whilst not entirely convincing, raises important questions about how computer-based technologies are reshaping human intellectual processes. Kathleen Richardson

Cornerhouse Publications 

Gagarin in Britain 

Andrea Rose (ed), £25, ISBN 978-086355-663-0

You would have to have been in deep space to miss the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's pioneering space flight this year, but news of an exhibition organised by the British Council might have passed you by. This 160-page book is the catalogue for that exhibition, which ran at British Council headquarters in London, and accompanies the unveiling of Gagarin's statue in the Mall.

The exhibition showcased items from the Vostok manned space programme, including a spacesuit, an ejector seat of the type used by Gagarin to exit his capsule and one of the early canine suits, while the catalogue reflects the accompanying photographic exhibition. The book itself is nicely produced, and provides a fascinating overview of the legacy of the Russian space programme, Gagarin's contributions and, interestingly, his visit to Britain in July 1961.

Visually, Yuri Gagarin is so completely associated with the orange flight suit and helmet he wore for that first manned spaceflight that one tends to forget he had a life before and beyond space travel. The book corrects that with photographs of a young Gagarin as a trainee foundry worker in 1950, sitting on a fence with two mates at Saratov Technical School in 1951 and on holiday with his younger daughter Galya in 1965.

Nevertheless, it is the technical content that is likely to interest the engineers among us. In particular, the book includes facsimiles of technical drawings of the Vostok ejector seat and parachute system not previously published and expert renderings of the capsule itself. The significance of this is that the very existence of an ejector seat was disputed until the dissolution of the USSR allowed Soviet writers to report authoritatively on the programme. Indeed, Soviet authorities deliberately obfuscated the issue to ensure a place in the record books, as international rules required a pilot to be in – if not in control of – a craft from take-off to landing.

Gagarin's visit to Britain lasted four days and featured parades in an open-top Rolls-Royce in London and Manchester (where it rained): 'If all those people are getting wet to welcome me, surely the least I can do is to get wet too,' he said. Sadly, Gagarin died in a plane crash the year before the Moon landing that would end the race he began. This book is a fitting tribute to that first hero of the Space Age. Mark Williamson

Zenith Press 

Burt Rutan's Race to Space: The magician of Mojave and his flying innovations 

by Dan Lineham, £20, ISBN 978-0-7603-3815-5

Most people would be hard pressed to say who Burt Rutan was, but he will go down in aerospace history as the man who designed the round-the-world aircraft, Voyager, and the X-Prize-winning SpaceShipOne – the forerunner of Virgin Galactic's suborbital spaceship.

Dan Lineham's colourfully illustrated book tells the story of this 'maverick genius' who went from carving model aeroplanes out of balsa wood to pioneering the use of carbon fibre composite airframes. It begins with his early work on the F-4 Fantom, which suffered from 'unrecoverable flat spins', for which the only solution was 'to yank on the eject handle'. Rutan helped design a drogue shute system that avoided the spin in the first place. After he left the US Air Force, Rutan wrote in the magazine Sport Aviation that 'stall/spin is the major cause of general aviation fatal accidents'. His ultimate solution to the problem was to create an aircraft that would not stall.

As the founder of Rutan Aircraft Factory and, subsequently, Scaled Composites, Burt Rutan is responsible for designing 44 piloted aircraft (and some unmanned ones), but this book is no plane-spotters catalogue. Instead, it shows how engineering skill and dogged originality came together to produce some of the most unusual flying machines since Leonardo da Vinci's helicopter.

The final chapters describe how this culminated in a venture with Richard Branson that could soon see hundreds of wealthy individuals entering space in the commercial SpaceShipTwo rocket plane.

The book is printed on glossy paper and illustrated with colour photos throughout. The author's face-to-face interviews with the famously publicity-shy Rutan add authenticity to the text, while the technical boxes place the book above the run-of-the-mill autobiography. If you ever wondered what Boy's Own Meets Star Trek might look like, here it is! Mark Williamson

Harper Collins 

The map of time 

by Felix Palma, £12.99, ISBN 978-0007344123

At first glance, this doorstop of a book may seem like a hefty read, yet split into three perfectly proportioned mini-adventures with twists and turns aplenty, the pages will turn at quite a pace.

The book opens in 1888 and follows Andrew Harrington, a young man from a reputable family, who has fallen in love with a Whitechapel prostitute. When she is murdered by Jack the Ripper, Harrington is lost and with the guidance of his best friend, he resorts to time travel in an attempt to save his love from her grisly fate. Appearances from real-life characters such as Jack the Ripper and HG Wells add clout to the tale, and Palma's clever yet understated humour ensures readers stay entertained.

Although some will think the style of writing a tad archaic, or may find themselves distracted by the author's sometimes abrupt first-person interventions into the story, the translation of the book from the original Spanish is to be commended, and it is full to the brim of beautiful prose: 'Not even the touch on the skin of the delicious breeze heralding the arrival of summer, nor caressing a woman's body, nor sipping Scotch whisky in the bathtub until the water goes cold''

Like a whimsical game of cross-genre hopscotch, 'The Map of Time' skips effortlessly between romance, time travel, history and crime. In the process, Palma has created an enticing and unique novel that will appeal to many, and proves difficult to put down. Erika Burrows

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