Endeavour in space

Book reviews

A pictorial history of the recently retired Space Shuttle leads of our selection of this month's new technology books.

Zenith Press 

The Space Shuttle: Celebrating 30 Years Of Nasa's First Space Plane

By Piers Bizony, £27.50, ISBN 978-0-7603-3941-1

In April 1981, as I stood, cheering, on the bleachers at Kennedy Space Center, willing that first Space Shuttle into the sky, the thought that 30 years later it would all be over was furthest from my mind. An historic, slightly grainy photo in this celebratory exposition of the Shuttle programme brings those halcyon days – themselves just 20 years after Gagarin's flight – back into focus.

This is not the first book to catalogue the Shuttle's impressive career (and it won't be the last), but it is certainly one of the best, not least because of the high-quality reproduction of images that adorn each of its 300 pages. Let's be clear, this is essentially a picture book with extended captions... but what pictures!

I've been around the block a few times, as far as the Shuttle is concerned, but many of the photos in this book were new to me. For starters, take the picture of Endeavour used by the designers as a double-spread chapter header: this telephoto view shows the serial numbers printed on individual thermal tiles, the detailed texture of the thermal blankets... even a sunlit jack-plug panel on the flight deck's rear bulkhead. Other stunning images of hardware that capitalise on the ultimate airless clarity of low Earth orbit include shots of Orbiters docked to the International Space Station, intimate close-ups of rocket engines, and a particularly fine one of an astronaut working outside the station in the 'golden glow' of its solar panels.

One unusual photo that has been well publicised is a long exposure of an Orbiter's open payload bay, backdropped by a starry night sky, a thin blue-green horizon and the light-trails of a city below that give the image motion. If there's one thing that astronauts seem to lack it's the ability to capture a mood, but this iconic photograph goes a long way towards making spaceflight 'real' to the rest of us. This book is a fine pictorial tribute to a truly incredible piece of engineering.

Mark Williamson

 

Palgrave Macmillan 

The Third Industrial Revolution 

By Jeremy Rifkin £16.99, ISBN 978-0-230-11521-7

With the era of carbon-based energy systems coming to a close, sooner or later we're going to have to rethink our strategy for providing governance for a sustainable planet. This, for Jeremy Rifkin, is the catalyst for developing what he's called the Third Industrial Revolution. It's also the title of his new book. But more importantly, due to his technology-based philosophical thinking and intellectual activism, it's a term that has already passed into the language.

Rifkin says industrial revolutions happen when there are simultaneous step-changes in communications and energy delivery technologies. We can be complacent about the commercial and economic successes of the 20th century, he says, but these were unsustainable and led us to the global crises we face today and we should do something.

Rifkin wants to reorder human society by embracing the inevitable shift from hierarchical political power to its lateral alternative. Instead of having a top-down pyramidal structure, why can't we manage the planet in the way the Internet distributes information?

The problem is that most of the big players aren't interested in Blue Skies Thinking. But some are, and Rifkin's notion of the Third Industrial Revolution – which he also thinks will be the last – is already gaining traction, with the European Parliament calling for its implementation. With Africa and Asia coming on board, all we need is the backing of the Americas and we'll be in business.

Rifkin's 'The Third Industrial Revolution' is an essential book of Big Thinking. It challenges its readers to get out of their comfort zone and contemplate a post-carbon economy future where power is devolved along different lines from the way we have thought for the past two centuries.

The book puts together emerging communications and energy systems and essentially delivers the message that there is a potential strategy for nothing less than saving the world.

Nick Smith

 

Bradt 

Eccentric Cambridge, Eccentric Oxford 

By Ben Le Vays, £9.99, ISBN 978-1841624273/ 978-1841624266

My 'Concise Oxford Dictionary' defines "eccentric" as "odd, whimsical, differing from the usual in behaviour etc". But this is only the second definition of the word, the first being "not concentric, not having its axis placed centrally etc", i.e. in the words of Ben le Vays himself, definitely having "the engineering connection"!

That is one of the many reasons I want to recommend these two neat compact volumes to E&T readers – both eccentric and... er... normal (I nearly wrote "ordinary").

Eccentricity, as such, is Britain's widely recognised national trait and treasure, and where else can one find better eccentrics than in the realm of the Academia and its two main hubs – Oxford and Cambridge (or Oxbridge, as they are sometimes collectively called)?

They are eccentric (read "different") almost by definition, for what else can you expect from two world-famous university towns, neither of which has a university, as such? Indeed, try to flag down a taxi in either of them and ask to be taken to the university (as le Vays recommends cheekily). In the best of scenarios, the driver will politely ask you to get out. No universities then, but just clusters of famous and, no doubt, "eccentric colleges" (the title of a chapter in each of the books) boasting of a number of no-less "eccentric people" (the title of another chapter, as you may have guessed). Cambridge Trinity alone included on its lists Blunt and Burgess (traitors) as well as Thackeray and Nabokov (writers).

Ben le Vay doesn't limit his amazing and amusing guide-books to colleges (or to non-existing universities). In them, you will also find eccentric buildings, like an Oxford house vertically pierced by the body of a shark; eccentric collections, like Cambridge museum "of creaky floors and hot water bottles" (also known as Cambridge and County Folk Museum); curious (read "eccentric") rituals, like Cambridge's 'Great Court Run' and hundreds of other little-known facts.

The chapter I enjoyed most was devoted to 'Strange similarities' between Oxford and'Cambridge (no, not just the lack of a university in either but,'for instance, the fact that "both are named after a river crossing' and use blue as their colour").

These pages can be found in the end of the Oxford guide, but not at all in the Cambridge one. Why? You'll have to ask le Vays, who is obviously an eccentric himself.

I can testify to being a proud owner of some of his previous guide-books: 'Eccentric Britain' and 'Eccentric London' – the fact that probably makes myself an eccentric book collector, an eccentric reader and an eccentric reviewer, too'

Eccentrics of all counties, unite!

Vitali Vitaliev

 

Mcgraw Hill 

What Would Steve Jobs Do? 

By Peter Sander £14.99, ISBN 978-0-07-179274-5

Let's make one thing clear. Despite the Apple corporate puff quoted as an epigram to Peter Sander's latest book, Steve Jobs did not make the world "immeasurably better".

The company he managed packages contemporary technology into stylish toys for rich kids in the developed world. On the other hand, Jobs did die (almost) immeasurably richer, and so on balance it's probably a reasonable idea for the technologically literate to look at how he achieved this.

'What would Steve Jobs do?' is a curious title for a new book about the man's currency as a role model, because the flippant answer is "nothing: he's dead". But what he would have done – which is what the book is actually about – is a worthwhile dissection of how improvisational and idiosyncratic thinking make Apple different from companies that have similar products that don't look so good.

And so, "in Steve Jobs world, product is the culminating climax and Holy Grail of the leadership chain, which starts way back at customer".

'Customer' and 'product' are but two components in the mix that also includes vision, culture, message and brand. We've heard all this before, but then again, to bring a book to market this quickly probably requires the repackaging of a certain amount of hard-won wisdom by the author. Given the niche within which Apple's undisputed excellence lies, this is a neat analogue.

It's easy to sit back and accuse Sander of jumping on the Jobs bandwagon. There is already a thriving grave-robbing business enveloping Jobs' death. But part of me admires the entrepreneurial acumen of this experienced commentator on innovation, marketing and economics: this is his 28th book on these subjects. After all, someone was going to write this book, so it might as well be someone who knows what he's talking about. That's what Steve Jobs would have done.

Nick Smith

 

Also out now…

For even the most well equipped business traveller, keeping in touch while out on the road in the mid-1990s was a challenge that could involve frustrating negotiations with people who had no idea what the internet was. Checking email meant hunting for a telephone connection, mobile phones were bulky and expensive and one-way pagers delivered only short messages. Then in 1995 a tiny company from Ontario called Research in Motion came up with the idea of an e-mail device users could wear on their belts. To reduce the amount of space required by the electronic components RIM needed to partner with a semiconductor company that could integrate the different functions into a single microchip and embarked on its association with Intel. Though the BlackBerry’s subsequent success seems like a foregone conclusion, both companies faced enormous challenges, as Graham Tubbs and Terry Gillett relate in ‘Harvesting the Blackberry: An Insider's Perspective’ (Wheatmark, £13.99, ISBN 978-1604943757). Tubbs and Gillett, both RIM veterans, offer a unique perspective on how the world's number one semiconductor company and an unknown start-up overcame technical obstacles and internal politics to produce one of the most ubiquitous computing devices of our time.

Theoretical physics may not have have absolutely rule out the possibility of time travel yet, but is a working time machine ever likely to make an appearance? Having looked at the science of air travel for his popular Inflight Science, Brian Clegg takes inspiration from his childhood heroes of Doctor Who and HG Wells to explain the nature of time in‘Build Your Own Time Machine’ (Duckworth, £14.99, ISBN 978-0715642900). How do we understand it and why measure it the way we do? How did the theories of one man change the way it was perceived by the world? And why wouldn't HG Wells' time machine have worked? By clearly explaining the most famous of Einstein's theories, those of special and general relativity, Clegg applies them to the laws of time to show the real science of time travel and how possible it really is.

Travel in Britain was revolutionised between the early 18th century, when nothing but stretches of dirt track ran between most towns, and 1848, by which time Britain's these primitive roads had been transformed into a network of 40 foot wide highways. There were unforeseen consequences however, and Jo Guildi’s ‘Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State’ (Harvard University Press, £29.95, ISBN 978-0674057593) refutes the traditional idea that better roads made better neighbours and unified the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish into a common people. In reality, few issues divided Britain as much as transport and trade. The highway network led to contests for control over issues ranging from road management to market access. At the same time that the Scottish Highlands were demanding that centralised government pay for roads they could not afford, English counties were arguing for a localism that would spare them from underwriting roads to Scotland.  These two visions - one centralised, expert-driven and technological, the other local, informal, and libertarian - lie at the heart of today's debates over infrastructure, development and communication, Guildi argues.

‘The Greenie: The History of Warfare Technology in the Royal Navy’ by Patrick A. Moore (The History Press, £25, ISBN 978-0752460161) takes its title from the term used in the Royal Navy vernacular to describe officers and ratings responsible for the electrical engineering functions of the fleet. Electrical engineering has 'driven' the Royal Navy for far longer than one might imagine, from solving the problem of magnetic interference with the compass by the ironclad early in the 20th century onward. Patrick A Moore joined the Royal Navy in 1963 and graduated with a BSc in electrical engineering before going to sea as a Weapons Engineer Officer in HMS Ajax. He left service as a Commander in 1992 to work for Ferranti International, GEC Marconi and BAE Systems, focusing on warship combat system simulators. In tracing the development of naval technology from 1850 to the microcomputers that control almost every aspect of navigation, intel, and strike capacity, he describes the accompanying changes in structure and manpower. Written in an informal but authoritative style, it will appeal not only to those interested in the history of the Royal Navy but also the thousands, past and present, who can claim the honour of calling themselves one of the Greenies.

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