Aluminum Dreams book cover

Book reviews

The fascinating story of a metal found everywhere from spacecraft to anti-perspirant cans is among this month’s new technology books.

University of Hawaii Press/Rowman & Littlefield

Seismic Japan/When the Earth Roars

Both by Gregory Smits, £46.50/£49.95, ISBN 978 0 8248 3817 1/978 1 4422 2009 6

The Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, of magnitude 9.0, killed almost 20,000 people and destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. It  provoked many claims – not least from the Tokyo Electric Power Company – that since the event was unprecedented nothing could have been done to prepare for such a disaster. Japan’s acting finance minister called it “an act of God”. But the historical record of earthquakes and tsunamis in coastal north-east Japan contradicts these claims.

Highly destructive tsunamis hit the Sanriku coast as recently as 1896 and 1933. Tepco executives certainly knew the risks of another event, but repeatedly ignored warnings. The result, as the Prime Minister stated just after the disaster, was Japan’s worst crisis since the end of the Second World War.

Gregory Smits, a US-based expert on the modern history of Japan with a special interest in earthquakes, has written two deeply researched and easily readable studies. Both deal with Japanese seismic history, and inevitably there is some overlap. However, ‘Seismic Japan: The Long History and Continuing Legacy of the Ansei Edo Earthquake’ focuses on the Ansei Edo earthquake of 1855 centred on Tokyo (formerly Edo), which was a significant factor in the end of the shogunate and the opening up of Japan to foreign influence from the 1860s.

‘When the Earth Roars: Lessons from the History of Earthquakes in Japan’ gives most attention to the north-east, and contains more science than ‘Seismic Japan’, including a highly critical history of Japanese attempts at earthquake prediction since the 19th century. Engineers will find the second book relevant; but anyone with a serious interest in Japanese earthquakes should read both.

Two examples cited by Smits bring home the challenges for seismologists. In 1905, Akitsune Imamura predicted Tokyo would suffer a great earthquake during the next half-century and, since most of the city was built of wood, fires would cause more than 100,000 casualties. He argued that Tokyo should switch from petroleum lanterns to electric lighting.

But another seismologist, Fusakichi Omori, denounced the basis of Imamura’s prediction and pronounced Tokyo safe. When the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake hit and two-thirds of Tokyo burned, Imamura was apparently vindicated, Omori discredited. Yet this is too simple a conclusion. A comparable prediction in 1977 by seismologist Katsuhiko Ishibashi of an imminent earthquake – the so-called Tokai earthquake in the manufacturing region south-west of Tokyo – caused great alarm and the channelling of massive financial resources into a government programme of earthquake monitoring and prediction. Ishibashi also warned of seismic dangers to nuclear power plants. A great Tokai earthquake subsequently failed to occur; but the warning about nuclear power proved prescient in 2011.

In other words, reliable prediction of great earthquakes is impossible – but preparation against them may be possible. This lesson was reinforced by the totally unpredicted Kobe earthquake in 1995, after which many buildings were fitted with base isolation. “The dramatic and effective swaying of tall buildings in Tokyo and elsewhere during March 2011 was in part a result,” notes Smits, “of lessons learned or confirmed in 1995.”

Andrew Robinson


The Quantum Age 

By Brian Clegg, £14.99, ISBN 978-1848316645

You either like so-called ‘popular science’ books, or you don’t. For the serious scientist they can appear trivial and superficial, while for the passing traffic with a slightly more than casual interest in ‘big stuff’ they can be intimidating, because they often make grand assumptions about what you remember from school.

Brian Clegg makes no such assumptions in ‘The Quantum Age’. That’s because the world he is about to invite us into was never on the school syllabus.

He cheerfully admits that the reason for this is that quantum mechanics is probably too difficult for kids. But he’s also slightly dismayed that, despite knowing that it was wrong, we carried on teaching the outdated Victorian version of physics that Einstein had already knocked into a cocked hat.

Clegg is the perfect writer to introduce us to the world of ‘small stuff’, because he’s keenly aware of how silly scientists can sound. As early as page 5 he’s telling us that the expression “paradigm shift” is pompous, and by the end he’s telling us that the misapplication of quantum terminology is “rubbish”. In between this down-to-earthness, Clegg takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the quantum world, from electronics to superconducting magnets, from quantum biology to the superfast computers that will change our lives (again).

We used to live in a world of big things, says Clegg. Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages: all big. Industrial revolution, steam engines, electricity: all big. But now everything is small and the thing that confuses people is that things on the quantum level aren’t simply miniature versions of the normal stuff. This is where he gets interesting, because this is where most people switch off, only with ‘The Quantum Age’ you don’t. And the main reason for this is that it’s the work of a man of unbridled enthusiasm.

“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics,” said Lord Kelvin in 1900, unaware that the century before him was about to usher in some of the biggest (not quantum) leaps in our understanding of physics since Isaac Newton sat under an apple tree. And this is what Clegg’s book is about; I challenge anyone not to find it spellbinding.

Nick Smith

Oxford University Press 

The Science of Cheese 

By Michael H Tunick, £19.99, ISBN 978-0-19-992230-7

“I was blown up while eating some cheese,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in ‘A Farewell to Arms’. “Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese?” said Job, rather fed up, to God in the Bible. “Cheese it, the cops!” say nameless villains in old movies.

As the quotes suggest, this is not a dry textbook. Nevertheless you need to know some organic chemistry to get the most out of it. At the outset, the delightfully eccentric Periodic Table of Cheeses gives a taste of the humour that runs throughout: N (Nitrogen) becomes Norwegian Jarlsberg, Rb (Rubidium) is Reblochon de Savoie, Ca (Calcium) Caerphilly and so on.

Author Michael Tunick, a research chemist with the US Agricultural Research Service, is a cheese innovator who has developed ways to detect mislabelled cheese, and is the brain behind a low-fat mozzarella. As such the book is filled with up to the minute cheese science: there are chapters on soft cheese, stretched cheese, surface mould cheese, cheddars, smear-ripened cheese (including why they smell disgusting but taste bland) and more, interspersed with cheese facts. Suffolk cheese, for example, made from skimmed milk in the 1650s, was so hard that sailors were said to have carved it into buttons and rats would eat the sheet tin it was packed in rather than the cheese.

Tunick teaches us how propionibacteria, which produce CO2 gas, help to make the different sized holes that characterise Swiss cheese. In his final chapter, Tunick shows us how to make cheese at home.

A charming and informative book that will have you seeking out cheese shops with informed enthusiasm.

Christine Evans-Pughe

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them