A still from the film Interstellar

Book Reviews

The science behind a story of space travel set in the future, and histories of computers, buildings, guitars and cars.

WW Norton

The Science of Interstellar

By Kip Thorne, £14.99, ISBN 978-0393351378

One of the most eagerly anticipated movies of 2014, Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’ has divided opinions, with some critics complaining about the script being overloaded with scientific theories, making it rather hard to digest.

Set in a world that thinks it no longer needs engineers, as every hand is needed to grow food for the remnants the once-proud species now fighting for bare survival, the movie is an ambitious apocalyptic adventure. In a desperate attempt to save mankind from certain doom on Earth, a group of scientists embarks on a mission to another galaxy to find a new home. They find themselves flying through a wormhole, struck by extreme ocean tides on an exotic planet and racing against the warping of time in the vicinity of a giant black hole.

The film’s heavy physical science may come as no surprise, though, as it is the brainchild of well-known Caltech astrophysicist Kip Thorne, an expert in black holes and worm holes.

Without doubt an ultimate geek movie with occasional reminiscences of Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ or ‘Contact’ (an adaptation of a book by another astrophysicist, Carl Sagan), ‘Interstellar’ was born from Thorne’s discussions with his film-​producer friend Lynda Obst, who wanted to make a blockbuster science-fiction movie fully grounded in real science.

In his book ‘The Science of Interstellar’, released by WW Norton as ‘Interstellar’ enters cinemas worldwide, Thorne describes the lengthy process behind the creation of the movie and the sometimes tricky job of allowing the creative talent enough freedom while observing the scientific rules (or not), but most importantly provides a step-by-step guide to understanding the science driving the story.

And it’s not just any science. The ambitious all-encompassing epic balances on the edge of the yet unexplored, marrying cutting-edge astrophysics with futuristic spacecraft engineering, environmental science and quantum theory.

Having served as an executive producer throughout the making of ‘Interstellar’, Thorne set himself and his co-operators simple guidelines. Firstly, nothing in the film should violate firmly established laws of physics or the firmly established knowledge of the universe. Secondly, speculations about poorly understood scientific phenomena should spring from real science, from ideas that at least some respectable scientists regard as possible.

Those who have already seen the movie may wonder what fact-founded basis could Thorne possible have provided for the movie’s rather mysterious finale. The author, however, has himself acknowledged that while the story led the creators to such unexplored territories as quantum gravity and the theory of five-​dimensional space, there was more than enough room left for sometimes rather wild imagination.

On nearly 300 pages, Thorne covers every scientific phenomenon touched on in the story. He clearly gives more consideration to subjects close to his heart such as the behaviour of space near black holes and wormholes, but he has consulted expert biologists to provide grounding for the movie’s environmental prerequisites.

Although clearly intended for those who saw the film, the book provides an intriguing overview of some of the most daring concepts in 21st century physics and its building blocks written by a man who clearly knows his stuff.

Tereza Pultarova

Simon & Schuster

The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

By Walter Isaacson, £20, ISBN 9781471138973

Hot on the heels of Alan Turing biopic ‘The Imitation Game’ comes an absorbing account of the history of computing whose cover features the now-celebrated codebreaker as one of four faces of the digital age alongside Ada Lovelace, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

The timing of ‘The Innovators’ is a coincidence which, if anything, shows that the true story that takes us from Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine to the pervasiveness of an Internet of Things is often more entertaining than any Hollywood dramatisation could ever be.

This is more than just a straight account of 200 years of progress, though. Isaacson’s past role as an editor on Time magazine and author of the block­buster 2011 biography of Steve Jobs means it’s as entertaining as it is informative, but he goes beyond the facts to consider bigger questions about innovation. What talents allowed certain inventors and entrepren­eurs to turn their ideas into realities? What led to their creative leaps? Why did some succeed and others fail?

The answer, broadly, is that this wasn’t quite the revolution of the book’s title, in which a few key figures were responsible for the sort of dramatic break­throughs that make for great fiction. Instead, it’s been a gradual journey with even names like Vannevar Bush, John von Neumann, JCR Licklider, Doug Engelbart and Robert Noyce that will be less well known to the average reader supported by countless others who made their own small but crucial contributions.

As the entertainment industry wakes up to the fact that the history of engineering is ripe with stories worth telling, ‘The Innovators’ puts them in their context as steps along the road to where technology is today.

Dominic Lenton


Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences 

By Matthew Christopher, £25.99, ISBN 9782361950941

E&T readers know Jonglez as a publisher of travel books, but this new title might be better placed in the genre of urban exploration (sometimes abbreviated to urbex and otherwise known as ‘urban hacking’).

The phrase describes an interest in exploring derelict buildings that has grown among photographers, becoming almost a sub-culture, over the past couple of decades. The resulting images can be stunning, sometimes shocking, in revealing the decay of urban infrastructure and the apparent disinterest of modern societies in the continued use or preservation of distinctive architecture.

The author’s comparison of his photography to representations of death, depicting an “indicator of impending social collapse”, might put some readers off, but the pictures themselves often lift the spirit rather than depress it. One is left with the impression that, although these places have become redundant and been allowed to deteriorate (often beyond repair), the human race has shown an incredible capacity for creativity, design and industry in the past century.

In his foreword, author and social critic James Howard Kunstler reflects on what the architectural opulence of the churches, power stations and movie palaces of the early 20th century suggests about “the psychology of yesteryear’s working people”.

“They believed that they deserved to have beauty in their lives,” he opines, “and the builders agreed to furnish it”.

Matthew Christopher began his urban adventure as an exploration of the American asylum system and the history of mental health care, but his discovery of “ awe-inspiring” structures such as power-plant turbine halls, steelwork furnaces and industrial production lines widened his gamut to produce imagery that will resonate with engineers and technologists. Anyone who has toured the interior of London’s Battersea Power Station will know exactly what I mean.

Coincidentally for this reviewer, one of the buildings featured - the Packard Automotive Plant in Detroit by architect Albert Kahn - was one I visited myself only the week before receiving the book (so I can testify personally to the attraction of urban exploration). When it opened in 1903, the plant was “the most advanced auto factory in the world”, says Christopher, and the first industrial site in Detroit to use reinforced concrete. Sadly, this ‘rebar’ has been instrumental in its degradation, following water intrusion, rusting and the onset of terminal ‘concrete cancer’. Entropy in action, one might say.

Sometimes, though, the pictures make one ask ‘why was this incredible building abandoned?’ Take Philadelphia’s Northeast High School with its turreted façade and ornately decorated theatre, or the starkly modernistic Bell Labs Holmdel Complex completed in 1962. As the author points out, “it would be easy to create a body of work romanticizing some idyllic notion of Americana”, but he has a deeper cultural agenda. His pictures offer “a sobering glimpse of what our future might look like if we do not address the problems that have created this situation,” - a situation he calls “The Age of Consequences”. Whatever message you take from the images in this book, they will evoke at least some level of emotion.

Mark Williamson


Special Deluxe:A Memoir of Life & Cars 

By Neil Young, £25.00, ISBN 9780399172083

“Not your average rock biography” is how the publishers of Neil Young’s second volume of memoirs describe his latest collection of reminiscences. They’re not wrong, and the approach he’s taken makes this mix of memoir and environmental politics of particular interest to engineers.

Young’s passion for music is rivalled only by his interest in cars, and in ‘Special Deluxe’ he recalls the many he’s owned over the years and the part they’ve played in both his career and his personal life.

Two things makes this more than just a series of recollections of how the vehicles Young has owned have inspired songs from his repertoire. First is his lifelong fascination with and expertise in how they work as well as what they look like. Second is the fact that after years of motoring, his concern for the environment has led him to feel a genuine regret for the impact they’ve had on the planet.

As a successful rock star, he’s been able to put his money where his mouth is by funding LincVolt, a project that aims to convert a 1959 Lincoln Continental into a demonstrator hybrid vehicle.

The attempt to get a reliable zero-emission modification of a 1950s gas-​guzzler on the road has had its ups and downs. With this unusual take on the music biog Young pulls off the tricky feat of combining 1960s reminiscence with a very forward-looking view of the possible future of driving.

Dominic Lenton

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