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Books: Technology books for your Christmas wish list

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From the story of the periodic table to the engineering that beat Hitler, a roundup of some books about science, engineering and technology that we’ve enjoyed in 2018.

We’ve reviewed more books during 2018 than ever before and you can see all of those reviews with a single click here on this website. There were still a number sent our way that we weren’t able to cover in detail though, and the run up to Christmas gives us an excuse to run through some of them that might give you ideas for gifts for friends and family, or even for yourself.

First up are several aimed at a mainstream readership that address various aspects of the history and social impact of technology. Here, you’ll find some familiar names from the pages of E&T like Rebecca Mileham, a regular contributor whose first popular science book was published in 2008 and has now written ‘Cracking the Elements: You, This Book & 350 Years of Scientific Discovery’ (Octopus, £14.99, ISBN 9781844039517). From the earliest-known elements to those named in 2016, Mileham takes a comprehensive look at the development of the periodic table, revealing some previously untold stories, unsung pioneers and plenty of fascinating science along the way. In 12 illustrated chapters, the book makes sense of the patterns and groups within the periodic table, introducing each of the 118 known elements individually and exploring questions like why the history of fizzy water gave early chemistry a sparkle, how hydrogen revealed the structure of the atom, and what makes xenon a great anaesthetic even though not all patients can use it.

Another of our writers is Sharon Ann Holgate, who, armed with a doctorate in experimental physics, has been writing about science and engineering for 20 years. This year saw her follow up 2017’s ‘Outside the Research Lab Volume 1: Physics in the Arts, Architecture and Design’ with ‘Outside the Research Lab Volume 2: Physics in Vintage and Modern Transport’ (IoP Concise Physics, £35.50 print, £7.61 Kindle, ISBN 9781643272672). In it, she explores the physics and technology inherent to preserving and restoring old forms of transport as well as creating modern transport for today and for our future needs. The different aspects of transport covered a range from the restoration of vintage buses to the materials used in the latest supercars.

Former members of E&T staff have been busy too. Katia Moskvitch, who occupied the technology editor’s chair in recent years and is now with Wired, is one of the writers whose work is featured in ‘The Prime Number Conspiracy’ (£14.99, ISBN 9780262536356), a collection of stories from Quanta Magazine. Embarking on what’s promised to be “breathtaking intellectual journeys to the bleeding edge of discovery strapped to the narrative rocket of humanity’s never-ending pursuit of knowledge”, readers will learn that prime numbers have decided preferences about the final digits of the primes that immediately follow them (the ‘conspiracy’ of the title), consider whether math is the universal language of nature, ponder the limits of computation, measure infinity, and explore the eternal question: “Is mathematics good for you?” For those less interested in numbers there’s the intriguingly titled companion volume ‘Alice and Bob Meet the Wall of Fire’ (The MIT Press, £14.99, ISBN 9780262536349), which brings together some of the most interesting science stories that have appeared in Quanta Magazine over the past five years.

The history of engineering, often told from a first-hand perspective, is a popular theme when IET members turn their hands to writing. Paul Hawkins, for example, spent his whole career working in the telecoms industry from joining the British Post Office International Telecommunications service in 1967 until he retired in 2014, working at Dorchester Radio Station, Goonhilly satellite station and Bearley HF receiving station as well as for Thales, where he led the design of antennas and communication systems for submarine, ships and land mobile vehicles. Having published widely on the history of radio telecoms, he’s described in detail the part it played in the development of the international telecommunications network during the 20th century in ‘Point to Point: A History of International Telecommunications During the Radio Years’ (New Generation Publishing, £9.99, ISBN 9781787196278). Covering the activities of a number of organisations including the Marconi Company, the Post Office, Cable & Wireless and various overseas organisations including Bell/AT&T and RCA in the USA, it tells the story, following the initial work of Marconi, of how radio technology developed from crude beginnings into a reasonably sophisticated network, successfully competing against the cable network.

In a similar vein, ‘30 Years of Mobile Phones in the UK’ by Nigel Linge and Andy Sutton (Amberley Publishing, £13.49, ISBN  9781445651088) describes how, in 1985, the seeds of a revolution were sown in the UK when people were first able to communicate using one of the most remarkable items of personal technology to have been developed – the mobile phone. The authors, both acknowledged experts in this field, explore the origins of the mobile phone in the UK and its subsequent evolution. They analyse background developments such as the licensing of new networks, the emergence of new data services and the technical evolution through TACS, GSM, UMTS and LTE, as well as the development of text messaging and the integration of the mobile with the web. Ranging from 1G through to the current 4G networks, this book tells you everything you need to know about the development of the mobile phone in the UK.

And for unparalleled insight into the great digital transformation that Britain’s communications networks experienced over the period between 1984 and 2004, there’s ‘Casting the Nets: From GSM to Digital TV’ by Professor Stephen Temple (Grosvenor House Publishing, $28.99, ISBN 9781786232618). Temple, who is an IET Fellow and member of the Institution’s Communications Policy Panel, provides a graphic description of industrial policy in action and brings to life what was involved in ensuring the success of these large initiatives. In a powerful lesson for policy makers and business leaders everywhere, he shows how a country and a continent can bring to bear its political, corporate and intellectual power to create a world-leading digital infrastructure.

Looking further back in time to the 19th century, if you’ve ever wondered why telephone boxes in Hull are cream, the answer is to be found in Angela Raby’s ‘The Scientific Toy & Thomas Holme’ (£24.95 or £4.99 e-book, ISBN 9780995586406). Using the life of Thomas Holme, who was the first manager of Hull Corporation Telephones between 1903 and 1945, as the foundation, Raby unravels the complex and fascinating story of Hull’s unique telephone service against a backdrop of national developments. The ‘scientific toy of the title, originally coined as a name for the telephone in the 1870s, was later adopted disparagingly by the Post Office officials who had attempted to discredit the new invention in order to protect their monopoly of the telegraph. In the early years of the 20th century a number of cities and towns recognised the competitive opportunities of setting up their own telephone services, but Hulls was the only municipal undertaking to survive and prosper. Raby argues that its success was due to the determination and dedicated efforts of a small group of men, including Thomas Holme, who were in the right place at the right time and whose individual talents complemented one another perfectly.

From the same era comes Dorrienne Roughley’s ‘Henry Charles Webster: Man of Steam’ (£14.50, ISBN 978-1527210363), the cradle-to-grave account of an engineer’s life and career. As a child, the author’s parents would take her to the docks to see the shunting engines and her own career path started as an engineering technician for a computer company before she went on to become a successful project engineer in process control. When she inherited Harry Webster’s memoirs and photos, she felt compelled to complete and publish his biography, 110 years after the start of his apprenticeship, tracking his life from teenage trainspotter to retirement. The highlight of his career was the supervision of the Locomotive Sheds at Kings Cross during the heyday of the LNERs Pacific locomotives and their famous express services, including the legendary Flying Scotsman.

Gwilym Roberts’ motivation for writing ‘Engineering Hitler’s Downfall: The Brains that Enabled Victory’ (Whittles Publishing, £18.99, ISBN 9781849953863) was somewhat different. While living in Liverpool, Britain’s second most heavily bombed city during the Second World War, Roberts experienced at first-hand the effects on the civilian population and when studying at Cambridge he witnessed American heavy bombers and their fighter escorts flying to attack targets in Germany and occupied Europe. Serving as an engineering officer in the Royal Navy in HMS Sheffield provided first-hand realisation of the importance of engineering and emphasised that victories achieved in the Battle of Britain and other campaigns were made possible by newly developed machines, equipment or techniques. His account of the innovations that gave the Allied forces a significant advantage and helped ensure eventual victory. This book features inventions such as the decoding machines developed at Bletchley Park, the hand-held mine detectors that cleared pathways through enemy minefields, the escort carriers and long-range aircraft that enabled U-boats to be attacked in the mid-Atlantic, the 40,000-plus Bailey bridges that allowed narrow ravines and rivers as wide as the Rhine to be crossed and many more.

The post-war period marked the emergence of Arup Associates, a major presence on the British architectural scene for more than half a century, from the engineering consultancy founded by Ove Arup in 1946. With architects, engineers and other professionals working in groups, it offered a uniquely interdisciplinary approach to the design of buildings. From early ground-breaking factories to a series of university commissions, innovative offices and cultural projects, the practice moved on to become a major player on the London development scene with its projects at Finsbury Avenue and Broadgate. ‘Arup Associates’ by Kenneth Powell (Historic England, £30, ISBN 9781848023673) is the first monograph on Arup Associates to be published for more than 30 years and discusses the work of the firm from the 1950s to the 1990s and assesses the contribution of its leading designers. Based on interviews with many former and current members of the practice, it’s extensively illustrated with images from the Arup archive and stunning new photography offering a new perspective on an exceptional body of work.

For those seeking a wide-ranging overview of what engineering has achieved over the years, it’s hard to beat ‘Discovering Engineering That Changed the World’ (Veloce, £19.99, ISBN 9781787113558), in which author and photographer Julian Edgar tours the world to see an astonishing series of engineering marvels. More than 170 original photos, accompanied by a thoroughly researched text, takes the reader on a journey from deep underground in an Arizona missile silo to being in the pilot’s seat of one of the biggest hovercraft that has ever flown. Passionate and insightful, this is an incredible adventure through the best things the world has to offer for anyone who likes speed, technology and excitement.

Sometimes it’s good to think about the motivation behind technical progress, and its implications. Humans have always sought to change their environment – building houses, monuments, temples and roads. In the process, they have remade the fabric of the world into newly functional objects that are also works of art to be admired. In ‘The Existential Pleasures of Engineering’ (Souvenir Press, £15, ISBN 9780285643727), Samuel Florman explores how engineers think and feel about their profession. Florman, a practicing engineer and vice-president of Kreisler Borg Florman Construction Company in the USA, celebrates engineering as being not only crucial and fundamental but also vital and alive; he views it as a response to some of our deepest impulses, an endeavour rich in spiritual and sensual rewards. Opposing the ‘anti-technology’ stance, he offers a practical, creative, and even amusing philosophy of engineering. Stimulating and illuminating, he opens our eyes to the inner need to build and invent. An eloquent, witty and perceptive celebration of our deepest creative impulses, ‘The Existential Pleasures of Engineering’ is an informative account of the modern-day engineer’s experience of their profession.

To finish, back to more names familiar to E&T readers, this time with books that don’t have a lot to do with engineering but will provide a light-hearted antidote to some of the more heavyweight issues addressed by titles we’ve mentioned already.

If the suggestion that the difference between chana dal and tarka dal is that “Tarka is a little otter,” raises a smile, you might be tempted by Nick Smith’s ‘Did You Hear the One About…’ (The Bay Magazine, £9.99, ISBN 978-0957110410), a collection of self-confessed ‘Dad jokes’ that will have you simultaneously laughing and groaning.

Our regular letters section cartoonists Kipper Williams, well known for his work right across UK media and beyond, strikes a festive tone with his ‘Christmas Comes To…’ series of books, containing cartoons tailored to 12 UK cities from Bury St Edmunds to Sheffield by way of Liverpool, Glasgow and Norwich. Order it here, and have a look at his greatest hits collection ‘All in Tents in Porpoises’ while you’re there.

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