I have been so excited about reading this. The exclamation mark in the title aptly expresses the enthusiasm with which the book was written and, in my case, read. David Eicher, who has a planet named after him, has written a pacey and delightful survey of the history and science of comets. It was so deeply fascinating, Comets! is the first book I’ve read in a long time that gave me an irresistible urge to take notes.
With occasional touches of humour, this is an extremely accessible book with a thorough glossary of terms, ideal for a keen beginner. Comets and their key appearances in history are explained in terms of the progress of scientific understanding: from superstition and astrology to accurate astronomical observations. It also clearly establishes where research is now and what is still not known about comets. The magnificent pictures are a real treat. The final section of the book clearly describes how to become a comet hunter, observer and photographer.
If you have any curiosity about space, read this.
In my opinion, Frank Ryan’s ‘Virolution’ does exactly what a popular science book should. It brings original ideas to a broader audience in an accessible and largely interesting manner. Essentially, it explains the evidence for the role of viruses in the evolution of all species. As a non-scientist reading this, I cannot speak for the accuracy of the content, but I gave a brief précis of it people with varying levels of interest and expertise, and they all said something to the effect of: ‘well that sounds right: how could that not be the case?’. I think that is also an indictment of how clearly Ryan presents his ideas; their lucidity and logic render them instantly credible.
Unlike other books in the genre, Ryan innovatively chose to explain his thesis by leading the reader through his journey of discovery. The sections where he recounts direct speech in conversation with eminent colleagues were not entirely to my taste. I would have preferred a summary of their contributions. Aside from these sections, I found the scientific explanations enjoyable, though I was more engaged in the first half of the text than the second.
As an editor, I thought the text would benefit from closer tailoring and concision. Also, I couldn’t help but notice some incredibly long sentences that became a barrier to understanding at points. Despite this, I generally thought the quality and tone were strong and the writer’s enthusiasm for his subject was communicated wholeheartedly.
‘Virolution’ is evidently a thought-provoking contribution to the field and is certainly worth reading.
After I did my last post on podcasts, a few people very kindly recommended some new ones to try. Here’s what I made of them!
Psychomedia: Hosts Timothy Swann and Ben Fell have a fantastic rapport in this very funny show about psychological research. Puns are my favourite things and they implement them beautifully in illuminating a brilliant range of fascinating topics. Particularly, there is a Greek philosopher pun run in episode 49 that is sensational. The psychology is well researched and clearly explained: you don’t need to have any particular knowledge of the subject to enjoy it- just an interest. The only thing I wasn’t keen on is the length: anything over an hour is a bit much for me; I’d prefer it more closely edited. However, I reckon that’s more a problem with my attention span and how busy I am than their format! I’d definitely recommend listening to this.
Skeptics with a K: This is the podcast of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. I’m really keen on folk science and they do a fantastic job of busting myths with proper scientific method and research. From psychics to sports bracelets, they explore the accuracy and efficacy of claims from a critical perspective. The presenters are really personable and the tone is light-hearted and amicable. It’s hugely informative and fun to listen to. It’s become an instant favourite with everyone in this household.
Betty in the Sky with a Suitcase: This podcast is absolutely charming. Cabin crew member, Betty, introduces amusing anecdotes about working in aviation. Coming from a family with many pilots, I do enjoy a plane-based yarn, though I think perhaps this podcast holds less surprises for me than it would for someone less acquainted with the flying world. Still, Betty is delightful, understandably popular and clearly has a great affinity with her audience.
Thanks to everyone who shared their recommendations! Do you have a favourite to share? Please tell me in the comments.
So here it is, the greatest puzzle of all, life, the universe and everything, as discussed by the genius, Richard Feynman. The Nobel Prize winning physicist is often quoted in popular science; I thought it was about time I read him in his own words. This book contains three public lectures given in 1963. The first, entitled, ‘The Uncertainty of Science’, addresses the importance of doubt in science as the catalyst for ideas and progress and introduces his views on the remarkable process of scientific discovery.
He counters the misconception that science is dull with rich imagery:
‘The world is a spinning ball, and people are held on it on all sides, some of them upside down. And we turn like a spit in front of a great fire. We whirl around the sun…But see that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. No one who did not have some inkling of this through observations could have imagined such a marvel as nature is.’
The themes of freedom and discovery remain in his second lecture on values, illustrated through an impressive employment of philosophy and ethics. His confident rhetoric shows in places a sensitive balance that allows the audience to consider his statements without pressure. I really enjoy reading lectures because so much of the speaker’s personality comes across. Watch the video below to get a sense of his brilliance.
I found the final lecture, ‘This Unscientific Age’, the most entertaining. His personal anecdotes, metaphors and allegories display his wit and intellect. The range of topics covered in the book mean there is never a lull. I was interested to read about the atomic bomb and Soviet Russia from a scientist’s perspective.
I could quote practically any line from the book and it would be wise and sensible, but I’ll finish with this as a nice example: ‘I think that we should have a more abject honesty in political matters. And I think we’ll be freer that way.’
I highly recommend the book and http://www.feynman.com/ to learn more about this amazing man. Did you know that as well as playing a key role in the development of quark theory by developing a new model of high energy proton collision processes he was an accomplished bongo player?