Fictional books

A recent meme asked for “fictional books” that have influenced one. I’m not sure if it’s what they meant, but the obvious ones for me are the infamous Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred, and Copper, Silver, Gold: An Indestructible Metallic Alloy by Egbert B. Gebstadter (my illustration above).


The spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus

Above is a chart of worldwide cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus disease (data from here, skipping the first few days). The apparent spike in cases on February 12 is due to a change in how cases are diagnosed and reported.

There does not seem to be the exponential growth in cases that one would expect (see the badly-fitting blue curve), except at first. In fact, allowing for the “false spike,” growth seems to be almost linear (see the dashed purple line). This would probably be due to under-counting (the Chinese medical system can only diagnose a certain number of cases each day), although it offers some hope that quarantine measures may be working. Let us pray that they continue to work.


Scientific alignment

I was thinking recently about the alignment (in the Dungeons & Dragons sense) of fictional scientists (see diagram above).

I was brought up on the Famous Five children’s stories by Enid Blyton. Perennially popular, even though flawed in certain ways, these novels star a rather grumpy scientist called Quentin (who had more than a little to do with my own desire to become a scientist). Quentin is certainly altruistic:

‘These two men were parachuted down on to the island, to try and find out my secret,’ said her father. ‘I’ll tell you what my experiments are for, George—they are to find a way of replacing all coal, coke and oil—an idea to give the world all the heat and power it wants, and to do away with mines and miners.’
‘Good gracious!’ said George. ‘It would be one of the most wonderful things the world has ever known.’
‘Yes,’ said her father. ‘And I should give it to the whole world—it shall not be in the power of any one country, or collection of men. It shall be a gift to the whole of mankind—but, George, there are men who want my secret for themselves, so that they may make colossal fortunes out of it.’
” (Enid Blyton, Five On Kirrin Island Again, 1947)

However, Quentin works for no organisation (barring some government consulting work) and draws no regular salary. He is clearly Chaotic Good.

Long before Quentin, Victor Frankenstein in Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818) created his famous monster out of selfishness and hubris. However, he also desires to make things right, so Frankenstein seems to me Chaotic Neutral.

On the other hand, the experiments of Doctor Moreau in The Island of Doctor Moreau (H. G. Wells, 1896) mark him as Chaotic Evil. The same is true of the scientist Rotwang in the movie Metropolis (1927), who is the prototype of the evil “mad scientist” of many later films – in contrast to good “mad scientists” like Emmett “Doc” Brown in the Back to the Future movies (1985, 1989, 1990).

In all cases, however, there seems to be a bias towards portraying scientists as Chaotic. This is a little strange, because the organisational structures, processes, and rules governing science in the real world are better described as “ordered” or Lawful (in the Dungeons & Dragons sense). Perhaps chaotic characters are just more fun?

Not that everyone follows all the rules and procedures of course. When I take the What is your Scientific Alignment? test, my personal alignment comes out as Neutral Good.


Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling: a book review


Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws

Having written before about nature journals, a while ago I purchased the Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws of johnmuirlaws.com. This is a wonderful guide to both the scientific and artistic aspects of keeping a nature journal. There are chapter on how to observe as well as chapters on how to draw flowers, trees, and other things. Laws provides three useful observation cues: “I notice,” “I wonder,” and “it reminds me of” (click page photographs to zoom):

This wonderful book is full of practical tips, both on the scientific side and the artistic side. I particularly liked this little curiosity kit:

I haven’t quite finished with the book, but I really love it so far. Other reviews online are also very positive: “I can’t find a thing lacking in this book” (scratchmadejournal.com); “informative and inspiring” (parkablogs.com); “the best book for nature journaling in your homeschool” (proverbs14verse1.blogspot.com). Goodreads rates the book 4.67.

* * * * *
Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws: 5 stars


In the Wet by Nevil Shute: a book review


In the Wet by Nevil Shute (1953)

I recently re-read the novel In the Wet by Nevil Shute. Like An Old Captivity, reincarnation is a key part of the storyline. The novel is set partly in the year in which it was written (1953, which was the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II) but mostly 30 years in the future (1983). The book is thus rather dated, with the “future” now 37 years in the past. There is also language that would be unacceptable today (“n—-r,” “b–ng,” and “g-n”) and, by modern standards, the novel is both fanatically monarchist and extremely right-wing.

The Hero

One of the things that makes the novel interesting is that the hero, David Anderson, is a quarter Aboriginal (the book expresses an optimistic view of Australian race relations). David is from Cape York. His maternal grandmother is of the Kaantju people, and his father is a white stockman. Born literally in a ditch, David grows up on a cattle station, learning to ride a horse at age 3 or 4, and eventually joins the Royal Australian Air Force. He becomes a pilot in some hypothetical 1970s war (note that the First Indochina War and the Malayan Emergency were both ongoing when the novel was written). After that David becomes a test pilot, rising to the rank of Wing Commander and earning the Air Force Cross. The novel focuses on his transfer to the Queen’s Wing, flying royalty in two aircraft donated by the Australian and Canadian people (while also dealing with some complex politics and falling in love).


The hero in a contemporary Australian Women’s Weekly serial of the novel

The Aircraft

Nevil Shute was an aircraft designer, and the hypothetical fast long-range private jet in this book seems to be based on a planned (but never built) civilian version of the Avro Vulcan bomber. Nevil Shute seems to me to have underestimated progress in the aircraft industry, however, with his reported speed of 500 knots (930 km/h) matched by the much larger Boeing 747, although matching the range of 8000 nautical miles (15,000 km) had to wait for the Boeing 747-400ER of 2000.


The Avro Vulcan bomber

The Society

Nevil Shute’s social prediction is even worse. A visitor to Australia, he underestimates the left-wing tendency in Australian politics, and overestimates the monarchist tendency. He postulates a large drop in the British population (with all kinds of economic consequences), and large rises in the Australian and Canadian populations (see dotted lines in the chart below). Immigration to Australia was, in fact, less than he expected, and much of it was to come from Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Malta, the former Yugoslavia, and (eventually) Vietnam. The UK, on the other hand, was to see substantial immigration from India and Pakistan.

On the whole, I would call this novel a well-written historical curiosity. As an old Danish proverb has it, it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. Goodreads rates the book 3.86, which is similar to my rating.


In the Wet by Nevil Shute: 3½ stars
(subtract 2 if you voted for Australia to become a republic)


How solar is that solar car?

Above (click to zoom) is a chart showing WLTP-standard solar-only driving ranges for the three solar cars from my last post (battery ranges not shown here):

  • Solar Team Eindhoven’s Stella Era, winner of the BWSC Cruiser class
  • Lightyear One, a commercial solar car from the Netherlands
  • The Sion electric vehicle from Sono Motors

These solar-only driving ranges are marked on a smoothed distribution of electric vehicle driving patterns reported in this paper (distance driven per vehicle-day on days when the vehicle was driven).

The sleek Stella Era has a solar-only range more than 4 times the mean 70 km driven. On more than 99% of trips, Stella Era can operate solar-only, and, on average, its solar panel produces substantial excess electricity which can be donated to other vehicles.

Lightyear One has a solar-only range less than the mean 70 km, but is still able to operate solar-only on 57% of trips.

The less expensive Sion is able to operate solar-only on 19% of trips, and has a useful solar boost to its battery the rest of the time.