Eureka! – a book review

Eureka!: The Birth of Science by Andrew Gregory

I recently read Eureka!: The Birth of Science by Andrew Gregory. The book deals with a topic that has long fascinated me – the birth of science. In a previous post I argued that this took place in the 12th century, the age of cathedrals. Gregory takes the view that it happened with the ancient Greeks, and sees Aristotle and Archimedes as among science’s pioneers. He gives a brief defence of this thesis, and provides a quick summary of Greek scientific thought.

Aristotle and Archimedes

I found this book rather short for the subject (177 pages, including bibliography), was disappointed at the lack of endnotes, and found some annoying errors (the Greeks did not consider the universe small, for example – Archimedes took it to be 2 light-years across). But the big unanswered question is: what went wrong? Gregory includes a list of key people at the back of the book, and if you turn that list into a bar chart, you can see that Greek science basically fell off a cliff around 200 BC.

In a brief two-page section towards the end, Gregory suggests that Christianity was somehow responsible for the decline of Greek science, but that simply makes no sense. Was it instead Roman conquest, beginning around 280 BC? Was it the growing separation of aristocratic philosophy from plebeian technology? Was it the replacement of original science by encyclopaedic systematisation (such as that of Pliny)? It would have been nice to have those questions answered.

Goodreads gives this book 3.4 stars; I was rather less enthusiastic.

Eureka!: The Birth of Science by Andrew Gregory: 2 stars


True Stories – a book review

True Stories: And Other Essays by Francis Spufford

I recently finished True Stories: And Other Essays by Francis Spufford – a collection of real gems by a man who can truly write. A selection of essays, book reviews, and other non-fiction works, this book is divided into the thematic sections “Cold,” “Red,” “Sacred,” “Technical,” and “Printed.” The section “Technical,” for example, includes a piece on British engineering, together with a wide-ranging essay on Babbage’s “Difference Engine No. 2,” reconstructed by the Science Museum, London. Babbage never completed this device, of course, and perhaps could not have done so, given the technological limitations of his time. This leads Spufford into a general reflection on counterfactual history, drawing also on the novel The Difference Engine.

The section “Cold” includes several pieces on polar exploration, such as an introduction written for The Worst Journey in the World (a memoir of the 1910–1913 British Antarctic Expedition), and a piece on Ernest Shackleton. I’ve been fascinated by polar exploration since childhood, so I found these particularly interesting.

Grotto in an iceberg, photographed during the 1910–1913 British Antarctic Expedition (image credit)

The section “Red” deals largely with the former Soviet Union. It includes an explanation of Spufford’s fictional documentary book Red Plenty, and the essay “The Soviet Moment,” which is still online at The Guardian: “It was not the revolutionary country people were thinking of, all red flags and fiery speechmaking, pictured through the iconography of Eisenstein movies; not the Stalinesque Soviet Union of mass mobilisation and mass terror and austere totalitarian fervour. This was, all of a sudden, a frowning but managerial kind of a place, a civil and technological kind of a place, all labs and skyscrapers, which was doing the same kind of things as the west but threatened – while the moment lasted – to be doing them better. American colleges worried that they weren’t turning out engineers in the USSR’s amazing numbers. Bouts of anguished soul-searching filled the op-ed pages of European and American newspapers, as columnists asked how a free society could hope to match the steely strategic determination of the prospering, successful Soviet Union. … The loudest and most important lesson of the Soviet experience should always be: don’t ever do this again. Children, don’t try this at home. … Yet we’d better remember to sympathise with the underlying vision that drove this disastrous history, because it is basically our own.

The section “Sacred,” obviously, deals with religion (Spufford is an English Anglican). It includes a critique of Richard Dawkins, a reflection on C. S. Lewis, and a record of travels in Iran. The New Humanist still has online the essay beginning “Allow me to annoy you with the prospect of mutual respect between believers and atheists. … No? No. Because the idea of atheism as an extravagant faith-driven deviation from the null case goes against one of the most cherished elements in the self-image of polemical unbelief: that atheism is somehow scientific, that it is to be adopted as the counterpart in the realm of meaning to the caution and rigour of the scientific method.

Spufford visited the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran (image credit)

Finally, the section “Printed” includes miscellaneous introductions and book reviews, including an introduction to The Jungle Book, a review of the Mars trilogy, and an obituary of Iain M. Banks. This last section reflects Spufford’s wide-ranging interests in technology, exploration, and imagination. For me, at least, it established a connection of sorts with the author: we read the same things; we are brothers.

The last section of True Stories includes a review of the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson

See The New York Times and the New York Journal of Books for other reviews of True Stories. I’m giving it four stars overall, although several of the individual essays deserve five. This book was a delight to read.

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True Stories: And Other Essays by Francis Spufford: 4 stars

Something different

This picture illustrates the ill-fated expedition to Australia described in H.P. Lovecraft’s horror story The Shadow Out of Time. The images in the montage are edited versions of public-domain pictures, and include this copy of the Necronomicon. The complete image is © Anthony Dekker.

… On July 10, 1934, there was forwarded to me by the Psychological Society the letter which opened the culminating and most horrible phase of the whole mad ordeal. It was postmarked Pilbarra, Western Australia, and bore the signature of one whom I found, upon inquiry, to be a mining engineer of considerable prominence. Enclosed were some very curious snapshots. I will reproduce the text in its entirety, and no reader can fail to understand how tremendous an effect it and the photographs had upon me. …

The “Pilbarra” in this story (and on the map) is presumably Pilbara Road District, an old name for what is now the town of Port Hedland, Western Australia (although the address given by Lovecraft matches a no longer extant street in the nearby ghost town of Cossack). Lovecraft’s story also refers to a precise geographical location: 22° 3′ 14” S, 125° 0′ 39” E. See more on the Australian aspects of the story at Trollunteer. Propnomicon also did some really good props a few years back.

Climate Fiction

Someone told me the other day about climate fiction (cli-fi). I had no idea that it had become a genre. The difficulty with climate change, of course, is that it is slow. Anthropogenic climate change has been going on for more than a century, and is likely to continue for decades to come. The slowness of the process creates challenges for managing it, and also challenges for the novelist. It is a little like tying the hero to the railway tracks, and then having a train head to him at walking pace from miles away. The hero is doomed, but nothing dramatic will happen for a while. How does the reader sustain interest in the hero’s dilemma?

One solution for the novelist is to speed up the process, most commonly through a scenario involving a shutdown of the Gulf Stream. This would cause massive freezing in the US, a huge increase in Arctic ice, a consequent increase in albedo, and hence global cooling. This scenario has been explored in the film The Day After Tomorrow and in a trilogy of novels by Kim Stanley Robinson – Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007). There seems to be a flood of recent novels following in Robinson’s footsteps.

More usually, novelists assume that a particular climate change scenario has happened, and set their novel in the aftermath. This literary approach has existed for a while. The novel may be primarily dystopian, as in The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard (1962) or Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003).

Alternatively, the effects of climate change can simply be part of the setting, with the plot of the novel concentrating on other things. Much recent science fiction would fall in this category. A good example would be the “Event Horizon” trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton – Mindstar Rising (1993), A Quantum Murder (1994), and The Nano Flower (1995). However, I’m not sure it makes sense to describe such novels as “cli-fi” – they are simply novels in which climate change forms a significant part of the setting. What do my readers think?

Update: see also this 2016 article by Sarah Stankorb and this website with incredibly annoying background music by Dan Bloom (who claims to have coined the term “cli-fi”).

Lotus Blue: a book review

Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks (377 pages, published 2017)

I recently read, with great enjoyment, the hot new post-apocalyptic novel Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks. I’m a sucker for the genre, and this novel has shades of Dune, Mad Max, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and the works of Roger Zelazny – yet is not derivative. As a fan of the trans-Australia World Solar Challenge, I particularly liked the caravan of solar trucks on the cover. The cover also shows the falling satellite which marks the emergent threat to the world of the novel.

While opening with a solar-powered trading caravan, the novel has a few flashbacks to the three centuries of war that created the dystopian world of the story: “Mighty tankers were on the move, travelling in tight formation grids. Working together, not attacking each other. Not something you saw every day. Those mechabeasts had once roamed wild and free, following their own whims, their own flights of fancy. But something had changed. Something had gotten hold of their minds. Synchronous rhythm locked them into step. For Marianthe, the sight brought on a stream of flashbacks: glory days, when command and strategy spiked through her arteries like a virus. Like a drug. A platoon full of hearts beating in syncopation. You could feel your brother and sister soldiers, know they had your back, your breath, your sweat.” I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but of course that savage past collides with the protagonist’s present, and that’s where the adventure begins.

Some readers seem to have found the world, and the range of characters, somewhat confusing; I thought the level of complexity of the novel was just about perfect. I enjoyed both the characters and the world in which they were set. This book has had a fair bit of revision and polishing before hitting the shelves, and it shows (although a plethora of typos suggests some rather poor final editing). My only real complaint was that, although I liked Star, the 17-year-old protagonist, I would have liked to have seen more of her older sister Nene, the healer (why does Nene just vanish from the story?). With luck, this novel will have a sequel or two.

By the way, a blog post I read recently suggested that the protagonist of a young adult (YA) novel should:

  • Be aged between 15 to 18 years old (Star is 17)
  • Be autonomous from his or her parents (Star is an orphan)
  • Embark on a journey which has to do with coming of age or some sort of rite of passage (Yes, she does)
  • Learn something about who he or she is (Yes, in spades)
  • Have a ‘voice’ that readers can relate to (Yes again)

So OK, this is a YA novel, although it has not been specifically marketed as such. What that means is that it suits the age range from 14 up to and including adult (as opposed to, say, Great North Road, which is written for adults only). Having said that, for the benefit of parents of younger readers, I should point out that there is some bad language, but that the only mention of sexuality is 25 words on page 3: “Remy. Star should never have slept with him. He’d been hanging around her ever since, as if she would ever make the same mistake again.” And Star has quite a clear sense of what is, and is not, the right thing to do.

For me, this novel ended with a “Planet of the Apes” moment, since Cat Sparks has set part of the novel in the vicinity of her home town of Canberra, Australia. Calling one of the fortress cities “Nisn” was a clue I missed first time around – but I could hardly miss the reference to the Brindabella Range. I also finished this book with a strong sense of wanting to read more from this author. Lotus Blue was one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks: 4 stars

The Three-Body Problem trilogy: a book review

The Three-Body Problem trilogy by Liu Cixin

I recently read (in translation, of course) the popular The Three-Body Problem science fiction trilogy by Liu Cixin. These books explore the idea of first contact, and touch on several topics that I have posted about before (such as the Fermi paradox and the 3-body problem itself). I enjoyed reading them (the first two books more than the third). It was fascinating to read a Chinese view on some of the issues explored.

The novels are somewhat darker than classic Western science fiction, largely due to the shadow cast by the Cultural Revolution. But given the possibility of aliens like the Borg, the Daleks, and the Vang, perhaps interstellar optimism is just naive. And apparently, most contemporary Chinese science fiction is even more pessimistic than that of Liu (one of the characters in the first novel comments on this).

It seemed a little strange that Liu accepts the speed-of-light limit on space travel, but allows faster-than-light communication (which other authors have called an ansible). After all, both relativity and quantum mechanics forbid such a technology. Still, any depiction of truly advanced technology is going to read like fantasy, and the plot did require an ansible (although partway through the trilogy, the speed-of-light limit seemed to vanish even for ordinary communication).

These books (at least the first two) are well worth a read. Wired magazine also posted a review last year, and Nature had an interview with the author.

The Three-Body Problem trilogy by Liu Cixin: 3.5 stars

Molecules: a book review

Molecules by Theodore Gray

I recently purchased Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything by Theodore Gray of (this is the sequel to his superb The Elements, which I have previously reviewed). The book is packed with interesting facts about chemistry as it relates to daily life, and the photographs are absolutely beautiful, as this two-page spread shows:

The structure of the book is necessarily a little ad-hoc, lacking the obvious pattern of The Elements. However, it is still well-organised, informative, and compelling. Everyone interested in science should probably have this one on the coffee table too.

I would give this book five stars, except that nothing could be quite as good as The Elements. I should also note that Theodore Gray’s Reactions is coming out soon. I expect that to be worthwhile as well.

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Molecules by Theodore Gray: 4 stars