Books

Book Review: The Edge of Physics

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edge of physicsThose of you who are non-technical should not be put off by the title of this book, which conjures images of arcane equations and theories.

It is in fact a travelogue – a writer’s journey around the globe to visit sites at which the most extreme science is being done, and in the process, explains the background of the science for the layman. The science he investigates is all about understanding our universe, from the origins of that universe, down the structure of the very small.

And very entertaining it is.

Mind you, some familiarity with the ‘big questions’ in physics won’t go astray – in fact the author provides as appendices brief synopses of the standard model of particle physics, and the standard model of cosmology (i.e. the big bang). Incredibly, he does this in just two pages each.

By assembling these stories into one book, the author places a strong focus on how big science needs to be to answer the really big questions. While theoretical physicists can sit with a pencil and paper to do their work, the experimentalists (and engineers who, of course, rule) need to get out and build stuff to test theories.

They build radio telescopes that span continents. They build optical telescopes that require immense structures to support and adjust them. They adapt cubic kilometers of clean ice at the South Pole to build a detector capable of catching fleeting particles from the edge of the known universe, in the hope of testing theories of the very origins of the universe. They deliver sensitive instruments to specific points in our solar system (Lagrange points – low energy parking spots) to probe the structure of the early universe, and they build huge underground tunnels in the shape of a ring to smash up particles and probe their constituents in an effort to determine, amongst other things, why stuff has mass.

I found this book engaging, with the stories of the author’s discoveries well told. Some parts do get a bit technical, but it’s easy to skip over those if you’re not interested, and instead focus on big picture.

Give it a try.

higgs - last place you look

An Evening with Ray Bradbury

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While we’re still mourning the loss of Ray Bradbury, here’s a belated look at a talk he gave in 2001.

His insights early in the talk about his early influences and his own path to becoming a writer are very revealing, and reinforce his love of the short story, and of literature in general.

For the afficionados, from about the 30 minute mark we hear the genesis of his major early books.

We hear about how destitute he and his wife were when he went to New York to try to sell his short stories, to be met with publishers who insisted that short stories would just not sell. Fortunately, one man recognised the possibilities, and asked him to join up all his martian stories into The Martian Chronicles, and gave him a hefty advance.

We hear about the summers as a boy, where every sound and smell stimulated a short story, which became Dandelion Wine.

We hear about the painting of a gothic train in the darkness, which was to be the spark for Something Wicked This Way Comes.

His over-riding message to budding writers was to write from within, not for commercial purposes, and after hearing the stories of how his major works originated, and being intimately acquainted with those works, no truer words have been spoken.

Enjoy.

Vale Ray Bradbury

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Sadly, one of my literary heroes has passed away.

Ray Bradbury is in many ways the father of science fiction and fantasy. He certainly influenced my fiction writing style in high school. And judging by the way the internet has lit up with eulogies to him, I was not alone.

Who could forget that wonderful prose, and of course those magnificent twists at the end of his short stories, my favourite being ‘And the Rock Cried Out’. That story wasn’t sci-fi or fantasy in any way – it was a commentary on prejudice, but it was so wonderfully written that it was accessible to a young person who only wanted to read about rockets and martians.

A key feature of Ray’s writing was the aversion to technical stuff. While Isaac Asimov and Fred Hoyle were showing off their technical knowledge, Ray was content to tell us how it might feel after your rocket exploded and you fell to earth while discussing your life and fate with shipmates hurtling in different directions (‘Kaleidoscope’). Or hint of the ghostly remains of a once great civilisation (‘The Martian Chronicles’).

And of course, he was able to capture the joy of a young boy running through the fields in summer, and the foreboding which accompanied the distant sound of a calliope on the breeze (‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’).

In a nice gesture, Bradbury’s contribution to the genre was also recognised in the movie Blade Runner, with a lot of the key action taking place in the ‘Bradbury Apartments’, including the final remarkable scenes in which the protagonists fight it out. It’s fitting that the movie voted #1 Sci-fi movie ever, contains this nod to the writer also ranked #1.

I think it’s time to re-read all those Bradbury books accumulated over the years, to re-live past joys, and to remind me of things to come.

Vale Christopher Hitchens

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One of my first posts on rationalbrain was a review of ‘God is Not Great’ by Christopher Hitchens.

His writing actually served to inspire me to start this blog, so it was sad to read yesterday that he has died, aged 62. Tobacco claims another scalp.

I was a late-comer to his work, but was immediately impressed by his clear, direct and often witty writing style.

I’m sure he’s in heaven at the keyboard of his word processor.

And I’m certain he would have hated anyone saying that, even as a joke.

Book Review – The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene

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Rationalbrain comes to you from sunny Budapest today.

The first real sci-fi book I remember reading as a kid was called ‘The Universe Between‘, by Alan E. Nourse, and it blew my mind. It was my first exposure to hidden realities – places you could go by slipping through rips in the fabric of space, or falling through a wormhole, or indeed, even stepping through the back of the wardrobe. The adventures which ensued really tested the imagination, with Nourse describing what it was like in the other universe, invoking disconnected limbs, colours we don’t normally see, and so forth. There have since been countless such stories published, and I’m sure I’ve seen or read most of them.

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Book Review – Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan

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Carl Sagan will be well known to those who are already in the skeptic movement, and in fact is somewhat of a figurehead, much like Richard Dawkins is to atheism.

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Book Review – Counter Clock World, Philip K. Dick

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While I count Blade Runner as probably my favourite sci-fi film of all time, it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve really become a convert to the twisted worlds of Philip K Dick. I’ve now read quite a few of them and have invariably become engrossed in each one. This latest, Counter Clock World, is no different.

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