Monday, 25 October 2010

I-Spy Memories

 A few days ago I was reading for review a lovely little popular maths book called 1089 and All That (highly recommended - take a look at the review). A couple of pages into the book is an illustration of a child's book(let) called I-Spy on a Train Journey... and on seeing it, the memories just came flooding back.

For those who never encountered them, I-Spy books were a very 1950s/60s set of little books for children. (No connection with the 1990s I Spy series from Scholastic, but the originals were revamped in various decades.) The idea was they contained pictures/descriptions of all kinds of things you might see at a particular location, or during a particular activity, and you noted down as you spotted them, learning a little along the way.

My favourite, ideal for wet holidays in Wales and Cornwall, was I-Spy at the Seaside with a heady mix of creatures you might see in rock pools and unlikely sights like a lifeboat being launched. It just reeked of seaside holidays.

At the Seaside returns in the new series
The downside of these books were the obscure things. There was just no way you could get everything in the book - but you were determined to try. If you got enough points (I think, and here the memory's hazy, you got more points for obscure things), you could send the book off to some mysterious central organization, run, apparently, by 'Big Chief I-Spy', who would no doubt award you something or other, but I never got round to this. (I've no idea where the Red Indian (as it would be known then) theme came from.)

I honestly think these books were part of my stimulation to get interested in science. They encouraged you to explore, to find out, to discover. We could do with a new generation of these books, I think. Can we call back Big Chief I-Spy from retirement? I can but hope. (Update - I see from the Wikipedia article they were re-launched this year. Hurrah!)

Due to this being half term, my blogging this week will be sparse-to-non-existent. Please bear with me!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Salty stuff

You may be salt of the earth, or turned into a pillar of salt. You may be important enough to sit above the salt, or sadistic enough to rub salt into someone’s wounds – perhaps the person you are attacking is an old sea salt. You may be worth your salt, or be trying to salt away a fortune. There are few compounds that crop up as frequently in phrases and sayings as common salt, which is why I really enjoyed having it as my next compound in the Royal Society of Chemistry podcasts.

You can take a listen to the podcast here, or choose it from my little list:


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Wednesday, 20 October 2010

And the winner is...

Tomorrow night is popular science's equivalent of the BAFTAs - the Royal Society Prize for Science Books will be awarded. There's a interesting  shortlist:

We need to talk about Kelvin Marcus Chown Uses everyday observations to plunge into quantum theory, thermodynamics and cosmology. Great fun and very readable. Shortlist
Why Does E=mc2 Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw Explanation of the derivation of the world's most famous equation, exploration of the standard model master equation and great exposition of Higgs - but too technical for the general reader. Shortlist
God's Philosophers James Hannam Highly informative and surprisingly readable book filling in just what developments were made in the history of science during the medieval period. Short list
Life Ascending Nick Lane Visit bookshop Visit bookshop        Short list
A World without Ice Henry Pollack Visit bookshop Visit bookshop        Short list

I have to say for me there are some oddities in there. In the table above you see the ratings of the ones we've reviewed on the Popular Science website (click the titles or summaries for a detailed review) - some, yes, are great. Some, frankly, rather less so. I can't help but think this is in part because of the odd nature of the judging panel. It is Maggie Philbin, Radio and television presenter (Chair); Professor Tim Birkhead, Fellow of the Royal Society; Tracy Chevalier, author; Robin Ince, stand-up comedian, writer and actor; Dr Janet Anders, Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow. So, basically, a couple of academics, a couple of media types and a fiction writer. How many popular science writers? Well... none. Nothing like getting the experts in.

On the Popular Science website we also feature our 'extras' - books that were published in the right period and really should have been on the shortlist, rather than some of those weird choices. This year it looks like this:

Atomic: the first war of physics Jim Baggott Riveting and detailed history of the development of nuclear weapons in Germany, the UK, the US and Russia. Fascinating in its depth and the lost possibilities for alternatives to nuclear proliferation. Overview
Before the Big Bang Brian Clegg The latest ideas on how the universe began, the limitations of the Big Bang theory and more in excellent popular history of how humans understand the universe. Cosmology
Dazzled and Deceived Peter Forbes Excellent book on the fascinating topic of mimicry and camouflage, covering both the natural world and military attempts. Great insights into evolutionary mechanisms. Biology, technology
Heatstroke Anthony Barnosky Excellent exploration of the impact of climate change on species, and how the present global warming could devastate nature. Earth science, biology
Microcosm Carl Zimmer Fascinating study of the bacterium E. coli with plenty of lessons for the understanding of life as a whole, and our attitude to human genetic material. Biology

Any road up, good luck to all those attending tomorrow. For me, the obvious choice is Marcus Chown's book - but let's face it, book prize panels specialize in not going for the obvious choice.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Why some music is great, and some is rubbish

The other day, as Radio 4 was being boring, I flipped through the other radio channels in the car. I usually only stay on Classic FM for a few seconds, as, by default, you tend to hit some tedious piece from the classical period, typically by someone like Mozart or Haydn. But this time I stayed, transfixed. They were playing a choral piece I would eventually find out was Cloudburst by Eric Whitacre, and it was stunning. I had to rapidly purchase the CD.

It made me try to analyze why my musical tastes differ from some people. It's interesting to compare what I hear in a piece and what my wife hears. We are both singers, but she has always been a soprano, while I (apart from a brief dalliance with alto) have been a bass since my voice broke, around 40 years ago. She primarily listens to tunes. I primarily listen to harmony. It's a weakly supported hypothesis, but our respective singing parts may help explain this. Basses rarely get the tune.

This seems quite a good explanation of why I prefer early polyphonic music, like Tudor and Elizabethan church music, or modern serious music, to music from the classical period. The classical stuff relies heavily on melody, with harmonies supporting the melody. In the early and modern stuff, it's the harmony that rules, and there often isn't a tune per se. Once harmony takes over, you can play around with dischords, which for me provide the most wonderful aspects of music done properly. (It's interesting that the Victorians bowdlerized Bach by taking out the dischords, assuming they were accidents, where actually they are the best bits.)

Please take a few seconds to listen to a prime example. This is just the 'amen' from the end of a piece called Jesu Salvator Saeculi by the sixteenth century English composer John Sheppard. The harmonies start off conventionally enough, but every now and then he does something so modern sounding that it's hard to believe this music is nearly 500 years old. Excuse the amateur recording, but click here to take a listen.

Of course it's entirely possible for music to have a great tune and funky harmonies (the best film music often does this, for instance) - but I do think I might have found out why I struggle so with the classical period composers. Their harmonies are usually boring.

So, to end where we began, here's that Eric Whitacre piece that got me so excited:

Monday, 18 October 2010

Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt

We occasionally get books in to review that don't fit with the remit of, but are interesting in their own right. Most recent of these is Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt by Joyce Tyldesley (see at and Archeology is arguably a science, and I've happily covered books about Egyptian proto-science on the site - but this is straightforwardly an introduction to the stories that supported ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, and as such probably belongs here instead.

I have to confess to being a sucker for anything about ancient Egypt. My parents took me to the Tutankhamen exhibition in London those many years ago (early 1970s) to queue all day to see those remarkable grave goods. (We were lucky - hundreds behind us never got in.) But up to now I've mostly concentrated on the architecture and archeology - Joyce Tyldesley gives us a chance to get into the minds of these remarkable people.

It's decidedly worrying when, up front, we hear there were as many as 1500 different deities to deal with, but any such worries are set aside by the fascinating journey we take in the book's introduction. We begin to get a feel for a very alien culture (to modern Western eyes). Not only was there no single myth covering anything from creation to the afterlife - so at least a handful of different gods were credited with the original creation - but different gods could merge and separate. Even their parts could become gods in their own right, with Re's eye regarded as a female god of some power when separated from his body.

Any particular god could have dozens of different aspects, both in appearance - from human, through human with an animal head to fully animal (one was even a brick with a female head) - and in their responsibilities. Of course, not everyone believed every myth, but with no central structure, the religious beliefs became an immensely rich and complex interwoven tapestry of possibility. In death, some humans either became gods or became integrated into gods, while others might live in a kind of paradise, while the common herd were often considered unworthy of an afterlife at all.

The slight disappointment for me - and it's not Dr Tyldesley's fault - is that after the superb and quite detailed introduction, the rest of the book is a bit of a let down. The introduction is so well written that when we get into the details of who the gods are and they myths surrounding them, things inevitably lose a bit of momentum. This doesn't mean there isn't much to find interest in. Some of the myths are pure soap operas, others a fascinating attempt to explain natural phenomena. But for those who haven't spent years studying the subject, it's hard not to start to lose track of a cast list of gods that makes the most epic drama seem like a one man show.

Don't let that put you off, though. If you have an interest in ancient Egypt, this book gives it a context that I've never had from reading about the archeological side alone. Some of the myths and legends may be hard going, but the book does what it says on the tin, it's worth it for the introduction alone, and is highly recommend if this is a subject of interest to you.

Available from and

Friday, 15 October 2010

Mining the miners for all they are worth

It was great news when the last of the Chilean miners came up to the surface. (Or, as the BBC entertainingly put it at one point, the 'Chile miners'. I was immediately imagining a Lewis Carroll style chilli mine.) But the way it was treated by the news faintly nauseated me.

Sky News, for example, simply stuck to the miners emerging with occasional split screen views of boring stuff like Prime Minister's Questions (and yes, the odd diversion to a real story). I'm sure it challenged their team of 12 on the ground in Chile and the anchors to keep coming up with something new to say. It's bad enough with the general election, where at least there's more going on at any one time, but here...

Similarly, yesterday's Times had a good 12+ pages totally dedicated to the rescue. I'm afraid I didn't bother to read them.

My problem is not the reporting of good news, or the human interest, but the contrast between this and the way (say) the rescue of a similar number of people from an earthquake zone would be reported. Because the news teams knew exactly who these people were, they were able to give us life stories and sob stories, family details and inane roller coaster experience accounts - yes they were using exactly the same kind of audience manipulation we see on programmes like the X-Factor. I know a lot of people like this kind of stuff, but I would have much prefered the kind of approach used when people are rescued from an earthquake. It's great to hear they are safe, we seem them emerge... and then we move on.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Dancing around the quantum

Quantum theory is an absolutely fundamental foundation of physics. It describes how everything works on a small scale, from atoms to photons of light. It is, arguably the most important part of modern physics. So what do we do when we teach science to children? We ignore it, and start them off with a Victorian picture of the world, which inevitably means that quantum theory will seem strange and confusing when (and if) it is eventually presented. It's as if we first taught kids that the Earth was the centre of the universe, then, later in their education, we said 'Well, actually, that's not really how modern science sees it.'

I believe we ought to bite the bullet and teach the real basics of science including quantum theory in junior school. (This is partly why I wrote Getting Science, which is aimed at primary school teachers who don't have a science background to bring them up to speed on the important stuff.)

I have neither time nor enough of your attention to run through all of quantum physics here, but I wanted to pick up on one point that causes much confusion, leaving some science writers dancing around the issue even today - and that's wave-particle duality.

We introduce light as a wave, then go through this uncomfortable dance saying 'Well, sometimes it's like a wave, but at other times it's like a particle. Strange, huh?' But I'd argue this dance really isn't necessary. Let me quote one of the two greatest physicists of the twentieth century, Richard Feynman:

I want to emphasize that light comes in this form - particles. It is very important to know that light behaves like particles, especially for those of you who have gone to school, where you were probably told something about light behaving like waves. I'm telling you the way it does behave - like particles.

Feynman showed how a quantum particle that has a particular property that varies over time (phase) produces all the effects we experience with light. There is no equivalent which will describe everything light does using waves. Making use of a pure particle description is admittedly quite clumsy sometimes, because wave-like properties emerging from phase are easier described using terms like 'wavelength' - so it is convenient sometimes to use wave models. But if Feynman's right (and who am I to argue with him?) then we ought to be teaching people particles first and explaining the use of a wave model later. We've got the whole thing back to front.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Getting zapped by Van der Graaf Generator

Yes, music lovers - time to take cover. It's the next step on the journey through my favourite 70s prog rock bands that I am still fond of today.

This is a particularly obscure taste - certainly an acquired one. Van der Graaf Generator was a Manchester band fronted by Peter Hammill whose sound was sparse, haunting and original, with songs that often verged on the depressing in theme. A particularly distinctive part of their sound was a saxaphone, usually electronically distorted. Hammill's voice ranges from a gentle sigh, through sprechsing to harsh, almost shouted lyrics.

This isn't pastoral music by any stretch of the imagination - but it is music that rewards the listener. The band went through two main phases (followed by some solo work from Hammill and a couple of reunion albums) - the earlier stuff like H to He, Who Am the Only One is a bit too raw for me - I particularly like the slightly slicker albums starting from Godbluff , with my favourite being World Record.

Here's a not atypical track from World Record:

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The curse of the kamikaze cyclist

I know cyclists and motorists are a bit like cats and dogs, and both could do with giving the other a bit more give and take - but yesterday I had a nasty experience with a bike that both left me upset and unhappy with at least one member of the cycling fraternity.

I go out of my way to give bikes lots of room when I overtake them, and generally apply the rules of the road to them - and I think it's not only polite, but stupid from bicyclists not to the same. I won't go into how many cyclists I see without lights or any reflective gear at night - that's just loony. Round our way I wouldn't walk at night with lights, let alone ride a bike. But this wasn't such a cyclist. He had a helmet, all the reflective gubbins - apparently took it seriously.

It was late afternoon - plenty of light - and I was pulling out of a T junction with a left filter. Let's be clear about this: the traffic lights for crossing the top of the T were red and I had a filter to pull out from the downstroke of the T into the top left arm of the T. I was about half way out when a cyclist came screeching up right to left across the top of the T and practically fell off in the effort not to run into me. The only way he could have done this was to ride straight through a red light.

A lot of cyclists do ignore red lights - and some argue they have the right to do so as it's the only way to keep safe. But the fact is it wasn't right to do so, and he was anything but safe. I was left shaking as I drove off. I'm afraid incidents like this are liable to drive me into the 'cyclists like that shouldn't be allowed on the road' camp. He certainly deserved to be disqualified... but then you don't need a qualification to ride a cycle on the road, and perhaps that's part of the problem.

Monday, 11 October 2010

The Booker comes to Yeovil

I had a very enjoyable evening on Thursday night down in Yeovil. I've never been to Yeovil before, except when a train stopped a Yeovil Junction - and really only know this Somerset town as the home of Stephen Potter's School of Lifemanship in the whimsical and mocking self-help books Gamesmanship, Lifemanship, One-upmanship etc, which I was rather fond of in my youth.

I was invited along to be on a panel for an event quite unlike anything I've ever taken part in. It was a debate (probably more accurately a discussion) on the Man Booker Prize shortlist organized by the Yeovil Community Arts Association. Each of six panelists had one of the shortlist to read and review, then the topic was thrown open to the audience. The panel was a mix of professional writers (for example cookery writer Tamasin Day-Lewis and me) and local writing enthusiasts.

What was fascinating was the way two books on the list (In a Strange Room and The Finkler Question) were absolutely hated by the panelists, but loved by someone else. We'd hear someone totally demolish a book (Ms Day-Lewis gave the impression she'd rather have a root canal without anaethetic than read In a Strange Room again), then the response would be 'I thought this was wonderful, one of the best books I've read this year...' Highly entertaining.

My own title was the controversial Room by Emma Donoghue, inspired by the Josef Fritzl case. I did find the book interesting, particularly in its study of the worldview of a five-year-old who was spent his entire life in a 12 foot by 12 room - but I wasn't comfortable with the use of something so raw and fresh in the news (and the book had a feeble ending). Though there were minor disagreements on points, this seemed a fair consensus.

I rather expected to be totally ignored afterwards, as this was a literary do, and, as I pointed out, I write in a genre that is defined by not being fiction. But in fact several people came up to ask about my books (and even bought a few), which was heartening. Really nice people, including a chance to say hello to Kate Kelly whose blog I follow and I've spoken to on the Litopia forum, and a fun evening. If you're ever in Yeovil around this time of year (it's an annual event) - which I know is probably unlikely - give it a try.

Thanks to Kate Kelly for the photos.

Friday, 8 October 2010

The devil's compound

It's time put on your dark cloak, twirl your moustache and chuckle evily. I'm back again with the Royal Society of Chemistry's Chemistry in its Element compound podcasts, dealing with the bad guy of the chemical world, carbon dioxide. Okay, it has its problems. It's not squeaky clean. But give this simple compound a break. After all, without the greenhouse effect we wouldn't be alive.

Want to hear more? Click here to hear to podcast, or select it from the baffling list of topics I've covered below:


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Thursday, 7 October 2010

Look, Mum, that's me!

As an author, I am yet to be blasé about getting a book published. It’s always very special when you get a copy of one of your books in your hands or see one on the shelf in a bookshop, or even see someone reading a copy on the train. I’ve never actually done this last, but a friend of mine has seen someone reading Infinity this way. The temptation – should you make yourself known? I think I would ask first what they thought of it before announcing this.

But that’s not the point of this post. I’ve just experienced a related experience, but one that’s almost as thrilling. I was reading for a review a book called Chasing the Sun by Richard Cohen. I’m not allowed to tell you what it’s like as it’s embargoed until 1st November. I was pootling along, as you do, when suddenly I saw my name in the text, casually referenced as if everyone should know who Brian Clegg is. It was just introducing a quote from one of my books (Light Years), but I have to confess it really was an exciting moment.

I think I’ll go and have a cold shower now. Maybe I should get out more.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

My take on talks

Two of the best bloggers for writers, Jane Smith of How Publishing Really Works and Nicola Morgan of Help! I Need a Publisher have recently weighed in on the subject of payment for talks, particularly at festivals. I thought I'd add my thoughts on the matter. Many overlap with Jane and Nicola, so bear with me if you've already read their remarks.

Jane makes the point that many festivals (some of them big ones) take the attitude 'we won't pay for authors, because they get publicity and sell books.' Nicola picks up on the money aspect and a whole host of other suggestions for festival organizers (including the request to be given a meal but not have to talk to people during it).

I also note one of the comments to Jane's post, where someone who 'organizes [academic] conferences for a living' doesn't see what the fuss is about as his speakers usually do it for free.

Let's get the money thing out of the way first. An academic speaking at a conference is totally different from an author giving a talk. Academics will be paid by their university to attend the conference. The university will probably cover expenses as well. But every time an author attends an event they are giving up earning time. If they aren't writing, they aren't earning. By default, a talk or a festival starts off as a negative impact on the personal finances. And it's not just the hour of the talk. There's preparation time and travel time - it's very rare that a festival appearance won't eat up a day or two's work time with no immediate reward.

Yes, attending such an event will result in some publicity - but typically only with a very small audience. And don't get me started on book sales. The author's cut on the sales of books at a typical festival is probably around the £5 mark.

As far as I'm concerned, giving a talk at a school or festival definitely should be a paid job. As one of our two bloggers suggests, why on earth should festival organizers expect marquee companies to want paying but not authors? It doesn't have to be a huge amount, but a payment is only polite, as is covering all reasonable expenses. I'm not saying I don't do events on an expenses-only basis occasionally. If it's something I particularly support, or I feel I will get a lot of useful publicity, that's a decision I will make - but no venue or event should assume an author will perform for free.

I have to say, I'm less fussy than Nicola on 'riders'. I'm quite happy to share a meal with festival organizers or audience members. I like what I write about and I like talking to people about it. However, I do think any talk organizer should offer the speaker a reasonable level of support. While most schools I speak at are absolutely brilliant, I have had these interesting experiences:
  • Left alone with 400 year 9s while all the teachers disappeared for at least half an hour
  • Thrown into a class without an introduction or a teacher staying
  • Been part of a festival session where the festival organizers arranged a practically inaccesible venue with no signage or any easy way for the audience to find it
  • Arrived at a school for an evening talk after a 2.5 hour drive to find the hosting teachers finishing a fish and chip supper. They offered me a biscuit
... and really that isn't on.

I don't want this to appear like yet another author's whinge. I love speaking at all kinds of events. It's one of my favourite parts of the job (I accept this isn't the case for all authors), but I think simple matters like payment, expenses and being properly looked after are no more than a reflection of the respect that's deserved in the circumstances. After all, desirable though it may seem to some, it's hard to run a literary festival without authors.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Is this responsible TV?

Here is an issue where I simply don't know the answer. At some personal pain (they made me do it), I watched the X-Factor last night. The participants in this talent show for singers had already been whittled down to 32. Now they were told which 12 would go through to the live finals and which 20 would be dumped in the dustbin of musical life.

By the time they get to this stage, the contestants already feel they've made it. They are taken to 'the judges houses' (or rental properties standing in as such) and given the star treatment. The programme has ensured that they have been built up to an immense high. Several of them, in interviews before the decision announced, say things like 'This is my life, I don't know what I will do if I don't get through,' or 'My life is over if I'm not picked.'

I have the genuine concern that at some point, under the immense and artificial air of pressure generated by the show to make 'good television', one of the contestants who is rejected will commit suicide. At this point, those running the show will exhibit their crocodile tears for all to see, saying 'We are so sorry, we couldn't have forseen this.' Well, yes they could. Just this last week, Peter Boatman, director of the company Pro-Tect that lost its contract to supply the UK police with tasers (in effect destroying their business) took his life because of the loss of the contract. When someone puts their work at the absolute centre of their life, it can result in terrible consequences when their chances are taken away.

This is where I am undecided. On the one hand, part of me says 'Contestants know what they are letting themselves in for. If they want to put themselves through this, they've only themselves to blame.' On the other hand I am well aware that the X-Factor is hugely manipulative of its audience (all those sob stories, for example) and put its contestants through unnecessary pressure to make compulsive viewing - and with people's lives potentially at stake, I'm not sure that this is acceptable.

I just hope, if it ever does happen, that the producers will do the right thing and pull the series rather than keep it running. That would be sickening, as they would inevitably pretend that it's 'what [insert name of unfortunate person] would have wanted us to do,' rather than admitting it's because the production company wants to keep making money hand over fist.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Have young people lost out because of fear?

On the beach, Colonsay
When I was twelve I had one of the best holidays of my life. It was a school trip, or more accurately an inter-school trip arranged by an unlikely body called the Schools Hebridean Society. For two weeks, I joined a bunch of other boys and various leader types in a camp on a beach on the remote-ish island of Colonsay.

It was absolutely fantastic. First there was the opportunity to experience life in a community that was probably 50 years behind the mainland. Though this wasn't in any sense a religious trip, we attended church each week (once each in the two island churches), because that's what people on the island did. Once a week we attended a caley in the island's hall - Scottish dancing compulsory, but still somehow fun.

As I've discovered on other islands, you couldn't walk down a road without the next passing car stopping and offering you a lift. Most exciting (if terrifying) was getting a lift with the island's doctor. He generally drove his landrover off road, and twice I witnessed him driving with one hand while using a shotgun to take potshots at rabbits with the other. (And they say mobile phones are dangerous.)

It was remarkable. I'm generally not a great fan of the bagpipes, but one evening, as we were sitting on the white sand beach, a bagpipe was heard faintly in the distance - the piper came over the dunes and passed by us: quite magical.

Mist rising as we emerge from the cave
One last example of the experience. We all were expected to bivouac somewhere away from camp in groups of three or four sometime during the fortnight. Some caves had recently been rediscovered on the island (they were known in Victorian times, but had somehow been mislaid), and we'd had a visit to them.

Our team of three decided to bivouac in one of the caves that was reputed to be haunted. (Well, sort of. A Victorian dog had allegedly gone through a small aperture in the back of the cave. It re-emerged yelping about an hour later with its tail singed after an encounter with Old Nick.) I have to confess we went to sleep with the Tilley lamp alight - but it was an experience I wouldn't have missed for anything.

Now, first of all, they probably wouldn't allow 12 year-olds to go off on an all-male camp. They certainly wouldn't let us do the kind of activities we did. And as for three of us camping overnight in a cave... I understand why people are so protective of children, but there are times when a tiny risk could be repaid by a huge adventure.