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Showing posts from August, 2011

No laughing matter?

If you are parent whose teens have a party, you may find amongst the bottles and cans a few objects that raise a nostalgic smile. Most people my age will have fond memories of the soda syphon. My grandmother gave me a splendid Edwardian looking one with a glass bottle and metal mesh around it, and these little cartridges of carbon dioxide used to be commonplace before the likes of Sodastream made them untrendy. The chances are, though, that if you find these after a party, they aren't quite what they seem. If you happen to find a box you will discover that they are not CO 2 cartridges, but intended for 'cream chargers' that are used to produce catering quantities of squirty cream. And the gas in the cylinder is not CO 2 but N 2 O - nitrous oxide - commonly known as laughing gas. This is, it seems, the latest party and nightclub thrill. The good news is that the gas is not illegal, and if used properly is less dangerous than many drugs. But it's not all good news.

History re-written

It seems to be translations week so far. A more eagle-eyed reader than I has pointed out that the German version of my Egghead Physics book has moved my birthplace from Rochdale (which is in der englischen Grafschaft Lancashire) to Rochester, which certainly isn't. This is a teensy bit worrying, and suspiciously suggestive of some alternative universe theory of reality. Could it be that in every country for which a book is translated, the author is a subtly different person with a different background? Could it be that in this alternative universe, I come from Rochester, which really is in Lancashire? The mind boggles. 

But has he got glitter?

Copies of the second translation of one of my popular science books arrived this weekend. It's The God Effect , the book on quantum entanglement, in (simplified) Chinese, and it looks rather smart. The original had the little multi-coloured blobs, indicating the entangled particles, but this has so much more with a space-themed background that makes it looks very attractive in a 1970s sci-fi way. As usual with a translation, I haven't a clue whether what's written bears any resemblance to the original book - I just have to trust that the translator has captured the essence of what I wrote. Whatever it says, it's rather magnificent. I have three copies I'd be happy to give away, if I have any readers who have the urge to read this book in Chinese. To cover postage, please buy a copy of my ebook Organizing a Murder from its website (you don't have to get the ebook, but you are welcome to) and drop me an email to let me know you want a Chinese God Effect .

A nasty case of boxitis

BAD - the box appears half way through a sentence. When do you read it?  I was recently reviewing the interesting Rough Guide to the Future , and felt compelled to moan a little about the use of boxes. For unknown reasons, some publishers love boxes. I don't mean the cardboard variety, but the publishing equivalent of the sidebar running down the righthand side of this blog - little separate bits of text that don't fit into the main flow. Boxes work fine in magazines, newspapers (or blogs). They are also okay in a book that treats each two page spread as a separate entity. But the problem comes when you have a normal book where the text flows from page to page. At what point do you stop to read the box? You want there to be a natural break at the start or the end of the page, but there often isn't one. You may well have to stop reading the main text half way through a sentence to take a look at the box. Or alternatively ignore the box altogether. GOOD - inlin

Don't knock the Cox

It has become popular in the science writing community to be slightly sniffy about Brian Cox. As spoof videos like the one above show, the style of his TV show is easy to mock, with a tendency to go to some distant location just to make a passing comment - but that is much more about the BBC's rather tired documentary style (I blame that nice David Attenborough) than it is about Brian Cox himself. Personally speaking, I think those of us who write science books should be very happy about what Brian Cox is doing. It's hard not to suspect just a smidgeon of jealously amongst those who knock the Cox. But in reality, what he does gives more exposure to science and is liable to encourage some of those millions of viewers to find out more, which is where those of us with the more in-depth books can step in. A couple of times since his series has been on I've been asked by people who didn't know I was a science writer 'Did you see Brian Cox's programme last nig

What's the point of hardbacks?

A hardback, a trade paperback and a mass market paperback One of the great mysteries of publishing is the different formats the same book can be printed in. Why do publishers produce hardbacks, for instance, when they are so expensive and few people buy them? I can't claim absolute knowledge, but this is my understanding of what's going on. Broadly there are three formats a typical fiction or non-fiction book (i.e. not a picture book, textbook etc.) can be published in: hardback, trade paperback and mass market paperback. In very broad terms the price points for these in the UK are typically £18.99, £12.99 and £8.99 respectively. A book will typically be brought out in either one or two of these categories (not usually simultaneously). The price differential is not really about manufacturing costs. The differences per book for the same size print run is in pennies, not pounds. The more expensive end is a premium product, rather like a designer label or o

Nobel Prize pinups

Well, 'pinups' might be the wrong term when you take a look at the pictures. But the BBC has put up on their archive a series of TV interviews with Nobel Prize winning scientists, which is worth taking a look if you like your science from the horse's mouth (unlike some BBC online footage, it is available world wide). The archive features in-depth interviews from the 1980s with eight twentieth-century Nobel Laureates conducted by biologist and broadcaster Lewis Wolpert. Subjects include immunologist Niels Jerne; biophysicist Alan Hodgkin; biochemist Alexander Todd; astronomer Anthony Hewish; electro-physicist Neville Mott; atom-splitting physicist Ernest Walton; physiologist and biophysicist Sir Andrew Huxley; and biochemist Frederick Sanger. Sanger is the only person alive today to have won two Nobel Prizes and one of only four scientists to have ever achieved that distinction. Apologies that I have sat on this since the end of last year - I only just noticed it in my

Time Machine News

Although my focus is still pretty much on Inflight Science , which seems to be picking up well in the US, I've had some interesting news on my next title, How to Build a Time Machine , due out in the US from St Martin's Press in December. It is to be published in the UK by Duckworth in January 2012. But there is a subtle name change. Over here it is going to be Build Your Own Time Machine (the illustration is a bound proof, not the final book). This new title has the advantage that it hasn't been used so frequently before - there are a couple of other 'How to build...s' - but I hope no one thinks it is a construction manual. Somehow, in moving from 'How to build' to 'Build your own' it gains a much more DIY feel! Still, I'm looking forward to having editions both sides of the Atlantic - should be an exciting December/January.

Is it time to remake some books?

The cover of my c1969 copy of The Devil Rides Out In the movies we are used to the concept of remakes. A great old movie of the past (or sometimes a rubbish one) is made again, with a modern twist. King Kong , for instance, has undergone the process twice. It is possible to see a sensible argument for doing this. Old movies can look clunky to modern eyes and fail to attract a young audience. Yet if anyone ever remakes Casablanca , I will want to have words with them. Come to think of it, I can't offhand think of a single remake that was better than the original (sequels, yes, but not remakes). I'm sure there must be some (suggestions please), but I can't put my finger on one. Despite this, I'm going to suggest that there may be a market in remaking some books. It's a dangerous game. Bowdlerised Shakespeare is something of a joke these days - yet it is arguable that some good and/or entertaining books need a little reworking to suit a modern audience. I t

There's coincidence and there's ridiculous

I've just had a few days holiday, and deciding to equip myself with some suitable reading tried a new author (to me), S. J. Parris (a.k.a. Stephanie Merritt) and the novel Heresy . It has a lot going for it as far as I'm concerned. I love the period (Elizabethan), I enjoy a good mystery story and it even has someone from the history of science as a main character  - Giordano Bruno. Bruno is a fascinating character who not only supported Copernicus in thinking the Earth travelled around the Sun, but also suggested that the stars were all suns, with other planets travelling around them - shattering even more Aristotle's universe of crystal spheres around the Earth. Poor histories of science often make the comparison between Bruno, who was burned at the stake, and Galileo, who got away with house arrest, claiming that Bruno, like Galileo, was tried because of his scientific beliefs. I say poor histories because this is a pathetic over-simplification. Bruno was not burned f

Phun physics facts #2

We're on a roll now. A couple more delicious factoids to tickle your mental tastebuds: In 1980 Hans Dehmelt of the University of Washington isolated a barium ion (an ion is an atom with electrons missing, or extra electrons added, giving it an electrical charge). When illuminated by the right color of laser light, the ion was visible to the naked eye as a pin prick of brilliance floating in space. Since 1972, the remains of fifteen natural nuclear reactors have been found. Around 1.7 billion years ago a stable nuclear reaction took place in underground deposits of uranium. Because the amount of uranium 235 in the ground drops as it decays, it is unlikely such natural reactors would be found now. It’s sometimes thought that glass is a liquid, because medieval window glass seems to have run down the panes, making them thicker at the bottom – but this merely reflects the way glass was made. Panes were uneven, and it made sense to put the thicker edge at the bottom.

Phun physics facts #1

I thought I'd have a bit of a fun physics facts week. Here's a couple of random titbits to get you started: In air at room temperature the gas molecules move at around 500 meters per second – over 1,100 miles per hour. Luckily they are so light that even at this speed, the energy of each molecule is around 6x10^-21 joules. That’s 1/10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000th of the energy required to run a 60 watt light bulb for a second. One ancient Greek theory on matter suggested that you could cut stuff up into smaller and smaller pieces until eventually you could cut no more. What was left was uncuttable – in Greek a-tomos – atoms.

If you want the death penalty, accept the consequences

I gather there may be a debate in parliament on the restoration of the death penalty. That's fine, but those demanding the restoration should consider the logical consequences. In the event that someone is put to death but is subsequently found to be innocent, they will have been murdered. This is likely to happen - it certainly happened on a regular basis before the abolition. When such a murder ensues, those responsible MUST, I believe, themselves be tried for murder and executed. It's only fair. It's not just the person who pulls the trigger who is sentenced. I would suggest that those responsible, who should then be executed, are: The executioner The prison governor The Home Secretary (who could issue a pardon) All MPs who voted for the restoration of the death penalty All citizens who signed a petition requiring the restoration of the death penalty So it's fine. Demand the restoration of the death penalty - but only if you are prepared to live (and die)

George is particularly bright this evening

William Herschel was a great astronomer, and, it is rumoured, not a bad composer. (I recently asked the RSCM if they had any copies of his anthems, but sadly they don't.) After all he was technically a professional musician and an amateur astronomer - though only amateur in the sense that Patrick Moore is an amateur. He is arguably Slough's greatest claim to fame. It was there he erected his monster telescope (though, to be honest he did his best work with smaller instruments), and there he lived in Observatory House. This being the case, Slough could be expected to make a big thing of Herschel. No doubt turning Observatory House into a tourist attraction and allowing people to see a reconstruction of his telescope? Well, no. They pulled Observatory House down and have nothing much to show for Herschel's presence. Nice one, Slough. The planet George But what started me on this post was Herschel's name for the planet he discovered. He was the first person since th

Name a galaxy and win a book

Colliding galaxies Sometimes scientists are really good at giving names to things. 'Photon' springs to mind. What a great name, even if it did come from a chemist. Even 'quark' has a certain quirky charm (in-joke for the particle physicists there) - although Murray Gell-Mann intended the word to be pronounced 'quork' which, oddly, sounds significantly more like a meat substitute than quark. However, science types have to be having a good day to come up with something so effective. So I've a challenge for you. But first a bit of background. The main reason we know that the universe is expanding is that almost all galaxies are redshifted. The light from them is lower energy than expected, shifted into the red, because they are moving away from us. But a few galaxies are blueshifted. They are close enough that the gravitational attraction between them and our galaxy is more powerful than the expansion, so they are heading in our direction. Our nearest bi

No sh*t, Sherlock!

I have been hugely enjoying the re-run of the BBC's Conan Doyle-meets-Dr Who modern day version of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Sherlock . The whole thing is so beautifully conceived, right from the initial idea that John Watson is a doctor invalided out of the war in Afghanistan, something that worked in both periods. It's simply one of the best things on TV at the moment. Yet excellent though it is, it does highlight for me a real flaw in the original concept that still plays through today. At the end of the second episode, Professor Moriarty ruthlessly executes a criminal who has let Holmes beat her. Even though she is sitting in a secure location, he effortlessly kills her. Yet somehow, despite the fact Holmes repeatedly thwarts him, he finds it difficult to bump off our hero. The fact is, the same technique as used at the end of episode two would shut down the whole business in an instant. I know Conan Doyle had to have Holmes escape Moriarty's fiendish attempt

Come on baby, sign my Kindle

There's no doubt about it, having a signed book is something special. I treasure the ones I've got on my shelves, and although I'm always very hesitant asking people when they buy my books if they'd like me to sign them, they always beam and say 'Yes, please!' It turns a book into a momento. This is often pointed out as one of the disadvantages of ebooks, but now you can get your ebook signed. Sort of. I have come across people with actual signatures on their Kindles, but this could get messy, and somehow isn't right, but the new website Kindlegraph lets you request a dedication from authors who have signed up for the so far free service. (Thanks to Carol Rose on Litopia for pointing this out.) After some online jiggery pokery, of which more in a moment, you received a PDF on your Kindle that has a picture of the book cover, a pseudo-handwritten dedication and a signature, which can be the author's real signature if they managed to get it into the