Book Review: The Physics of Everyday Things

Book Review: The Physics of Everyday Things by James Kakalios

Disclaimer:  I received an uncorrected proof of this book for the purpose of writing this review.   No other compensation was offered or requested.  The final product,  due out May 2017, will have some changes, including a full index.

The Physics of Everyday Things

Today is no ordinary day.  While it may seem normal as you wake up and have breakfast, getting ready for a doctor’s appointment and a work presentation, today will actually be extraordinary.  For you will be accompanied at every step by Professor James Kakalios, author of The Physics of Superheroes, who will explain the physics behind the many objects you interact with every day.

In the tradition of Hugo Gernsback’s seminal novel Ralph 124C 41+, the narrative frame takes “You” (a prosperous business person with a late-model car and many of the latest gadgets) through a typical day in 2017 as an excuse to discuss the physics involved in such devices as digital timers, magnetic resonance imaging and flat panel televisions.  While not as thrilling as a superhero saga might be, the day is eventful enough to keep the story moving.  (And relatable for business people who might invest in scientific research.)

The book mostly skips the mathematical formulas that are the bane of non-scientists trying to follow physics discussions, but a basic understanding of high school level physics principles will make this book easier to understand.  There are figures to illustrate how some of the devices work, as well as both footnotes and end-notes.  T he finished product will also have an index.

Overall, the superheroes book was more fun, but is now outdated.  I recommend this volume primarily to business people and those who want to know a bit more about physics as it applies to real life.  (Well, except for a last discussion on flying cars and the physics of why we still don’t have them.)

Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences

Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences by Pere Romanillos

“Serendipity” is the good fortune that comes when you discover something useful or interesting while you were looking for something else.  Knowing how to grasp the opportunity offered by serendipity is one of those skills that every scientist and artist should have at their disposal.  This book, originally published as ¡Menuda chiripa! Las serendipias más famosas covers many instances of serendipity, mostly in the area of science.

Great Historical Coincidences

After a lengthy introduction on the subject of serendipity and fortunate coincidences, there are 49 essays on individual discoveries divided by scientific field.  We begin with physics and Archimedes’ Principle (and the origin of “Eureka!”) and end with archaeology and the terracotta soldiers of Qin.  Many of the stories were familiar to me, such as the melting chocolate bar that revealed the existence of microwaves; while others were new to me, such as the origin of the Pap smear.

This book is heavily illustrated and the translation by Janet Foster uses language that should make this book suitable for bright junior high students on up.  (Some parents may find discussion of the biology of sex unsuitable for their kids.)  There’s some clumsy phrasing from time to time.  There’s no index or citations, but there is a bibliography to search for more information–much of it in Spanish.

This is one of those books primarily meant as a present; the treatment of each discovery is short and only covers highlights and often context is missing.  Consider it for a budding scientist or history buff, perhaps as a pair with the same author’s Great Historical Blunders.

Book Review: Perry Rhodan 10: The Ghosts of Gol

Book Review: Perry Rhodan 10: The Ghosts of Gol by Kurt Mahr

Following clues retrieved from the distant past, Perry Rhodan continues to search for the secret of immortality.  Accordingly, the crew of Stardust II is searching a particular sector of the galaxy for structural anomalies.  Soon, they discover a particular signal coming from a supergiant planet which is quickly dubbed Gol.  Despite the misgivings of his Arkonide allies Khrest and Thora, Rhodan orders a landing.  Once there, Rhodan and the others must brave the bizarre inhabitants and lethal environment of Gol to find the next clue left by the mysterious guardian of the secret.

Perry Rhodan 10: The Ghosts of Gol

The Perry Rhodan series has been published weekly since 1961 in Germany, with over 2800 novellas in the still-continuing original continuity, as well as numerous spin-offs.  The first installment, written by series creators K.H. Scheer & Walter Ernsting, had the first moon landing happen in 1971.  U.S. Space Force Major Perry Rhodan and his crew find a stranded alien spaceship captained by the impetuous beauty Thora, assisted by frail scientist Khrest.  While Arkonide technology is eons ahead of Earth’s, their society has become stagnant and decadent, and it is soon arranged for a trade of alien science for the exploration assistance of the vital Earthlings.

Rhodan swiftly (but not entirely without opposition) unites Earth, and then leads it against an invasion of more hostile aliens.  With that out of the way, he’s free to search for immortality.  It’s not much of a spoiler to say that he eventually finds it and he and several of his allies become immune to aging, allowing for the vast timescale of the series.

This volume (which translates Issue #16 of the German edition) is part of the Ace Books reprint series which ran from 1969-1978, translated by Wendayne Ackerman and edited by her husband Forrest J. Ackerman.  At this point the series was published monthly as a “bookazine”, with a film review column (this issue was First Spaceship on Venus) and letters section.  Sadly, the vast majority of the series has never been officially translated into English.

Kurt Mahr (pen name of Klaus Otto Mahn) was trained as a physicist, which gives his technobabble a feeling of verisimilitude.  It’s clear that he enjoyed trying to figure out what conditions might be like on a 900+ gravities planet and how the heck our heroes were going to get around on it.  The inhabitants of Gol are energy beings who exist primarily in a higher dimension and provide a unique hazard to the three-dimensional humans.

This story is in the pulp SF tradition, heavy on the exciting things happening, light on characterization.  Rhodan is very much the omni-competent hero, inventing a new branch of physics during one of the chapters to solve a technical problem.  The person who shows the most personality is Thora, whose back and forth with Rhodan suggests that she’s sweet on him but not willing to admit it even to herself.  There’s no overt sexism in the text, but the gender ratio of the crew is such that there are only two named women in a crew of at least one hundred.

There are several mutants with psychic powers in the crew of the Stardust II; the majority of them are Japanese (though I am dubious about the name Tanaka Seiko for a male characters.)  It’s not made clear in this volume if this is due to the atom bombs giving that area extra radiation or just coincidence.

The novella concludes with a bit of a cliffhanger; Rhodan has succeeded in finding the next place to go, but the ship’s new location isn’t anywhere in known space and they have no idea how to get back.

While this is an exciting, fast-paced read, the series is hard to find, being decades out of print.  Recommended primarily to fans of German science fiction of the old school.

Book Review: Headstrong

Book Review: Headstrong by Rachel Swaby

This is a collection of short biographical sketches of women who made advancements in various scientific fields.  According to the introduction, it was inspired when the New York Times ran an obituary of Yvonne Brill that listed her home cooking as her most important accomplishment, followed by being a wife and mother.  And only then mentioning that she was an award-winning rocket scientist that made it possible for satellites to adjust their orbits.

Headstrong

And it is true that scientists who happen to be women have often been downplayed or outright ignored in books on the history of science.  So in the interest of making these scientists more widely known and giving role models to women and girls interested in the sciences, Ms. Swaby picked fifty-two stories to tell.  One of her criteria was that they had to be dead, so their entire body of work could be assessed; she points out that this made her list less ethnically diverse as women of color and those outside the Europe/America culture area have been even more hampered in pursuing science careers, though strides have been made in recent decades.  Also, she chose to write about Irène Joliot-Curie rather than her mother, as Marie Curie is the Smurfette (the one woman who gets to be in the club) of science books.

Ms. Swaby suggests reading one entry a week, but reviewers have to step up the pace, so I did it in two days.  The biographies are divided by scientific fields such as medicine, physics and mathematics (Florence Nightingale was listed under the last category for her advances in statistical analysis.)  The women profiled go from Mary Putnam Jacobi, who did a medical study disproving the then popular theory that a college education made women infertile to Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar.

Many of the stories are bittersweet; the women had to fight to even be allowed to study, were denied paying jobs in their fields, denied credit for their work, denied promotions, titles and awards–and these are just the ones who persisted!  Things have improved over time, but one can see where systemic sexism has slowed advancements in science and technology.

It should be noted that some of the women in this book did work or had opinions that are still controversial,  Certain readers may object to their inclusion, despite their prominence.

While the book is written for adults, the language is suitable for junior high students on up.  It may be an uncomfortable fit for some male readers, but that’s the way it goes; growth is painful sometimes.  Elementary school readers may enjoy Girls Research more; see my review of that book.  The volume comes with endnotes, a bibliography for further reading, index, and credits for quotes used.

Highly recommended to science fans and those wanting a quick introduction to scientists they may not have known about before.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was involved.

Book Review: One of Our Asteroids is Missing | The Twisted Men

Book Review: One of Our Asteroids is Missing | The Twisted Men by Robert Silverberg (writing as Calvin M. Knox) and A. E. Van Vogt, respectively.

This is another Ace Double, two books in one, upside down from each other.  According to Larry Niven, during the 1960s Ace Books was known for being particularly skinflint towards authors, so would only be sold to if all other SF publishers turned down the book, and the writer just needed some cash in hand, because royalties and overseas sales would never be forthcoming.  When Tom Doherty bought the publishing house, he didn’t talk to any of the writers who’d worked for them, but did do a two-year search for legal complaints.  There were none–because the writers had all learned that it was useless.  (Mr. Doherty reformed Ace Books’ payment policies, and a lot of authors finally got back payments.)

One of Our Asteroids Is Missing

One of Our Asteroids Is Missing features a young asteroid prospector named John Storm (no relation) who is looking for rare metal deposits in the asteroid belt to feed Earth’s early 21st Century computer technology.  He finds a jackpot, but between filing his claim on Mars and getting to Earth to set up the funding to get it mined, the computer network somehow loses his claim.  And all of John Storm’s personal records!  Since almost everything in the future society revolves around your existence in the computer network, being “unpersoned” like this is a terrible blow.

Of course, this complete erasure of John Storm’s identity belies the suggestion that he somehow screwed up the claim registration.   A clumsy typist might have erased one record, but it would take money and dedication to pull this off.  “Why?” then is the question; even a jackpot mining asteroid would hardly be worth this much effort, including a physical assassination attempt.  John must return to the asteroid belt to investigate, and what he finds there could change everything!

To be honest, John’s struggles with the future bureaucracy are more interesting to me than the actual space adventure stuff.  Anyone who’s had to deal with a petty official declaring that it must somehow be your mistake that caused their computer system to act unjustly can certainly identify.

John’s fiancee Liz seems to have no goals outside of marrying John whether or not he succeeds (though she would prefer he succeeds), and her offer of help is rejected because space is “too dangerous for a woman.”  In our 21st Century, that would get a laugh.  She also never learns what actually happened.

There’s an alien involved who looks nothing like the picture on the cover (which is awesomely SF in its own right) and Mr. Silverberg’s fascination with psychic powers shines through.   It’s middling-grade but quite readable.

The Twisted Men

The Twisted Men is actually a collection of three longer stories by A.E. Van Vogt, too long to fit in a regular anthology, but not related enough to turn into a “fix-up” novel.

“The Twisted Men” itself stars Averill Hewitt, a scientist who has discovered that something strange and dangerous is going to happen to the sun in a few years.  Apparently he is terrible at explaining his theory, because one person taking his metaphor and saying that said metaphor is not literally possible is enough to put Mr. Hewitt in the Jor-El category.  Unlike Jor-El, however, Mr. Hewitt is able to build a full-size spaceship to go to the Proxima Centauri system to look for habitable planets.

He insists that it be staffed by personnel whose wives are pregnant, or can become so; it apparently doesn’t enter his mind that pregnant women might also have space-worthy skills.  His own wife refuses to get on board and takes the children with her.  This results in some sub-optimal personnel, including several religious fanatics and a captain who wants to marry his ward who doesn’t actually look eighteen.  Skeeviness aside, this is the only available captain, so the Hope of Man is launched.  Six years later, the ship is detected re-entering the solar system at enormous speed, and not responding to hails.

Naturally, Mr. Hewitt is tapped to try to discover what happened; what he discovers, and the implications, drive the rest of the story.  The story is heavy on the speculative science, but not nearly as forward-thinking on the social end.  There are some evocative passages as Hewitt explores the ship and struggles to understand what is going on.

“”The Star-Saint” is a planetary colonization story.  Leonard Hanley is the leader of a group of colonists who are about to make planetfall only to discover that the previous batch of colonists have vanished, their village completely destroyed.  Fortunately (or perhaps not), Mark Rogan has arrived to help out.  Rogan is a mutant with strange powers and a detached attitude that drives most other men up the wall.  Oddly, women seem to find Rogan extremely attractive.   Hanley is unhappy about the help, but it’s not as though he’s got much choice.

Hanley thinks he’s figured out the problem, only to be told by Rogan that he’s actually made things much worse.  The situation is finally brought to something of a compromise point–but Hanley suspects this colony will soon have several mutant babies, including his own wife’s.  The treatment of women in this story is frankly kind of creepy, but the fact that it’s told from the perspective of the patriarchal and controlling Hanley means that we don’t know what actually happened.

“The Earth Killers” starts with America being attacked by an unknown party, which wipes out the  major cities with atomic bombs.  The only surviving witness is Morlake, a test pilot who was trying out an experimental “rockjet” near Chicago when the bombs fell.  Unfortunately, the military outpost he manages to land at is run by a fool who has him arrested for treason rather than listen to the truth.  Admittedly, the truth is pretty unbelievable–the bombs came from straight up, not in an arc.

It’s months before the remaining Americans can get around to realizing the importance of his testimony–and Morlake is able to uncover the shocking secret behind the war.

This story’s got a nice bite to it, especially since it avoids taking the easy route of making the villains Communists (as was the fashion at the time.)

The creepy treatment of women in the first two stories makes this set hard to recommend–mostly for Van Vogt completists.

Book Review: The Dumb Gods Speak

Book Review: The Dumb Gods Speak by E. Phillips Oppenheim

In 1937, the dying genius Mark Humberstone bequeaths his marvelous inventions to a Council of Seven to be used in the service of peace.  Shortly thereafter, the United States grants independence to the Philippines.  When the Japanese attempt to invade the newly freed islands, their entire fleet is rendered inert.

The Dumb Gods Speak

The story proper picks up on April 14, 1947, in Nice, France.  This is the headquarters of the mysterious International Bureau, an espionage organization run by Mark Humberstone, Jr. and a man named Cheng.  Much rumor swirls around the agency, and the person who calls himself Mr. Jonson has come to join it.  Little does anyone outside the agency realize that it is on the cusp of a great coup–the end of war!

This 1936 novel was written by E. Phillips Oppenheim, a prolific author who mostly wrote spy thrillers and is considered one of the founders of the subgenre.   This one goes beyond techno-thriller and into downright science fiction territory.  The International Bureau uses advanced television (roughly equivalent to satellite TV without the need for satellites) and EMP weaponry; there’s also what appears to be some sort of force field, but that’s only seen as a parlor trick.

The political situation has stayed stagnant (presumably at least in part due to the actions of the Bureau); World War Two never broke out,  but Germany is spoiling for a fight (no mention of the Nazis.)  About the only major change is that Japan has had to set aside its invasion of the mainland due to its naval disaster, allowing China to catch its breath.

The Bureau’s plan is to turn China and Russia into constitutional monarchies, thus making them strong and stable factors for peace.  (Oppenheim was British.)  With that, and the demonstration of the full power of the Humberstone devices, war will be impossible.  Mr. Oppenheim was clearly not familiar with the concept of guerrilla warfare.  He also believed and put into the mouth of a character that without religion as a motivating force, the Russian army would have zero morale and fall easily.  (World War Two disproved that; their leaders might have been bad, their supplies inferior, but the Soviet soldier’s will to fight against invaders is unquestionable.)

Period racism and sexism is on display; Prince Cheng’s plan nearly crashes and burns because he failed to take into account that a woman might not want to marry a man she doesn’t love just because he told her to.  There’s also some not so subtle anti-Semitism.  (One of the villains is mentioned as being obviously Jewish, and there are no other Jewish people in the book.)

Quite a bit of space is devoted to telling us how luxurious the main characters’ lives are, what they eat, the fine wines they drink (they also smoke) and the fancy clothes they wear.  Mr. Oppenheim’s books were very much a predecessor to James Bond in these matters.

Humberstone, Cheng and their respective love interests (everyone is kind of surprised to learn that Cheng actually loves the woman he’s marrying) are kind of smug and omnicompetent, except for that one major bump I mentioned earlier.  More interesting are Mr. Jonson, who is also an omnicompetent as bodyguard/hitman/stage magician, but his loyalties are unclear for most of the story; and Suzanne, a femme fatale who works for the Bureau, who is very fallible and relatively sympathetically portrayed.  (I should mention there are lines in gratuitous French scattered throughout the book without translation, most are easy to figure out from context.)

The actual villains of the story are mostly notable for being completely ineffectual.  Mr. Jonson or the Bureau have been several steps ahead of them all along.

The title is explained near the end, when Cheng explains that the gods of China, long silent, seem to speak to him (and possibly through him) to restore the fortunes of his beleaguered country.

Content warning:  There are a couple of suicides.

There’s some good writing, but Mr. Oppenheim is trying for more utopian wish-fulfillment than serious thinking about the future; I think you would be better served by seeking out his straight-up spy fiction.

Book Review: White August

Book Review: White August by John Boland

It is one of the hottest Julys on record in Worchestershire.  In a time before air conditioning became common in Britain, the people are roasting in the summer heat.  So they are more bemused than frightened when it suddenly begins snowing.  English weather, isn’t it funny?

White August

Except that it doesn’t stop snowing.  For days.  As the temperature starts to drop, it becomes all too clear that this is not a natural phenomenon.  And as the snow starts to pile up, it is noticed that it’s also radioactive.   Britain is under attack by an unseen, unannounced foe with an inexplicable weapon; can science find an answer before it’s too late?

This 1955 novel is a quick read, positing a science fiction device that causes a massive environmental disaster.  (J.G. Ballard would later work in the same vein to better effect.)  The author works out the details of what a steady fall of snow for weeks on end would have on the infrastructure and society of 1950s Britain.

The government officials depicted in the story are remarkably competent and sensible for the disaster novel subgenre; even the American general is calm and reasonable.  The memory of the Blitz is resonant in this story, as people try to muddle through as best they can (though late in the novel, the commoners start going feral.)

The main hero of the story is William Barnaby Garrett, Doctor of Science.  He’s a bald, middle-aged scientist who has a thing for his secretary Mary, but more importantly, he used to work with the mad scientist the government is pretty sure is behind the snowfall.  Thus, his line of research might hold clues as to how to stop the disaster.

One of the more chilling aspects of the novel is that while everyone becomes reasonably sure Hans Bruderhof, a deformed Austrian with a hatred of humanity, is responsible, he never actually appears, it is never positively proved that he did it and his accomplices if any are never figured out.  There are no villainous monologues, no demands made, only a cold silence, freezing fog and the never-ending snow..  In the end, the British government is forced to have the Americans drop an atomic bomb on the presumed source of the problem.  The snow stops, but Bruderhof may not have been there, and the plans for the device may still be in the hands of Britain’s enemies.

Mary, alas, is in the book mostly to be a plot device, someone to show Garrett’s humanity by having him emote to and about her.  She’s not really even able to be an exposition person, as Garrett’s work is too secret for her to be kept in the loop.

There’s a lot of stereotypical British stiff upper lip going on, although some people do fold under pressure.

This would make a good summer vacation read, with its descriptions of cold and snow, but moving quickly.  It’s not something I’d recommend for serious reading, and it could stand some serious expansion of the subplots (better use of the female characters for a start.)

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Super Friends

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Super Friends by Various

Back in the 1970s, there was a Saturday morning cartoon titled Superfriends.  It featured several superheroes from DC Comics,, plus “Junior Super Friends” Wendy and Marvin, trainee superheroes with their pet Wonderdog.   Each episode taught valuable life lessons to kids across America.  While reruns of the cartoon continue even today, younger fans may not be aware there used to be a tie-in comic book as well.

Showcase Presents Super Friends

Because the Comics Code of the time was surprisingly less restrictive than the Standards & Practices Board that governed children’s broadcasting, the writers of the comic book had more flexibility to put in story elements that explained how the team worked, and the full range of the heroes’ powers.  The book took place in a close parallel of the DC universe, so other superheroes could guest star.

Now, I said the writers could be more flexible than the TV show, but I am still amazed that they got away with mass murder as a plot point in the third issue.  Some of the deaths even happened on panel!  And they weren’t even reversed by the end of the story.  To explain, a mad scientist captures over a hundred supervillains (none of whom were established characters) and disintegrates them to create the World-Beater, which has all their powers combined.

After a few issues, the comic book explained (as the show never did) the change from the first season’s Marvin and Wendy, to the later Wonder Twins, aliens named Jan and Zayna.   This was a truly epic plot which also introduced a slew of international superheroes who later joined the mainstream DCU as the Global Guardians.  (It also gave the comic some much-needed ethnic diversity.)

Many creators worked on the series, but the distinctive art of Ramona Fradon is perhaps most representative.

Aside from the mass murder, this is a kid-friendly title; there are some dated attitudes that parents might want to discuss with their children.  The writing is typical for the time period, and certainly better than the television show.

Recommended for fans of the Superfriends cartoon and nostalgic comics fans.

Book Review: Girls Research! Amazing Tales of Female Scientists

Book Review: Girls Research!  Amazing Tales of Female Scientists by Jennifer Phillips

Disclosure:  I received this book from a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Girls Research!

This is a part of the Girls Rock! series by Capstone Books, which presents short biographies of women and their achievements, aimed primarily at young girls.  In this book’s case, the stories are about female scientists and women who made advances in science-related fields.   The introduction talks a bit about the difficulties that faced women who wanted to become scientists, and still do.  But it’s emphasized that these are women who overcame those obstacles.

There’s a variety of presentations, from short quarter page blurbs to two-page spreads.  Some entries have a dry recitation of facts, while others use “creative non-fiction” for the scientist to tell her story in the first person.  There are plenty of photographs, some in color.

Naturally, the usual suspects such as Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale appear, but there are also much less well known examples, such as Chien-Shiung Wu, who was a vital member of the Manhattan Project.  There’s a good effort to include diversity, but the book does tend a little bit U.S./Western Europe-centric.

The obstacles faced by women who are scientists are mentioned in various stories; difficulty getting an education, getting hired, getting listened to (a couple of them had their research outright stolen!)  At least one is mentioned as having additional difficulties because she was Jewish in Mussolini’s Italy.

But there are also accounts of Frances Glessner Lee, who turned her dollhouse hobby to good use in developing forensic crime investigation techniques, and Hedy Lamarr, who was a glamorous Hollywood actress when not inventing torpedo guidance systems.

The biographies are grouped by the type of science (astronomers here, primate researchers there) with an alphabetical index at the end.  There’s also a timeline of when these scientists did their most important work.  My major nitpick is that the source citations are on the indicia page in tiny print, and not well-formatted.  The bibliography is short and a bit lacking; parents will need to do the heavy lifting to find more complete biographies and vet them for their children.

The book has a nice sturdy binding, suitable for elementary and middle school libraries.  While the primary audience is of course elementary school girls, boys should also find the biographical sketches interesting, and parents may find out some new things too.

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