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November science books

An odd mix of books landed on my desk during recent weeks from publishers keen to hear my thoughts on their authors’ output. First up is another owner’s manual from Haynes, this time it’s the Millennium Falcon, a modified YT-1300 Corellian Freighter. Rather than giving you the knowledge to change your spark plugs and adjust your tappets, this manual by Ryder Windham, Chris Reiff and Chris Trevas gives us the low down on quad laser cannon, concussion missiles and the Hanx-Wargel computer. A must for those people who still vote for Star Wars in those polls of the greatest movies ever made and kids into 1970s sci-fi.

Civilizations Beyond Earth” edited by Douglas A Vakoch and Albert A Harrison. In thinking about first contact, the contributors to this volume present various ideas about on the social pyschology of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Archaeologists and astronomers explore the likelihood that extraterrestrial intelligence exists, while sociologists discuss public attitudes towards ET. Mathematicians, chemists and journalists also chip in with thoughts on bridging the gap between humanity and extraterrestrial civilizations. Worthy as such efforts might seem, I am afraid I’m with Enrico Fermi on this one: Despite the grandiose gesturing and estimates of the elephantine probability of intelligent life elsewhere, there is no “alien” in the room…

An Engineer’s Alphabet by Hentry Petroski is subtitled “Gleanings from the softer side of a profession” (I bet that was his original title, but the publishers insisted on something snappier). This little book is basically and alphabetical compendium of quotations, anecdotes and “fun facts”…about engineering: egg-drop competitions, movies about engineering and US presidents who were engineers. One for the engineer in your life, I think.

Igor Novak in “Science: A Many-Splendored Thing” seems to equate allusion to the 1955 Henry King film “Love is a many splendored thing” based on the novel by Han Suyin with a good framework for writing about the multifaceted nature of science. I’m not so sure, yes, he discusses the historical, sociological, and philosophical aspects of science (which doesn’t have a capital letter in the middle of sentences, by the way), but it all seems to be well-trodden ground and terrible graphics lifted (with credit) from various websites. It is also very irritating to see words like science, society, reality and universe with an initial capital letter and missing pronouns when they’re needed as in: “prevailing conditions at the time Universe began”.

Also on my desk is “Escape from Bubbleworld: Seven curves to save the earth” by Keith Skene. “Skene explores how we ended up in Bubbleworld, and brings a positive message: we can escape! Using seven key graphs to explore how the rest of the planet works, he explains how we can rediscover sustainability within a new context, or rather, one that we used to know well. It’s not too late to escape from Bubbleworld!”

Bonus DVD: Genius of Britain from Athena sets out to “engage your mind” and “expand your world”. It’s videos of all the usual suspects Jim Al-Khalili, Richard Dawkins, James Dyson, Stephen Hawking, Paul Nurse, Olivia Judson and Kathy Sykes, with “guest” contributions from Robert Winston (he of the single data point TV experiment) and David Attenborough.

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