Wednesday, 31 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 CO2 cartridges, but intended for 'cream chargers' that are used to produce catering quantities of squirty cream. And the gas in the cylinder is not CO2 but N2O - 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.

The use of nitrous oxide for social entertainment goes back to the early days of the discovery of the gas. Although it soon became a useful anaesthetic, from very early days it was also a recreational drug, with records of it use going back to 1799. There was a time when laughing gas parties where popular, where groups of people would take turns to sniff the gas and to collapse on the floor from dizziness or in fits of giggles and unseemly laughter, an abandonment of propriety that must have seemed particularly thrilling in those often stuffy times.

This use seems to have primarily died out in the twentieth century, except amongst doctors, nurses and dentists, who have always been rumoured to misuse the stuff - but now it's back big time, thanks to these little cylinders, intended to get that cream a-foaming.

Is it a good thing? Probably not. There has been at least one recent death due to nitrous oxide inhilation. It's not that it's poisonous per se, but if you breathe too much of the stuff, you aren't breathing oxygen and you asphyxiate. It is apparently psychologically addictive - meaning addictive in the sense that theme park rides or cheeseburgers are addictive, as opposed to a chemical addiction. It's the experience that is addictive. And crucially a relatively small amount of the gas can render the user incapable or semi-conscious - not an ideal situation in a club, out on the street, or particularly if cars are involved.

There may also be longer term physical damage caused by use of the gas, as its mechanism of action isn't fully understood.

If you find laughing gas cylinders after a party, it's not a matter for panic. It's not illegal, and it's unlikely to produce as bad a result as over-consumption of alcohol. We tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to all drugs that aren't caffeine or alcohol (or if you've had a certain lifestyle, which I haven't, cannabis), but in the case of N2O, this is probably wrong. Nonetheless, it's another potential way to get into trouble, which as a parent is not something I can cheer about.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

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. 

Monday, 29 August 2011

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. This costs £4.99 ($9.99) which should roughly cover postage worldwide.

For some childish reason, what I like about the book most is that the title has glitter on it. This is eminently satisfying. I have never had a book with glitter on it before. I bet Stephen Hawking has never had glitter.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

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 - inline box. Positioned between
paragraphs. Reads with the flow of the book
Now I do have sympathy for the authors, as boxes are rarely their idea. The fact is there's a certain breed of publisher that just loves them. Business publishers delight in boxes, for example. They feel naked without them.

So please, publishers - have a heart. It's fine to have an in-line box that reads through with the main text. It's fine to have boxes on double page spreads, where the main text has a clear beginning and end without having to turn the page. But please don't impose boxes on us in a normally flowing book.

It doesn't work, it's nasty and it achieves nothing.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

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 night'... which can't be bad. It has raised the profile of science. Of course some people think that his slightly manic enthusiasm is fake - but it really isn't. I had coffee with him a while ago while waiting to do a joint gig at the Science Museum's Dana Centre in London (this was before his TV appearances) and he was just as enthusiastic, and though rather dazzled by the media, came across as a genuine nice guy.

So please, fellow science writers, don't knock the Cox. Instead celebrate the exposure he is giving physics.

Monday, 22 August 2011

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 organic food - it's no better technically, but some people are prepared to pay more for it.

Many relatively unknown authors are puzzled as to why publishers will first issue their books as a hardback or a trade paperback. Surely, the public is more likely to take a punt on an unknown author if the book is as cheap as possible? I've argued this way myself in the past.

There seem to be two reasons for producing the premium books. One is that for a book that is going to sell anyway, it's worth reaping that premium from those who are prepared to pay it, either to get the book earlier, or because it makes a better gift. The second is that for some reason many of the traditional reviewers (like newspapers) treat mass market paperbacks as secondhand citizens. I don't understand this, but it's the way things are. If you want plenty of reviews, going straight to a basic paperback is not going to help.

The trade paperback is a kind of intermediate format. It is a posh paperback - usually larger than the mass market version and with a smarter cover. It may well have texture on the cover and fold-out flaps, and it will be a bit larger than its mass market equivalent. It seems to be sufficient to get the attention of the reviewers, and gives some premium income, so is increasingly used as an alternative to a hardback.

After that initial push, from the publisher's viewpoint being a hardback or trade paperback can be a bit of a liability, so if the book is doing well, a mass market paperback is liable to follow. This is partly to enable economies of scale, but also reflects the fact that most bookshops only stock a relatively small number of hardbacks. Although it can be easier to get a hardback into a review, it is certainly easier to get a paperback into a shop.

The extreme version of this is well illustrated by my book The First Scientist. A scientific biography of the 13th century friar/proto-scientist Roger Bacon this was a book that was unlikely to get out of hardback. Yet when that proved a rather slow mover, the US publisher took a batch of hardbacks, cut off the hardcover and replaced it with a paper cover so they would have a better chance of getting into bookshops.
So what's best for the author? I'm not sure there is a magic solution, but I suspect the optimum approach is to have a hardback/trade paperback to get the attention which, if selling well, is followed up with a mass market paperback in less than a year. Many books won't get past their first printing, but if they are really to take off, that's the path you might hope for.

Friday, 19 August 2011

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 list of interesting things to blog about!

Thursday, 18 August 2011

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.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

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 thought of this because I'm in holiday mode, a time when I often re-read books I enjoyed as a youth. At the moment I'm part way through Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out. I know, I know, it's hopeless shlock. But the fact is that I thought this book was wonderful when I was 15. I can still see the reasons why. About 1/4 way through, for example, there's a wonderful car chase across Berkshire and Wiltshire, redolent with places I know and love. The technique Wheatley uses shouldn't work. He gives repeated timings as each of the characters reaches a certain point or does something - yet the effect is one that really sticks in the mind and gives the impression of a true race against time.

Similarly, hokum though it all is, Wheatley's black magic is much more earthy and unsettling than anything that happens at Hogwarts. So why the re-write? Because the writing has a naive but unpleasant racism that it's impossible to ignore from a modern viewpoint. I can distance it - I know from Wheatley's 1930s viewpoint this was just everyday reality, not intended to be offensive. But it is as uncomfortable today as a Bernard Manning joke. I can overlook it, but to bring to modern teenagers that same enjoyment I got, it really could do with a remake. (There are also some science comments that make me cringe.)

How about it, Dennis Wheatley's estate? I'd be happy to volunteer to do the job. (Genuinely.) Let's bring this wonderfully enjoyable nonsense to a new audience.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

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 for his science - it was his heretical religious views that condemned him. (I'm glad to say Parris does not fall for the simplistic view.)

However, good though this book is, I was inspired to write this post by a most hilarious statement on the copyright page. It says, bold as brass, The names, characters and incidents portrayed in [this book] are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead... is entirely coincidental. What? Is the publisher having a laugh? Are they really saying that S. J. Parris dreamed up a character called Giordano Bruno with certain scientific theories and it's a pure coincidence that there was a real person of this name at the same time in history with the same theories? Do they truly believe that Queen Elizabeth of England, Sir Philip Sidney etc. all sprung from the author's imagination?

Come on guys, this is buffoonery. Of course it's not a coincidence. Sigh. Great book though. Take a look at or at

Thursday, 11 August 2011

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.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

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.

Friday, 5 August 2011

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) with the consequences. Anything else would be poor justice indeed.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

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 the ancients to find a new planet - pretty impressive stuff. And he called it... George. (Well, to be precise, Georgium Sidus, but I'm sure everyone knew it as George.) After his patron, the King.

We know it now as Uranus, a name given to it (rather presumptuously if you ask me) by a later astronomer Johann Bode. But just imagine if Herschel's name had stuck. I think it would be rather fun. We would have none of that childish sniggering along the lines of 'I can see Uranus.' Instead we would be able to comment 'I say, George looks awfully fine this evening.' It would transform a list of the planets. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, George, Neptune is just so much more enjoyable.

Let's have a campaign to bring back George!

Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

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 big neighbour, the galaxy in the constellation Andromeda, is on collision course. In about 5 billion years it will plough into the Milky Way, forming a single, mega galaxy. In case you are worried about possible effects on the Earth, don't be. a) You won't be around. b) Earth will have already been crisped by an expanding, reddening Sun.

But the point here is that this new, merged galaxy formed from Andromeda and the Milky Way needs a name. The suggestion I have seen, Milkomeda, is, frankly, terrible. It sounds like a disease. And the obvious alternative, Androway sounds like a property development company. We need something better. So here's where you come in. I am asking for suggestions for a better name for the merged galaxy. Provided I get suggestions from at least 10 people I will offer the best (according to me) a free copy of one of the following books:
Just add your suggestions as comments below. I will announce the winner in a blog post on 16 August and ask them to email details to me to send their chosen book. So get your thinking caps on, and encourage friends and relations to take part as I need those 10 entries...

Image from NASA

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

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 attempts to kill him to keep the story going, but it really stretches the suspension of disbelief to breaking point that he couldn't be taken out by a sniper at any point.

Still, I'm enjoying it enough to be able to tuck that away and forget it... and looking forward to the new Series 2 episodes, coming soon.

Monday, 1 August 2011

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 computer. So the signed dedication is actually separate from the book, but linked to it by having its cover photo in the document.

I think it's a neat idea which could be quite popular, though the website is very new and rather skeletal at the moment. To find an author you have to search on a page with a straggly list of authors, then click on the button for the book (provided the author has added it). Then the fun starts. You can't get a button unless you log in with a Twitter account, which is a bit scary (and less than useful if you aren't on Twitter). I had hoped to send myself a dedication but the next stage requires you to modify settings for your Kindle to receive a document from Kindlegraph's email. I don't have a Kindle, I use the Kindle reader software on my iPad. So I was unable to carry on.

But in principle I should then have had a request flagged up from reader Brian to author Brian. As author Brian I would then write a dedication. I don't know if I would get any information, like who this person is, who they'd like the dedication made out to, any comments to help me make up a dedication, or whether I would just be firing in the dark - I'll have to see what happens if I get a request.

Finally, then, the reader gets their dedication.

Will it replace the signed book? Of course not. A signed book is a special object. This is just another document, admittedly personalized, on someone's Kindle. And a signed book usually reminds of meeting an author face-to-face. The Kindlegraph is remote and there never was any contact between writer and reader. Even so, it's better than nothing, and deserves a good pat on the back for the developer of Kindlegraph for thinking of a rather neat little website.