Tagged: Science

Mini review: “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe


This is the story of the early (American) pioneers of supersonic flight (breaking the sound barrier) and the space race. And it is astounding.

Early on the book tries to nail what it was in the personalities of the men – test pilots from the Navy and Air Force – who risked their lives to go faster or higher than the others, to prove to the world that they were one of the special few at the top of their game. They had the skills, the ego, the guts… the right stuff.

As the book progresses it changes from expressing the concepts and ideas as to what constitutes the Right Stuff to a very character-driven history, and it definitely gets better as it goes along.  The first few chapters are written very much in the Tom Wolfe style – with lots of exclamation! – and quite a lot of repetition.  The repetition used for stylistic effect works well.  The repetition to ram an idea down your throat, not so much.

But then the story starts to blossom, the forcefulness of the writing style fades into the background and you get enveloped in the feel of the events.  It is like you are being given privileged access to a special time and place; you are invited to participate in the thrill of being on the cutting edge.  You are getting insight into achievements that will change history and the way that people look at the world.

The narrative focuses very much on the people involved but undeniably the two stars are ace pilot Chuck Yeager and the astronaut John Glenn.  It was amazing how little I knew about the rest of the people, in particular the other 6 astronauts chosen to take part in the early space missions.  I kept myself away from Wikipedia so that their stories were new to me, but these are names that have faded in the collective memory. How?

By the end of the book I was enthralled, and when I finished I had to spend a little time just thinking about the scale of the achievements involved and the sheer joyous ride I had been on.  I’m sure there are several excellent and more conventional histories of the space race, but Tom Wolfe has pulled off something very special here.  He has managed to bring out the emotion and the pure magic of the events.




Mini review: “The Martian” by Andy Weir (audiobook version)


An astronaut gets left on Mars, but he is not as dead as first thought.  Survival means overcoming problem after problem.

A dry, black sense of humour and a lot of technical details.  This may make it too sterile for some people, but I liked it.

Perfectly pitched, flawless narration.

A nail-biting conclusion.

Very good overall.

A great day out at the Edinburgh Maker Faire


I had a great day out at Scotland’s first Maker Faire yesterday with my daughter.

It was a mix of electronics, arts and crafts, run by enthusiasts and small companies making bespoke products.

My daughter had her first goes at soldering (when making a silver ring) and riveting (when making a hoola hoop.)

There were gloves that made music when you moved the fingers, soap that looked like cheesecake, 3D printing (good to see, but pretty boring to watch), mini dinosaur making from laser-etched plywood, a large number of sewing machines in the workshop to make cushions, Raspberry Pi enclosures, Arduino starter kits, some of the weirdest bikes you’ve ever seen, puppets and a machine that allowed you to poke virtual objects and get touch feedback.

I was very impressed at how many people there were – it was great to see it so busy – and both of us would like it to come back next year (a London event would be even better for us southerners…)

A big thanks to everybody involved!

The Half-Life of Facts

This sounds dead interesting and I have downloaded it from Audible, so expect a review at some point.

“All crude measures, however arrived at, show to a first approximation that science increases exponentially, at a compound interest of about 7 percent  per annum, thus doubling in size every 10–15 years, growing by a factor of 10 every half century, and by something like a factor of a million in the 300 years which separate us from the seventeenth-century invention of the scientific paper when the process began.”

Since scientific knowledge is still growing by a factor of ten every 50 years, it should not be surprising that lots of facts people learned in school and universities have been overturned and are now out of date.

• Reason.com: Half of the Facts You Know Are Probably Wrong

• Samuel Arbesman: The Half-Life of Facts (Book details)

An evening out at Café Scientifique

I spotted an advert for Café Scientique in Time Out and wanted to check it out.  Last night’s event was called “Hiding in plain site?” and was discussing  steganography (“the art of concealing messages so they are only visible to sender and recipient”).   The event was open to the public, was free and was pretty much full as a result. This is a fantastic way to open up scientific ideas.

The Royal Society is housed in a beautiful building, but the event did actually take place in the café, so you didn’t get a chance to look around.  It would be great to have the opportunity to have a guided tour one day.

The speaker was only talking for about 10 minutes, which seemed a bit short and a bit more depth would have made it more interesting – but the emphasis is on the Q+A with the audience, and we were not afraid to participate.   The first part of the evening is recorded (audio only), then there is a short break where you get a chance to talk things through with the others on the table, then the chance for more questions – but the second half is not taped.

Overall a good evening and depending on the subject I would go again…

• Royal Society:  Hiding in plain site?