Friday, January 27, 2017

An energetic read ...

Yesterday night I finished reading a biography of James Joule, by Donald Cardwell. (Manchester UP, 1990, 0719034795)

Scientific biography can be a difficult thing to achieve, striking a balance between describing the man and his science, and can be quite dry reading. There's lots of contextual material in this biography and that largely diverts it from this danger. In particular, Cardwell is at pains to explain the development of Manchester and the role of its Literary and Philosophical Society (often just called the Lit and Phil). He also makes extensive use of Joule's correspondence, especially with Thompson, Tyndall and others.

Joule's generation were perhaps the last non-professional scientists. As he grew into old age, the universities were beginning to proliferate and the professional academic scientist was beginning to be a recognised profession. We see his obsession with precision and his range of interests, as the individual disciplines of science were still beginning to be distinguished.

There is certainly much in this volume to commend. Whilst Dirac, Feynman etc. perhaps make more exciting and intriguing subjects, Joule nonetheless has something to teach all of us about perseverance in the pursuit of scientific truth.

I've also finished Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett. This is only the second of the Discworld series that I've read, but I enjoyed it very much, so I think more will be following during the course of the year!

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Quantum Biology and hard-boiled detectives

Earlier this week I finished reading Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden's Life on the Edge - the Coming Age of Quantum Biology.

This clearly-written and thoughtful account describes ways in which quantum mechanics is, or is at least postulated to be, involved in biological systems. It gives an overview of both the fundamental ideas of quantum mechanics (without the maths) as well as explanations of intracellular chemical processes.

The book opens with a description of the epic migration of the European robin and weaves a carefully crafted tale of the way that quantum mechanics might be involved in animals apparent magnetic sense via a radical pair mechanism. A whole chapter later in the book considers magnetosense more generally.

Other areas that are considered include quantum tunneling of protons as part of enzymes' mechanisms, quantum superposition of DNA base tautomers as an origin of mutation and hence as a driving force for evolution, and the nature of consciousness.

An exciting book with a highly engaging and readable prose style, I most wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone interested in Biology, Chemistry or Physics - if you are a scientist sensu lato, I think you will enjoy this!

I've also read one of Raymond Chandler novel's - The little sister. This is the fifth in the Philip Marlowe series and is, as always, a dark, complex and fast-paced story. In the early volumes the similes seem to drip off the pages like rain drops over the top of gutter full of leaf mould. Ahem. But in this volume I was struck by the style being more tight and controlled and less like the many parodies and pastiches of the Marlowe books.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Looking back and looking forward

At the start of 2016 I made a resolution to attempt to read 52 books in the year. Now, as the year comes to a close, I realise that I have made it, actually managing 53. Whilst simply counting the number of books read is quite a crude measure, it is at least diagnostic of the amount of reading that is actually happening, and it is all too easy to allow other things to creep in and push it to one side.

Looking back over the list of books from 2016 here are some highlights:

Most interesting: Willis and McElwain The Evolution of Plants (OUP, 2002)
Who would waste time creating dinosaurs (lit. terrible lizzards) when the fossil record indicates that there have been so many beautiful plants and trees. I appreciate that "Carboniferous Botanic Garden" doesn't have quite the same catchy ring to it as "Jurassic Park" but I would much rather have an Archaeopteris in my garden than an Archaeopteryx in a cage.

Saddest to finish: Buchan The Blanket of the Dark (Polygon, 2008)
I am a big fan of John Buchan, but I think it was the setting of this novel (West Oxford, Wychwood Forest and the Cotswolds) which I found particularly enjoyable. This is a novel set in the time of Henry VIII and shows there is much more to Buchan than Richard Hannay.

Most thrilling: Sapper The Black Gang  (Wordsworth, 2007 - part of a combined volume of four stories)
There are four Bulldog Drummond novels involving master criminal Carl Peterson, but the Black Gang is probably my favourite. Drummond has become a much more thoughtful and intelligent hero. It is utter trash but it is entertaining and thrilling in the way that Hollywood blockbusters can be. I certainly had several very tired mornings having been unable to put it down until well past my proper bedtime!

Most heavy going: Holmes and Raven Rivers (British Wildlife Publishing, 2014)
This was a heavy book, both literally and metaphorically, but it contained a wealth of interesting material on pretty much every aspect of rivers. I will confess that I omitted the chapter on invertebrates, not being much of an entomologist, but it has been interesting to look at rivers in my local area with a fresh eye.

For 2017 my target is going to be 65. I also hope to publish more blog posts, but I know I've said that before!

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Back again ...

Somehow, the longer the break between posts, the harder it is to write one. I haven't had much time to blog over the last couple of years - being a dad now takes up quite a lot of my time - but I hope to begin writing more posts over the summer and continue after that.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

At last, another post

It's been a while ...

I have just finished reading Ngaio Marsh's Opening Night (I'm gradually working my way through the Alleyn novels in the Haprer omnibus editions). A great story, and with all the detection being done in a few hours after the murder. However, the thing I most enjoyed was the theatrical setting. It's been a long time since I last stage managed a production (it must have been 2001 - a semi-staged Dido and Aeneas in Oxford), but Marsh writes so evocatively of the theatre that I was immediately transported back. As ever, her characterisation is excellent and the build-up to the crime is as exciting and interesting as Alleyn's methodical detection.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Plant Physics - Niklas and Spatz

I'm only two chapters in, but I'm really enjoying Plant Physics by Niklas and Spatz.

Being a chemist and therefore only having amateur botanical knowledge and slightly rusty physics (at this level - chemistry degrees don't include much fluid mechanics), it is quite hard-going, but the prose is elegantly written and considerable help is given with understanding what the formulae mean. For anyone who is seriously interested in this topic, I'd definitely recommend it.

Also currently re-reading Mingos Essential Trends in Inorganic Chemistry and Dickens Tale of Two Cities (which is my favourite Dickens novel).

Hoping for more active blogging as the summer holiday approaches!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

I think this video about astronomy, spectroscopy and the evolution of the universe from PhD comics is well-worth a look!