Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Science (page 1 of 5)

Here comes a science bit

Bloomin’ ‘eck!  I’m totally cream-crackered!!!

I’ve just finished  doing a two day science workshop for my school’s holiday Academy programme.

We had around ten kids aged 10-12 with a science teacher supported by me doing the stuff with them, and I can honestly say it was far more tiring than normal school science lessons.  Why?  Because there was no sitting down writing up results, drawing diagrams, thinking too much about answers in between experiments.  We had to be full on fun science for two days!  We did include explanations and gave them lots of scientific information and full handouts to go home with, but there is no respite to having to be very hands on from 9am to 4pm. During breaks and lunchtime, we had to clear up, prepare the next items and do our turns on duty watching the kids at play…

So – how did we fill our two days?

FireworkChemistryFirst up – the chemistry of fireworks.  Flame-testing metal salts to see what colours they produce when burned.  The bright red of Strontium (Sr) is our favourite. (Note: we didn’t do Barium as Barium salts are toxic).  We also burned iron filings which give the sparkle and fizz, magnesium metal to get the bright white, and we demonstrated the dragon’s breath to them (dissolve metal salt in a little water, add a good slug of alcohol and spray carefully through a Bunsen flame using a mister – (we used strontium again).

Next – we made mini air-zookas. This is a project that takes about ten minutes to make and then gives an hour of fun.  Cut ends of Pringles tubes and cut in half. Glue flat end onto an old cd with a glue gun. Put an extra layer of glue around the outside too. Then cut down a balloon and stretch over the other end of the tube and tape in place.  Then you can pull on the balloon to force air out through the hole to knock over plastic cups, card houses, blow out candle flames etc.

After lunch – it was pump rockets made from 2l drinks bottles. The children customised their rockets with fins, nose-cones etc, weighted them a little with modelling clay. Then we went onto the field, filled them 1/3rd with water, attached to the pump and soon WHOOSH!  Luckily we got through three launches each before the pump broke! :(

Day two and we went all CSI – a full day of forensics-related activities with a murder mystery to solve.  Fingerprinting, footprint casting, fibre examination, pen chromatography, mystery powders to test  and plenty of going through all the suspects’ statements to work out whodunnit. We also squeezed in extracting DNA from soft fruit – which is a lovely and messy little experiment.

The teacher and I were really happy that we’d entertained them royally, got some good science into the mix, and given them loads to take home and talk about and show to their parents.  I just hope if we do it again next summer, we get some different students so we can use the same programme!


It's a love / hate thang …

The Martian by Andy Weir

martianOne square in my Book Bingo card is ‘Hated by someone you know’.

That one was so easy to fill, for a few weeks ago my pal Simon Savidge tried to read The Martian and he ended up not finishing it when something in it tipped him over the edge: “That was it, I was done and frankly utterly furious. I threw the book across the room and gave up.” he said.

I’ve been meaning to read The Martian ever since it first came out – and I LOVED IT! It’s the perfect example of a ‘Marmite book’ and shows how different we all are as readers, and how the world would be very boring if we all liked the same things.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit that:

a) It’s not great literature;
b) It’s very nerdy;
c) The level of humour is at best ‘undergraduate’ (cf Seth MacFarlane’s tanker of a novel last year);
d) The women are token;
e) The dialogue is pure cheese!

BUT … it does have one helluva basic plot.

Mark Watney is assumed dead when an accident occurs before the Ares 4 Mission is set to leave Mars and return to Earth. They leave without him, not knowing he’s alive. How long can Mark survive? How can he let Earth know that he’s still there when all communications are broken? Will they come and get him before he dies?

So that’s the situation. I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days.
If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I’m fu**ed.

The novel starts with just Mark telling us about his predicament in daily log entries – in detail. It’s lucky that he was the mission’s engineer, for he is a resourceful chap. Not only can he calculate his needs, he is able to juryrig equipment to make it work. His other specialty is botany – and he is able to make the sterile Mars soil fertile through the application of poo to grow the experimental seed potatoes they brought with them. In short he’s able to get air, water and food sorted to give him extra months of survival time. Now time to turn his attention to getting back in contact with Earth…

Eventually, someone on Earth (a young scientist called ‘Mindy’ – yes!) watching the satellites spots things happening on Mars – they can see that the mission’s abandoned rovers have moved. This starts the parallel NASA strand as they go to work to see what’s feasible and ultimately if they can rescue him.

That’s enough plot. I’m guessing that many of you will have seen the marvelous films Apollo 13 or Gravity; some of you may also remember Marooned (from 1969, made before Apollo 13 flew). You know the score – a book like The Martian is unlikely to take a philosophical turn like John Carpenter’s 1974 film Dark Star or the daddy of them all – 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it is perfectly predictable how it will end – it’s the getting there that provides the excitement.

Weir’s narrator does describe all the science and engineering he’s doing as he goes along at great length. To be honest, you don’t have to understand it, you just need to appreciate that he’s able to do something to improve his situation, you can skim the detail. Weir has clearly done his research for the science felt very plausible on the whole, although I wouldn’t like to have to mess around with hydrazine (N2H4, a highly unstable and flammable compound) the way he does – but needs must.

There are plenty of running jokes in Watney’s log entries. He has the contents of the Hermes crew’s personal downloads to watch and listen to, comprising mission commander Lewis’s disco music pplus lots of 70s TV series like The Dukes of Hazzard, he also has plenty of Agatha Christie novels to read. He takes the piss out of his erstwhile crewmate’s media choices constantly, laddishly – it helps keep him sane.

Where the novel is less successful is the parallel strand back home at NASA. This is hackneyed and full of stereotypical characters – no elegant vision of the Mission Control backroom from Apollo 13 here. We also get very little feel for the crew who left him behind, I’d have liked to get to know them better. The Martian was initially self-published chapter by chapter on the author’s blog before it got picked up and became a hit.

You have to remember this is a thriller in a SF setting, once we’ve got over the initial tech stuff – it does pick up the pace nicely, until everything happens rather too fast at the end – a common thriller trope (I hesitate to say common thriller fault, because sometimes you just want it to be over, so you can breathe again – whether in relief, horror or whatever.

The Martian film What was clear from the start was that The Martian would make a brilliant movie – and would you believe it, Ridley Scott thought so too. Matt Damon as Mark will be hitting our screens in late autumn.  Looking at the all-star casting, it’s clear that they are going to big up the parts of the Hermes crew, and particularly the two women (yes, the mission commander and IT officer are both women in the book too).  Jessica Chastain (Lewis) and Kate Mara (Johanssen) will surely demand more than the cameo they get in the novel.  Kristen Wiig will play Annie (NASA’s West Wing CJ equivalent); Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels will be amongst the NASA team on the ground too.

Yes, I expect I will be going to see it!

So, Simon and other friends who didn’t like it, my feet are firmly in the other camp.  For me, although it wasn’t perfect, it was plausible-ish, huge fun and a good thriller.  (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Martianby Andy Weir. (2014) Del Rey, paperback, 384 pages.


A brief blog post about time

Just a quick blog post today to say that yesterday I went to see the film The Theory of Everything – the story of Jane and Stephen Hawking.


Its two young stars – Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones were exceptionally good.

Theory-of-Everything_612x381Redmayne’s transformation as Hawking’s disease took hold was masterly, but Jones’ steely determination to make the best of their lives together, then later frustrations shone out of the screen too. Both have been nominated for Oscars – my fingers are crossed.

The film was well structured and beautifully shot with a great supporting cast including David Thewlis and Emily Watson amongst a group of other younger actors I am less familiar with.

I took my 14yr old daughter and she was transfixed throughout the whole film too. My eyes did brim with tears at several moments, but did manage to hold them in.


Travelling to InfinityIt so happens, and not coincidentally, that I’m about quarter of the way through reading the new edition of Jane Hawking’s book Travelling to Infinity, which the film is based on.

Jane’s book is quite a chunkster at just under 500 pages, and carries on beyond the film, which stops in 1987 when Stephen was made a Companion of Honour. Originally published in 2007, this new edition published to tie in with the film has been abridged and added to.

I’m enjoying it so far, and can recognise many of the stories within from the film, which although having to compress things seems true to Jane’s life story. I hope the book continues to hold up.

Have you read the book or seen the film?

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
Travelling to Infinity: The True Story Behind the Theory of Everything by Jane Hawking. Abridged edition pub Dec 2014 by Alma Books, paperback 490 pages.

Three Slightly Shorter Reviews

I’ve got a series of posts lined up for the week in between Christmas and New Year with my hits, misses, finds and stats, so it’s time to catch up with my review pile backlog and some shorter reviews…

The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield

undertakers daughter For anyone who loved the TV series Six Feet Under, this is what it’s like in real life to grow up living in an American Funeral Home, and sometimes it’s not that different! Kate Mayfield’s family moved to the town of Jubilee in southern Kentucky in 1959 where her father could realise his dream of running his own funeral home. Kate was already used living in the same house:

Back in Lanesboro, I had been the first in our family to be carried as a newborn from the hospital directly into a funeral home. Birth and death in almost the same breath.

We grow up with Kate in the business. We experience the competition between the rival businesses, and the favours and kindnesses that her father secretly does for the owner of the funeral home for the black population – for Jubilee in the 1960s was segregated. Kate’s father is a bit of a conundrum, totally professional and controlled, yet charismatic and a real dandy and, with his own hidden secrets of hard-drinking and womanising, no wonder Kate’s mother is brittle and desperate to fit into this community where they are initially outsiders. We learn a lot about the funeral business with Kate as she grows up, becoming a quietly rebellious teenager in the 1970s. We also see how the business of death can divide communities, cause family feuds and rattle a lot of skeletons in closets.

This memoir was absolutely fascinating, I heartily recommend it. Source: Publisher – Thank you, (9/10)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

kjfI’ve read this for book group – we’ll be discussing it in early January, but I won’t post about that discussion because I don’t want to spoil this novel for anyone that hasn’t read it yet – is there anyone?

The story is told by Rosemary who, at the start is at university, and still trying to come to terms with the disintegration of her family that started when she was five and her sister Fern disappeared from her life.

Rosemary takes us back and forwards through her life and the details gradually fall into place. However the big plot twist happens on page 77, early on in the novel.

As it happens, I knew the twist and I can honestly say it wouldn’t have taken me by surprise. The clues are all there (don’t read the tagline on the back cover for starters!). I’ve read several other books over the years that cover much of the same ground – without the twist.

After that it’s all a bit inevitable. That said, I did enjoy this book a lot, although I didn’t like the way the author continually signposts where we are in Rosemary’s story by referring to the beginning, middle, end and points inbetween.  I’m still confused too why the Booker judges thought so highly of it as literature, but it is a good read. Source: Own copy, (7.5/10).

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

murakamiI’ve had mixed success with Murakami, but loved this beautifully illustrated novella, translated by Ted Goossen.

A boy gets an urge to find out about Ottoman tax collection and stops off at the library on his way home. Directed to the basement and the stacks of withdrawn books, he finds himself in the weirdest of horror stories featuring a sheep man, a cage, doughnuts and a girl who talks with her hands amongst many other strange things. It’s a very weird story – sort of Alice in Wonderland meets The House of Leaves.

The beauty of this little volume is in the illustrations, many of which are pages from old catalogues and text books. The end-papers are marbled and on the front is a pocket to hold the book’s ticket – Harvill Secker, the publishers have done a lovely job. I must admit I pored over the illustrations, finding the story almost as secondary, but loved the whole. (If you need a late Christmas present for someone this would be ideal.)  Source: Own copy, (9/10).

murakami spread

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To explore any of these on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate links):


My new reviews at Shiny New Books

The third issue of Shiny New Books came out on Monday. Now it’s time for me to highlight some of my reviews that appear therein and point you in their direction. As it ended up, I didn’t write as many reviews for this edition, but I shall still split them into a few posts in between others. Today it’s the turn of two novels of speculative fiction:

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel


This novel by Canadian author Mandel has been one of the big hyped titles of the autumn – a timely vision of a post-pandemic world – not due to ebola though but a new flu strain which spreads like wildfire.

It ties in the lives of a travelling troupe of musicians and actors twenty years after, focusing on a handful of characters who all experienced touchstone moments in the past.

While it does include the usual post-disaster tropes of tribe formation and those seeking to take advantage, it is all done very elegantly and with a clear vision that seems true to how I would imagine things happening in this scary future.

I loved this book! (10/10)
Read my full review here.

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Desperate Games by Pierre Boulle

Desperate Games

This one is a reprint in a new translation by David Carter from Hesperus.

First published in 1971, this novel is a philosophical satire on science, politics and psychology of the masses, in which the scientists stage a peaceful coup to make a new world order and find that eliminating hunger and cancer etc doesn’t make its people happy. Their answer is what could be considered as the prototype of The Hunger Games.

Whilst not a work of great literature, this novel is BIG on ideas and a fascinating curiosity that makes it an essential addition to the dystopian canon!

Read my full review here. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publishers – Thank you to both.
To explore further on Amazon, please click below:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, 2014, Picador, hardback, 336 pages.
Desperate Games by Pierre Boulle, (1971) – Hesperus, 2014, paperback, 206 pages.

A's HoB Q&A – Part Two 'the science bit'

Book questionI challenged you to ask me questions and you did … see the previous post for a variety of bookish and Oxfordian answers. Today it’s time to answer the science questions that you asked me – and I shall go in reverse order.

Simon T (Stuck in a Book) asked: What is your favourite chemical element?

Really, I can’t better David Nolan’s stunning pun of a reply “If I had a favourite chemical element, I think it would change periodically!”, but here are a few thoughts…
I could say ‘Oxygen‘ a) because we can’t live without it and b) when you burn Sulphur in Oxygen it has a wonderful blue flame – but I won’t.
I could say ‘Carbon‘ – another necessary element for life, also because it’s graphite, and diamonds, and Buckminsterfullerene (C60 – a carbon molecule shaped like a football made up of hexagons and pentagons).
I could say ‘Tin‘ because when you take a rod of it and bend it, it ‘cries’ – it’s a distinctive sound, made by all the dislocations (faults in the crystal structure) propagating through the material.
I could say ‘Silver’, ‘Gold’ or ‘Platinum’ because of their beauty when wrought into jewels, relative inertness and worth – but that’s far too obvious.

Today, my favourite element is aluminium.

The third most abundant element (after Oxygen and Silicon). I chose it because an aluminium alloy known as RR58 was used to build the airframe of Concorde – crucially it oxidises to give a microscopic layer of alumina – aluminium oxide on the skin which crucially aids the structural strength. I learnt that fact in my very first lecture on metallurgy at university.

itv concorde

Susan Osborne asked: Can you recommend science writers for readers like myself who are reasonably intelligent but ignorant of the sciences? I realise that its far too wide a subject to recommend for all branches of science. Thanks!

I enjoy reading popular science books, but don’t have time to read and review enough of them. Two I have blogged about are Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik on materials science, and Bad Science by Ben Goldacre which blows the lid off pharmaceuticals – from drug trials to homeopathy.

Here are a few more great science books/writers you might consider (titles go to my affiliate link).

That’s just a few off the top of my head. Everyone else – please add your favourite science books.

And finally, that fiendish feline Dark Puss asked: Why is it still perceived to be OK to be uninterested in science but not OK to be uninterested in literature (if you wish to be seen as an “educated” person)? How did we get to that point in our world?

There are so many facets to think about in answering this question. Here are a few thoughts for further discussion if you’d like.  I warn you I’m going to make sweeping generalisations though and it’s going to sound simplistic …

Firstly, nearly all the big discoveries and advances in science these days are so high tech or on the quantum level that comprehending them in any meaningful way is beyond most people, so they just turn off unless it’s Brian ‘Smiley’ Cox on the tellybox. In the days before we’d discovered most of the easy stuff, the man on the Clapham omnibus had half a chance of understanding some of it.  Also more people worked in engineering and factories, surrounded by science and technology, there were more apprentices, etc etc – so more chance that some science would brush off on people perhaps. We don’t have the everyday exposure to science and engineering in the way we used to through manufacturing, so science is perceived as difficult, made especially so as maths is devalued as being not useful by those who don’t realise that without it we can’t make progress. Secondly, secondary schools struggle to get good science teachers. Less hands on science gets done because of uninterested pupils playing up etc. – less practicals, more demonstrations. Teachers don’t necessarily have time to go beyond the curriculum. The kids see science as a difficult subject, so possibly pick easier options. Uninterest in science is ingrained early – but paradoxically, we’re all better at using it in our everyday lives – we just don’t realise.

However, if you compare the amount of hours of telly that is science-based against the hours that is literature based (non-drama), science wins hands down. Nature programmes and medical programmes abound, physics gets some attention – but ‘The sky at night’ is still going strong, in fact chemistry is probably the poor relation in science programming. Literature is mainly a specialist channel or late-night subject.

It probably boils down to the fact that even if you read rubbish, it is easy to talk about a book, whereas science requires education of a sort – or enough to ask the question. Basically, Dark Puss, I have no real idea how to answer your question – but it was fun thinking about it!



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