Monday, 6 June 2011

Gravity's Fatal Attraction - Black Holes in the Universe

or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Black Holes.

Everybody has heard of black holes, they're up there with the Big Bang and E=mc2 in the public physics consciousness.  They've gone from a rather odd solution to some of Einstein's equations, to science fiction staple, to conventional astrophysics in around a century, and nobody has ever seen one.

There's certainly a lot of circumstantial evidence though, notably a lot of extremely high energy events a (thankfully) very long way away, and a very, very dense object at the centre of our own Milky Way called Sagittarius A* (pronounced "A-star").  Current theories of physics also suggest we may find oddities like miniature black holes created in the moments after the Big Bang; stranger and more speculative still, our entire Universe looks in many ways like the view from the inside of a black hole's event horizon. 

Mitchell Begelman, Professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado, and Martin Rees, the UK Astronomer Royal and master of Trinity College Cambridge certainly have a pedigree when it comes to these strange objects, and they've written a lucid and very beautiful account of the current research.   This falls into one of my favourite areas of science books - it's either an extraordinarily well presented undergraduate text, or a popular science book that goes that bit further, purposefully ignoring the "no equations" dictum.  There are equations, there are graphs.  And diagrams, photos, diagrams and graphs overlaid on photos and so on and so forth.  They're all glossy full colour and very pretty for the most part, and it's a far better book for it.  The diagram-on-photo of stars frantically orbiting something very massive and very small at the centre of out galaxy is the first thing I've seen that actually convinces me black holes exist outside of theory.  The prose is flowing, informative and packed with interesting side notes and magazine style sidebars and sub-articles highlighting important concepts like spectroscopy or hyperbolic geometry.

Three hundred pages of cutting edge, high level astrophysical research rewritten for people who understand the odd graph and like pretty pictures - fantastic.

Incidentally, go and see Martin Rees give a lecture at some point if you can, he's a very interesting man indeed.

Gravity's Fatal Attraction
Mitchell Begelman & Martin Rees
Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 9780521717939

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Author Interview: Stuart Clark on The Sky's Dark Labyrinth

Stuart Clark is an astrophysicist, astronomy journalist and author of some twenty titles including The Sun Kings, which was short-listed for the 2008 Royal Society Prize for Science Books. 
Image courtesy: Simon Wallace
His latest work, The Sky's Dark Labyrinth (full review here) is a fictional account following Kepler, Tycho and Galileo as they struggle to reconcile new astronomical theories and the first telescopically aided observations with the church's long-standing geocentric model.  He's been kind enough to, in his own words, "take a break from trying to get into Newton's head" and talk about his new book. 

Why did you write a work of fiction rather than a biography or straight historical account?
Every time I start a new project I wonder what the best way will be to tell the story. I see all of my books as stories, whether they’re non-fiction or fiction. They must have a narrative flow to engage the readers and keep them with you. My previous book, The Sun Kings, spanning the 19th century, was written as a three-act play although it was non-fiction. The essence of the ‘hero’ passed between three characters, William Herschel, Richard Carrington and Walter Maunder as they fought for the same goal: recognition of the Sun’s magnetic power over Earth. It was narrative non-fiction but at least one newspaper reviewed it as fiction. Surprisingly, they still quite liked it.
The idea for writing The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth as a fictional trilogy came about through conversations between my agent and me and with an editor. I’ve always wanted to publish fiction and the idea of relating these amazing stories about these particular people in a fictional manner appealed instantly. I went away and wrote some test passages, passed it by some friends and editors, took their comments on board and decided to go for it.
These mathematicians’ and scientists’ lives took place against backdrops of immense sociological change: wars, rebellions, persecution, political intrigue and scandal. That kind of drama lends itself to fiction but can often seem superfluous in non-fiction. So, in a strange way, I think the choice of fiction means I can tell these stories more completely than if I were writing non-fiction. 

How much poetic license have you introduced?  Tycho is a bit over the top, surely?
If anything, I toned Tycho Brahe down! We meet him in his declining years, not at the height of his powers and eccentricity. What a great character with his freak show of an entourage and his obsessions for despotism and astronomy. You’re right; you couldn’t make it up and be believed.
I have taken some licence. In places I have eased the strict chronology, or simplified events to facilitate the flow of the story, but the majority of it is accurate. For example, I have Kepler caught in the midst of the battle in Prague. Now, I don’t know he was actually involved in the fighting, but he lived so close to the market square where the massacre took place that it’s a least plausible, and I felt appropriate for the story.
I aimed for essential truths in the story by performing enormous amounts of research, reading letters and books written by all these people alongside well-researched papers and books written about them by other people, to see whether I agreed with their interpretations.
I visited locations where the scientists had lived and museums to see artefacts of their times to really flesh out the characters of these essentially ordinary people who were blessed with extraordinary gifts and talents. I used some of their written phrases as dialogue, where it was appropriate.
There’s only one entirely fictional character in the first book, Cardinal Pippe. I invented him as a device to represent the pervasive mindset that Galileo’s trial was about religion versus science. The truth of the trial is so much more complex and fascinating than ranting religion against paragons of rationality. Galileo was not a modern scientist. He had amazing insights and planted the seeds of what became science but that was not why he was persecuted. It was his dabbling in theology that got him into trouble, and the Jesuits, who had been his protectors, made him their scapegoat him to protect themselves. What an extraordinary piece of backstabbing – it had to be a novel! 

So some of the greatest astronomers in history also did posh people's horoscopes for a living - that's a tad embarrassing for science isn't it?
Not at all, the science of astronomy came out of the ancient art of astrology. Astrology was a way of making sense of the world – it was the first theory of everything and by that I mean a way of linking the small to the large. Nowadays our theories of everything try to link particles to galaxies, back then they linked individuals to planets. So many people at the time believed that it worked without any real proof. Kepler was the first to ask the question, “Why did it work?” and began to look for proof of a demonstrable agency that could link the planets to the Earth and ultimately individuals. He understood that the tides were the result of a force coming from the Moon – something that Galileo never accepted – and so cautioned against the wholesale rejection of astrology on those grounds.
It’s where the phrase about ‘not throwing the baby out with the bath water’ comes from. Kepler was defending astrology because he was sure that the Moon was exerting a force on the oceans. I tried and tried to work that phrase into the book, but every time I put it in, it just sounded too modern and a cliché. So, I left it out.
Ultimately, Kepler’s insight into the movement of the planets and the Moon’s influence on the tides set the stage for Newton. In book II of the trilogy, The Sensorium of God, I discuss Newton’s alchemy, which again is an attempt at a theory of everything that didn’t work out. One thing is clear, without Newton’s belief in alchemy, he would never have conceived of a force that acted across space without a medium to carry it – that was a concept straight out of the occult. 

How many of the original manuscripts and astronomical devices survive today?
A considerable amount, fortunately. I saw a large quadrant, dating from 1632, very similar to one that Tycho used in the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden, Holland. I was lucky enough to be in Beijing and visited the old observatory there. Most of those instruments are copies of Tycho’s, constructed by the Jesuits during the 17th century. Fantastic instruments, and of course, all embellished with Chinese dragons.
I had an epiphany in Sweden at the Nobel Museum where I had been invited to view a travelling exhibition from the Galileo museum in Florence. I looked through a replica of Galileo’s telescope – a real one was far too precious to touch. Instantly, I realised why some people claimed not to see the moons of Jupiter. Optically, they are really difficult to see through, the field of view is minuscule; it’s like peering down a well.
(L-R) Europa, Ganymede, Callisto and Jupiter
Modern 300mm lens, heavily cropped. Photo: Geoff

The Museum even made us food typical of Galileo’s time, including his favourite biscuits that his daughter would make for him.
One of the facts that I uncovered was a continuing theme throughout history of the way these clever people always had to beg for financial sponsorship, ingratiating themselves with the wealthy. In a way this still goes on today, with universities having to curry favour with governments and large successful companies. 

What do you think Kepler would have made of modern day cosmology?
I think he would be publicly embarrassed but privately pleased that there is a NASA spacecraft named after him orbiting right now finding planets around other stars, and showing that his laws of planetary motion hold true for other planetary systems as well.
He would feel vindicated that we have finally found the parallax, which he so desperately wanted to find in order to prove that the Earth moved. And I’m sure he would be speechless that computers can be programmed to take the drudgery out of calculations – remember he did it all by hand, pages and pages of calculation, year after year.
However, there is no doubt at all in my mind that he would have been horrified by the secularism that now dominates science. He worked, like all the early astronomers including Galileo and Newton, for the glory of God. They thought that the work they were doing brought mankind closer to God, not further away. He might even see modern cosmology as a wholesale perversion of the seed he sowed.
One of my goals with the next two books in the trilogy, as I follow the story of Newton and then Einstein, is to show the growth of this secularism, and the way science changed people’s perception of what religion is and can offer. I’ve nearly finished the second book – and believe me Newton is, in his own way, as outrageous as Tycho! And I can’t wait to get started on the third. The father of the big bang is a man called Georges Lemaître. He was an exceptional mathematician, a student of the great astrophysicist Arthur Eddington, and a Jesuit-educated Roman Catholic priest. The last fact put him at a distinct disadvantage among the increasingly atheistic astronomers. Then, he discovered what looked like a moment of creation in Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity – and had to convince everybody that he wasn’t working to some secret religious agenda.
What a gift of a character to write!

The Sky's Dark Labyrinth is published on the 1st of May 2011.

Monday, 11 April 2011

xkcd (volume 0)

When I need to blow off steam, I find a particularly stupid blog comment and reply with an exhaustively researched word-by-word rebuttal, which I sign "Summer Glau".

Randall Munroe

If you're not aware of the webcomic and geek phenomenon that is xkcd then I envy you.  Honestly, it would be lovely to have not seen it and have hours and hours of guiltily geeky sniggering ahead of me.

And now Randall Munroe has taken the plunge into real life and collated his favourite strips in a book.  The aptly named volume 0 (programmers usually start counting from zero) is very possibly the funniest science based comic book ever produced.  If you're into physics, maths, humans, hacking, ferrets, sunsets or getting dumped by people who just don't get the importance of a proper zombie plan, then there's something here for you.  It's very educational too - whether it's COBEs astounding confirmation of theory or pseudoforces in rotating reference frames, you'll laugh, you'll giggle, and you'll look something up on Wikipedia.

Bonus time!  The book is published by Breadpig, an "uncorporation" who channel their profits into individuals and organisations who "make the world less sucky".  xkcd's profits go to Room To Read, who build schools and fund literacy projects in Laos, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India amongst others.

You can buy it directly from the xkcd store, or from books'n'mortar bookshops.

Edinburgh Science Festival 2011

Through the wonders of modern technology I'm typing this while sat in Edinburgh University's Informatics Forum, host to most of the Edinburgh Science Festival's book-related talks.  The next two weeks will see some highly talented science writers take to the stage to explain and entertain.

Quantum author Manjit Kumar has already explored the philosophical and physical implications of quantum theory through the eyes of Einstein, Bohr and others, shedding light on a theory that is a little unbelievable on the face of it, even to those who discovered and developed it in the early twentieth century.  I haven't read his book yet, but if he writes as well as he speaks it'll be well worth it.  (As a penance he's challenged me to read and review Roger Penrose's highly technical and speculative Cycles Of this space and see if I can make any intelligent comments beyond the choice of font and quality of binding.)

Ian Sample brings us back to the present with Massive, a popular look at the Higgs boson, from Edinburgh local Peter Higgs conception of it in the 1960s to the LHCs current efforts to find a trace of it amongst a truly mind-boggling quantity of data.  In fact, the LHC is something of a recurring theme at this years festival, with physicist Jon Butterworth and engineer Lyn Evans talking to Robin Ince about the practical challenges of an experiment that spans two countries, then Emma Sanders and Gian Giudice talking about everything from extra dimensions to (aptly) pop-up books.  Regular readers will be aware of Voyage To The Heart Of Matter, the glorious bit of paper engineering I wrote about last year, and I can heartily recommend Giudice's Zeptospace Odyssey, which isn't a prog-rock album as you may think, but a book about the LHC concentrating on the actual physics underlying the experiment.

Away from particle physics Kevin Dutton spoke about Flipnosis: persuasion, mind games and emotional influence.  He sold quite a few books for some reason...a suspiciously high number in fact...

Current SciFest Bookshop Leaderboard

Kevin Dutton

Manjit Kumar

Voyage To The Heart Of Matter
Emma Sanders & Anton Radevsky

Ian Sample

There are a huge number of events on over the next two weeks, not just talks from authors and a chance to get a book signed.  Fancy a post-mortem at Edinburgh Zoo?  A drink at the Blood Bar?  High voltage demonstrations in the pub?  There's something for everyone and all ages, so get involved if you can.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Sky's Dark Labyrinth

"Truth is the daughter of time, and I feel no shame in being her midwife."
Johannes Kepler

Religious conspiracy, coded letters, a barely sane astronomer with a clairvoyant dwarf, allegations of heresy and first glance Stuart Clark's new book really does sound like something from the Dan Brown school of writing.  That's probably a little unfair on both authors, because in many ways this is the exact opposite of Brown's modus operandi; the real challenge here is picking out the parts of the story that aren't essentially true.

Clark, you see, is not a novelist who has decided to dip his toe into the world of astronomy, he's a PhD holding astrophysicist who specialises in science journalism, which goes a long way to explaining the historical veracity underlying The Sky's Dark Labyrinth.

It's personal confession time...I know this story quite well, enough to hold my own view on events and argue them in front of a real historian without blushing too much...and Clark's account is superb.  The spat between Galileo and the Catholic church is infamous, with the general perception being that Galileo had the temerity to suggest the Earth orbits the Sun, and was promptly tried and imprisoned for his trouble.  The truth, when you dig into it, is a little more complicated. Clark takes the main protagonists, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei, and skilfully picks apart three very different men with equally different ideas about how the universe works, against a vivid backdrop of southern Europe at a time of huge political and religious upheaval.  Kepler, with his remarkable mathematical ability, tries to tease the data he needs from Tycho's private and closely guarded collection.  Galileo turns the newly invented telescope towards the skies, and the church struggles to maintain their authority over a world in flux.

It's a well balanced and fair account, far removed from a naive religion versus science debate.  The greatest astronomers in history have family problems, crises of faith, run out of money and even cast horoscopes on the side while the church does its best to research and adapt to new ideas without bringing the whole house of cards crashing down under the weight of its own logic.  

It's one of the great true stories of human imagination and inspiration, a fascinatingly detailed history, and a cracking good read.

Oh, OK, I give up.  What's a crap astronomical pun on "brilliant"?
A super-nova-of-a-novel?
A work of gravitational gravitas?

Suffice to say, great book.

As a bonus, it's the first part in a trilogy, the following parts covering Newton and Halley, then Einstein and Hubble, tying together four hundred years of cosmology.  I can't wait for a TV series, ideally directed by Joss Whedon.

Published 1st of May 2011

The Sky's Dark Labyrinth
Stuart Clark
Polygon (Birlinn)
ISBN: 9781846971747

(Review based on an uncorrected proof supplied by the publisher)

Friday, 4 February 2011

How To Live Forever

Writing a book about "science" is always going to be a tricky affair.  For starters, there's a lot of science.  Biology, physics, geology...the list goes on for a very, very long time, and nobody can be an expert in everything.  Alok Jha has taken the task on though, and has done a pretty good job of it.  How To Live Forever (and 34 other really interesting uses of science) takes a huge range of scientific ideas, from the brain's underlying principles to quantum mechanics, basic botany to fringe biology, and explores them in a series of essays.

It's a book that's walking a tightrope, and it does it rather well.  The wackier elements (and you've got to have some wild speculation in a popular science book) are explored in a suitably sober manner without getting too science-fiction, and the more established science isn't just a rehashing of the usual textbook essays, it's all covered in a lively and informal manner. 

It reads in many ways like a compilation of articles from a popular science magazine rather than a book, with quirky illustrations, sidebars explaining the trickier concepts and diagrams galore.  Whatever your favourite field, there's something in here for you, along with a good few other things you never realised you were interested in.

Just one word of warning: some books come with an automatic "in your head soundtrack", and I've not been able to get Queen's Who Wants To Live Forever out of my head whilst reading this.  In fact, it's not been this bad since Bruce Hofkin's Living In A Microbial World.  (And I am a microbial girl.)

How To Live Forever
Alok Jha

(A free copy of this book was provided by the publishers for review)

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Maths 1001

It's 1001 things about maths, all of them explained in an average of around three paragraphs.  That simple.

Of course, anyone can do that.  The notable thing about Maths 1001 is the sheer force of clarity it's all presented with.  From the very basics of addition and multiplication, through geometry, discrete maths, probability, it's always explained in crystal clear, flowing english.  Metamathematics and mathematical physics also get an honourable mention, and the text is peppered with the historical curiosities behind the proofs and theorems.  If you want to be geeky about it, the comprehensivity / entertainment ratio is near optimal.

The range of the 1001 entries is spot on, a good mixture of the most important and the most interesting; you'll almost certainly find new gems in here unless you're a postgrad mathematician or beyond, and all for a penny short of fifteen pounds for a title that's pushing textbook size.

There's also something else that makes me love this book, and I'm afraid I'm going to have to lower the tone here.  There's a particular class of books that present short, snappy bites, and in no particular order.  They're books that are ideal for the water closet - the toilet, the smallest room in the house if you prefer.  "Books for bogtime" if you're British.  No serious reader will ever deny having favourite bog books, and I've just found another.

Maths 1001
Richard Elwes
ISBN: 9781848660632