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The Hunt for Vulcan, Welcome to the Microbiome, Origins. Sourcebooks for science fiction writers.

November 11, 2015

The Hunt for Vulcan

The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson. Published by Head of Zeus

This is the story of the planet that never was, but whose phantom presence resulted in Einstein’s general relativity. It all started with the ‘wobble’ of the planet Mercury as it progressed across the heavens. This movement was thought to be as a result of the presence of another planet nearby influencing Mercury’s movement. Vulcan was ‘discovered’ in 1860, but it would be 1915 before Einstein’s mathematical explanation finally proved otherwise. It took some doing because ‘The Hunt for Vulcan’ is really a story of how scientific discoveries are made and how sometimes scientists have to step aside from the received wisdom of scientific giants (Newton in this case) and forge a path to become their own giant.

Thomas Levenson’s book concentrates on story rather than mathematical exposition and the result is a highly readable account of Newton’s physics, which is still valid today, and how Einstein updated the way the universe works. The book also demonstrates why it is scientists must always keep an open mind when following up on the findings of those who have gone before and how conceptual fixations can potentially lead to scientific stagnation. While doing all this he creates a remarkably entertaining read and one that is full of possibilities for story writers. For example, there is the unpleasant political wrangling of the Machiavellian Urbain-Jean-Le Verrier to unseat the incumbent director François Arago. Then at the other extreme there is the hilarious vision of teams of astronomers with all their bulky telescopes and photographic equipment piling onto the newly build railways of the American Wild West to rub shoulders with gunslingers, as they race to the location with a total solar eclipse.

In all, Levenson has crafted a very entertaining read while putting both Newton’s and Einstein’s achievements into language that makes it possible for someone with no science background to begin to grasp their combined contributions to science.

Welcome to the microbiome

Welcome to the Microbiome by Rob DeSalle and Susan Perkins. Published by Yale University Press

If you thought bacteria were tiny blobs that cause disease, then think again, because there’s far more to them than that. Welcome to the Microbiome is a book that offers the possibility of thinking about our inner world in a very different way. Humans like to think they are the superior race, but it may be no exaggeration to say that without the bugs that have evolved with us we would not be where we are today.

The gut is only one area of the body Rob DeSalle and Susan Perkins describe in their guided tour of the many habitats where the microbes live side by side with us. The types of colonies that reside within the digestive tract have far reaching effects on the general health of all our organs. But the study of how microbes interact and largely coexist with us is a rapidly developing area in science and one that many hope will revolutionise our approach to medicine.

The authors take the reader though the whole process of evolution and relevant physiology and biochemistry using straightforward narrative and description to explain how bugs interact with us. They also describe how new technology for studying microbes has revealed our bodies ‘are swamped with bacterial genes – genes that are busy transcribing and translating their own proteins in tandem with our own DNA replication processes.’ This seems to turn on its head the concern we have for whether there is life somewhere out in space. It is a description that takes the phrase ‘we are not alone’ to a whole new level. The invasion occurred a long time ago and is more up close and personal than we could have ever imagined. There is a constant shuffle for dominance being waged amongst these colonies of tiny organisms because some of them are very much on our side. So the question is what will our scientists do next to harness the remarkable properties of these intriguing residents?

Origins

Origins by Jim Baggott. Published by Oxford University Press

In describing creation right back from the furthest moment possible to the metabolic quirks of the human race, ‘Origins’ is a book that is much more than the sum of its parts. Jim Baggott manages to guide a reader through some complex physics into the realms of biochemistry in one of the most adept explanations I have seen for some time of science applied to the world around us. Despite covering so much ground there is always a sense of the author constantly considering his audience and doing his very best to open up concepts that will, once grasped, not only inform, but amaze. Having said that, the uninitiated in science should not expect an easy read, because many of the concepts the author puts over are never easy to explain in words. But the excellent colour diagrams, photographs and references to everyday situations mean that with a little perseverance the reader will be rewarded with some startling insights and a sense of having taken a step closer to seeing the world around them from a whole now perspective. This is an extremely good resource for a science fiction writer because it is so comprehensive and flows well all the way through, but can also be dipped into at relevant points.

All the books were courtesy of the publishers via NetGalley

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