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IMG_0223What’s it all about?

Irregularity is an anthology of short stories which, as the blurb says

is a collaboration between the National Maritime Museum and award-winning publisher Jurassic London: a collection of original stories inspired by the Age of Reason. Using the Longitude Act as the jumping off point, IRREGULARITY is inspired by the great thinkers of the Age of Reason – those courageous men and women who set out to map, chart, name and classify the world around them. The great minds who brought order and discipline to the universe. Except where they didn’t.

I couldn’t have put it better myself and as you can see I didn’t even consider trying 🙂

Why did I want to read it?

I think I first came across this because I follow one of the authors on Twitter (I actually follow a few of them now) and she (pretty sure it was @kimecurran) mentioned that she had a story included in this volume, and then I looked at the other authors listed many of whom already were or were on the way to becoming favourites, and so downloaded it was.

What did I think of it?

I’ve said this ad nauseam but I’m going to repeat it, just because – anthologies are tricky to review because there are very few collections in which every story hits the spot. And I have to say that at first – and I will admit that I may possibly *ahem* have forgotten what the theme of the collection was when I started reading it – I wasn’t entirely sure where this was all going, but I can safely say that only a couple of the stories didn’t do it for me, and that’s not a bad hit rate out of 14.

It’s worth mentioning the following, which stood out:

  • The Spiders of Stockholm by EJ Swift – a writer new to me whom I was lucky enough to meet at a reading at the end of January, this is a story about spiders and dreams and categorisation and what happens when you put a name to something (and this story is up for the Sunday Times short story award)
  • The Assassination of Isaac Newton by the Coward Robert Boyle by Adam Roberts – (1) extraordinarily cool title (2) draws attention to Newton’s resemblance to (yes, that) Brian May (3) totally bonkers
  • The Voyage of the Basset by Claire North – Darwin + butterflies + coronation = wonderful story
  • A Woman out of Time by Kim Curran – things must happen as intended, ut who makes sure that it does?

As well as these the collection covers mapping the winds, understanding clocks, the hunt for impossible animals, dissection & art, animated dinosaurs and whether science can quantify love. Amongst lots of other stuff. Recommended.

I’m not sure where I first came across On Monsters but I knew as soon as I had read the synopsis that I really wanted to get my hands on this and pestered the Book God on more than one occasion to get it for me, and bless him he came through at Christmas.

The book is a cultural history of monsters from the ancient world through the medieval period, dealing with the scientific view, the monsters of our innermost thoughts and ending with what we might think future monsters will look like.

It’s a scholarly work but very readable, though one to be savoured as there is so much to take in on each page. It has a number of fascinating illustrations, many of them drawings made by the author, of legendary monsters and medical samples and some examples of modern art which is really out there, where artists have modified their bodies (temporarily or otherwise) to create their art, or swallowed cameras to make sculpture out of the inside of their bodies. All this is about difference, which lets face it underpins a lot of our view of what a “monster” is – something other, strange, and therefore strange and frightening.

This is book full of the sort of facts that have you reading bits of the book out loud to anyone within earshot (well it does if you are me); some of these are totally fascinating, for example:

  • in the 1920s, paleontologists working in China were told of dragon bones scattered on the ground, which when investigated turned out to be the remains of late Cretaceous period dinosaurs; when they looked at the skeletons of the parrot-beaked Protoceratops it was clear how similar they were to descriptions of griffins;
  • many legends involving St Christopher state that he was a Cynocephalus, ie a dog-headed man and may images show him as such.

The existence of monsters could be a real issue for the medieval church, especially where witches and demons were involved; it was very easy to slip into heresy by claiming that they created monsters. Much better to make the argument that demons couldn’t create a new form of life but could alter the essence of something that already existed; monsters were therefore the production of chemistry rather than creation.

Over time as science took sway (and quite rightly so) our view of monsters changed as we came to understand how aberrations and anomalies can come about within different species. And once psychology gets involved then we start to see certain monsters as projections of our frustrations (a favourite theory of Freud, of course).

Asma is particularly interesting when looking at the cultural impact of monsters. He sets Frankenstein within the context of a period where monsters were seen not to be real but “terrible confusions”, though the impact of the Napoleonic Wars on France and elsewhere contributed to a Counter-Enlightenment position where there could be “too much reason”.

One of my favourite references is to the original version of The Thing (1951) where a dispassionate scientist, Dr Carrington, waxes lyrical about the beauty and  superiority of the alien being ( a position often taken by scientists in film and literature – we just don’t understand how magnificent these creatures are, you see); often the outcome is as Asma says “the alien responds to the admiration, of course, by bludgeoning the good doctor.” He also talks about one of my favourites, Blade Runner, and how we define what it means to be a “person”.

The main thing to take away from this wonderfully well written study is that monsters in one form of another are an archetype in every culture’s artwork, and will always be with us, whether a legendary beast, a serial killer or technology gone mad. Excellent stuff, highly recommended.

Regular readers will know that one of my main interests is history, and so when looking for books to read for the non fiction challenge I picked several that were about the past, and this one, Ubiquity, which is about the science of history, an idea that I have always found intriguing. Mark Buchanan is using this book to describe what the blurb calls a new law of nature which can be applied to anything.

I found this a difficult read largely because it is perhaps inevitably more about the science than the history, but the ideas the author discusses were sufficiently interesting to make me persevere, though I did find it hard going at times. If I have understood the book correctly (and that might be a big if) there is evidence of “ubiquitous patterns of change” that run through everything on earth (and presumably beyond). Things that look very different may actually be extremely similar in the way that they are organised. Buchanan uses earthquakes, forest fires and mass extinctions among others as examples of how this might all work.

There is a lot of discussion about power laws which I think means that the bigger something is the less likely it is to happen – the example that stuck with me was research into wars and the size of each conflict as a fraction of the world’s population at the time, which demonstrates that wars become 2.62 time less frequent every time the number of deaths doubles.

One of the key ideas behind this book is probably best described by the author himself: if

chaos teaches physicists that the truly simple can nevertheless look complicated, the critical state teaches them that the truly complicated can behave in ways that are remarkably simple

Buchanan does deal with how this all applies to human society by facing up to the objection that I suspect would be made by many people, that is what about our free will. He uses a number of examples to show that although we do indeed have free will, we also have tendencies and often follow the line of least resistance, so that though we deal with each other on the basis of our own opinions and decisions, there almost always emerges a regular pattern of behaviour.

I’m sure I haven’t done justice to the complexities of this book, and although it wasn’t quite as I expected I found it thought-provoking.

This is my fourth read for the Non Fiction Five challenge.

Bride of the Book God

Follow brideofthebook on Twitter

Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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