purplecat: (books)
Windscale, 1957 is yet another book liberated from my father's shelves. It is an account both of the events that lead up to the Windscale fire in 1957 and the subsequent inquires which attempted to ascertain the cause and apportion blame.

It is mostly a fairly even-handed account. It recounts the pressures that were on the British Nuclear industry to produce large amount of weapons' grade plutonium using technology that was, at best, only partially understood and infrastructure that was barely in place. It talks through the design of the air-cooled graphite reactors at Windscale and, in particular, the regular need to shutdown the pile and then carefully reheat it in order to release Wigner energy: a process which, again, was only partially understood. It does its best to set out the causes of the fire though it seems that these will never be completely known since there wasn't adequate monitoring inside the core to really understand the sequence of events. It then talks through the aftermath, the monitoring of fallout, the milk ban, and then the subsequent inquiries.

Where it loses its impartiality a little is in its defence of the men conducting the Wigner release. The first inquiry, intended as a purely technical investigation had interviewed them on the understanding that it was purely an attempt to understand the sequence of events. Indeed the initial confidential report form the inquiry restricted itself to technical matters. However as the report made its way through the political process towards a public summary a sentence was inserted which spoke of "faults of judgement by the operating staff". This was obviously deeply resented by men who were over-worked and who were following standard procedures (insofar as anything can be described as standard when it has only been performed 9 times before and when the process it is controlling is only partially understood). Windscale, 1957 clearly considers part of its job to be setting the record straight on behalf of these men and offers little explanation of the opposing point of view which presumably felt faults of judgement had occurred.

This being the 30th anniversary of Chenobyl, there has been a lot of coverage recently of the far more serious Chenobyl disaster. One thing that has struck me in that coverage is that one of the root causes there was pressure from the Soviet government for the plant to produce ever more power, leading to the bypassing of safety procedures. While safety procedures were not bypassed at Windscale, it nevertheless seems fair to say that the the political pressure on the industry to expand meant that power stations were being built and operated right at the edge of our understanding of how this could be done safely.

It is easy to say that lessons have been learned and it is extremely unlikely that a fire like the one at Windscale could reoccur (if only because nuclear power station design has vastly changed), but I'll confess I'm not sure the general lesson, that politicians should be careful of placing too great demands upon dangerous technologies, has been learned.
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I was given A Sixth Sense while on a work visit to Schlumberger's research centre in Cambridge. It is a biography of Henri-Georges Doll, the brother-in-law of the two Schlumberger brothers who founded the company, and the key technical and scientific mind behind the company's development of well-logging techniques upon which its success is, in part, based. It must be said, I went into it with fairly low expectations, reasoning that any history a major global company gives you as a freebie is going to have more than a little of the hagiography about it.

I was pleasantly surprised. As far as I can tell it is an honest attempt at a biography, since adopted by the company, rather than something commissioned by them. That said, it is clear, especially in the later chapters, that the necessity to keep on the right side of the Schlumberger family in order to access records means that some aspects of company politics have had to be alluded to in passing, rather than examined in detail. Pierre Schlumberger's time as the head of the company was presumably troubled, but this is visible only as a few passing references to a difficult personality and then his sudden removal from control. Doll himself suddenly ceases to have active control of the Ridgefield Research centre that he founded, and moves to Manhattan to become chairman of the board but, it would appear, is a chairman in name rather than actual fact. He commented ruefully that decisions were made and apparently signed off by him without his even being aware of them. The politics behind this demotion dressed as promotion are not discussed.

Where the book is excellent though is in discussing Doll's early years of technical innovation, as he seeks develop the use of electrical resistivity to help locate oil-bearing layers in exploratory bore holes. As well as being a discussion of scientific discovery, this is an interesting look at the conduct of science in a commercial setting, where the need to be profitable (or at least solvent) has a strong bearing on the direction and pursuit of research. All this plays out against the backdrop of Europe in the first half of the 20th century, including an ill-fated collaboration with Russia (which ultimately ends when the head of Schlumberger's Russian branch is arrested, his fate at the hands of the regime only finally revealed decades later) and the company's flight to America and participation in the American war effort.

It is a flawed book, but its flaws are those of historians constrained by their sources and the wishes of the living, not of writers for hire for a global corporation. As gifts in corporate goodie bags go, this was pretty classy.
purplecat: (books)
Open Secret by Stella Rimmington is an oddly fascinating book. I say oddly fascinating because I think its interest lies primarily in the fact that Rimmington is an interesting woman, who had an interesting job in interesting times, but she tells her autobiography in a surprisingly lacklustre fashion.

More Under the Cut )

I'm torn about whether to say I recommend this book or not. I don't think that it is particularly well written. However the subject matter itself is fascinating and Rimmington was in a unique position to write about it.
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Continuing my quest to learn about the Age of Sail...

Under the Cut )

In short a fun book, very much aimed at the lay person, but with a slightly odd structure in places.

Now all I need to do is find a book about the Merchant Navy
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The Command of the Ocean is the second of Rodger's books on the History of the Royal Navy, following on from The Safeguard of the Sea. Despite the fact the history has now reached the period I was particularly interested in (that involving baggy shirts and dapper waistcoats) I didn't enjoy this instalment nearly as much and, in places, found it something of a slog to get through.

More under the Cut )

I still enjoyed this book, and it is hard to criticise it for the scholarly attention to detail it brings to its subject matter. However, I suspect, that the level of detail available for the 17th and 18th centuries moves it more towards an academic audience and away from a general one when compared to its predecessor.
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Full disclosure. Marc Read and I are old friends. Our children, when not in rooms at opposite ends of the house, refusing to speak to each other, are good friends, so, you know...

New Stars for Old is a series of vignettes fictionalising the lives of famous astronomers. The vignettes range over a number of forms including letters and diaries, as well as subject matter, sometimes focusing on a single moment from an astronomer's life, while at other times they take in the grand sweep of events. Similarly sometimes the astronomer is at the heart of the story and at others the focus is on someone, real or fictional who was drawn into their orbit. At the end of each chapter Marc provides a short section outlining the history behind the story.

Marc writes well, the vignettes are easy to read and none outstay their welcome. However, I was beginning to chafe a bit about half way through. In spite of the different takes on the basic premise it was all a bit samey, but the book picked up a lot as it moved into the late medieval and early modern periods. I suspect this has a lot to do with the amount of historical evidence Marc had access too. Suddenly the characters seemed a lot more individual and interesting and the stories had more to say, I was particularly taken by Kepler and Bellarmine, but Tycho Brahe is also vividly drawn over several chapters. When the book finally stopped at Newton, I was disappointed it wasn't going to carry on into the Englightenment.

New Stars for Old is good book, definitely worth getting if you have an interest in the history of science or astronomy. It's at its best when fictionalising people and events for which a reasonable historical record exists, but its pacey and well-written enough that even the patchier sections pass by easily.
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For Reasons, I decided I wanted to know more about the Age of Sail, but along the way I somehow got side-tracked into the history of the Royal Navy. The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660-1649 by N. A. M. Rodger, you will observe, stops short of the Age of Sail or at least those parts of it involving baggy sleeves and dapper waistcoats.

More Under the Cut )

A fascinating book all told, and one I'd recommend to anyone interested in reading a narrative of Medieval and Early Modern English history from a specific unique viewpoint.
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[livejournal.com profile] kargicq recommended this book to me as a good introduction to the history of science and, since it was on Dad's bookshelves, I helped myself. It covers, essentially, the history of European science from Copernicus to the Chemical Revolution which, crucially, defines the period in which "scientific method" emerged and was refined.

Some random ramblings under the cut, not assisted by the fact I seem to have lost the actual book itself )

Anyway, if you are seriously interested in the history of science this is an excellent text book, if a little too large to read comfortably in bed!
purplecat: (books)
I'm going to poke gentle fun at The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots' Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman so I feel I should start by saying that I actually think it is an excellent book. Having read a number of history textbooks on the Enlightenment period recently I think I can, hand-on-heart, say that from a layman's point of view this is the most accessible of the books which is attempting to push a distinct thesis, rather than simply providing an entertaining popular history narrative. I suspect, for the professional historian, it probably spends too many words rehashing the basic framework of history for the uninitiated: one wonders, for instance, if a blow-by-blow account of the '45 was really necessary when its aftermath is far more relevant to the argument than the events themselves. As a lay historian, however, I was grateful for its inclusion.

some mockery ensues )

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/38629.html.
purplecat: (books)
I'm going to poke gentle fun at The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots' Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman so I feel I should start by saying that I actually think it is an excellent book. Having read a number of history textbooks on the Enlightenment period recently I think I can, hand-on-heart, say that from a layman's point of view this is the most accessible of the books which is attempting to push a distinct thesis, rather than simply providing an entertaining popular history narrative. I suspect, for the professional historian, it probably spends too many words rehashing the basic framework of history for the uninitiated: one wonders, for instance, if a blow-by-blow account of the '45 was really necessary when its aftermath is far more relevant to the argument than the events themselves. As a lay historian, however, I was grateful for its inclusion.

some mockery ensues )
purplecat: (books)
Serenity Found is a set of essays on the Firefly TV series and the film Serenity edited by Jane Espenson. I found them a rather mixed bunch. My initial thoughts, after reading the first couple, were that the authors tended to rather over-state their case. I think Firefly was one of the best drama series of the past decade, however that doesn't mean I think it represented a quantum leap forward in either the insertion of social commentary into TV-SF or in the representation of women in genre shows.

My ignorance of the American Civil War revealed beneath the cut )

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/28122.html.
purplecat: (books)
Serenity Found is a set of essays on the Firefly TV series and the film Serenity edited by Jane Espenson. I found them a rather mixed bunch. My initial thoughts, after reading the first couple, were that the authors tended to rather over-state their case. I think Firefly was one of the best drama series of the past decade, however that doesn't mean I think it represented a quantum leap forward in either the insertion of social commentary into TV-SF or in the representation of women in genre shows.

My ignorance of the American Civil War revealed beneath the cut )
purplecat: (books)
The Code Book by Simon Singh is a tour through the history of codemaking and codebreaking, with the odd digression into Tudor politics and the translation of ancient languages. As such it pretty much does what it says on the tin. I've always been interested in cryptography and was happily entertained by it. I could follow all the descriptions of cryptographic techniques but I'm not sure how easy that would have been for someone without any relevant background. In several places I skipped over bits of explanations I was familiar with, e.g. what is a prime number, so clearly the book was making an attempt to be clear to readers with less of a maths background. It certainly contained plenty of examples which are often key to following mathematical stuff.

I'm not sure how interesting it would have been if I hadn't had a pre-existing interest in cryptography. I was fascinated by the thought, for instance, that frequency analysis isn't at all an obvious technique and, in fact, simple alphabetical substitution ciphers were sufficient for hundreds of years. I've been using basic frequency analysis to crack code problems since I was in my early teens, if not earlier and had always unthinkingly considered it totally obvious. I was also particularly interested in the use of, essentially, code-breaking techniques to decipher both Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Linear B and in the history of modern cryptographic protocols for key exchange and public-private key encryption. Of course the history of modern cryptography is very closely tied up with the history of the computer which again probably increased my interest in the topic. The book was very readable but I did occasionally feel it perhaps lacked the spark that would grab a casual reader who had never really thought about cryptography before. However if you are at all interested in the subject then this comes highly recommended.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/24035.html.
purplecat: (books)
The Code Book by Simon Singh is a tour through the history of codemaking and codebreaking, with the odd digression into Tudor politics and the translation of ancient languages. As such it pretty much does what it says on the tin. I've always been interested in cryptography and was happily entertained by it. I could follow all the descriptions of cryptographic techniques but I'm not sure how easy that would have been for someone without any relevant background. In several places I skipped over bits of explanations I was familiar with, e.g. what is a prime number, so clearly the book was making an attempt to be clear to readers with less of a maths background. It certainly contained plenty of examples which are often key to following mathematical stuff.

I'm not sure how interesting it would have been if I hadn't had a pre-existing interest in cryptography. I was fascinated by the thought, for instance, that frequency analysis isn't at all an obvious technique and, in fact, simple alphabetical substitution ciphers were sufficient for hundreds of years. I've been using basic frequency analysis to crack code problems since I was in my early teens, if not earlier and had always unthinkingly considered it totally obvious. I was also particularly interested in the use of, essentially, code-breaking techniques to decipher both Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Linear B and in the history of modern cryptographic protocols for key exchange and public-private key encryption. Of course the history of modern cryptography is very closely tied up with the history of the computer which again probably increased my interest in the topic. The book was very readable but I did occasionally feel it perhaps lacked the spark that would grab a casual reader who had never really thought about cryptography before. However if you are at all interested in the subject then this comes highly recommended.
purplecat: (books)
Catherine the Great by Simon Dixon is another fruit of the great parental book-shelf raid. I'm not quite sure why I picked up a book on her, as opposed to Frederick the Great (or even both of them). It turns out that this book isn't really a biography but more an examination of Catherine's methods of rulership.

My knowledge of Russian history is virtually zero, so I kept getting distracted by questions like "who was Elizabeth?" (that's when I wasn't accidentally assuming the book was referring to Elizabeth I of England). There does seem to have been a fascinating sequence of female rulers in 18th century Russia and even more fascinating is Catherine's rise to power as a foreigner, first through a political coup and then by assassinating the previous ruler (who happened to be her husband). I also got side-tracked by the Russian serfdom system. This was only briefly touched upon in the book, mostly in relation to Catherine's apparent powerlessness to do anything about it, but I'd be interested to see an analysis of why such a system persisted in Russia long after it had become out-moded elsewhere in Europe. I couldn't help wondering if the serf-owning system contributed to the very low levels of literacy and if they, in turn, contributed to the obvious difficulties Catherine had in finding competent, or even adult, people to appoint as local government officials and the like.

I'm not expert in history but this seemed like a pretty solid examination of Catherine and her rule. It covered various themes such as Catherine's use of iconography, her engagement with the Englightment, political culture, her relationship with the nobility and so on and so forth. I felt handicapped by my general ignorance of Russian history but not to the extent that I couldn't follow the arguments or was alienated from the subject matter.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/18604.html.
purplecat: (books)
Catherine the Great by Simon Dixon is another fruit of the great parental book-shelf raid. I'm not quite sure why I picked up a book on her, as opposed to Frederick the Great (or even both of them). It turns out that this book isn't really a biography but more an examination of Catherine's methods of rulership.

My knowledge of Russian history is virtually zero, so I kept getting distracted by questions like "who was Elizabeth?" (that's when I wasn't accidentally assuming the book was referring to Elizabeth I of England). There does seem to have been a fascinating sequence of female rulers in 18th century Russia and even more fascinating is Catherine's rise to power as a foreigner, first through a political coup and then by assassinating the previous ruler (who happened to be her husband). I also got side-tracked by the Russian serfdom system. This was only briefly touched upon in the book, mostly in relation to Catherine's apparent powerlessness to do anything about it, but I'd be interested to see an analysis of why such a system persisted in Russia long after it had become out-moded elsewhere in Europe. I couldn't help wondering if the serf-owning system contributed to the very low levels of literacy and if they, in turn, contributed to the obvious difficulties Catherine had in finding competent, or even adult, people to appoint as local government officials and the like.

I'm not expert in history but this seemed like a pretty solid examination of Catherine and her rule. It covered various themes such as Catherine's use of iconography, her engagement with the Englightment, political culture, her relationship with the nobility and so on and so forth. I felt handicapped by my general ignorance of Russian history but not to the extent that I couldn't follow the arguments or was alienated from the subject matter.

Bad Science

Sep. 6th, 2010 08:14 pm
purplecat: (books)
We saw Ben Goldacre talk at Eastercon though, I think, I already had his book, Bad Science, following a recommendation from [livejournal.com profile] lil_shepherd. It is more carefully structured than his talk was and has more space to explore its argument, which is a definite plus because he never quite got to his point at Eastercon.

More under the cut )

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/17637.html.

Bad Science

Sep. 6th, 2010 08:14 pm
purplecat: (books)
We saw Ben Goldacre talk at Eastercon though, I think, I already had his book, Bad Science, following a recommendation from [livejournal.com profile] lil_shepherd. It is more carefully structured than his talk was and has more space to explore its argument, which is a definite plus because he never quite got to his point at Eastercon.

More under the cut )
purplecat: (books)
I'm guessing Who Goes There by Nick Griffiths was supplied by a relative. I don't think it is the kind of book I would purchase myself any more. I spent a lot of the book trying to puzzle out what exactly it was trying to do. Ostensibly its the tale of Griffiths' visits to various Doctor Who locations.

Possibilities considered )

I was actually surprised how alienating I found this book. Obviously Who fandom isn't a monolith by any stretch of the imagination, but I this was the first time I've read something by a Doctor Who fan with whom, it would seem, I have virtually nothing in common.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/15481.html.
purplecat: (books)
I'm guessing Who Goes There by Nick Griffiths was supplied by a relative. I don't think it is the kind of book I would purchase myself any more. I spent a lot of the book trying to puzzle out what exactly it was trying to do. Ostensibly its the tale of Griffiths' visits to various Doctor Who locations.

Possibilities considered )

I was actually surprised how alienating I found this book. Obviously Who fandom isn't a monolith by any stretch of the imagination, but I this was the first time I've read something by a Doctor Who fan with whom, it would seem, I have virtually nothing in common.

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