Book 18: The Code Book by Simon Singh

The Code Book by Simon Singh

Finished reading on November 24, 2012

Rating 10/10

This is the best book I’ve read in 2012. It’s interesting to the level where you’re reading with your jaw dropped to about your knees if you’re tall, and if you’re me, then to the ground (no logic necessary).

The topics in this book are not something that I would originally have considered interesting, but rather “cute”.

Singh starts out with some simple cryptographic devices and codes, and examples of their historical usages and evolution. The book ends with quantum and public key cryptography.

There’s also a really fascinating detour into translating long dead languages by using same methods as for cracking codes. Even if you’re  not at all into codes and such, but you happen across this book, I’d highly recommend reading the chapter that deals with Egyptian hieroglyphs (translating the rosetta stone!) and Linear B.

Reading it made me want to encrypt some of my communications, just as when reading about Leonardo Da Vinci, I learned mirror writing.

One of the reasons, why The Code Book gets such a high rating from me, is simply because similarly to physics, you have mysteries, for which you’re trying to find answers, in physics the questions arise from the nature of the universe, in cryptography it’s mostly human nature and language combined with statistics and mathematics.

Another one’s the fact that it’s one of those books that makes you want to find out more about the topics covered (or hidden ;)).


Book 17: Longitude by Dava Sobel

Longitude by Dava Sobel

Finished reading on November 21, 2012

Rating 8/10

I finished reading this book while trying to watch Star Trek the Original Series at the same time. Couldn’t get too far that way though, so I now all that’s stopping me from watching Star Trek is writing this blog post and the fact that it’s past 2 am.

Now, “Longitude” – it’s a nice sort of book – short, small and not too technical. And the content’s are fairly interesting also – the quest to find a solution to finding the longitude at sea.

If you’d read just about any book on the history of astronomy, they’ll usually mention it, and sometimes they’ll have a whole chapter about it. So now it was good to read a bit more about it, although, it didn’t seem as if I’d gotten much smarter by reading it.

John Harrison, his chronometers and Nevil Maskelyne are some of the main topics. Historically it had been suggested already in the 16th century that one could use observations of the Moon to find out their longitude. Unfortunately at the time there wasn’t many observations of the Moon and no-one really understood the Moon’s movements that well yet, to predict it’s position precisely enough to determine their longitude by observing it, unless there was a lunar or solar eclipse.

Now the Moon was just one of the possibilities, but there were also the moons of Jupiter, that could be used for the same purpose.

If you’ve heard the joke about Niels Bohr and the barometer, then Harrison’s method of solving the longitude problem was a bit like that. In the beginning of the 18th century, there was a foundation founded for finding the solution to determining the longitude. The founding members were mostly astronomers. And so the fact that Harrison could solve something, for which they (and foremost – Maskelyne) wanted an astronomical solution, by using mechanics, is easily understood as something the foundation wouldn’t want to recognize as prize-worthy.

As far as I’m concerned, then I see it as clever and sneaky at the same time. And the story is interesting precisely because of that.

There’s also a two-part film (you can watch the trailer here) made after the book. I haven’t seen it yet, but seems ok.

Book 16: The Great Atlas of the Stars by Serge Brunier

The Great Atlas of the Stars by Serge Brunier

Finished reading/watching pictures on November 15, 2012

Rating: 6/10 for practical purposes, 3/10 for light reading 8/10 for photos

This is as the title suggests, a great atlas, it’s in such a large format, that if you want to use this while observing something at night, you’d better have a table for it, and since it has pretty pictures in it, a small home observatory would be also recommended, just so that His Royal Highness the Great Atlas would be pleased.

I can’t imagine using it during an evening of observations unless it’s somewhere huddled in a corner of a sofa with a cup of hot cocoa and looking at the pictures, instead of freezing next to my telescope.

However it would work for planning observations – it has some of the best astronomical objects one might want to observe with a small telescope and 30 constellation charts, where you can find several galaxies, clusters double stars etc.

As a huge plus side – with each constellation chart, there is a plastic sheet, on which are the positions and names of some of the brighter objects, so you can turn that plastic page back and forth and learn the names of stars in constellations.

I probably wouldn’t use this atlas myself. It’s more of a coffee-table book in my opinion. Plus, since it covers almost only the northern hemisphere constellations, with just 7 constellations that can be seen only in the southern hemisphere, then it doesn’t give a good overview. I’d want to say, that the objects in it would be good for someone starting to observe with a small telescope, but it’s large size would make the atlas difficult to use.

So to sum up: Pretty pictures, 30 constellation charts, huge format, basic info for some stars, galaxies and clusters.

Book 15: Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane

Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane (Scribner, 2007)

Finished reading November 13, 2012

Rating 9/10

I started reading it in bouts in the end of last week while watching several sci-fi movies. I took this book up because in Mary Roach’s “Packing for Mars”, she writes that if you only ever read one astronaut’s biography, then this one should be it.

I’m not sure yet, whether this would be the definitive astronaut’s biography, but I’ll know that when I read something by other astronauts. However I think it is a truly great book. And it might be the characteristic space shuttle astronaut’s story. I just loved it. It’s funny and serious and exciting from the beginning to the end.

Plus it gives a good idea of what the astronauts have had to suffer to get into space. It covers the astronauts selection process from the candidates’ point of view, there’s Mullane’s childhood and how he became an astronaut. He flew on three shuttle flights. The most exciting part for me was the description of the first launch of Discovery… or well tries to launch Discovery – they aborted a few times.

You can also read about the Challenger’s last flight.

In general I think it might have a bad effect on some people – they’d want to become astronauts themselves.

While I’m not yet in that kind of danger – I’d rather wait until they start the space elevator business, I really found Mullane’s description of the shuttle’s descent a bit worrying and I don’t think that coming back down in a capsule sounds any better… so spend my whole life in orbit or wait? I’ll have to settle for the last one for now. Especially since there aren’t  space shuttle flights anymore. 😦

It was a bit like reading Robert Scott’s diary or about Amundsen going to the South Pole – it’s something that puts everything in a human to an extreme test – the motivation, strength, skill, health. I used to be obsessed about expeditions to the South Pole,  space expeditions are just one (small) step further.

And a talk by Mike Mullane :

Book 14: Digital Astrophotography

Digital Astrophotography. The State of the Art edited by David Ratlege

Finished reading November 10, 2012

Rating 6/10

From this book you’ll find out all the basics of astrophotography. Some of the not so basic information will be overcast by the shadow of the pretty pictures and an optimistic outlook that if you’d just have the necessary equipment you could start doing it too.

It didn’t seem comprehensive enough to be the only book an aspiring astrophotographer would need to read, but it would work well as an introduction to the methods and subjects – using a webcam, dslr or ccd camera; taking pictures of constellations, planets and deep sky objects.

It didn’t make me fall asleep nor would it make me want to sleep on a dark clear night.

Book 13: The Earth After Us by Jan Zalasiewicz

The Earth After Us by Jan Zalasiewicz

Finished reading November 7, 2012

Rating 7/10

What kind of information about humans would an alien civilization uncover from Earth if they’d arrive here about a million years after humans have gone extinct?

The idea of the book is great, although a bit saddening. Apparently humanity has had quite an impact on Earth that could be studied long after there aren’t any humans living here. There are a lot of traces that we leave behind – in the atmosphere, landscape, ocean floor, which will need a lot more than a million years to disappear. And it all is compared to the past discoveries of paleontologists and how they’ve learnt about now extinct species.

Although in part it was a little sleep-inducing, it was interesting enough when read in large chunks.

I was quite surprised when I found how interestingly Zalasiewicz writes about mud, bricks and concrete. And I’m not being sarcastic. I found those parts some of the most exciting parts in the book! I have to admit though, that I haven’t read much about mud or concrete before and I hope I won’t be doing much of that in the future, since if anyone asked me what I’m reading about, and I’d have to answer “mud”, it would be unlikely that they’d think I’m really getting acquainted with that subject and much more likely to take it as me being insufferably  childish or secretive.

The main subject however wasn’t mud or bricks or concrete, those just happened to catch my interest.

The book made me understand a little bit of the extent of knowledge that the human civilization has collected during it’s existence, and it’s amazing! Especially considering the alternative – not going to unknown places, not trying new things, etc. It is magnificent, even though it has been destructive for the environment and nature.

I think that last realization was the most important part for me about reading this book.

Book 12: The Inflationary Universe by Alan H. Guth

The Inflationary Universe by Alan H. Guth

Finished reading November 6, 2012

Rating 8/10

Sometimes it’s enough to hear a book mentioned once to go out of my way to try and find and read it. With this book it wasn’t so. I’d heard or seen it mentioned on several occasions and yet, when I finally had the book at an arm’s reach, it stayed there among numerous other books for some months, I suspect that despite everything I still judge a book by its cover and this one doesn’t make you want to grab it and read it at one go.

However now that I’ve finally finished reading it, I have to admit that it’s great despite the fact that even a Quantum Mechanics textbook on my shelf looks more inviting than “The Inflationary Universe”.

The subject for the book, as the title suggests, is the inflation theory, which is a hypothesis that after the initial big bang start for the universe, there was a period of rapid inflation, in which the size of the universe grew exponentially, making it possible for whatever it was that was involved in the big bang to be a lot smaller than in the original big bang theory.

By the way, if you happen to be a fan of the series “The Big Bang Theory” and you’re maybe a little more interested in physics and cosmology than Penny is, then I really recommend reading it. You’ll find some topics that have been mentioned in the series, for example magnetic monopoles.

It covers all the topics necessary for understanding the inflation theory and the road to it – modern cosmology, particle physics and grand unified theories.

I liked it, but I have to warn anyone planning to read “The Inflationary Universe” – it does contain cosmology and particle physics.

It isn’t necessary to understand a lot of mathematics though – it would be difficult to find any equations in the book, but without elementary familiarity with the big bang theory and particle physics, it wouldn’t be easy to read and comprehend. If you’re unsure, read Peter Cole’s “A Very Short Introduction to Cosmology” or something similar before starting on “The Inflationary Universe”.