Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Short Attention Span Segment #5

1. Because governments make scientific funding a near impossbility, scientists are looking to crowd funding (aka. public donations) to get small projects off the ground. A great idea, but it really shouldn't be necessary: The SciFund Challenge

2. Where bad science and the underbelly of research is exposed: Retraction Watch

3. Telling it like it is and reviewing games for what they are (and hopefully revealing the harsh truth to the fans of Halo): Zero Punctuation

4. Some songs actually sound better as classical arrangements, and some songs become more awesome as classical arrangements: The Vitamin String Quartet cover Muse and Bruce Springsteen

5. Saw a great documentary on this team and how they are analysing dinosaur footprints to determine dinosaur behaviour: Australian Age of Dinosaurs

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Book Review: "Solar" by Ian McEwan


It's time for a new (and hopefully fairly regular) post in the form of book reviews. I read quite a bit, and some ago was part of a great bookclub. I miss the bookclub very much, and as I can't share my reviews with them, thought I'd post them here....and if you happen to be looking for something new to read, well, maybe I'll be able to help!

I've just read Solar by Ian McEwan. McEwan is an award winning author, and penned a book called "Atonement" which was consequently turned into a beautifully shot film starring Kiera Knightly and James McEvoy. One of his other books, titled "Amsterdam" did win the Man Booker prize in 1998, but I do know of at least one person who would argue that the award for that book was definitely not justified.

So what about "Solar"? Well, I picked up the novel with no idea as to what to expect. It was a library loan, so it didn't even have a dust jacket with a blurb. I came across the book via the recent RiAus Great Science Reads where people nominated their favourite science books, and "Solar" just happened to be on that list.

For a start, Solar isn't your typical science book. Rather than the traditional science fiction books which often deal with some sort of cause and effect of a scientific discovery, or are futuristic time-travel robotic imaginings of the future, this book focuses on the scientist. And boy, does that scientist have an interesting story to tell.

The entire book revolves the character of Michael Beard, Physicist and Nobel Laureate. And for a protagnist, Beard is completely repulsive. He's a cheater, a liar, overweight and selfish. Beard sells out on his career to become an expert for hire, using his name in the field of physics to secure a lucrative position heading a group in the hot topic of the minute - climate change. Add to this that his fifth wife has just left him, and you quickly realise, if you had to work with this man, you'd probably wish you could stab his eyeballs out.

But it's what Beard represents that makes this book so interesting - the pompous greed of those who wish nothing more that to keep their name up in lights at whatever cost. Beard represents all that can be wrong with science - the jealously, the backstabbing, the win-at-all costs...and in the end, it doesn't end up going so well. It's a commentary on intersection of science and the public over big issues, of which climate change is the headlining act. And McEwan uses satire to maximum effect, illustrating all that is wrong with both public and scientific attitudes in the pursuit of furthering human endeavour, especially when that pursuit is for all the wrong reasons.

All in all, I ended really enjoying this book - it was an unexpected story, and I ended up hooked on finding out what was going to happen next, as I really wanted Beard to get his comeuppance. It's not often a protagonist is someone you end up loathing, and McEwan does a brilliant job of highlighting what's wrong with the world of science, all in the form of a fat, selfish man. A very different commentary on the scientific world, and one that I'd recommend.