01/06/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts
How To Live Forever And 34 Other Really Interesting Uses Of Science by Alok Jha. pub: Quercus. 223 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: GBP 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84916-482-5).
check out website: www.quercusbooks.co.uk
Of the three Quercus books I’ve been reading these past few months, this one, ‘How To Live Forever And 34 Other Really Interesting Uses Of Science’, should have the biggest resonance for information for practical Science Fiction and will give you at least a basic grounding on a lot of needed subjects and how they are placed in the real world. It throws you in at the deep end from the start giving a history of cloning and its successes so far. From there, you move on to an examination of bugs and viruses and how quickly they can be passed around the world. Amongst the other topics explored are how to live forever and how technology is getting ready to make invisibility practical. Bet you won’t see that coming.
If you are truly going to live forever, then the grounding in chemistry here is put over in layman’s terms. Looking at the Periodic Table again here, I do wonder if author Alok Jha has ever considered the parallel between the lanthanides and actinides groupd sticking out in an unusual position as something akin to the varying electron orbitals around the atomic nucleus to give it a more three-dimensional look although that might just be me.
For those who want to get down to the nitty-gritty of making your own universe, then the chapter about it explains how so much went on in the first few seconds after the Big Bang so you’ll have to be quick. The explanations are given in layman terms. As is a later chapter explaining the connection of the four fundamental forces of the universe. I still wonder if the strong and weak nuclear forces are two sides of the same force but the diagrams here also indicates how they divide from each other.
We’re back into SF territory with the problems of listening out for extra-terrestrials. I did think the ‘wow signal’ was thought to have been a pulsar though.
With the chapter on electricity, you’ll learn that it was actually known about even back as far as ancient times but there wasn’t any way to make practical use of it. Mind you, I suspect the use of energy as potential and kinetic would hardly have made such sense to them neither. For those with a bent to making nuclear power, the chapter on fusion should be enlightening and you might well ask why isn’t more work done on fusion. You’re also brought up to speed (sic) with relativity and a useful diagram showing time dilation as you approach the speed of light. Did you also know that as you approach light speed, to the observer your spaceship will appear flat although I do wonder if that depends on which direction you’re facing? I did have a weird thought that if a photon could be slowed down, would its shape change? Shame that can’t be proven.
The chapter on evolution brought out how easy it is to create amino acids, the building blocks life, with just a few chemicals and electricity but Jha points out that the atmospheric conditions on our world when it must have first happened might not have resembled the laboratory tested conditions. I would have thought that if amino acids could be created under a variety of conditions then the odds of it happening would have increased.
Chaos Theory is also explained, especially in respect to how many factors that are used to making sense of it in such things as understanding the weather. In many respects, what that boils down to is just because something looks chaotic might just mean we don’t fully understand what is going on.
There is also a delightful chapter on evolution and a sharp reminder that the only connection we have to chimpanzees and other great apes is a common ancestor and that we just lucked out ending up slightly smarter. It also goes beyond Darwin’s understanding to the genetic code and how a simple re-order caused by mutation result in some aliments humans end up with.
If you’re thinking of making a planet then looking at how the tectonic plates function on Earth is useful and something to remember that where you have high mountain ranges that plate movement caused it. Rocky fantasy worlds must have regular earthquakes. The same could also be said for understanding weather conditions and how Man had tried to put them under control.
If you don’t want to be Earth-bound, the examination of the problems of living in space focuses on the problems of keeping radiation and various particles from attacking your space vehicle is given in sufficient detail to show you’re going to have immense problems getting to Mars and the impracticability based on the amount of material needed to create shielding at present. If you’ve ever wondered why send an interplanetary vessel from the Moon instead of Earth then maybe it might be easier to get the necessary material there. Jha doesn’t actually say that, just what I could see from the discussion. Chapters like this make me think which is always a good sign.
The discussion on dark matter doesn’t decide quite what it is but the photograph showing light areas around galaxy clusters as being dark matter will give you pause for thought.
Going back to the right ingredients for life and other types of universes also makes for a fascinating read, especially the six special numbers that have to be just right for it to work.
If you’re going to send cryptic messages then do it at quantum level, at least you’ll know if someone tries to intercept which breaks up the message. Encryption is the means of the Internet and the discussion on lengthy prime numbers should give you pause for thought. If you want to see my head working, any number ending in 0, 5, 6 or 9 or an even number, above 2, isn’t likely to be a prime number. There, now go and find some big ones.
Quantum mechanics gets a chapter to itself and although it doesn’t give everything you might need, it does give some of its history and then a sharp reminder how much it’s applied in modern technology.
With Artificial Intelligence, I’m not sure if I would describe the HAL 9000 as murderous. Paranoid perhaps. I think the real problem with creating an AI personality is at present that there is so much dependency on writing software which would be less of a problem when protein hardware is developed.
Although I would have thought this should be the final chapter, Jha points out why scientists tend to be sceptics who have to question everything they are shown unless it can be proven by other people testing it which is where pseudo-science often falls down.
The last few chapters brief you on cyborgs, insect mindsets, how we can’t really read minds but can spot brain activity and saving the world. You might not achieve all of these but you’ll at least know what’s involved.
These books encapsulate in about five pages all the relevant information. There is also the odd humour cartoon that apart from being funny accents a particular point.
As you can tell by the length of this review that I found this book engrossing and even tangent thinking means I’m spotting useful things here. For those of you who aren’t completely scientifically orientated then this should at least give you a fair grounding from which to develop from. As such, these books are very useful reference to have in your personal library and you’ll be referring to them for information about how the universe ticks.
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