FictionFan Awards 2013 – Science/Nature/Environment

Please rise…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2013 in the Science/Nature/Environment Category.

If you’ve been around the last couple of weeks, you might want to skip this bit and go straight to the awards. But for the benefit of new readers, a quick reminder of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

 

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2012 and October 2013 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

 

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

History/Biography/Politics – click to see awards

Literary/Contemporary Fiction – click to see awards

Science/Nature/Environment

Crime/Thriller

…and…

Book of the Year 2013

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

 

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

SCIENCE/NATURE/ENVIRONMENT

 

Wow! What a great year in this category! Each of the books below could easily have won, and my choice in the end is based purely on the one that added most to my limited knowledge of science while entertaining me thoroughly. But I’ll be keeping an eagle eye out for all of these authors, who have brought me so much pleasure over the year…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

Dreams of Other Worlds by Chris Impey and Holly Henry

 

dreams of other worldsDescribing the search for the conditions for life on planets within our solar system and beyond, this hugely enjoyable book takes us through eleven space missions over the last 40 years or so, then looks towards the future. From planetary missions like Rover and Voyager to observational missions such as Hubble and WMAP, the authors give us an insight into how the gathering of information from these missions has been used to confirm or alter current scientific theories. The authors also show the impact of these missions on popular culture – and vice versa. For those with a geeky soul – but scientific knowledge is not needed to appreciate this inspiring and well written book.

The gravity of Wild 2 is so weak you would literally be as light as a feather. A small push and you could escape your world and sail into deep space. And think of the glittering minerals – a hoard magnificent enough to power all the dreams ever dreamed.’

Click to see the full review

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Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding by George Monbiot

 

feralGeorge Monbiot fired my imagination and enthusiasm with his ambitious proposal to turn parts of our countryside over to true wilderness and reintroduce some of the top predators we have hunted locally to extinction. At last it seems that some of our most prominent environmentalists are combining common-sense and optimism to come up with ideas that could radically alter how we see conservation, making it a positive thing. As he says

‘Environmentalism in the twentieth century foresaw a silent spring, in which the further degradation of the biosphere seemed inevitable. Rewilding offers the hope of a raucous summer, in which, in some parts of the world at least, destructive processes are thrown into reverse.’

Click to see the full review

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The Cosmic View of Albert Einstein: Writings on Art, Science, and Peace edited by Walt Martin and Magda Ott

 

the cosmic view of albert einsteinThe thoughts of one of the world’s greatest scientists, but not specifically on science. This book combines some of Einstein’s writings on pacifism, religion and the social responsibility of scientists with the most stunning pictures of the universe he did so much to explain. In this book we see Einstein’s spiritual and intellectual self, as important to him as the scientific. The illustrations are lavish and superb, and the book is beautifully produced, with carefully selected fonts and gorgeous quality paper.  One to be enjoyed as much for its physical beauty as its content, there is rightly no Kindle version available. A joy to possess.

“Whatever there is of God and goodness in the universe, it must work itself out and express itself through us. We cannot stand aside and let God do it.”

Click to see the full review

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The Kingdom of Rarities by Eric Dinerstein

 

Kingdom of RaritiesThis book took me on a joyous jaunt round the world in the company of some amazing creatures and a guide whose enthusiasm and love for his work shines through every word. A storyteller of extraordinary skill, Dinerstein could make the smallest, greyest rodent fascinating if he chose. But since he has a world full of rare species to tell us about, instead we are treated to tales of the golden-fronted bowerbird, the scarlet minivet, the red panda, the jaguar, Mrs Gould’s sunbird…

There is a serious purpose to this book: to look at why rare species are rare and to determine what intervention is required to conserve them and their habitats. But it’s all done with a sense of optimism that left me enthused and heartened to know that the future of the world’s rarities is in the best of hands.

Mrs Gould's Sunbird
Mrs Gould’s Sunbird

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2013

Gravity's Engines

 

Gravity’s Engines: The Other Side of Black Holes by Caleb Scharf

 

‘What I’d like you to take away from Gravity’s Engines is both a sense of the cosmic grandeur we have discovered and a feel for the great scope and ingenuity of human ideas at play.’

Black holes – the most mysterious and perhaps the most terrifying objects in the universe. Scharf takes us on a journey through space and time from the earliest observable point to explain the impact that black holes have on the formation of galaxies, stars and perhaps even of life on earth itself. Along the way he tells us the history of science that has brought us to our current understanding of the cosmos. There is a good deal of science in this book, but on the whole Scharf manages to simplify it to a level where it’s accessible to the layman by clever use of analogy – I’ve never come closer to getting my head round relativity. His boundless enthusiasm for his subject makes this an exhilarating journey and a truly inspiring read.

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Crime/Thriller Award

Dreams of Other Worlds by Chris Impey and Holly Henry

“There is music in the spacing of the spheres.” Pythagoras

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

dreams of other worldsLast week, NASA announced that Voyager 1, launched 36 years ago, has finally left our solar system and entered interstellar space. A mind-blowing achievement which will allow scientists to confirm some of their theories and expectations of what we will find beyond the reach of our Sun. But Voyager, impressive though it is, is only one of the amazing journeys we are making into space, some with great fanfares and trumpets, like the Mars Rovers expeditions, some less well known but no less important and inspiring for the information they send back. In this book, the authors tell us about eleven of these missions, what scientists have learned from them and how they have impacted on the popular imagination and culture.

The main thrust of the book is on the search for conditions suitable for life either on planets within our solar system or on the exoplanets that are now being identified exponentially. The early chapters cover the missions to planets and objects within our own solar system and the later part of the book is given over to the various observational missions looking beyond our little bit of the universe and back through space-time to the earliest observable point after the big bang. The enthusiasm of the authors is infectious and the book is written in such a way that it is easily accessible to the non-scientists among us. It is liberally illustrated with diagrams to help explain some of the concepts as well as pictures from Hubble and other observatories.

Voyager 1
Voyager 1

The authors start with a look at the Mars missions – the Viking and MER Rovers. They explain the technical marvels that got us there and contrast that with the extremely limited computing and camera facilities that were available, particularly on the Viking Rovers. While sadly the rovers have not found any little green men, they have found clear indications of water in the past and perhaps even still. We get to find out a little about the team behind the mission and how the information sent back changed how scientists thought about the conditions necessary to support life. The style is almost conversational and the authors very enjoyably anthropomorphise the robotic rovers, making this reader at least feel sorry for their little ‘broken arm’ and ‘limp’ – indeed, when one of the rovers finally ‘died’ (very bravely, I might add) I had to suppress a little tear!

The Voyager mission itself takes us first to Uranus and Jupiter before heading out beyond the edge of the solar system, while Cassini and Huygens study Saturn and its moons. As the journeys unfold, we are told how the power required to travel these distances is achieved through ‘gravity assist’ – using the gravity of the planets themselves as a kind of slingshot. The authors discuss how the real science of these missions inspired programmes like Star Trek and were in turn influenced by them. In fact, NASA used Nichelle Nicholls (Uhura) as a figurehead to inspire more women and minorities to enter the field.

Lt. Uhura (www.startrek.com)
Lt. Uhura
(www.startrek.com)

The Stardust mission successfully captured dust from the tail of the Wild 2 comet. In this fascinating chapter, the authors explain how comets are seen as the bringers of life and also the harbingers of destruction. They explain in relatively simple terms that we are indeed stardust, as the song says. They remind us of the thrilling pictures of Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashing into Jupiter and how those images encouraged the US government to authorise NASA to monitor possible comet threats to Earth. As well as particles from Wild 2, Stardust also captured particles from the surrounding space, and the authors explain how ‘open science’ projects have been used to involve the public in locating these tiny, sparse particles in the aerogel that trapped them. And we are told that we have the technology to ‘capture’ comets into Earth orbit should we choose and use them for mining precious metals or also as a means to provide a lift off point and all the fuel required for future space missions. Apparently although international law prevents states from claiming ownership of comets or asteroids, a loophole means that the same does not apply to individuals…

‘A small world might seem limiting, but think of the pleasure in owning a world the size of a small town and surveying the domain like a colossus. The gravity of Wild 2 is so weak you would literally be as light as a feather. A small push and you could escape your world and sail into deep space. And think of the glittering minerals – a hoard magnificent enough to power all the dreams ever dreamed.’

Artist's impression of Wild 2 as seen by Stardust (NASA)
Artist’s impression of Wild 2 as seen by Stardust
(NASA)

The later chapters cover the observational missions – SOHO, Hipparcos, Spitzer, Chandra, Hubble and WMAP. These missions have expanded our knowledge of the universe and shed light on its origins, confirming some of the theories that had been posited while forcing re-evaluation of others. At the same time, they are daily discovering exoplanets that may be able to support life. The authors take us back through the history of cosmology from its earliest days and bring us up to date on the current theories, clearly differentiating between what is known and what has not yet been proved. We hear of the amazing technology behind these missions, the people who in some cases have spent an entire career on them, and what they have taught us. The near-disasters are covered too – the early days of the Hubble mission dogged by technical problems which led to some of the most inspiring spacewalks to date. This whole section is much more science-heavy and I struggled a few times to really grasp the concepts, but not often – on the whole, the authors were able to simplify to a level that allowed me to follow along.

Spiral Nebula NGC 5194 (Hubble)
Spiral Nebula NGC 5194
(Hubble)

A very accessible and hugely inspiring book – inspirational not just about the sheer glory of the universe, but about the amazing people who are allowing us to learn about it through them. The concluding chapter looks ahead to the exciting future missions that are on the horizon, as well as some that have already begun – the possibility of bringing samples back from Mars, better studies of Jupiter’s moons, observational missions to discover ‘first light’ and investigate the theory of ‘inflation’ following the big bang; and of course the continuing search for extraterrestrial life. Stirring stuff! If you have even the smallest shred of geekiness in your soul, I heartily recommend this to you.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Princeton University Press.

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