Featured books: The history of science

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.
— Albert Einstein

Syndetics book coverThe age of wonder : how the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science / Richard Holmes.The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
“Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and winner of the Royal Society Prize for Science Books, Richard Holmes’s dazzling portrait of the age of great scientific discovery is a groundbreaking achievement. The book opens with Joseph Banks, botanist on Captain Cook’s first Endeavour voyage, who stepped onto a Tahitian beach in 1769 fully expecting to have located Paradise. Back in Britain, the same Romantic revolution that had inspired Banks was spurring other great thinkers on to their own voyages of artistic and scientific discovery – astronomical, chemical, poetical, philosophical – that together made up the ‘age of wonder’. In this breathtaking group biography, Richard Holmes tells the stories of the period’s celebrated innovators and their great scientific discoveries: from telescopic sight to the miner’s lamp, and from the first balloon flight to African exploration.” (Goodreads review)

Syndetics book coverNewton and the counterfeiter : the unknown detective career of the world’s greatest scientist / Thomas Levenson.
“In 1695, Isaac Newton—already renowned as the greatest mind of his age—made a surprising career change. He left quiet Cambridge, where he had lived for thirty years and made his earth-shattering discoveries, and moved to London to take up the post of Warden of His Majesty’s Mint.Newton was preceded to the city by a genius of another kind, the budding criminal William Chaloner. Thanks to his preternatural skills as a counterfeiter, Chaloner was rapidly rising in London’s highly competitive underworld, at a time when organized law enforcement was all but unknown and money in the modern sense was just coming into being. Then he crossed paths with the formidable new warden. In the courts and streets of London—and amid the tremors of a world being transformed by the ideas Newton himself had set in motion—the two played out an epic game of cat and mouse.” (Goodreads review)

Syndetics book coverThe immortal life of Henrietta Lacks / Rebecca Skloot.The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
“Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells — taken without her knowledge in 1951 — became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance. This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew” (Goodreads review)

Syndetics book coverThe ghost map : the story of London’s most terrifying epidemic–and how it changed science, cities, and the modern world / Steven Johnson.
“From Steven Johnson, the dynamic thinker routinely compared to James Gleick, Dava Sobel, and Malcolm Gladwell, The Ghost Map is a riveting page-turner about a real-life historical hero, Dr. John Snow. It’s the summer of 1854, and London is just emerging as one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure — garbage removal, clean water, sewers — necessary to support its rapidly expanding population, the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure. As the cholera outbreak takes hold, a physician and a local curate are spurred to action-and ultimately solve the most pressing medical riddle of their time.” (Goodreads review)

Syndetics book coverThe philosophical breakfast club : four remarkable friends who transformed science and changed the world / Laura J. Snyder.
“The Philosophical Breakfast Club recounts the life and work of four men who met as students at Cambridge University: Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones. Recognizing that they shared a love of science (as well as good food and drink) they began to meet on Sunday mornings to talk about the state of science in Britain and the world at large. Inspired by the great 17th century scientific reformer and political figure Francis Bacon ‘another former student of Cambridge’ the Philosophical Breakfast Club plotted to bring about a new scientific revolution. And to a remarkable extent, they succeeded, even in ways they never intended.” (Goodreads review)

Syndetics book coverThe fossil hunter : dinosaurs, evolution, and the woman whose discoveries changed the world / Shelley Emling.The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World
“Mary Anning was only twelve years old when, in 1811, she discovered the first dinosaur skeleton — of an ichthyosaur — while fossil hunting on the cliffs of Lyme Regis, England. Until Mary’s incredible discovery, it was widely believed that animals did not become extinct. The child of a poor family, Mary became a fossil hunter, inspiring the tongue-twister, ‘She Sells Sea Shells by the Seashore’. She attracted the attention of fossil collectors and eventually the scientific world. Once news of the fossils reached the halls of academia, it became impossible to ignore the truth. Mary’s peculiar finds helped lay the groundwork for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, laid out in his On the Origin of Species. Darwin drew on Mary’s fossilized creatures as irrefutable evidence that life in the past was nothing like life in the present. A story worthy of Dickens, The Fossil Hunter chronicles the life of this young girl, with dirt under her fingernails and not a shilling to buy dinner, who became a world-renowned paleontologist.” (Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverIngenious pursuits : building the scientific revolution / Lisa Jardine.
“In this fascinating look at the European scientific advances of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, historian Lisa Jardine demonstrates that the pursuit of knowledge occurs not in isolation, but rather in the lively interplay and frequently cutthroat competition between creative minds. The great thinkers of that extraordinary age, including Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, and Christopher Wren, are shown in the context in which they lived and worked. We learn of the correspondences they kept with their equally passionate colleagues and come to understand the unique collaborative climate that fostered virtuoso discoveries in the areas of medicine, astronomy, mathematics, biology, chemistry, botany, geography, and engineering. Ingenious Pursuits brilliantly chronicles the true intellectual revolution that continues to shape our very understanding of ourselves, and of the world around us.” (Goodreads review)

Syndetics book coverGalileo’s daughter : a historical memoir of science, faith and love / Dava Sobel.
“Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of Galileo’s daughter, a cloistered nun, Dava Sobel has written a biography unlike any other of the man Albert Einstein called “the father of modern physics – indeed of modern science altogether.” Galileo’s Daughter also presents a stunning portrait of a person hitherto lost to history, described by her father as ‘a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me’. The son of a musician, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) tried at first to enter a monastery before engaging the skills that made him the foremost scientist of his day. Though he never left Italy, his inventions and discoveries were heralded around the world. Most sensationally, his telescopes allowed him to reveal a new reality in the heavens and to reinforce the astounding argument that the Earth moves around the Sun. For this belief, he was brought before the Holy Office of the Inquisition, accused of heresy, and forced to spend his last years under house arrest. Of Galileo’s three illegitimate children, the eldest best mirrored his own brilliance, industry, and sensibility, and by virtue of these qualities became his confidante.” (Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverRosalind Franklin : the dark lady of DNA / Brenda Maddox.
“In 1962, Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick, and James Watson received the Nobel Prize, but it was Rosalind Franklin’s data and photographs of DNA that led to their discovery. Brenda Maddox tells a powerful story of a remarkably single-minded, forthright, and tempestuous young woman who, at the age of fifteen, decided she was going to be a scientist, but who was airbrushed out of the greatest scientific discovery of the twentieth century.” (Goodreads review)

Overdrive cover Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly (eBook)
“Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets and astronauts into space. Among these problem solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly these overlooked math whizzes had shots at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia, and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black West Computing group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War and complete domination of the heavens.” (Goodreads review)

Syndetics book coverLost history : the enduring legacy of Muslim scientists, thinkers, and artists / Michael Hamilton Morgan ; [foreword by King Abdullah II of Jordan].
“In an era when the relationship between Islam and the West seems mainly defined by mistrust and misunderstanding, we often forget that for centuries Muslim civilization was the envy of the world. […] Michael Hamilton Morgan reveals how early Muslim advancements in science and culture lay the cornerstones of the European Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and modern Western society. As he chronicles the Golden Ages of Islam, beginning in 570 a.d. with the birth of Muhammad, and resonating today, he introduces scholars like Ibn Al-Haytham, Ibn Sina, Al-Tusi, Al-Khwarizmi, and Omar Khayyam, towering figures who revolutionized the mathematics, astronomy, and medicine of their time and paved the way for Newton, Copernicus, and many others. And he reminds us that inspired leaders from Muhammad to Suleiman the Magnificent and beyond championed religious tolerance, encouraged intellectual inquiry, and sponsored artistic, architectural, and literary works that still dazzle us with their brilliance. Lost History finally affords pioneering leaders with the proper credit and respect they so richly deserve.” (Syndetics summary)

Science Feature – The Rosetta Space probe

Image: ESA/ATG medialab; Comet image: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam
Image: ESA/ATG medialab; Comet image: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam
At ~5am NZ time, 13/11/2014, the comet lander Philae landed on the nucleus (central part) of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. 7 hours earlier it had separated from its parent craft, the space probe Rosetta.

This is the first time a man-made craft has landed on a comet. Rosetta was launched in 2004, on a mission to rendezvous with a comet, send a lander to it, and escort the comet to observe any changes to the comet on its path around the sun.

On its travels to the comet, Rosetta has flown by Earth three times, Mars once, and an asteroid. It was also forced into a 31 month hibernation, to conserve energy. It awoke in January 2014 and continued its journey to the comet, culminating in the landing of Philae.

Though the landing can be considered successful, in that Philae made it down in one piece, the harpoons meant to hold it onto the comet did not fire upon landing, raising concerns about how stable it is, on the surface.

More information on the Rosetta mission can be found on the European Space Agency website.

Books on comets and asteroids:

Syndetics book coverThe solar system : a visual exploration of the planets, moons, and other heavenly bodies that orbit our sun / written by Marcus Chown.
Bestselling author Marcus Chown leads us on a grand tour through the incredible diversity of planets, moons, asteroids, comets, and spacecraft that surround the Sun in our cosmic backyard. Illuminating his insightful and surprising text are a wealth of beautiful images and diagrams, printed in full colour, richly detailed and accurately based on real scientific data. (Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverNear-Earth objects : finding them before they find us / Donald K. Yeomans.
“Humans may fret over earthquakes, nuclear meltdown, and heart attacks, but only collision with a near-Earth object has “the capacity to wipe out an entire civilization with a single blow.” Balancing the wonders of astronomy with the looming potential for an epic, planetwide disaster, Yeomans, a fellow and research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explores the origins of near-Earth objects-asteroids, comets, meteors, and meteoroids-and the threat they can pose to our planet. Though brief, Yeomans’s book is an accessible and far-ranging primer on the science of near-Earth objects.” (Adapted from Publisher Weekly)

Books for the Kids:

Syndetics book coverComets, asteroids, and meteors / Stuart Atkinson.
“What are comets and asteroids like, and could we ever visit one? Taking the form of an imaginary trip, this book explores the science and history of these objects, looking at recent studies and possibilities for the future.” (Amazon.co.uk)

Syndetics book coverThe lonely existence of asteroids and comets / by Mark Weakland ; illustrated by Carlos Aón.
“It can be tricky to keep all those chunks floating around in space comets, asteroids, meteors straight. And though these space rocks don’t have quite the brain-bendingly cool allure of other cosmic wowers like black holes and supernovae, they provide a solid thematic bedrock for a wide-ranging tour of the vastness of the universe in this graphic-format title in the Adventures in Science series.” (Adapted from Booklist)

Further online Rosetta reading:

— The Guardian – Why is the Rosetta landing so exciting: This article gives a good, basic outline of the mission, and why we should be excited!
— Stuff.co.nz – Philae landing: An article on the landing of Philae.
— Stuff.co.nz – Philae landing-Malfunctions made Philae bounce kilometre off comet: Outlines what didn’t quite work with the landing, and gives a history of man’s landings on other worlds.
— Wikipedia – Rosetta: Wikipedia’s article on Rosetta.
— Wikipedia – Philae: Wikipedia’s article on Philae.

Science feature – Earthquake lights

seismocc1Earthquake lights are a very rare phenomenon that occurs during seismic events. They appear in the sky and look quite similar to an aurora with many different colour variations.
97% of all reported sighting of these lights have occurred near plate boundaries or continental divides.

Initially reports of sightings were dismissed as superstition until they were photographed in the mid 1960’s during the Matsushiro earthquake swarm in Nagano, Japan.

Since then scientists have gone through the previously dismissed sightings and have confirmed sightings from over 65 events. Events that have generated lights include the 1888 Amuri, 1930 Idu, 1975 Kalapana, 2007 Peru, 2009 L’Aquila, and 2010 Darfield and Chilean earthquakes (to name a few).

This Phenomenon has been receiving a lot of press recently, with a publication of a paper in Seismological Research Letters, written by Robert Thériault, France St-Laurent, Friedemann T. Freund, and John S. Derr, entitled “Prevalence of Earthquake Lights Associated with Rift Environments.”

In this article the authors suggest the possible causes of these lights and their potential use in earthquake prediction, or early warning use. Unfortunately, due to copyright reasons, we are unable to provide access to this article.

However you can find some information earthquakes and related phenomena from the following links to library books and websites:

Syndetics book coverGeology for dummies / by Alecia M. Spooner.

Syndetics book coverEarth science today / Brendan Murphy, Damian Nance.

Syndetics book coverEarthquakes / G.A. Eiby.


How To Shoot The Stars – A Talk Not To Be Missed

Syndetics book coverImaging the Southern Sky : an amateur astronomer’s guide
“Stephen Chadwick’s recent book is not about imaging from the southern hemisphere, but rather about imaging those areas of the sky that lie south of the celestial equator. Many of the astronomical objects presented are also accessible to northern hemisphere imagers, including those in both the USA and Europe. Imaging the Southern Sky discusses over 150 of the best southern objects to image, including nebulae, galaxies, and planetaries, each one accompanied by a spectacular color image taken from the author’s backyard in rural Manawatu, New Zealand. This book also includes sections on both image capturing and processing techniques and so makes an ideal all-in-one introduction. Furthermore, because it contains an in-depth study of how to capture all the objects, many of which are rarely imaged by amateurs and professionals alike, it is also extremely useful for the more advanced imager.” (adapted from amazon.com)

In association with Wellington City Libraries, Stephen Chadwick will give a FREE talk on 8 November at Newlands Community Centre during which he will highlight some of these objects – galaxies, nebulae, star clusters, constellations and comets – that are out there deep in space, and will end with a video called “A Journey along the Milky Way” set to live music performed by Wellington composer and musician Oliver Devlin.
For more information, visit http://www.southernskyimaging.com/

Join and share the event on Facebook

NZ’s Active Volcanos

volc1With Mt Tongariro bursting into life, and Mt Ruapehu possibly about to erupt, it is probably a good idea for us to acquaint ourselves with their past.

Mount Ruapehu: Probably the most well known of all of New Zealand’s volcanoes. A major eruption occurs at this mountain every 50 years or so, the last of which being the 1995-96 eruption series, with smaller single eruptions in-between.

Ruapehu erupts / Karen Williams.
In September 1995 Ruapehu burst into life after a period of restlessness. The raw power of the ensuing eruptions captured worldwide attention as towering columns of roiling ash and steam, torrential mud-flows and incandescent lava bombs presented an ongoing spectacle. Now including coverage of the plans painstakingly put in place to avoid another Tangiwai disaster when the crater lake burst, and the sudden eruption in September 2007 which nearly killed climber William Pike. “Ruapehu Erupts”  celebrates the drama and magic of these eruptions and lahars and provides a stunning record of the latest chapter in the continuing story of this unpredictable volcano. (Amazon.co.uk)

Eruption! : Mount Ruapehu awakes / Bruce Houghton, Vince Neall and David Johnston.
“Events during the eruptions of Mt Ruapehu in 1995-96 are presented in text and colour photographs. Two of the authors are members of the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences team which monitors the volcano; Vince Neall leads a team from Massey University studying lahars and the effects of ash fall.” (Syndetics summary)

For more information on Mount Ruapehu visit:

Mount Tongariro: Last active in the 1800’s, Tongariro has burst into life again, closing parts of the world famous crossing. Tongariro consists of 12 cones and craters including Mount Ngauruhoe, which was previously active in the mid 70’s.

Syndetics book coverTongariro : a volcanic environment / Lois Anderson.
The main focus is on the volcanic landscapes and the interacting natural process that created, located and shaped them in the Tongariro volcanic environment. Resource written for Level 3 (Year 13) Geography students studying the Natural processes topics, assessed by Achievement Standard 3.1.

For more information on Mount Tongariro visit:

More books on New Zealand Volcanism:

Syndetics book coverAwesome forces : the natural hazards that threaten New Zealand / edited by Geoff Hicks and Hamish Campbell.
Storms, landslides, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunami – all New Zealanders will encounter at least one of these hazards in their lives.  Informative, generously illustrated, and written by some of New Zealand’s leading scientists, this massively revised and updated edition of Te Papa Press’ bestselling title is now more relevant than ever.
With all-new information on climate change and the social and emotional impact of disasters, this book is a fascinating and essential resource.
Produced in association with EQC and GNS Science. (Te Papa Press)

It’s Ada Lovelace Day

Ada Lovelace Day (October 16th this year) is a day to celebrate the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. From the Finding Ada website:

Ada Lovelace Day is about sharing stories of women — whether engineers, scientists, technologists or mathematicians

We thought we’d compile a booklist to celebrate — have a read! (And if you have titles you think should be included, let us know!)

Syndetics book coverAda, the enchantress of numbers : a selection from the letters of Lord Byron’s daughter and her description of the first computer / narrated and edited by Betty A. Toole.
“Toole’s book is an excellent introduction to the life and work of the mathematical visionary, Ada Byron King. Toole’s treatment allows the reader access to King’s luminous mind–no small achievement.” (Amazon.co.uk reviewer)

Syndetics book coverJane Goodall : the woman who redefined man / Dale Peterson.
“Jane Goodall’s discovery in 1960 that chimpanzees in the wild use crude tools meant that ability could no longer be considered a unique and defining characteristic of human beings. Today, as a writer and speaker, she is something akin to a cult icon. As her colleague and former collaborator (Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People), Peterson had access to a body of personal letters, conversations, and first-person accounts that enabled him to develop an empathy for his subject uncommon in scientific biographies. The picture of Goodall that emerges depicts her complexities she was a coquettish debutante who became a dedicated ethologist comfortable with living in the wilds; an intuitive and self-educated researcher who later matured into a major scientist and world authority on conservation.” (Library Journal)

Syndetics book coverRadioactive : Marie and Pierre Curie : a tale of love and fallout / Lauren Redniss.
(Very neat graphic novel!)
“Presents the professional and private lives of Marie and Pierre Curie, examining their personal struggles, the advancements they made in the world of science, and the issue of radiation in the modern world.” (Syndetics summary)

Amazon book cover linkGorillas in the mist / Dian Fossey
“For thirteen years Dian Fossey lived and worked with Uncle Bert, Flossie, Beethoven, Pantsy and Digit in the remote rain forests of the volcanic Virunga Mountains in Africa, establishing an unprecedented relationship with these shy and affectionate beasts. In her base camp, 10,000 feet above sea-level, she struggled daily with rain, loneliness and the ever-constant threat of poachers who slaughtered her beloved gorillas with horrifying ferocity. African adventure, personal quest and scientific study, Gorillas in the Mist is a unique and intimate glimpse into a vanishing world and a vanishing species.” (Amazon.co.uk summary)

Rosalind Franklin : the dark lady of DNA / Brenda Maddox
“In March 1953 Maurice Wilkins of King’s College London announced the departure of his obstructive colleague, Rosalind Franklin to rival Cavendish Laboratory scientist, Francis Crick. But it was too late. Franklin’s unpublished data and crucial photograph of DNA had already been seen by her competitors at the Cambridge University lab. With the aid of these, plus their own knowledge, Watson and Crick discovered the structure of the molecule that genes are composed of – DNA, the secret of life. Five years later, after more brilliant research under Bernal at Birkbeck College, at the age of thirty-seven, Rosalind died of ovarian cancer. In 1962 Wilkins, Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel prize for their elucidation of DNA’s structure. Franklin’s part was forgotten until she was caricatured in Watson’s book The Double Helix. In this biography Brenda Maddox has been given unique access to Rosalind’s personal correspondence and has interviewed all the principal scientists involved, including Crick, Watson and Wilkins.” (Book Jacket)

Syndetics book coverAncestral passions : the Leakey family and the quest for humankind’s beginnings / Virginia Morell.
(From Wikipedia: Mary Leakey – 1913-1996 – was a British archaeologist and anthropologist, who discovered the first fossilized Proconsul skull, an extinct ape now believed to be ancestral to humans, and also discovered the robust Zinjanthropus skull at Olduvai Gorge. For much of her career, she worked with her husband, Louis Leakey.)
“This is a biography of the first family of anthropology – Louis, Mary and Richard Leakey, whose discoveries have laid the foundations for much of our knowledge about the origins of man. The Leakeys have dominated their science. Not only did each of them make key fossil discoveries, but Louis (who argued that man did not originate on the Eurasian continent tens of thousands of years ago, but was more likely to have evolved in Africa millions of years ago) helped to establish the theoretical groundwork for the science of paleonanthropology. The biography explores the Leakeys many significant finds, as they exposed our ancestry and articulated our relationship to the other primates, especially the early hominids. It also exposes the rivals and jealousies within the family and in relation to other scientists.” (Amazon.co.uk)

Scientists anonymous : great stories of women in science / Patricia Fara.
“Why, when girls outstrip boys in exams, are there still so few women in the top levels of science? Why have women been excluded and is there still discrimination? Acclaimed science writer and children’s author Patricia Fara investigates science past and present to find the answers. She examines women scientists’ struggle against unequal opportunities, and shows how they have succeeded despite the obstacles stacked against them. The renowned names are here ? Marie Curie, Florence Nightingale, Rosalind Franklin ? but Scientists Anonymous also reveals the forgotten contributions of many other dedicated and brilliant women. Combining history, science and biography, Fara presents the stories of female explorers, mathematicians, astronomers and chemists from all over the world.” (Amazon.co.uk)

Bright star : Beatrice Hill Tinsley, astronomer / Christine Cole Catley.
“Beatrice Hill Tinsley is a famous New Zealander we don’t yet know about. She is honoured in the United States and United Kingdom for her pioneering work in the origins of galaxies, the origins of the universe. She built on the work of Einstein and was chosen by Fred Hoyle to keynote the celebrations of his life. She showed astronomers new ways of looking, and taught teachers new ways of teaching. Her life and loves are captured in this first biography, a roller-coaster story of triumph over frustration, and an enduring legacy. Beatrice Hill Tinsley was a professor of astronomy at Yale University and only 40 when she died of cancer in 1981. A lover of nature and a conservationist, she idealised New Zealand. She was also a musician, a feminist, a battler for zero population growth and a champion of the oppressed. As this fully researched biography shows, her life is a fascinating study in the interaction of nature and nurture, genetics and environment. It is also an inspiring and unforgattable picture of a girl determined to be a scientist who grows up in provincial New Zealand and wins through to world renown.” (Fishpond summary)

Valley of the dragons : the story of New Zealand’s dinosaur woman / Joan Wiffen.

And some web links:

  • Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1906-1992), American computer scientist and naval officer. Read about Grace Hopper on  Biography Resource Center & Wikipedia — we like the picture on the Wikipedia article best! Known as the “Grand Old Lady of Software”, she developed the first compiler for a programming language, contributed to the development of the COBOL programming language, and is credited with coining the term ‘debugging’ for computer glitches – the story involves a moth! Have a read.
  • Limor Fried, MIT engineer and founder of Adafruit Industries. Read this
    Interview in April 2011’s Wired magazine

Anniversary of supersonic flight

Sunday 14 October was the 65th anniversary of the first manned supersonic flight by Charles “Chuck” Yeager in the experimental Bell X-1 research rocket plane.  In celebration of this feat here are some of our books on supersonic flight.

Syndetics book coverFaster than sound : the story of supersonic flight / Bill Gunston.
“This is the fully revised and updated story of how British and American test pilots pierced the sound barrier in the late 1940s, support with many new photographs. Since then much has happened in the advancement of supersonic flight. As recently as 2003, tens of thousands of fare-paying passengers were routinely enjoying transatlantic intercontinental air travel at speeds of up to Mach 2 on Concorde. Internationally acclaimed best-selling aviation author Bill Gunston OBE describes in accessible style the rules and technologies of supersonic flight, developments in engine and airframe technology, the age of supersonic passenger transports, and advances in supersonic fighter and bomber design.” (Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverInto the unknown : the X-1 story / Louis Rotundo.
“Until Ezra Kotcher of Wright Field and John Stack of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) provided the leadership to convince officials to build a high-speed plane, public opinion was fraught with popular stories of a sonic “wall,” better known as the sound barrier. Now hanging in the Smithsonian, the X-1 was developed to conduct comprehensive flight tests and to acquire data in a scientific manner to demystify supersonic flight. The contributions of many people involved in the project are recounted, including Lawrence Bell, president of the contractor Bell Aircraft; Alvin “Tex” Johnson, Bell test pilot; and Chuck Yeager. Numerous first person interviews and exhaustive research into previously secret files relates the intrigue that surrounded the Mach 1 tests. Technical discussions of the aircraft design, power plant, and airframe are excellent, as are all the descriptions of the test flights, from the first to Chuck Yeager’s historic supersonic flight in 1947. The data gathered during this process helped set the stage for the X-15 and, later, for the space program. A significant contribution to aviation history.” (Drawn from Choice, courtesy of Syndetics)

Syndetics book coverThe X-planes : X-1 to X-45 / Jay Miller.
“This new and revised version of The X-Planes contains a detailed and authoritative account of each U.S. X-designated aircraft. Each aircraft is fully described, and coverage of history, specifications, propulsion systems, and disposition are included in a logical, readable format. Complementing the text are more than 900 photographs, many of which have never-before been published. Each X-Plane is also illustrated by an accurate and detailed multi-view drawing, which also provides color scheme information and scale data. Also included are appendices, an index, and miscellaneous tables. For aviation enthusiasts.” (Syndetics summary)

The Transit Of Venus – June 6 2012

Courtesy ESA/C. Carreau The “transit of Venus” is one of the oldest predictable astronomical phenomena, occurring in pairs, 8 years apart, every 105 and 121 years. Thanks to Johannes Kepler and his work in planetary motion , the first transit was predicted to occur in 1631, but was unobservable from Europe. Following some re-working of Kepler’s work, Jeremiah Horrocks was the first man to witness a transit of Venus. From the data he collected he was able to roughly work out the size of Venus, and how far the earth was from the sun.

Since then transits were witnessed in 1761, 1769, 1874, 1882 and 2004. With each passing transit astronomers have been able to improve upon the original work started by Kepler. Although the advances made in technology since 1882 have lessened the scientific importance of the transit, one cannot understate the importance it had in the early days of astronomy and helping us to understand our solar system…. plus it won’t happen again till 2117!.


Syndetics book coverTransit of Venus : 1631 to the present / Nick Lomb.
“The transit of Venus across the sun in June 2012 will be the last chance in our lifetime to see this rare planetary alignment that has been so important in history. Rich in historical detail and cutting edge science, along with practical information on how and when to view the transit, Transit of Venus is the must-have companion to this extraordinary astronomical event. From Johannes Kepler’s first prediction of a transit of Venus in 1631, to Captain Cook’s 1769 transit expedition to Tahiti (which led to the European settlement of Australia), and on to our 21st-century quest to find distant Earth-like planets using the transit method, astronomer Nick Lomb takes us on a thrilling journey of exploration and adventure.” – (adapted from Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverJune 8, 2004 : Venus in transit / Eli Maor.
“On June 8, 2004, Venus will cross the sun’s face for the first time since 1882. Eli Maor tells the intriguing tale of the five Venus transits previously observed and the fantastic efforts made to record them. This is a story of heroes and cowards, of reputations earned and squandered, all told against a backdrop of phenomenal geopolitical and scientific change. With a novelist’s talent for the details that keep readers reading late, Maor tells the stories of how Kepler’s misguided theology led him to the laws of planetary motion; of obscure Jeremiah Horrocks, who predicted the 1639 transit only to die, at age 22, a day before he was to discuss the event with the only other human known to have seen it; of the unfortunate Le Gentil, whose decade of labor was rewarded with obscuring clouds, shipwreck, and the plundering of his estate by relatives who prematurely declared him dead; of David Rittenhouse, Father of American Astronomy, who was overcome by the 1769 transit’s onset and failed to record its beginning; and of Maximilian Hell, whose good name long suffered from the perusal of his transit notes by a color-blind critic. Moving beyond individual fates, Maor chronicles how governments’ participation in the first international scientific effort–the observation of the 1761 transit from seventy stations, yielding a surprisingly accurate calculation of the astronomical unit using Edmund Halley’s posthumous directions–intersected with the Seven Years’ War, British South Seas expansion, and growing American scientific prominence. Throughout, Maor guides readers to the upcoming Venus transits in 2004 and 2012, opportunities to witness a phenomenon seen by no living person and not to be repeated until 2117” – (adapted from Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverThe transit of Venus : how a rare astronomical alignment changed the world : the collected lectures of the Royal Society of New Zealand transit of Venus series broadcast on Radio New Zealand.
Introduction / Marilyn Head — Search for the lost continent / Hamish Campbell — The road to Stonehenge / Richard Hall — A brillant civilisation / Peter Adds — To the farthest ends of the Earth / Duncan Steel — Voyaging with Cook / Anne Salmond — Travels in time and space / Paul Callaghan.

and for the CD of these lectures :

Transit of Venus lectures [sound recording]
“On Disc 1, Dr Hamish Campbell talks about the origins of New Zealand, especially from the split from Gondwanaland, and the development of our unique flora and fauna; on Disc 2, Richard Hall’s lecture the Tent fires of antiquity: exploring the early origins of astronomy explores the use of the stars by ancient peoples; on Disc 3, Dr. Peter Adds’ lecture Pacific voyaging and navigation explores the use of the stars by Pacific navigators; on Disc 4 Dr Duncan Steele discusses the history and prediction of the Transit of Venus, why it is important to astronomers and navigators, and its importance to New Zealand and Pacific history; on Disc 5 Dame Anne Salmond discusses the importance of James Cook’s 1769 voyage and cultural contact between the Europeans and Pacific and New Zealand peoples; on Disc 6 Prof. Paul Callaghan looks at Voyages of the future: what are the challenges in the search for the dark matter, other life, and other universes.” – (adapted from Syndetics summary)


We’ve been pondering… Marie Curie

marieDecember the 10th marked the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie’s winning of the 1911 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, for her discovery of both polonium and radium, and the research she subsequently did on radioactivity and the associated compounds of radium. She had previously won a joint Nobel Prize, with her husband Pierre Curie, for their research into radioactivity. This made her the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, the first person to be awarded two Nobel prizes, and she is still one of only two people to be awarded two Nobel Prizes for different fields. She is still to date, the only woman to win in two fields.

Here is a link to the transcript of the speech made by the President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences at the award ceremony, that thrust Marie Curie well and truly into the history books.


Syndetics book coverRadioactive : Marie and Pierre Curie : a tale of love and fallout / Lauren Redniss.
“Presents the professional and private lives of Marie and Pierre Curie, examining their personal struggles, the advancements they made in the world of science, and the issue of radiation in the modern world.” (Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverObsessive genius : the inner world of Marie Curie / Barbara Goldsmith.
“Best-selling historian Goldsmith incisively chronicles the intensely dramatic life of the first woman scientist to win the Nobel Prize, neatly explicating both scientific breakthroughs and complex personal and societal conflicts. Curie, born Marya Salomee Sklodowska, endured and triumphed over a tough childhood in Russian-occupied Poland as well as depression, sexism, and poverty. A brilliant and profoundly committed scientist who achieved many firsts, she found her soul mate in fellow scientist and maverick Pierre Curie, who helped her conduct the grueling experiments that enabled her to discover polonium, radium, and radioactivity, thus throwing open the door to atomic science. A humanist who hoped that radiation would only be used for good, Marie Curie also invented a mobile X-ray unit that her courageous scientist daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, who also won a Nobel Prize, operated on the front lines. Marie, Pierre, and Irene were all made fatally ill by their work with radioactive substances, and decades later, the Curie papers that Goldsmith has made such superb use of were still hot. Marie Curie’s life, Goldsmith concludes, was tragic and glorious. Her powerful portrait reveals a woman of great passion, genius, and pain who changed the world in ways she would have deplored. –Donna Seaman Copyright 2004 BooklistFrom Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.” (Booklist)

For more books try this search for ‘Marie Curie’.

From our databases:

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From the web

  • Nobelprize.org – Covers both her 1903 prize in Physics with Pierre Curie and her 1911 prize in Chemistry. Also includes some interesting biographical details and some of her X-ray work in WWI.
  • Royal Society of New Zealand: Marie Curie Lecture Series – This site contains details of the Marie Curie lecture series currently being run across the country by the Royal Society.
  • Year of Chemistry 2011- The NZ site for the year of Chemistry. Keep up with local events and lectures, for what is left of the year. The main international page can be found here.

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We’ve been pondering… Near Earth Objects

Our latest science featured topic, is Near Earth Objects. Have a browse!

Courtesy NASA/JPL-CaltechThe Oxford Dictionary of Astronomy (log in online with your library card details) defines a Near Earth object (NEO) as “An asteroid whose orbit brings it close to Earth’s orbit. Such Asteroids have a perihelion of less than 1.3 AU (1 AU = 149,597,870 km)”.

Earth often has close encounters with these NEO’s: there have been five in the last 10 years – such as the November 8, 2011 encounter with asteroid 2005 YU55, which came within 324,600 km of Earth. The last time a NEO of this size got this close was in 1989. As of April 2011, 7,954 NEO’s have been discovered (this includes asteroids and comets). Of the 7,954, 1,047 have been listed as hazardous – but there is no need to worry!

Approximately 1 NEO per year measuring 5-10m across strikes the Earth, and in the last 100 years, only four NEO’s have struck Earth with any considerable force (although these only affected the immediate area of the fall). Of those under watch at the moment, the one with the highest chance of striking Earth has a probability of 1 in 300, and won’t be near us till the year 2880.


Syndetics book coverWonders of the solar system / Brian Cox & Andrew Cohen.
“Employing his trademark clear, authoritative, yet down-to-earth approach, Brian will explore how these previously unseen phenomena have dramatically expanded our horizons with new discoveries about the planets, their moons and how they came to be the way they are.” (Amazon.co.uk)

See also the DVD version.

Syndetics book coverAsteroid rendezvous : NEAR Shoemaker’s adventures at Eros / edited by Jim Bell and Jacqueline Mitton.
“An account of NASA’s dramatic NEAR mission to the asteroid Eros by scientists involved.” (Syndetics summary)

For more books try this search for ‘Asteroids’.

From our databases:

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From the web

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