Posts Tagged ‘E&T’

Book review: Telescopes, Test-Tubes and Theories – A Scientific Journey

August 24, 2016

By William Harrop

From the belief that maggots simply sprung from dead flesh to the example of Newton plunging a needle into his eye to see if pressure caused us to see colours, this book perfectly encapsulates the absurdity and eccentricity of scientific history.

The Upright ThinkersIn The Upright Thinkers, Leonard Mlodinow takes you on an informative, engaging journey through the 200,000 years of human existence, examining the different scientific super-stars and theorems at each milestone between the establishment of the first civilisations in Mesopotamia and the ‘Quantum Revolution’ of the 20th century. Studded with moments of hilarity and light-hearted anecdotes, the author crafts a books that never loses the attention of the reader, no matter the complexities of the subject matter, by refraining from bombarding us with the bravado of jargon, numbers and formulas one would expect from most science books.

Mlodinow paints a detailed picture of each of the scientific greats since the very first sparks of civilisation, from Pythagoras to Hawking, skilfully fleshing out their characters beyond the formulas and achievements for which they are remembered, including the flaws, which are often glossed over by history. Misconceptions of these figures are brushed aside and replaced with equally intriguing truths – for example, the fiction of an apple falling on Newton’s head is replaced with information on his reclusive and obsessive nature, which drove him to prick his own eye with a needle for an experiment.

As an equally fascinating sidetrack to the book’s subject, the writer effortlessly brings in analogies to his life, including his time writing for the cult classic TV show Star Trek and a period spent working with the illustrious Stephen Hawking. Coupled with this, he also grounds the highbrow science the book discusses by talking about his father, and his amusing way of looking at science through the eyes of an orthodox Jew. Moreover, his father also provides a sobering testament to the harrowing struggle the Jewish people endured during the 20th century, as a Warsaw Jew during the Second World War.

Central to the book is the notion that all scientific theories are relatively ephemeral. They exist only until a better one can replace them – Newton has been replaced, Einstein has been replaced, and soon, perhaps even Stephen Hawking’s theories will be replaced, such is the nature of the ever-turning wheel of scientific progress.

Mlodinow translates his fluently in-depth knowledge of all realms of science into addictive narrative, interwoven with poignant, at-times gritty and sometimes comical anecdotal aids. So, if you’re looking for a book on scientific theories that isn’t denser than dark matter or as hard to comprehend as string theory, The Upright Thinkers is the perfect book for you.

‘The Upright Thinkers’ by Leonard Mlodinow is available in paperback from Penguin (£9.99, ISBN 9780141981017).

Win! Book review and giveaway: War and Technology A Very Short Introduction – Alex Roland

August 3, 2016

By Jade Fell 


Oxford University Press, October 2016, ISBN 978-0-19-060538-4, £7.99, Paperback

‘Humans were born armed’ is the premise to the next of our Very Short Introduction series of reviews, War and Technology, which seeks to trace the combined history of, you guess it – war and technology. Some of you may take issue with the statement – how can a human be born armed? It is interesting to note however, that weapons formed from natural material and used to defend, hunt and fight, have been around before the first Homo sapiens, back to the time of archaic proto-humans. In the 19th century, Jurist Sir Henry Maine famously commented that “War appears to be as old as mankind, but peace is a modern invention.” The same, in fact, is true of technology. For as long as humanity has existed, we have strived to manipulate the world around us to achieve our means –including the creation  and use of weaponry. In effect, the use of weaponry and other military technologies is intrinsic to human nature.

Throughout history, factors such as politics, economics, ideology and culture have had a notable effect on the development of warfare, but no other single variable even comes close to the effect of technology. The changes of warfare patterns,, from the Stone Age right up  to the Atomic Age can each be comprehended by the development of new technologies, such as early stone axes of prehistoric man and nuclear warheads, which now lay dormant on the shores of every developed nation. The so-called ‘principles of war’ – objective, offensive, mass, economy of force, maneuverer, unity of command, security, surprise and simplicity – can be applied and understood throughout history, but none can explain the evolution of technology. As author Alex Roland points out, Alexander the Great may have conquered Afghanistan and gone on to be remembered as one of history’s greatest captions, but he would be baffled and bemused by satellites, aeroplanes and explosives. The fundamentals of war are timeless, but technology is incessantly changing.

In War and Technology A Very Short Introduction, Roland attempts to follow the history of these two subjects and open the inquisitive reader’s eyes to the complex growth and collaboration of these two innately human phenomena. Exploring warfare from land, sea, air and even space, while delving into the realm of cyber warfare, psychological warfare and the war on terror, Roland presents an analysis that, although largely western, is universally applicable in concept. Whether your interest is in war or technology, this book is sure to grab your attention and enrich your mind.

If this review has piqued your interest and you are keen to find out more then you will be pleased to know that we have ten brand new copies of the book to give away to select readers of E&T. Want to know more? Head on over to our Rafflecopter giveaway for further details, and to enter.

Terms and conditions
This giveaway is open to UK entrants only and runs until 09/08/2016 at midnight. There are  then books available. There is no cash alternative and the prize is not transferable. Employees of the IET and their families may not enter.
A winner will be picked at random and contacted via email. If they do not respond within 3 days, another winner will be picked. Entrants’ details will be used only in connection with this competition and not retained or passed to any third parties.
E&T, as the promoter, reserves the right to cancel or amend the giveaway and these terms and conditions without notice.

Book review: Head in the Cloud: The Power of Knowledge in the Age of Google – William Poundstone

August 3, 2016
Head in the Cloud_9781786070135

Oneworld Publications, September 2016, ISBN 978-178-607-013-5, £12.99, Paperback

It is often cited that we are living in an information age. Gone are the days of trawling through text books and library archives to find the material to complete your latest homework assignment. The internet possesses all the information you could ever need – and then some. Pick up your smart phone or connect to your computer and you have a wealth of data available at your fingertips. While it’s true that it is incredibly easy to look up facts on Google, it’s not so easy to remember any of them. Some have argued that having such a wealth of information available to us is making us stupid.

In his new book, Head in the Cloud: The Power of Knowledge in the Age of Google, William Poundstone turns this theory on its head. Being better connected doesn’t necessarily mean we are better informed and the internet is not making us stupid. Rather, it is making us less aware of what we do not know. We’re living, Poundstone argues, in the golden age of rational ignorance. People are more interested in the lives of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West than bothering to learn who painted the Mona Lisa and millennials use acronyms such as BTDTGTTAWIO (been there, done that, got the t-shirt and wore it out), but are unable to recall the single word uttered by the raven in Edgar Allen Poe’s famed short horror story. So what does being well informed actually mean? Does it really matter?

Speak to any self-proclaimed gamer and you will likely tap into a wealth of information that is missing from the mind of the average Joe. Perhaps you don’t have a clue what processor lurks within your PC, or how to overclock the latest Nvidia graphics card, and why would you? Unless gaming happens to feature high on your list of priorities, you’ll probably never need to know this random information. Equally, some of you reading this review will have got through life just fine without ever having known the catchphrase of Poe’s raven. If someone was to ask you who invented post-it notes, what year Tinder was developed, or what the fastest land mammal on earth is, you could retrieve the answer from the cloud within a fraction of a section of clicking ‘search’ on Google. This poses the question – ‘What’s the point of knowing anything when facts are so easy to look up?’

Interestingly, it turns out that the benefits of staying well-informed stems much further than being everyone’s go-to teammate in the monthly pub quiz. In Head in the Cloud, Poundstone reports results of internet surveys analysing the rate of public knowledge, with outcomes suggesting that better informed individuals are, on the whole, healthier, happier and quite significantly wealthier. Not only this, but factual knowledge is heavily correlated with personality traits, including political opinion. Did you know, for example, that those who are able to locate a country on a map are less likely to be in favour of invading it? This is just the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to ill-informed voters.

Head in the Cloud is hilarious, humbling and brutally honest and will likely make you doubt yourself, and everyone around you. This book is not merely a declaration of the woes of an ill-informed public, it also serves to highlight the benefits of broadening your horizons, offering insight and advice on how to best use todays media to stay informed. If you take only one thing away from this book, let it be the knowledge that there is no such thing as irrelevant information and that you could probably benefit from a little more time spent with an atlas, encyclopaedia and Oxford English dictionary.

Book review: This Book Thinks You’re A Scientist

August 1, 2016

By Louise Fox


Thames and Hudson, August 2016, ISBN 987-0-50-06508-13, £8.95, Paperback

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a child, excited by science for the first time again? Well now you can with the science museum’s newest release ‘This Book Thinks You’re A Scientist’. The interactive book explores seven key scientific areas, including force and motion, electricity and magnetism, earth and space, light, matter, sound, and mathematics.

Through a series of creatively and quirkily illustrated prompts, readers are encouraged to engage in their own hands-on experiments and explore science by questioning everything. It’s a great way for your children to spend the afternoon, out in the sun, experimenting on things you probably never thought they would: creating a new robot language, taking instant photographs with their eyes, making water freeze in seconds and styling their hair with static electricity – easy, fun experiments that can be done anywhere.

To prove this, the E&T writers decided to test a couple of the experiments out and you’d be surprised how easily pleased they are this book can definitely be for adults too! Seeing grown men and women getting excited by the idea of frozen fizzy drinks in the hot weather can really make your day. It’s actually really easy to do as well. The carbon dioxide in fizzy drinks makes them pretty hard to freeze properly, but freeze one for around two hours before unscrewing the lid and the carbon dioxide will escape, and without the gas, the liquid freezes – cue instant fizzy slushy!

It was the little experiments that seemed to make our writers the happiest, estimating how many umbrellas it would take to keep the 305ft tall Statue of Liberty dry from a rainstorm, or how many elephants we could fit into the IET building comes as a welcome distraction from the world of work. There are these so many more experiments like them in this book. It’s pretty basic science, but each page also has a ‘how it works’ box, explaining how the science behind the fun experiments – perfect for children looking for something to do but also for parents wanting to engage restless minds over the summer holidays.

Similar to Keri Smith’s ‘Wreck This Journal’, the book invites you to rip out pages and challenges you to complete tasks based around science before explaining how they works, applying fun activities to real-life situations. Each section focuses on an open-ended question or activity, with space on the page to write, draw or interact with the book before recording findings. While the book itself is aimed at children, the experiments are things that could be fun for the whole family this summer.

Smoking vs Vaping – the good and the bad – two contrasting infographics

July 27, 2016

According to our good friends at, smoking costs the UK’s economy £12.9billion a year. That’s a staggering 11-figure sum (12, 900, 000, 000)!

With 2.8 million people in the UK known to vape, is vaping the more virtuous option? What of the rumours and fears of potential nosebleeds and the vaper’s cough?

What are the relative merits and pitfalls of smoking and vaping?

  • 60 per cent of smokers find it hard to last a whole day without smoking
  • 454,700 NHS hospital admissions are attributable to smoking
  • Cigarettes are the single most traded item on the planet with one trillion sold from country to country each year
  • The NHS found 2 of 3 people using e-cigarettes quit successfully in 2015
  • Most e-liquids only have 4 ingredients compared to 7000 in cigarettes
  • Some of the ingredients in e-liquids are found in medical products such as inhalers

Consider these two contrasting infographics, detailing the details of smoking and vaping.

Naturally, there is also a third way: not smoking either.

Click on either graphic for an expanded view.






Gigantic Stratolaunch satellite-launching aircraft – an annotated infographic

July 26, 2016

The Stratolaunch air-launch platform – the largest aircraft ever to be built – is aiming to begin ferrying rockets to space by the end of the decade.

Constructed by US aerospace company Scaled Composites, the massive twin-bodied craft is reportedly close to completion, with test flights scheduled to begin in 2017.

Click on the graphic for an expanded view.



Touchdown in Abu Dhabi as @SolarImpulse completes round the world flight – an annotated infographic

July 26, 2016

Solar Impulse 2, the plane powered only by energy from the Sun, has completed its 15-month mission to circumnavigate the world.

Landing in Abu Dhabi yesterday – where it first took off in March 2015 – the plane finally completed its epic 25,000-mile record-breaking journey.

The feat is the world’s first round-the-world flight to be powered solely by the sun.

E&T news reported on Solar Impulse’s record-breaking flight in full earlier today.

Click on the graphic for an expanded view.

Natural Impulse

Natural Impulse


E&T news weekly #104 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the past week

July 22, 2016

Friday 22 July 2016

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
HMS Ambush submarine collides with merchant ship
MH370 search team may have looked in the wrong location for two years

Two stories of derring do on the high seas – or rather under the high seas, given the subject matter – each with a blackly comic edge to them. The first concerns HMS Ambush, the UK’s most advanced attack submarine (apparently), which was involved in what the Ministry of Defence referred to vaguely as a “glancing collision” with a merchant ship in the Mediterranean. This isn’t the first time such an awkward maritime encounter has beset what is supposed to be one of the stealthiest submarines on the planet and it is something of a gift for comedy writers everywhere. Expect future Johnny English films to feature a submarine that keeps bumping in to fishing boats. The second story is the latest update from the seemingly endless search for the wreckage of Flight MH370. After two years, thousands of man hours and millions of Australian dollars spent on the hunt, the search teams are now wondering whether the plane actually glided down onto the water and then sank, rather than spiralling and crashing in to the sea. If it did glide, it’s likely that the searchers have been looking in entirely the wrong place all this time.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
HMS Ambush submarine collides with merchant ship

When a Royal Navy submarine limps into port with an embarrassing dent in its bodywork it’s bound to attract attention. Our report shows that HMS Ambush has an unlucky history, but this event is pretty unlucky for whoever was in command at the time too, as submariners who can’t steer are likely to find their careers taking a sharp change of direction.

Digitalising every fish for online aquatic fauna database

Professor Adam Summers has come up with a novel way to make his mark in scientific history. He and his team are trying to create a digital catalogue of all 25,000 known species of fish – in 3D. That involves getting hold of a sample of every single one and taking multiple images with a small CT scanner to build up a picture of the skeleton that is available online. It sounds like a real labour of love, and one that will be a great boon to future ichthyologists.

Georgina Bloomfield  Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Chip and pin compromised by hackers ‘within a year’

So the story here is that a former White House chief and US cyber security expert has expressed concerns that chip and pin payment technology could be compromised by hackers within a year. As we know, the United States has never really embraced the chip and pin system like we have here in the UK. They still have the ‘sign for’ system, which in itself poses security threats. Every new piece of technology comes with security warnings (hence why we still vote using a good old fashioned method of using a pencil/pen and not the internet) so the US will have to think this through. Get the ethical hackers onto it! Once the US has fully established chip and pin, what will be the latest method everyone else is doing? We’ve already embraced Apple/Android Pay methods and contactless payments. I suppose the US has an advantage in that it can learn from the mistakes that have been made by other ‘more advanced’ countries.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
HMS Ambush submarine collides with merchant ship

Now, this is interesting. The other day I was explaining to my partner how a Trident-carrying submarine in high seas would find out if Britain is under nuclear attack. If BBC Radio 4’s Today programme suddenly goes off air between 6 am and 9 am on a week day or doesn’t go on air at all, the sub’s captain would know that Britain had been attacked and it was time to retaliate, ie launch a Trident or two back at the attacker. I grasped that valuable bit of knowledge while working as a researcher/scriptwriter for the BBC TV quiz show QI ten years ago. Now I can see that the reason for the start of a nuclear conflict can be much more mundane and can result from a collision of a submarine with a cargo ship, a cruise liner, a fishing boat or another submarine! Could an accidental Trident launch be triggered by a massive bump? I hope it cannot. But you never know: possibly, it can. I also wonder whether all those frequent submarine collisions with other floating objects are sufficient reason to deprive the careless submarine drivers (or captains, or pilots, whatever they’re called) of their driving licences (if any) – a measure that would have certainly been taken against their equally careless counterparts on dry land, even if the latter are not in any danger of accidentally starting a nuclear conflict. Another reason not to replace Trident? Jeremy Corbyn would like that, I’m sure.

Digitalising every fish for online aquatic fauna database

A commendable attempt, no doubt, but I wonder if the respected American professor will be able to digitalise the Devils Hole Pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) which is officially the world’s rarest and can only be found in one hard-to-access and rather sinister-sounding spot: the Amargosa Desert ecosystem, in the Amargosa Valley of southwestern Nevada, USA, east of Death Valley and the Funeral Mountains (I’m not joking!). I hope the brave zoologist won’t be put off by all those moribund toponyms and want to send my very best fishes to him.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Online restaurant menus targeted by cyber hackers

There have been some fishy goings on at the ‘watering hole’. Cyber criminals are using ‘watering hole’ hacking to plant bugs on popular websites of employees, so they can infect a corporation using things like online menus. For example, if it was a late night at the office, and there was a Domino’s down the road, everyone chips in for some pizza. So you look at the menu on the web to see what the list of grub looks like. Alas, some little critter of a cyber bug gets in and nestles into your corporation’s database. Then everything goes wrong and the company is at risk, all because you wanted that slice of pizza. Was it worth it? Depends on the toppings. Anyway, if I was bored or intelligent enough to plant bugs in online menus, I would do some other stuff too, such as replacing names, or putting naughty words in the Sides part of the menu. “Frog and deer poo pizza? That sounds…exotic.” “Hmm, what side do I want? Says here they have…your mum?!” I’d have quite a time confusing all those hungry people.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
40 years of Ford Fiesta celebrated with Dagenham to Brighton run

Everyone’s favourite little runaround turned 40 last weekend, and to celebrate 40 different models drove in convoy from Ford’s Engine Plant in Dagenham, Essex, to Brighton Race Course. Labelled 1-40, the timeline of cars, from across four decades of continuous production, were joined by over 200 other Fords, for a summer festival in celebration of all Ford motors. That’s right, it was a Ford fiesta! Brilliant. I’m delighted by this news, not only because it’s a brilliant play on words, but because I love Ford Fiestas and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I know they’re not considered the most exciting cars in the world, and a lot of people think that they pale in comparison to their cooler younger brother, the Focus, but theres nothing I’d like more than a Ford Fiesta to call my very own. I’m over the moon that my favourite car has made it to 40 without being forced out of production – I still lament the loss of the Anglia and the Escort – and hoping for many more Fiesta-filled years to come. Here’s to you Fiesta, happy birthday, you handsome, handsome devil.

Tarpaulin mishap causes two-year delay to Japan’s military satellite

Tarpaulins are pretty useful things – you can use them as rather uncomfortable picnic blankets, shelters for building equipment, makeshift tents and shelters, maternity centres for earwigs and other mini horrors, and a whole host of other strange outside activities – but it turns out that they don’t mix very well with super-expensive Japanese military satellites. In fact, they cause millions of dollars worth of damage, and huge delays to important military communications developments, and potentially hinder the reinforcement of Japanese defences in the South China Sea. This is the news that someone in Japan is going to be in a lot of trouble, after an incorrectly placed blue tarpaulin wreaked havoc on the country’s first dedicated military communications satellites during transportation to Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. Ouch.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Atomic hard disk could store every book ever written on postage stamp

Summer’s finally arrived in the UK, weather-wise, and with it a new use for chlorine other than to keep the nation’s outdoor swimming pools clean and clear. Forget taking your bestseller-packed Kindle to the pool or beach; nanoscientists at Delft University in the Netherlands reckon the technique they’ve developed using individual Cl atoms to store bits of data could eventually create a device capable of holding the entire library of human writing on a device the size of a stamp. (I’m assuming they mean standard issue ones and not limited edition ones that are twice the area – size differences like that matter a lot at this scale of technology.) As with all claims like this about data-storage density, the inevitable question is “Would you really want to?” It’s estimated we’re generating new data at a rate of more than a billion gigabytes a day, but not much of it deserves to be retained for posterity. And with so much writing starting life online now, what is a ‘book’? A lot of words that are never going to make it to the printed page have a far better case for making it onto that postage stamp than any number of physical works. It probably doesn’t matter though. By the time this embryonic technology has been developed into something marketable the idea of sitting reading words – whether on a screen or paper – could well be a thing of the past.

Book review: The Cambridge Phenomenon: Global impact – Kate Kirk and Charles Cotton

July 20, 2016

By Jade Fell


Third Millennium Publishing, June 2016, 223 pp, ISBN 978-1908-990-617, £45.00, Hardback

“There’s a well-known saying, ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ and in Cambridge, you could say ‘it takes a cluster to raise a company.’”

For nearly 40 years, a technological powerhouse has been growing in the English countryside. Nestled on the southern tip of East Anglia, Silicon Fen, also known as the Cambridge Cluster, may pale in popularity to its older, wiser sibling – Silicon Valley in California – but is of no less importance locally and indeed, globally. Widely acclaimed as a centre of excellence for knowledge and education, Cambridge is ranked as the No.1 University in the world, but its contribution to technological development is less known.

It is remarkable to consider just how many life-changing technologies originated in a small city in the heart of the English fenland. From the discovery of the DNA double helix by Watson and Crick – the findings were announced in the Eagle pub, Benet Street on a cold lunchtime in February 1953 – to the first Acorn computer, the beige and black, blocky creatures loved by school children of the 80s and 90s. At the heart of the cluster you find the university, a place that nourished revolutionary academics including Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Lord Byron, whose fascination with the arts and science helped shape the romantic period. Still an academic centre of excellence, the university has transformed through the years into the advanced hub that it is today.

In their new book, The Cambridge Phenomenon: Global Impact, authors Kate Kirk and Charles Cotton attempt to highlight the influence that Cambridge has as a powerhouse for innovation and excellence – an influence that, according to the authors, has been largely underestimated. They argue that developments in Cambridge today and in the past have not only had a hugely positive impact on UK economy, but around the world in everything from computer chips to gene therapy.

Much of the technology we use is available thanks to Cambridge innovations, from the chips within a smart phone – the majority of which owe their existence to ARM – to anything equipped with Bluetooth technology. To date, some 4,300 knowledge intensive companies are located within a 20 mile radius of Cambridge, 15 of which are valued at over $1billion, two at over $10billion. 25 are the largest corporations in the world (such as Amazon, AstraZeneca and Microsoft) which have opened operations in the heart of the city.

In the forward to their first book, The Cambridge Phenomenon: 50 Years of Innovation and Enterprise, Microsoft founder Bill Gates wrote that the impact of Cambridge ‘reaches every corner of the globe’. In this year’s follow up publication, Kirk and Cotton advance on this point, highlighting the growth of the Cambridge cluster and the people and businesses behind this technological revolution. Cambridge is no longer just the birthplace of great technological advances, but a place to transfer knowledge and grow multinational business.

At the launch of the book, Kate Kirk commented in a similar vein that “the Cambridge phenomenon has reached a status of brain gain rather than brain drain. Instead of early-stage technology companies being bought up by overseas companies and taken away from Cambridge, we are now seeing multinational companies using acquisitions as a way of becoming part of the Cambridge ecosystem. These ‘sticky acquisitions’ are a major indication of Cambridge’s success.”

To this end, the book explores not just particular products and services that have emerged from Cambridge, but also the research institutes and technology sectors that are behind some of the city’s biggest successes. From life science and healthcare to inkjet printing, a wealth of technological innovation encourages competition and attracts talent to discover the potential of the Cambridge Cluster.

This book is important, not just in what it says, but in the work that it represents and the great minds that it credits. Much of the work within Cambridge gives birth to bigger and greater products and services. The effect that this small fenland city has in the wider world should not be underestimated.

#PokemonGO takes world by storm – an annotated infographic

July 18, 2016

As you may already be aware – unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of weeks – Pokémon GO, the augmented reality game for smartphones, has taken the world by storm. It is the successor to Nintendo’s smash-hit Game Boy games from the 1990s, featuring many of the same beloved characters, such as Pikachu.

People have been propelled out of their houses and offices en masse to explore their local environs, eternally on the hunt for elusive Pokémon characters that must be captured and secured.  The appearance of an especially ‘rare’ character can cause intense excitement and fierce competition in players.

E&T news reported on China’s concerns that the game – which overlays real world locations with game graphics – could be used to locate the country’s secret military bases.

Click on the graphic for an expanded view.

Pokemon GO: go!

Pokemon GO: go!