Review: What a Wonderful World: One Man’s Attempt to Explain the Big Stuff

What a Wonderful World: One Man's Attempt to Explain the Big Stuff
The thing about What a Wonderful World is that it is like a fruitcake – very rich, very dense, and full of tasty little nuggets. For instance, did you know that the invention of cookery was a milestone on a par with tool use? It allowed us to broaden our diets in prehistory, and any ecologist will tell you what access to good nutrition will do for any animal. Or that galaxies are organized, and indeed possibly even created, by the giant black holes at their centre?


What a Wonderful World is a digest, if you like, about the construction and function of practically everything – the cells in your body, the Earth itself, international banking, quantum theory, sex, Deep Time – the list goes on. It’s something that you dip into when you’re in the right mood, but when you are it’s consistently interesting and rewarding and represents a considerable body of scholarship and research which has been dissected to the point where you can be gently guided through its more fascinating corners. The image of a “plate graveyard” at the centre of the Earth where tectonic plates drift down to die still lingers in the imagination, and as I am not particularly driven to seek out books on plate tectonics, its something that I might, in the normal course of things, never have learned anything about.


It’s also deeply topical in places (see the section on international banking, for one). There’s a great discussion on the eminently newsworthy topic of inflation in relation to the Big Bang (I only received this book last year, and inflation is described within, quite carefully, as a theory). As a writer interested in the idea of multiverses, there is a fantastic wealth of imaginative detail. Did you know that scientists have worked out how far you need to walk in order to meet your doppelganger in another universe? (Clue, it’s a long, long way, but you will meet them if you keep going.)


Sometimes I was a little lost, but that’s okay, because you feel in safe hands just following on.


I really enjoyed it – in the madness of house, job, and life move and the insane rush of mandatory reading that took up the earlier part of my year, this was a guilty pleasure I could dip into as Fate allowed. Though challenging in places, there is nothing a reasonably literate person couldn’t follow. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the universe than the usual surface tropes.


Marcus was talking about this book on the blog, so to get a flavor of what he does, you might want to try Marcus Chown and the Return of the Q&A, or the earlier post Would my Doomsday Device destroy the Universe or Just Islington? in which science fiction writers pitch their scenarios to Marcus for his opinion. And as if that were not enough, you can also read my reviews for We Need to Talk About Kelvin and The Afterglow of Creation.


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Review: Kiss Me First

Kiss Me First
Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very interesting take on social media – Leila is a dowdy, shut-in teenager traumatised by the death of her mother. She is drawn in by a sinister and manipulative man to cover for the suicide of the brilliant, mercurial Tess. Leila will pretend to be Tess online, as Tess is exhausted by her bipolar disorder and through this plan wants to stop her friends and family being hurt by her decision to die. But Leila’s peculiar Aspergersian blindness soon sees the plan spiral out of control as Leila wakes up to the possibilities of being Tess, even if only virtually, and all despite the fact that Leila is unable to properly process the relationships and subtleties of the worldly Tess.


It’s a car crash waiting to happen, of course, but there are some wonderful observations and set pieces. Leila is a really nice example of a narrator who is not unreliable, per se – the audience is so much better placed to see what’s going on than Leila could ever be. Nevertheless, from the security of her tiny bedroom Leila ends up on a whistle stop tour of what it’s like to be an adult that will change her forever.


Definitely worth a go.

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Review: What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal

What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal
What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this wonderfully observed novel, with its unreliable narrator and feckless, selfish, but ultimately pitiable heroine. It was full of great observervations and stark, very compact writing. I

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WFC 2013

So for this weekend I’ve been taking in the wonderful world of the World Fantasy Convention 2013, taking place in Brighton for the third time in its history. I’ve been schmoozing with all of the usual T Party suspects, hanging out in the fascinating talks, and enjoying the location – a fabulously unpredictable and stormy Brighton.


Last night it was the HarperCollins, Gollancz/Bragelonne, and Tor parties, which were enormous fun and a positive whirlwind of meeting people. Tonight is going to be more of the same – Titan, Amazon, Jo Fletcher Books and Del Rey UK are holding events, and there is also the T Party dinner.


I am just loving the room I booked early this year. The view is fantastic:


View from my room at WFC 2013

Check out the Evil Pier!











And I have been given a pulp mountain of books:


Stash from WFC 2013












Which is also pretty cool.


Tomorrow the fun ends, alas, and I head for home, but I’ve had a fantastic time…








Review: The Bone Season

Review: Rebecca

Review: Shopocalypse

Marcus Chown and the Return of the Q&A!

So I’m delighted to announce that Marcus Chown, science writer and all round good guy, is back on The Book of Lost Nights to answer my thorny and possibly inane science questions as part of his new blog tour, and I’m absolutely thrilled.









This time we’ll discover what the deal is with lightning and rubber shoes, whether Greenpeace’s activities should extend to other planets, and also if things in space have to actually crash on the Earth to trigger Armageddon, amongst other cool stuff.


Let’s get cracking…


1. Do you think terraforming another planet or moon is a) possible and b) ethical? Even nominally uninhabited planets? I mean, we admire the natural beauty of Antarctica, and nobody is talking about terraforming that.


Hi, Helen!


a) Yes, I think it is possible – though it is probably more difficult than people think. We have already knocked the Earth out of balance and, although people talk of technological fixes to knock it back, these are likely to be very hard, if even they are possible, with all sorts of unintended and unanticipated consequences. The same will be true on other planets and moons but they are much further away from the inhabitable state we would be aiming for.


b) Well, as you say, other planets and moons are even more pristine – that is, even more untouched by humans – than Antarctica. And we have an international agreement not to spoil Antarctica – though, as we run short of resources, the pressure to scrap the understanding will increase. But the big concern is: do planets like Mars and moons like Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus support microbial life? If they do, then do we have the right to contaminate them with Earth organisms? If life has arisen  independently – or even by the transfer of bacteria in meteorites between worlds, so-called planetary panspermia – it would be scientific sacrilege to contaminate it. We would miss the priceless opportunity to study a second biology – the opportunity to understand what is special about life and what is general. A second example of Life might help us answer the ultimate biological question: how did life get started?


2. Are there any circumstances under which an exoplanet (one not attached to a solar system) could support life?


Yes. The newborn Earth was shrouded in a blanket of molecular hydrogen from the protoplanetary nebula. When thick – and around the young Earth it would have been about 10,000 times thicker than the planet’s current atmosphere – molecular hydrogen is a fantastic greenhouse gas. Of course, the powerful solar wind of the newborn sun quickly stripped away this molecular hydrogen mantle. But here’s the interesting thing. Computer simulations of the birth of the Solar System often show around 10 Earth-mass bodies being ejected by close gravitational encounters with embryonic gas giants like Jupiter. These brothers and sisters of Earth could at this moment be wandering thorough interstellar space. According to David Stevenson of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, such “orphan planets”, heated by volcanism and internal radioactivity, could stay warm enough for liquid water to exist on their surfaces for around 10 billion years – twice the current age of the Earth. Do the calculations: 10 interstellar planets for every Earth. The most likely place to find life may be in the cold, dark freezer of interstellar space! (I wrote about this in the chapter “The worlds between the stars” of my book The Universe Next Door (Headline).


3. This one is slightly gruesome but had me absolutely spellbound at the time I heard it – I was once told that the tsunami that inundated Doggerland and made Britain an island at the end of the last Ice Age was so strong that anyone caught in it would be ripped limb from limb from the force of the water. I’ve puzzled a lot about this – can water shear you apart when there’s nothing to hold you still? And if so, could water generate that kind of natural pressure on Earth? I could see that you could be pounded to death – but could you really be torn apart?


I’m puzzled too! The tsunami itself is just a hump of water, created as some event such as a subsea earthquake, momentarily lifts and drops the sea. It is amplified as it reaches shallow water. Eventually, it breaks, creating turbulence. It is the turbulence that can squeeze together and pull things apart thing. But it is hard to imagine it would be strong enough to rip apart a person. Far more likely is that a person would get pounded by debris caught up in the turbulence. Of course, I am not an expert this area. So I could be wrong!


4. There was a lot of talk at one point about one of our celestial neighbouring stars undergoing a supernova explosion and the usual scare stories did the rounds. But if there is a supernova near us, is it correct to say it would be harmless? What if it became a pulsar, would that affect our bodies or electronic communications? And if so, presumably it would take a while to become apparent, since nothing travels faster than light?


If a nearby star went supernova it would be far from harmless. Say, one went off within 10 parsecs – roughly 30 light years – of the Sun. This must have happened several times in the 4.55 billion year history of the Earth. Just 30 years after the explosion, the Earth would be raked by deadly gamma rays. Then, about three centuries later, the blast wave of high-speed subatomic particles would arrive, stripping away the ozone layer that protects life on Earth from solar ultraviolet light. All life, apart from that below ground and in the oceans, would be wiped out. The novel, Supernova, dramatised the effect of a supernova going off within 10 parsecs of the Earth.


Gamma ray bursters, a rare type of supernova, whose blast is directed not in all directions but in one direction like a lighthouse, are another story. Such objects would be powerful enough to affect the Earth no matter where they went off in the Milky Way. If we happen to be unlucky enough to be looking down the barrel of the gun!


But you also mentioned pulsars – the super-compact spinning relic often left after a supernova explosion. They are tiny and very weak and so have no effect on us. However, there is a class of pulsars known as magnetars, with super-strong magnetic fields, and these can affect us. For instance, on 27 August 1998, SGR 1900+14, a magnetar 15,000 light years away in the constellation of Aquilla, underwent a “starquake”. Even at that fantastic distance, the X-rays from the star were powerful enough to strip the electrons from atoms in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, disrupting low-frequency radio communication round the globe. Had you been in Earth orbit on 27 August, you could have had your teeth X-rayed for free!


The upshot of all this is the realisation is that the Earth does not exist in splendid isolation. Cosmic events can affect our planet – even catastrophically. But such events are unlikely. No need to lose any sleep over it tonight! 


5. And finally a personal favourite – how, if you’re walking on a golf course and hit by lightning, can the fact you’re wearing rubber shoes possibly save you? Why can’t rubber conduct a current? Or is that an urban myth?


Lightning seeks out the easiest path from cloud to ground. Which is why, if you’re out on a golf course, during a lightning storm – especially if your hair starts to stand on end and your skin tingle – you should immediately throw yourself flat on the ground. Then, hopefully, something taller than you, like a bush or tree, will take the hit. But, if you are the easiest path from cloud to ground, your rubber boots will not save you. The enormous electric field in lightning will even break down even an electrical insulator like rubber so that the massive current can flow into the earth.


I can be a bit of lightning bore. Every second there are about 100 lightning strikes across the world. The massive electrical current surges down a channel about the width of a pencil, heating the air to about 50,000 degrees, 10 times the surface temperature of the Sun. That’s why lightning glows. It’s the supersonic expansion of the super-heated air that causes the sound of thunder. 


Thanks so much to Marcus for the wonderful answers – loads to think about here! You can also check out Marcus’ previous Q&A (and do, it was a lot of fun and very interesting) “Would my Doomsday device destroy the world or just Islington?”. You can also read my reviews of his previous books The Afterglow of Creation and We Need to Talk About Kelvin, and I’m delighted to say that I’ll be posting a review of the new book, What A Wonderful World, next week.



What a Wonderful World by Marcus Chown

















So watch this space!

And you can catch the next part of Marcus’ blog tour at Annabel’s House of Books, October 12th.


Review: The Historian

The Historian
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Gigantic spoilers included!)

I felt ultimately torn about this book – after a slow but atmospheric beginning, I was awake late into the night finishing this wonderfully creepy and erudite story. The Historian in the title could describe numerous of the characters in the novel, or indeed its largely hidden villain. The multi-layered plot follows the lives of three people – Paul the diplomat, his daughter (who is never named), and Paul’s former teacher, Professor Rossi. Each of them is hunting a missing parent/mentor who accidentally discovers, upon receipt of a mysterious book, that Dracula is not only still alive(ish), but is still fascinated with evil and cruelty, and still taking an active interest in those pursuing him. The wonderful conceit is that the wicked Count has a fantastic personal library dedicated to evil, and is looking for someone to willingly volunteer to become immortal and curate it for him.

In the end I gave it four stars because even though it is quite slow – in the first half, pages are spent describing exotic locations around France and central Europe with the regularity of a travelogue, all beautifully written but not necessarily advancing the story – it creates a rather wonderful and lush atmosphere that bears fruit later. This pattern of faults and virtues continues throughout – the conception of Dracula, when we meet him, is wonderfully realised and chilling, but he is dispatched too readily, and the happy(isn) ending is enabled by the sacrifice of a throwaway character – I thought at least one of the remaining main characters needed to make the terrible choice be sacrificed to the library, and this is where everything tends, and the drama would be in choosing which. Plotwise it’s also highly coincidental, but since this is true of Stoker’s Dracula too it seems churlish to carp. The evidence that the disparate heroes gather and which fuels their trail is complex, some bits repeated to the point of obviousness, others hidden (names and places and connections would come up as though they had been explained earlier), and yet on the other hand the forward momentum in the last third is irresistable and unstoppable, leading to unbearable tension.

So all in all, not an instantly rewarding read but I was very glad I did it, though my disappointment at the tidy disposal of the invidious Impaler at the end (especially as he was so beautifully realised) somewhat hampered my enjoyment.

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Review: Big Brother

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