Measurement A Very Short Introduction – David J. Hand


Measurement may not sound like the most exciting topic to sink your teeth into as it takes a certain type of person to become excited by a ruler. Yet this book has much more to offer than just a history of centimetres (cm) and inches. Rather, it serves as a brief, but comprehensive glimpse into a social construct that boasts a history that is inextricably bound with the many great leaps forward of civilisation. In Measurement A very Short Introduction, author David Hand traces the origins of measurement back to the beginning of civilised human society, with the birth of agricultural production.

Original units – which relied largely on basic physical objects to quantify length and weight – were of course hugely variable, depending as they did on physical objects. Of course, if there is nothing fundamental leading to the choice of object, other systems of measurement can be adopted. It’s hardly surprising then that a huge number of different systems have been adopted – today we have grams and kilos, pounds and ounces and the dreaded American ‘cup’.

When you take into account the history of units of measurements, measurement itself seems like a fairly vague thing – but this couldn’t be further from the truth. What is a cm? You could say that it is 10mm, or 1/100th of a metre, but how can it be defined on its own? The history is complicated and points toward the need for a unified method of measurement. This became especially important with the rise of scientific experimentation in the 20th century. It’s been a long time coming, but with the birth of the metric system we are getting close, although there are a few stubborn nations who insist on holding on to their outdated ways.

Of course, measurement is not a purely scientific thing, but can also be used to understand social aspects of society. Far from a scientific concept, it spans the entire range of human society, from the purely physical to the wholly abstract. Economic progress can be measured, but it requires a much different system measuring milk or grain – it is something that cannot be conceived with a basic unit of inflation. This, Hand says, is the difference between representative measurement and pragmatic measurement, a wholly different and complex school of thought which is becoming more important to our understanding of society.

Measurement A Very Short Introduction offers the reader a wonderfully accessible route into a hugely complex subject that spans the fields of science, sociology, history and anthropology. From the simple grains and fathoms of old, to GDP, GNI and the modern-day World Happiness Index – the history of measurement has a lot to say about the development of society. Hand has taken a topic that spans almost the whole of human existence and condensed it into a book which the avid reader could easily conquer in an afternoon.

This review was first published on WordPress for E&T magazine

Dear Data – Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec

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When they first met at an arts festival, Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec realised that they had been living oddly parallel lives:. Both were residing in a foreign country – Giorgia had moved from her native Italy to New York and Stefanie, originally from Colorado, was living in London.  They were the same age were both only children and, most importantly, they were both obsessed by data.

Stefanie and Giorgia have spent their lives collecting and organising information from the world around them. As a child, Stefanie delighted in filling in scorecards with her father at baseball games, while Giorgia collected and organised anything she could get her hands on, from buttons to small stones. As they got older, they both realised that they were collecting data and went on into careers as visual designers, creating data illustrations.

From a chance visit at an arts festival, Stefanie and Giorgia decided to try and get to know each other by sharing data. Having only met once, Stefanie and Giorgia began exchanging postcard-sized letters that described what had happened to them each week, but instead of writing what had happened, they drew it. The resulting project spanned a year, 52 weeks and covered 52 themes, from smiling at strangers to smells and sensations. Each week, Stefanie and Giorgia would collect, collate and share data with one another, often containing information about the most private aspects of their lives such as touch,  envy and desire.

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Dear Data is an amalgamation of the project that unfolded from the chance meeting of two strangers who went on to become intimate friends, revealing oddly personal pictures of each woman’s life. Often, aspects of life that would not necessarily be revealed through the simple act of writing can be seen through data. By looking at each other’s infographics each week, Stefanie and Giorgia got to know each other, noticing themes and patterns in each other’s drawings. The resulting works tell a story about the person behind the data. We learn that Giorgia is a control freak, and Stefanie enjoys more than the occasional drink and apologises far too often.

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Dear Data will make you pause and think about what data can reveal about a person. It makes you realise that you don’t need an app to tell you anything new about yourself. Every one of us is a walking data collection, from the money in our bank account to the calories we consume in any given day. Each time we glance at the clock on our office wall, apologise, or take a walk, we are inadvertently adding to a huge data collection that is our lives. This book is a wonderful illustration of just how data-heavy the average person is. As a project, an exhibition and a book, Dear Data is fascinating, beautiful and a treat for the eyes and mind.

This review was first published on WordPress for E&T magazine

The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots – Beatrix Potter

It’s today! It’s today!


I was unbelievably excited to wake up this morning to an email informing me that The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots would be waiting for me when I returned from work. Obviously I would have preferred to wait by the front door for the postman, but somehow I managed to get through the day at work. I then tore home, dived into the book and had it finished before supper time.

I’ve always been a huge Beatrix Potter fan. My childhood box set was always a prized possession of mine and was subject to more than one show-and-tell session back in primary school. The Tailor of Gloucester was always my favourite and I still love to pull the book out and watch the BBC adaption around Christmas time. If there is anything more magical than animals behaving like humans it is animals behaving like humans in the snow. Simpkins in his snow boots is one of my favourite images of all time.

When I heard there was a new book by Beatrix Potter being published I was over the moon. To think that the manuscript remained hidden for over 100 years, only to emerge to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s death – it is almost as though she had planned it. I couldn’t wait to see what this story, written ten years after all her other much-loved tales, had in store for me.

The newest addition to the collection tells the tale of a very serious, well-behaved black cat by the name Catherine St. Quintin who likes nothing more than to sneak out at night and poach animals with her air gun. Like all of Beatrix Potter’s tales it is filled with funny escapades with the characters falling into one or two unfortunate scrapes, before ultimately learning a rather valuable lesson. Diehard fans of Beatrix Potter will be delighted to encounter a ‘stout buck rabbit in a blue coat’, who bares more than a striking resemblance to a mischievous young bunny once seen stealing radishes from Mr Macgregor’s garden – it looks like Mrs McGregor never did get her winter coat – as well as one or two other familiar faces and more than a few news ones.

Of course, half of the delight in a children’s book is in the illustrations and while I will admit I was slightly surprised when I saw that Quentin Blake was illustrating the book,  I think the result is absolutely stunning. Who better to illustrate a book by one of Britain’s most-loved children’s authors than one of Britain’s most loved children’s book illustrators? His drawings are nothing like Beatrix Potter’s, but I wouldn’t have liked to read a book where Beatrix Potter’s style was mimicked. Blake doesn’t attempt to fill Beatrix Potter’s shoes, he merely pays homage to her work, and does a remarkable job of it. The illustrations are perfect, wonderfully encapsulating the action and humour in Beatrix Potter’s latest tale.

What’s more Blake’s illustrator’s note, where he hopes that Beatrix potter would have approved of his work and speaks of his pride at being given the opportunity to illustrate such a book, is so sweet and endearing. I truly think he has done wonders with the text and brought the book to life in a way that none other than Beatrix Potter herself could have. My one slight disappointment is that the few drawings that Beatrix Potter did create to accompany the story could not be included in the publication.

Overall, however, I think this book is a real delight to read, filled with Beatrix Potter’s classical charm, but with slightly more adult escapades than the previous publications. There is also a subtle, perhaps satirical ribbon running through it which suggests that what is natural does not always come naturally.

There is no doubt that it was written by the Beatrix potter we all know and love, but the style is  different to her earlier works. Not worse, just different. Of course, we can’t know whether there was a deliberate attempt on the part of the author to change her writing style, or if the book was left in a somewhat unfinished state. Whatever the case may be, it is a truly charming read and I will happily place it alongside my other Beatrix Potter books, and no doubt look on it time and time again.

I know the publication is a couple of months too late, but happy birthday Beatrix, may you continue to delight us, and future generations for many, many years to come.


Astrophotography -Rhodri Evans


For millennia people have been fascinated by the stars, looking up to the sky at night to search for answers, look for peace, and predict the future. As human beings we often forget our place within the wider universe, and nothing will better remind you of your relative unimportance than looking up at the night sky. It is worth noting however, that the stars above us, while intoxicating to view outside of the city lights, are just a small snippet of world outside our atmosphere. Astrophotography by Rhodri Evans serves as homage to the beauty of the space beyond our atmosphere, presenting some of the most breath-taking astral photos ever taken.

We begin with a reminder of the insignificance of our tiny home planet. Important, because it’s our home, because it is the only known place that possesses life and yet it barely registers as a miniscule blip on the radar when it comes to the wider universe. The billions upon billions of galaxies that exist beyond us got to show just how tiny we really are. This photo, taken from 6 billion kilometres away, sums up everything you have ever known, everyone that you have ever and will ever know, and the whole of human history in less than a pixel in a camera’s array. Do you feel small yet?

A tiny blue dot – Earth seen from 6 billion kilometres away [NASA/JPL]
Part one of this pictorial tour through outer space stays close to home with a summary of our solar system. From our closest neighbour, the moon, round the sun and past the seven other planetary bodies that all call the solar system home, stopping along the way to look at neighbouring moons, and the satellites, shuttles and space craft that made this book possible. Those of you who can remember the golden years between 1930 and 2006 will no doubt rejoice at the inclusion of everyone’s favourite non-planet, Pluto, who was devastatingly demoted to dwarf planet status just ten years ago.

With each sequential part of the book, Evan travels further into outer space stopping next at the Milky Way, and all those that call the deliciously named galaxy home. The book explores the likes of the Orion Nebula, the Pillars of Creation, and, at the very centre, an elusive super massive black hole. A little further out takes us to the local group, the ‘neighbourhood’ of galaxies of which the Milky Way is part. Enter Andromeda, the large and small Magellanic Clouds, and the distant Pinwheel Galaxy. Further still and we reach the outer galaxies that lie in our immediate neighbourhood – galaxies of many shapes and sizes, distinct from the two spiral galaxies that dominate our local group. Some located 100 of millions light years away, these galaxies take the largest telescopes to explore.

The last stop on our astronomical tour takes us to the every edge of the universe. At which point we are, quite literally, looking back in time. The light from the far reaches of the universe has taken so long, some up to 13 billion years, to reach our tiny earthborn telescopes that we are viewing the stars as they appeared at just a few hundred million years old.

This book is not merely a stunning collection of photographs of the enormous cosmos of which we are just a tiny part, it is a homage to the astronomers, the physicists, and the multiple probes, spacecraft and satellites that are forever pushing further into the realms of unknown. Leaving no astrological stone unturned, from Europa, the ice moon of Jupiter, to the distant Sea Horse Nebula, Evan’s presents the most breath-taking astrophotography available, alongside the physics of the object itself, and the photo encapsulated in the book. Astrophotography interlaces hard science alongside stunning photography to give the reader a glimpse of the science behind the photo.

This review was first published on WordPress for E&T magazine

Head in the Cloud – William Poundstone

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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 today’s 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.

This review was first published on WordPress for E&T magazine

Computer Science: A Very Short Introduction – Subrata Dasgupta


Computer science as a discipline first emerged in the 1960s and was perhaps somewhat neglected as a field of study, hidden as it was behind the shadow of the Iron Curtain, surpassed by the civil rights movement, and outdone by feminists fighting for equal rights. Yet the emergence of a new science – the science of a machine that would go on to revolutionise the 20th century – is arguably of no less important than many of the great things happening in this era.

The computer is one of the defining features of modern society, having revolutionised the way we live and work. The invention of the first electronic computer in the 1940s was without a doubt one of the most important developments of the 20th century. As I sit here typing this, I am accompanied by a chorus of colleagues tip-tapping at their laptops. Enter any office building and you will experience the same – nothing is done via pen and paper anymore. The majority of us own and use a computer and possibly even a smart phone and tablet. Yet despite this, the science behind the machine is less understood outside of the professional science community.

InComputer Science: A Very Short Introduction, Subrata Dasgupta offers the intellectually curious reader an understanding of the fundamental nature of computer science. This concise, enthusiastic and wholly-accessible overview of the topic was written to enrich the public understanding of this influential, yet strange new field of study, and, above all, to answer the question: what is computer science?

This review was first published on WordPress for E&T magazine

Materials: A Very Short Introduction – Christopher Hall


In its rawest form, a material is simply useful matter, which pretty much includes anything that can be utilised in some way, ranging from steel and concrete used in construction, through to gas, food and fertilisers used in production, and stretching as far as ivory and porcelain sold in small indigenous marketplaces. In its simplest form, a material is a material as soon as somebody uses it – simple enough, isn’t it?

While the concept of a material may be easy enough to understand, more complex is their effect of the societies that use them. Materials shape the cultures that apply them and advances in new technology depend on innovation in materials. Think about the exciting new improvements spreading in the news surrounding graphene production and utilisation. Without new materials, there are limits to how far technology can progress, and so how far a society can grow and adapt.

In Materials: A Very Short Introduction, Christopher Hall introduces new readers to the history, progression and development of material production, from the early days of gold, sand and string, through revolutions in industrial production, and into more modern issues of sustainability. If you want to learn more about how societies develop and adapt, then this is the ideal book to add to your collection. To understand change, you need look no further than the materials behind the scenes.

This review was first published on WordPress for E&T magazine