From the Big Bang to Quantum Resurrection

Source: Sterling Publishing, New York

Physics, while undoubtedly fascinating as a means to understand the world, and the cosmos, can be a hard sell to the general public, and even to scientists trained in the natural sciences, such as Botany, or Ecology.

Science writers and journalists tend to be from natural science backgrounds, which probably doesn’t help, and there is a definite lack of passionate physicists that also happen to be great communicators.

That’s why Clifford Pickover, a profilic US author and scientist, is so important. He brings Physics to life in his latest book, The Physics Book, From the Big Bang to Quantum Resurrection 250 Milestones in the History of Physics.

Clifford charts the entire history of Physics, from the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago, through the most important discoveries made by mankind, right up to the present day. He also takes a look at the potential future for the Universe, whether it will continue to expand at an accelerating rate or not, as well as some possible futures for mankind.

He tackles questions like, Is time travel possible (theoretically – yes)?, Will scientists be able to create an invisibility cloak (yes again apparently)? and will all of us, after we die, reappear as ourselves again in the Universe, given enough time? – the idea of quantum resurrection.

Cleverly, he has decided to tackle his topics, one page at a time, so that if you are bored with quantum resurrection, then simply flip to the page on the Big Bang, or the one which discusses whether we are living in a computer simulation (alá the film The Matrix) or not.

This book is well written, and cleverly structured, and a good reference book to have for anyone interested in developing a basic understanding for the most important concepts and ideas in Physics.

Interview with Clifford Pickover

Broadcast on 1.12.2011 on 103.2 Dublin City FM

When Ireland was ‘Wolf Land’

Wolves were in Ireland long before humans arrived, perhaps as long ago as 30,000 years back when they would have moved across Ice sheets from continental Europe into a land that was, at that stage, like today’s Siberian tundra.

(Picture Credit: Four Courts Press)

The archaeological evidence suggests that they lived here in plentiful numbers, that is until a systematic process of extermination resulted in the last wolf being killed, most likely in 1786.

In fact, Wolves were plentiful in Ireland long after they had been hunted to extinction in England and Wales, and to a lesser extent Scotland. This was why Ireland was referred by some outsiders as ‘Wolf Land’.

Wild wolves roamed the land, and the native humans, at least to English sensibilities, were not that much tamer.

‘Wolves in Ireland, A Natural and Cultural History’ by NUI Galway geographer Dr Kieran Hickey is an interesting, and well researched book, on many levels.

The author covers the archaeological evidence, the origin of Irish place names linked with wolves, the mythology, folklore and superstition around wolves, the relationship between man and wolf in pre and post Anglo-Norman times, the causes for the decline and extermination of the wolf, and a consideration of whether wolves should be re-introduced.

It is interesting to note, for example, that wolves  probably hunted with early humans in Ireland, before the emergence of wolf-dog hybrids. In these times, the wolf was considered a partner in survival and was not synonymous with evil.

There is plenty here to interest anyone interested in Irish history, zoology, brehon laws, or the Anglo-Norman conquest.

Listen: Interview with the author, Kieran Hickey

Price: €29.95 in hardback

Publisher: Four Courts Press

Wildflowers of Ireland, A Personal Record

Zoe Devlin, the author of ‘Wildflowers of Ireland – A Personal Record’ (the cover of which is above) began a love affair with Ireland’s wildflowers when she was just eight years old.

That was when she was first shown a delicate wild orchid under a magnifying glass by an elderly relative her family regularly visited near Glenmalure Co Wicklow.

She remembers the trackway where she was shown the orchid, her reaction, which was ‘wow’, and the kindly old lady relative that introduced her to a life-long passion.

Into adulthood, the interest in wildflowers remained strong, and she also became interested in photography – the two interests perfectly complimented one another.

Over the decades Zoe amassed a large body of work, photographing Irish wildflowers all over the country. Then her daughter suggested she do something with all her nice photos.

That prompted her to set up a top-quality website, That, in turn, attracted the interest of Collins Press, who approached her about doing a book.

This is a book that will appeal to those who have a great interest in nature, in flowers, and in stories about Irish flowers, but are not that interested in academic terms and terminology.

Zoe is not a professional botanist, but someone who simply has had a great interest in flowers in Ireland throughout her life.

Wildflowers, in case you didn’t know, Zoe says are flowers that are often called weeds when they are in a place that they are not wanted. Context is everything.

The stories in this book will leave a mark on the memory in the way an academic book about Irish wild flowers could never do.

Zoe describes, for example, the winter heliotrope, which was introduced to Ireland because it flowers in the winter, and can, thus, provide nectar to bees out of season.

Or the delicate orchids of the Burren, which are very small, tiny even, need particular bacteria in the soil to flower, and even then flowering can take as long as 14 years.

She talks about the invasive aliens, like rhododendron (which came in as a flowering plant from the Himalayas) – plants that have “gone mad and choked a lot of our natives”

It’s not all about the countryside either, as the author says that even in Dublin, orchids can be found on Bull Island in June, or yellow water lilies on the Grand Canal.

There is a lack of books about Irish wild flowers and this book certainly fills the gap. The text is engaging and  informative, the passion of the author is clear, and the photographs are superb.

Listen: Interview with the author, Zoe Devlin

Price: €29.99

Publisher: The Collins Press

The Irish Gold Frenzy

Famously, there have been gold rushes in California, Alaska, Australia and even Brazil. But, Ireland also had its own gold rush, in 1795, just before the United Irishman rebellion, following the chance discovery of a nugget in County Wicklow.

Peader McArdle, the recently retired director of the Geological Survey of Ireland, has written  ‘Gold Frenzy’ a book which charts the many aspects of the gold rush story in Ireland, in the years before rebellion set Wicklow’s  heather blazing.
LISTEN:  The Wicklow ‘Gold Frenzy’ —Peader McArdle, author of Gold Frenzy, interviewed on Science Spinning on 103.2 Dublin City FM (broadcast 27th October 2011).
This book is as much about geology as it is about great characters, the use of Ireland’s national resources, and the role of powerful politicians such as Charles Stewart Parnell, whose lands in Avoca lay in the heart of Wicklow gold.
Gold Frenzy is highly recommended and  is available from Dubray bookshop in Bray, the Geological Survey of Ireland, and other bookshops. It can also be ordered on line from the Science Spin website store.

Introducing Palaeontology, A Guide to Ancient Life

Interview with Patrick Wyse-Jackson on 103.2 Dublin City FM, Broadcast 10th February 2011

Author:  Patrick Wyse-Jackson, Curator of the Geology Museum, TCD.

Publisher: Dunedin

Price: €13:85 (Hodges Figgis, Dawson Street, Dublin)

Stone by Stone

Interview with Dawson Stellfox, on 103.2 Dublin City FM, Broadcast 3rd February 2011

Authors: Dawson Stellfox (Editor), Joanne Curran, Patricia Warke, Bernard Smith, and John Savage.

Publisher: Appletree Press

The authors of this book want to promote greater use of native Irish stone

It may come as a surprise to some that Chinese granite was used by Dublin City Council in recent years to repair sections of the granite wall that had begun to deteriorate along the the river Liffey in the City Centre.

The original stone was quarried in Wicklow, but it was now cheaper for the Council to import the granite thousands of miles across the world than to have it quarried in the neighbouring county and transported to the city.

The Chinese granite closely matched the look and texture of the native stone, was cheaper, and could be delivered on the date it was needed.  The Council felt the extra expense of using Wicklow granite could not be justified.

In this context, this is a useful book, written by experts (a geologist, two geographers,  a stoneworker, and a conservation architect) that all want to promote the use of Irish stone in new buildings and preserve it in old ones.

Ireland,given its size, is certainly is blessed with great variety of stone types with granite, limestone, sandstone, marble, shale, basalt, for example, all found in abundance.

If there is one gripe I would have with this otherwise excellent book is that it wasn’t produced for an all Ireland readership. The same issues relating to native Irish stone exist in the south, and geology, and rock types do not respect political boundaries.

That said, this is a book well worth reading for anyone with even a passing interest in native Irish  stone. It will also be a book of great interest for professional architects, builders and planners.

There  is a guide to first identifying the main stone types, then to describing where they can be found in Northern Ireland, and where they have been used in some famous buildings.

The Donegal sandstones, the Mourne granite, and the Antrim Chalk are just some of the types described.

There is great detail provided on how various stone types decay, and it is a certainly surprise to see how many ways that can happen, as well as what to do once stone has deteriorated.

The best repair strategies suited to each situation are detailed, and also how to maintain the stone in good health once it has been repaired and again resembles its former glory.

On a small island, with many of the same rock types in use north and south, and with similar weather patterns and issues regarding rock decay, this is well worth a closer look for southern readers too.

If Maps Could Speak

Interview with Richard Kirwan on 103.2 Dublin City FM, Broadcast 6th Jan 2011

Author:  Richard Kirwan

Publisher:  Londubh Books

Price: €14.99

Aged six he saw a very old map of Waterford hanging in the shop window. It was love at first sight. The fan-shaped outline of the old Viking city – his home town – left an indelible impression on young Richard Kirwan, former director of the Ordnance Survey.

This is a story about maps, map-makers, people and places. It is also a biography that charts the life and times of Ireland’s leading map-maker across several decades. It is a charming, honest book by a man who could proudly state by the time of his retirement that Ireland had been entirely re-mapped for the first time since its independence in 1922.

In parts it is also an intensely personal book that describes a life-changing event, which caused the author to re-evaluate his life, and move into unexplored new areas.

In the passages describing the Waterford of his youth, and his explorations around the city with his father and grandfather, his love of the town is clear. The author accepts that for many people the town might have appeared dull and depressed in the 1950s, with the emigrant boats leaving, but, not for him. He was too busy exploring, and feeding his mind.

He made maps of his city in his mind, and came to know every road, laneway and building in intricate detail. His childish dreams fused with his innate map-making to create a mind’s-eye map that was colourful, multi-layered and full of social meaning.

It was perhaps inevitable that he would be drawn to the Ordnance Survey, which he joined in 1971, after some initial hesitation. There were plenty of attractive jobs available back then for a young civil engineering graduate, and joining the Survey meant also joining the army, something he never really fancied. Nevertheless, he signed up.

He was mentored by Gerry Madden, the then Assistant Director of the Survey, and under his guidance, rose quickly through the ranks. He took a post-graduate degree in surveying and mapping with the British Army, and returned to start work in the field.

Ireland was perhaps the world’s best mapped country by1922. The British Ordnance Survey was set up in 1791. In Ireland, priority for the Survey was to assess the acreage of townlands to ensure a ‘fair’ taxation system was applied to Irish landowners. In England and Scotland, meanwhile, the priority was to draw up accurate topographic maps for the military in advance of a possible attack from Napoleon’s France.

The author describes some of the pioneers of British map-making. Thomas Colby, for example, was appointed to lead the British Ordnance Survey in 1920. He set about drawing up new maps for Ireland. He struggled with developing Anglicized forms for Irish place names and brought in an Irish scholar John O’Donovan to help out.

There was more sympathy towards retaining at least the spirit or meaning of Irish place names by another big early name in the Survey, Thomas Larcom. There are other map-makers mentioned, but Colby and Larcom stand out as the two early giants.

Ireland was mapped in great detail by the time of its independence. Following independence, however, there was no great renewed period of activity by the new state. In fact, it took years, decades, before the Irish were to re-map their own country.

One of the great motivating factors for the author throughout his career was to re-establish the reputation of map-makers in Ireland as innovators, and to restore map-making to its former glory by re-mapping the entire county. He achieved all of that.

The author describes the changes that took place across four decades, including the arrival of women in the map-making office around 1973, which broke the all-male map-making profession, as it had been up to then. He describes the impact of the new printing building for creating maps in 1977, the expansion of the service throughout the 1970s, and the cutbacks and recruitment embargos of the 1980s, and the changes that computers and software brought to the map-making profession.

It is also a personal account, of a man’s life. Richard’s beloved father died when he was 13. He didn’t grieve properly at the time, and, one day in 1998, an avalanche of grief hit him, during a hypnosis and relaxation session at the Irish Management Institute.

Richard was shell-shocked by the emotions that were unleashed that day, and it changed his life. He became a ‘healer’ and a ‘Reiki master’. He surprised even himself, as he says that up until that point, he had always been a logical person.

I would recommend this book, as it is beautifully written, evocative in many places of a bygone era, and with enough personal reminiscences included to hold the attention of readers that might have little or no interest in maps, or map makers.

Deluge, Ireland’s Weather Disasters, 2009-2010

Interview with Kieran Hickey on 103.2 Dublin City FM, Broadcast 13 Jan 2011

Author: Kieran Hickey

Publisher: Four Courts Press

Price: €14.99

What on Earth have we Irish done to deserve this? As our economy fell apart, and all the pain and suffering that this brought in its wake, then we have to face floods, record cold spells, snow and ice, a volcanic ash eruption that cut off our air links with the outside world, and even a meteorite crash and an earthquake. Are the Gods punishing us for our ‘greed’ and alleged ‘partying’ during the Celtic Tiger? To some it might appear so. Our financial woes are dealt with in detail elsewhere, but for the rest, this is a great resource.

Kieran Hickey is a lecturer in geography at NUI Galway, and this book certainly has an academic ‘air’ about it, in that facts and figures are presented regularly, and there is a huge amount of detail available for those that are fascinated by getting answers to say, how much rain fell in Gort during the November 2009 floods. But, there is a lot more too.

There are stories about the heroism of people who helped their neighbours in difficulty; about the politics of the crisis, and what lessons we can learn to better cope with such events in future. There is also lots of interesting material for the history buff, and the weather ‘anorak’ with records of extreme weather here going way back. For example, the ancient Irish annals talk of 668BC as being a year when the snow tasted of wine and the grass blackened. This could have been the result of ancient eruptions of Icelandic volcanoes and the wine tasting snow and black grass may have been caused by acidic ash.

This book shows up that we were to a great extent the architects of our own downfall. There was little or no preparedness for dealing with a combination of extreme weather conditions, and it took some time before the Government called a national emergency to deal with the crisis. Meanwhile, our planning laws had facilitated the building of many new homes on floodplains all over Ireland, and these homes were inevitably badly hit.

There is an interesting chapter analyzing what happened in Cork city, where there occurred arguably the most serious single flooding event in the country throughout this chaotic period. The reasons why Cork is always so vulnerable to flooding our outlined, and there is detailed consideration given to the decision by the ESB to release damn waters from the Inniscarra dam, as fears of a dam collapse grew. That decision led to the flooding of Cork. It was a decision that had to be taken, most agree, but many in Cork still feel that the ESB could have done more to warn people in advance.

More than anything this book again highlights how nature can quite easily bring a supposedly modern, developed society to its knees, leaving us with flooded homes and property, cold, without water, and unable to get about our daily business. That said, we can, and should, do far better in these weather crises than we have done up to now.

For example, one figure Kieran provides is instructive. The flood damage from the November 2009 flooding event alone, just one of many, was estimated at €100 million. A similar amount, at least, the author reckons should be provided for future flood prevention measures, but the Government has provided just €50 million. So, it might be an idea to buy a kayak, and a set of skies in advance of the next, inevitable flooding or Arctic freezing spell.

The big question for most people reading this would be: Is our weather changing permanently and are we going to have to suffer these severe floods and severe cold spells on a more regular basis from now on? Well, thankfully, it appears that the last few years somewhat bucked the general trend that would be expected as global warming proceeds. Under global warming we can expect longer, drier summers, but longer, wetter winters. No need to worry then.

Brown Trout in Ireland

Interview with Martin O’Grady on 103.2 Dublin City FM, Broadcast 27th Jan. 2011

Author: Dr Martin O’Grady

Publisher: Central Fisheries Board

A superb new book by Dr Martin O’Grady, Senior  Research Officer with the Central Fisheries Board, has been published and it will appeal to anyone with even a remote interest in Irish Brown Trout.

The book has a distinct charm, and, aside from the informative text, the aerial photographs, other images, and excellent illustrations – provided by Myles Kelly – makes for an enjoyable read. The graphic work too by Shane O’Reilly is of a high order.

General readers, fishermen, and scientists are all accommodated here. This is a publication that provides useful general information, and specific details, without alienating any potential group of readers – not an easy task.

To read the full review click here for article (published in Science Spin, Issue 36, September ’09)