The Science behind Jules Verne’s Moon Novels

Science behind Jules Verne

When I wrote The Telescopic Tourist’s Guide to the Moon last year, I wanted to refer, amongst other things, to descriptions of real lunar features in works of science fiction. Surprisingly, I found that many of the most famous Moon stories don’t actually refer to specific locations. Even more surprisingly, one of the few novels that does contain realistic descriptions of lunar geography is one of the earliest – Jules Verne’s Around the Moon, dating from 1870.

The surprise comes because Around the Moon – and its predecessor, From the Earth to the Moon (1865) – are probably best known for the completely unrealistic mode of travel, i.e. by means of a projectile launched from a giant cannon. But when I reread the novels, I was struck by just how scientifically knowledgeable they were – by the standards of their time, at any rate. As well as the physical descriptions of the Moon, Verne gets other subtleties right, too – such as the way things move once they get outside the Earth’s atmosphere (something Hollywood barely understands to this day).

So I thought I’d write another little book describing all the science Verne got right – and of course the science he got wrong, too. Here’s the blurb:

The idea of using a large gun to send humans into space is as impossible today as it was a century and a half ago, when Jules Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon. Yet he went to great lengths to persuade readers it wasn’t impossible – not through arm-waving and made-up technobabble, but using real physics and astronomy. No one had done anything like that in fiction before – and even today it’s unusual to see so much “real science” discussed in a work of science fiction. But just how much did Verne get right, and what did he get wrong? This book takes a closer look at the science content of his two great Moon novels – from Newton’s laws of motion and the conservation of energy to CO2 scrubbing, retro-rockets and the lifeless grey landscape of the Moon.

The Science behind Jules Verne’s Moon Novels is available as a paperback or Kindle ebook from, Amazon UK and all other Amazon sites.

Dirac on Einstein

I was going through some old audio cassettes I recorded from the radio when I was a student, and came across a really interesting little snippet. It’s the physicist Paul Dirac reminiscing about Einstein on a BBC programme, though I’m afraid I’ve no idea which one. The note I made at the time says “recorded in March 1979″ – when Dirac would have been 76 (he lived to 82).

Although the quote is very short, it’s really fascinating – and a Google search didn’t turn up any other references to it. So I made a little YouTube video of it, which hopefully the following link will take you to:

Here is my transcript of what Dirac has to say about Einstein:

He wasn’t merely trying to construct theories to agree with observation. So many people do that; Einstein worked quite differently. He tried to imagine “If I were God, would I have made the world like this?” – and according to the answer to that question, he would decide on whether he liked a particular theory or not.

And I can’t resist adding a couple of Amazon links for my own book about Einstein:

Einstein book covers

Coming soon: 30-second Energy

30-second Energy

The popular series of “30-second” books from Ivy Press has been running for several years now. Next month sees the latest in the sub-series of physics-related titles edited by Brian Clegg. This is 30-second Energy, following on from 30-second Quantum Theory, 30-second Physics, 30-second Newton and 30-second Einstein. As with those earlier books, 30-second Energy includes contributions from myself as well as from Brian and several other authors.

30-second Energy is a slight departure from the previous titles in that it’s more about practical applications of physics than theory or academic research. That means that (as with virtually anything “useful” that comes out of physics), many people won’t even realize that it is physics! That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since readers who wouldn’t dream of buying 30-second Quantum Theory or 30-second Newton might still be attracted by 30-second Energy.

This book differs from the previous four in another way too. It’s the first to include a Foreword by a “big name” – in this case, Jim Al-Khalili. Apart from that, it’s very much the same style as the others – about 60 double-page spreads of get-to-the-point-quickly text and lavish full-colour illustrations. As I’ve said before though, “30 seconds” is a slight exaggeration – it will probably take you at least 90 seconds to read each of the entries properly!

In all, 30-second Energy contains 8 contributions by me, on “Kinetic Energy”, “Potential Energy”, External Combustion”, “Internal Combustion”, “Turbines”, “Fission”, “Fusion” and “Batteries”. The book is published on 1 March 2018, and you can see its Amazon UK listing by clicking on the following link:

30-Second Energy: The 50 most fundamental concepts in energy, each explained in half a minute

Under the slightly different title of Know-It-All Energy, the book is already on sale in North America. Here is a link to its listing:

Know It All Energy: The 50 Most Elemental Concepts in Energy, Each Explained in Under a Minute

Cold War Update

Cold War Sci-Fi ScienceI just realized that it’s been four months since I last posted an update on this blog. I’ve been too busy! Anyway, my Cold War book now has a working title – Rockets and Ray Guns: The Sci-Fi Science of the Cold War. I’m about two-thirds of the way through writing it – hopefully it should be out some time around the middle of 2018.

Basically the book is a follow-on to Pseudoscience and Science Fiction, which was published last year. While the first book looked at the way SF anticipated and cross-fertilized with various well-known tropes of the pseudoscience industry, the new one will do the same for the real (or in some cases, allegedly “real”) science of the Cold War.

The picture above gives a quick taster of the kind of thing I mean. The illustration on the left comes from a short story by John W. Campbell called “When the Atoms Failed”, from the January 1930 issue of Amazing Stories. The picture on the right is an artist’s conception of a space-based electromagnetic railgun, dating from July 1984. This was a real-world proposal for an anti-ballistic–missile defence system, using technology that had already been demonstrated in the laboratory.

British lunar lander, 1954

BIS lunar lander

The picture above shows a comparison between an Apollo-style lunar lander, on the right, and the more traditional idea of a “spaceship” on the left. More technically, the comparison is between the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous approach used by Apollo and the competing methods of Direct Ascent (going all the way from the Earth to the Moon with a single vehicle) and Earth Orbit Rendezvous (ditto, but with the vehicle first being constructed or refuelled in Earth orbit). You might guess the picture dates from circa 1962, when NASA surprised the world by selecting LOR over the (previously much more likely) other two options. Actually it comes from a book printed in 1954.

That’s the date on my copy of the book, which is the second edition of one originally published in 1952 (I don’t know if the same picture was in the first edition). It’s called Development of the Guided Missile, by Kenneth W. Gatland – a member of the British Interplanetary Society, which was the source of the lunar landing concept depicted here. In the text the lander is designated “Type B”, while the counterpart of the Apollo CSM is Type A: “The Types A and B operate together as a composite vehicle; the former acts as the propulsion component for the Type B and remains in the terminal orbit of the destination planet whilst the smaller rocket descends to the surface.”

The most famous member of the British Interplanetary Society was Arthur C. Clarke, and he touched on the same subject in his “science-fictional autobiography” Astounding Days:

We discussed many types of rendezvous and space-refuelling techniques, to break down the journey into manageable stages. One of those involved the use of a specialized “ferry” craft to make the actual lunar landing, while the main vehicle remained in orbit. This, of course, is the approach in the Apollo project – and I am a little tired of hearing it described as a new discovery. For that matter, I doubt if we thought of it first; it is more likely that the German or Russian theoreticians had worked it out years before.

Actually the concept in Gatland’s book is a mixture of Earth Orbit Rendezvous and Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, since the Type A spacecraft (which is powered by a nuclear-thermal rocket) is first constructed in Earth orbit, using smaller unmanned rockets (Type C) and a winged shuttle (Type D) to ferry the astronauts to and from Earth orbit. The whole ambitious concept is illustrated in the picture below – it strikes me as extraordinarily sophisticated for a book published in 1954!

British Interplanetary Spacecraft

Cold War research

Cold War books

Having thoroughly enjoyed doing the research for my book on Pseudoscience and Science Fiction last year (see a selection of research materials here and here), and then The Telescopic Tourist’s Guide to the Moon earlier this year (see my Lunar Research blog post) I’ve been wondering what to do next. One idea that occurred to me is something about the Cold War … so I’ve been dutifully immersing myself in research on the subject, as you can see from the picture above.

The Telescopic Tourist’s Guide to the Moon

Telescopic Tourist Guide to the Moon
Hot on the heels of Destination Mars, here’s another book of mine that’s new out this month – The Telescopic Tourist’s Guide to the Moon, published by Springer. I actually wrote it several months after the Mars book, but Springer have a very fast system compared with more traditional publishers so it caught up!

This is the second book I’ve done with Springer, following Pseudoscience and Science Fiction last year. That one was in a series called Science and Fiction, and in fact there’s quite a lot of SF in this new one too (as you might guess from my earlier blog post about lunar research). However, this book actually belongs to a different series – the Patrick Moore Practical Astronomy Series. Here’s the blurb:

Have you ever been inspired by stunning images from the Hubble telescope, or the magic of sci-fi special effects, only to look through a small backyard telescope at the disappointing white dot of a planet or faint blur of a galaxy? Yet the Moon is different. Seen through even a relatively cheap telescope, it springs into life like a real place, with mountains and valleys and rugged craters. With a bit of imagination, you can even picture yourself as a sightseeing visitor there – which in a sense you are.

Whether you’re interested in visiting Apollo landing sites or the locations of classic sci-fi movies, this is the tourist guide for you! It tells you the best times to view the Moon, the most exciting sights to look out for, and the best equipment to use, allowing you to snap stunning photographs as well as view the sights with your own eyes.

It probably goes without saying, but The Telescopic Tourist’s Guide to the Moon is available from all good bookshops, as well as online retailers such as and Amazon UK.

Three stars from the BBC

Sky at Night magazine August 2017I don’t often buy the BBC’s Sky at Night magazine, chiefly because of its ridiculously high cover price (more on which later). I do, however, regularly exercise my democratic right to browse through its contents in W. H. Smith’s. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the latest issue contains a prominently placed review of my book Destination Mars. I was less happy that the reviewer only gave it 3 out of 5 stars, but it was enough to prompt me to buy the magazine anyway.

Actually it’s not a bad review. The reviewer (who works for the European Space Agency, and hence presumably knows a lot more about the subject than I do) doesn’t make any really negative points – it’s more like one of my school reports that always seemed to say “could do better”. The three-star rating is defined as “average” – which I guess means 50% of all the books ever written are better than mine and 50% are worse. So I can’t really complain (though I like four star reviews better).

In any case, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. This is only the second time anything of mine has been reviewed in print, following the review in Fortean Times earlier this year. And the Sky at Night magazine has almost 10,000 more readers than FT (source).

There’s another point I ought to bring to your attention. The BBC magazine costs £5.20 per issue, which strikes me as extortionately high for something that only has 100 pages and is packed with advertisements. My book has 160 pages (and the only advertisement is for another book in the same series), yet its cover price is only £7.99. If you follow this link to its Amazon page, you’ll find that some sellers have it even cheaper than that.

Out now – Destination Mars

Destination Mars

My book Destination Mars: The Story of Our Quest to Conquer the Red Planet is published today. As mentioned a few weeks ago, it’s the first title in a brand new series from Icon Books called Hot Science, edited by Brian Clegg. Brian is one of Britain’s top popular science writers, and he gave me some really helpful pointers on the style and content of the book. Hopefully that means it turned out almost as slick and professional as one of Brian’s own books!

With a list price of just £7.99, Destination Mars is available from all good bookshops, as well the usual online retailers such as Amazon UK and

To whet your appetite, here is a quick summary of the book’s contents:

  • Preface: From Science Fiction to Science Fact
  • Chapter 1: The Lure of the Red Planet
    Our Solar System neighbour – Another Earth? – The Real Mars
  • Chapter 2: How to Get to Mars
    Rocket science – Action and reaction – The long way round – Landing on Mars
  • Chapter 3: Martian Robots
    Fifty years of Mars exploration – Lost in space – Anything a human can do?
  • Chapter 4: From a Small Step to a Giant Leap
    The race to the Moon – Mars is harder – Risk management
  • Chapter 5: Big Plans
    Visionaries vs politicians – Mars Direct – One step at a time – Roadmap to Mars
  • Chapter 6: Private Enterprise
    Commercial space flight – Making life multiplanetary – Human interest
  • Chapter 7: Living on Mars
    Colonisation – Martian sustainability – Terraforming
  • Chapter 8: The New Space Race
    The contenders – A wild card – Mars fever
  • Recommended Resources
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Index

Seventy years of UFOs

Fortean Times 355

Today marks the 70th anniversary of Kenneth Arnold’s seminal UFO encounter, on 24 June 1947. That was the event that gave rise to the term “flying saucer”, and kicked off a media frenzy that led to copycat sightings around the world … and a whole new subgenre of science fiction. As such I devoted several pages to Arnold’s sighting and its repercussions in my book Pseudoscience and Science Fiction last year.

The Kenneth Arnold sighting also provides the central theme of the latest issue of Fortean Times, pictured above (FT355, July 2017). To my surprise, I received three extra copies of this last week – something that puzzled me until I looked at the contents and discovered there was a six-page article by myself in it. I actually wrote this (and submitted it to FT) at the beginning of last year, before I’d even had the idea of writing the Pseudoscience and Science Fiction book. In fact it was while writing the article – about the pulp magazine editors Ray Palmer and John W. Campbell, and the way they blurred the boundary between science fiction and fortean-style non-fiction speculation – that I realized I could write a whole book on that sort of thing. Although the magazine article (called “Astounding Science, Amazing Theories!”) took such a long time to appear, it does fit the theme of this particular issue very neatly – including a couple of references to the Kenneth Arnold sighting and Ray Palmer’s role in publicising it.

The main Arnold-related article, however, is not mine but one by Nigel Watson. Called “Was it a bird? Was it a plane?”, this focuses on other potential explanations of the sighting besides the extraterrestrial hypothesis – in particular the possibility that the objects Arnold saw were saucer-shaped or flying-wing style military aircraft. Arnold was flying a light aircraft himself at the time, and Jenny Randles has a one-page piece in her “UFO Casebook” column about other similar aircraft-based UFO sightings. The Kenneth Arnold links don’t stop there, either. The magazine’s lead feature, by Brian J. Robb, is about the conspiracy theorist Fred Crisman – who had connections with Kenneth Arnold, Ray Palmer … and the hollow-Earth theorist Richard Shaver, who also features quite prominently in my own article. In passing I also mention L. Ron Hubbard (who started out as a protégé of Palmer’s upmarket rival, John W. Campbell) – and there’s a link there, too, since the “Building a Fortean Library” column in this issue happens to feature a classic biography of Hubbard.

So there are plenty of reasons to buy this month’s issue of Fortean Times – and my article is just one of them!