I’ve been writing books, ebooks and online articles for about 8 years now, but it’s only recently that I can add print magazines to the list. Until 6 months ago, my only experience in this area was for Fortean Times, where I’ve had 15 short pieces published since 2012. But as unique and prestigious as FT is, that only averages 2 articles per year. Then back in June I made contact with another great magazine called How It Works, after they gave my book Cosmic Impact a 5-star review. I’ve had a steady stream of assignments from them since then – plus a few from its sister magazine All About Space – as you can see from the pile of issues pictured above.
All the covers have features by me mentioned on them. Most prominent is the one about the Big Bang for All About Space. I’m also responsible for “Secrets of Apollo 11” – the one in small print on the top-left How It Works, not the main cover feature of the same title for All About Space (my contribution to the latter issue being “Do We Live in a Multiverse?”). In the other HIW issues, look out for “Your Guide to Time Travel”, “The Amazing Power of Antimatter”, “How Jupiter Saved the Earth”, “Mapping the Milky Way” and “Deadly Weapons of the Future” – they’re all by me. Slightly miffed about the last title, though, as the article itself is mainly about non-lethal weapons!
There are a few other pieces by me hidden inside some of the issues, plus more on the way. I’ve added a new page to my website to keep track of them.
There are plenty of books about sci-fi music – particularly film scores, or songs with SF-inspired lyrics – and the “science” of music in the sense of acoustics and the physics of sound waves. I’m not trying to compete with books like that. As I said, I’m more interested in three-way overlaps, which narrows the field considerably. The picture above shows some of the research material I’ve been consulting!
This is my third contribution to the Hot Science series from Icon Books, after Destination Mars and Cosmic Impact. The publishers decided on the book’s title (and even advertised it online) before I was assigned to the project, which was a new experience for me. And it was more than a little daunting that the title contains “biology” – a subject I know next to nothing about. When I took the book on, I planned to focus mainly on the “astro” part – my comfort zone – but in writing it I got more enthusiastic about the biology side, which ended up filling a fair chunk of the book after all.
Astrobiology: The Search for Life Elsewhere in the Universe is available from all the usual places – for example Amazon.com or Amazon UK – both as a paperback and an ebook. Here is the back-cover blurb:
Extraterrestrial life is a common theme in science fiction, but is it a serious prospect in the real world? Astrobiology is the emerging field of science that seeks to answer this question.
The possibility of life elsewhere in the cosmos is one of the most profound subjects that human beings can ponder. Astrophysicist Andrew May gives an expert overview of our current state of knowledge, looking at how life started on Earth, the tell-tale ‘signatures’ it produces, and how such signatures might be detected elsewhere in the Solar System or on the many exoplanets now being discovered by the Kepler and TESS missions.
Along the way the book addresses key questions such as the riddle of Fermi’s paradox (‘Where is everybody?’) and the crucial role of DNA and water – they’re essential to ‘life as we know it’, but is the same true of alien life? And the really big question: when we eventually find extraterrestrials, will they be friendly or hostile?
This is another book, like The Science behind Jules Verne’s Moon Novels last year, that I wrote purely because I wanted to. There are plenty of books and websites on the subject of “Buddhism and Science”, but they say so many different things that I just ended up confused. When I finally succeeded in disentangling it to my own satisfaction, I decided to write it down before I forgot – and hopefully other readers will find the result useful too.
The book is available as a paperback from Amazon.com, Amazon UK and all the other Amazons around the world, and in due course there’ll be a Kindle edition too. Here is the back-cover blurb:
Is Buddhism Scientific? It sounds like an archetypal “question to which the answer is no”. Buddhism is a spiritual tradition aimed at improving the human condition, while science seeks to analyse and explain the physical world. How can the two have anything in common? A number of claims have been made – that Buddhism anticipates quantum theory, for example – that just don’t stand up to close scrutiny. Yet there are striking parallels between the way science and Buddhism approach their very different subject matter – and in that sense, Buddhism really could be called “scientific”. This book takes a careful look at both sides of the argument.
My next book, due to be published in September, is on the subject of Astrobiology. It’s my third contribution to the Hot Science series from Icon Books, after Destination Mars (July 2017) and Cosmic Impact (Feb 2019).
For most of my previous books, while I’ve been writing them I’ve done a blog post showing some of the research material I’ve been using. I forgot to do that for this one, so I’ll do it now the book is on its way to the printers.
Actually only 8 of the 9 books pictured above actually qualify as “research”. The one in the middle of the top row – Life on Other Worlds by Sir Harold Spencer Jones – is something I only acquired a couple of days ago –for 50 pence from a flea market. It was originally written in 1940, which must make it one of the earliest books ever written on the subject. My copy is a second edition from 1952 – but that’s still prehistory as far as astrobiology is concerned.
Interestingly, most of the books pictured are ones that I’ve reviewed. The four books on the bottom row, and the one at the right-hand end of the top row, are review copies that Fortean Times sent me. My favourite of them, and the most unusual, is The Great Silence – which I also reviewed on Brian Clegg’s Popular Science blog. The two books with “Aliens” in the title are remaindered copies I got from The Works – and found interesting enough to review on Brian’s site. So the only thing I actually bought as research for my own book is What Does a Martian Look Like? – a rather scruffy copy I found on eBay.
In a blog post last year I talked about symmetric musical sets – such as the tritone, the augmented triad, the diminished 7th, the whole-tone scale and the chromatic scale – which divide the octave into 2, 3, 4, 6 and 12 equal parts respectively. For various reasons musicians dislike these groupings, so they’re used very sparingly in classical music and virtually never in pop music. But as someone who’s always been more into maths than music, I’m fascinated by any kind of symmetry.
Traditionally the octave is divided into 12 semitones, so the symmetric sets I just mentioned are the only possible ones. But what if you wanted to divide the octave into 8 equal parts? That seems an obvious choice, because it’s what the word octave implies. But to do it we need to invoke quarter tones. There are 24 of these in an octave, and 24 divided by 8 is 3, so we’re looking for notes 3 quarter tones (or one and a half semitones) apart.
Writing music in quarter tones isn’t easy, because the MIDI format defines pitch as an integer number of semitones. But it does allow something called “pitch bending” (presumably to simulate bending the string of a guitar), and with a bit of patience you can use that feature to raise the necessary notes by a quarter tone.
Here’s a short (1 minute) piece I wrote to see what it would sound like. It’s basically a random composition using the 8 equally spaced notes shown in the diagram above.
Out now – my third contribution to Springer’s “Science and Fiction” series, after Pseudoscience and Science Fiction (2017) and Rockets and Ray Guns (2018). Those two were based around pet subjects of mine – the two-way interaction between SF and pseudoscience in the first case, and genuine Cold War science in the second. In contrast, this new book came out of a suggestion by the series editor, who drew my attention to a large number of spoofs – often vey funny – produced by professional scientists and presented in the form of serious academic papers.
These papers tend to fall into two categories – spoofs written purely for entertainment, such as April Fool jokes, and hoaxes designed to make a serious point – of which Alan Sokal’s nonsensical paper on quantum gravity, which was accepted by the editors of a professional journal simply because it pandered to their preconceptions, is the best-known example. I’ve combined these with more familiar examples of science-fictional “fake physics”, particularly when perpetrated by writers who were also professional scientists – such as Isaac Asimov, whose “Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline” (1948) bridges both genres: t’s a spoof science paper as well as an SF story.
The result is Fake Physics: Spoofs, Hoaxes and Fictitious Science – on sale now from all the usual places, including Amazon.com and Amazon UK. Here are some words from the back cover:
People are used to seeing “fake physics” in science fiction – concepts like faster-than-light travel, antigravity and time travel to name a few. The fiction label ought to be a giveaway, but some SF writers – especially those with a background in professional science – are so adept at “technobabble” that it can be difficult to work out what is fake and what is real. The boundaries between fact and fiction can also be blurred by physicists themselves … examples range from hoaxes aimed at exposing poor editorial standards in academic publications, through “thought experiments” that sound like the plot of a sci-fi movie to April Fools’ jokes. This entertaining book is a joyous romp exploring the whole spectrum of fake physics – from science to fiction and back again.
This time 50 years ago I was getting very excited about the forthcoming Moon landing. As I mentioned in a previous post, my serious interest in space travel started with the Apollo 8 mission, which took place soon after my 11th birthday. So with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing fast approaching (I’m posting this 50 years to the day after the launch of the previous mission, Apollo 10), I thought it would be fun to look back through some of the souvenirs I collected at the time.
This is my first attempt at a video of this type, and I know it isn’t very professional-looking – but here it is anyway:
As you can see from the above picture, the current issue of the BBC’s Sky at Night magazine includes a review of my book Cosmic Impact. It’s a really nice review, too, by Katrin Raynor-Evans – who says, among other positive things: “The text is superb … It is informative and clear, and May manages to encapsulate everything you need to know about the potential risk to our planet and species.” She gives it four stars out of five.
Cosmic Impact also gets four stars from Brian Clegg, at his Popular Science book review site. Again the review has lots of positive comments, including the following:
This short book is ideal to get a good overview of the subject without having to delve into too much technical detail – and May makes it approachable by giving the subject context from the many science fiction and popular culture scenarios … where something hits the Earth from outer space.
Finally, although I haven’t seen it myself, I’m told I got a very brief but favourable mention in New Scientist, in the issue dated 2 February 2019. It’s in the “Don’t Miss” column, under the subheading “Read”. After recommending the Penguin Book of Outer Space Exploration to “armchair adventurers” they go on to say:
But if hiding under the sofa is more your style, try Cosmic Impact: Understanding the Threat to Earth from Asteroids and Comets by Andrew May.
If you want to do just that, you can find it in any good bookstore or via the following Amazon links:
Following in the footsteps of Destination Mars, my second contribution to the Hot Science series has just been published by Icon Books. It’s called Cosmic Impact: Understanding the Threat to Earth from Asteroids and Comets, and here is what the publishers say about it:
As end-of-the-world scenarios go, an apocalyptic collision with an asteroid or comet is the new kid on the block, gaining respectability only in the last decade of the 20th century with the realisation that the dinosaurs had been wiped out by just such an impact.
Now the science community is making up for lost time, with worldwide efforts to track the thousands of potentially hazardous near-Earth objects, and plans for high-tech hardware that could deflect an incoming object from a collision course – a procedure depicted, with little regard for scientific accuracy, in several Hollywood movies.
Astrophysicist and science writer Andrew May disentangles fact from fiction in this fast-moving and entertaining account, covering the nature and history of comets and asteroids, the reason why some orbits are more hazardous than others, the devastating local and global effects that an impact event would produce, and – more optimistically – the way future space missions could avert a catastrophe.
Cosmic Impact is available either as a paperback or an ebook from all the usual places. If you’re an Amazon customer, here are some quick links for you: