New book: The First Killer Robots

The First Killer Robots

Several years ago I wrote a number of short ebooks for Bretwalda Books, mainly on high-tech weapons and their historical context. When Bretwalda downsized their catalogue the rights were returned to me, so I’ve taken the opportunity to reorganize the material into a single 180-page book. I’ve also filled in several gaps, both in terms of technology and historical conflicts, that weren’t covered in the original ebooks.

The result is called The First Killer Robots: Guided Missiles in the 20th Century. It’s available as a paperback (ISBN 9798674359425) or Kindle ebook from Amazon.com, Amazon UK and all other Amazons around the world. There’s also an ebook version for all other platforms (ISBN 978-1-71665-501-2), which should be available in due course from a range of retailers.

Here is the back-cover blurb …

From the flying bombs of World War Two to the nuclear arms race, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Scud attacks of the Gulf War, from the shooting down of a CIA spyplane by Soviet surface-to-air missiles to the accidental downing of airliners, guided missiles made alarming headlines throughout the latter part of the 20th century. This book cuts through the complexities of the subject to give an insight into the world of these first “killer robots”, explaining how they work, how they were employed, their historical impact and their legacy for our own times. Illustrated with over a hundred photographs and diagrams.

… and here’s the contents list:

  • Chapter 1: Robot Warfare (The Basics of Missile Guidance; Some Terminology)
  • Chapter: 2: Surface-to-Air Missiles (Technical Challenges; SAMs and the Cold War; From Vietnam to Kosovo; SAMs at Sea; Stingers and Strelas; Countermeasures)
  • Chapter 3: Air-Launched Missiles (Vietnam: An Asymmetric War; Air-to-Air Missiles; The Anti-Satellite Missile; Air-to-Surface Missiles)
  • Chapter 4: Surface-to-Surface Missiles (Flying Bombs; Going Ballistic; Scud Wars; Cruise Missiles; Anti-Submarine Missiles)
  • Chapter 5: Nuclear Missiles (The Ultimate Weapon; Political Missiles; ICBM Secrets; The Arms Race)
  • Chapter 6: Anti-Missile Missiles (Nuclear ABMs; Countering TBMs)
  • Chapter 7: Enter the Drone (Drones in the Cold War; Eyes in the Sky)
  • Chapter 8: The 20th Century’s Missile Legacy (Soviet Missiles in the 21st Century; The Continuing Story of the TBM; Nuclear Proliferation)
  • Appendix A: Glossary of Technical Terms
    Appendix B: Missiles Mentioned in the Main Text
  • Appendix C: 20th Century Missile Conflicts

Out Now: The Science of Sci-Fi Music

The Science of Sci-Fi Music

My latest book has just been published! It’s my fourth contribution to the “Science and Fiction” series from Springer, following on from Pseudoscience and Science Fiction (2017), Rockets and Ray Guns (2018) and Fake Physics (2019). This one is called The Science of Sci-Fi Music, and here’s the back-cover blurb:

The 20th century saw radical changes in the way serious music is composed and produced, including the advent of electronic instruments and novel compositional methods such as serialism and stochastic music. Unlike previous artistic revolutions, this one took its cues from the world of science.

Creating electronic sounds, in the early days, required a well-equipped laboratory and an understanding of acoustic theory. Composition became increasingly “algorithmic”, with many composers embracing the mathematics of set theory. The result was some of the most intellectually challenging music ever written – yet also some of the best known, thanks to its rapid assimilation into sci-fi movies and TV shows, from the electronic scores of Forbidden Planet and Dr Who to the other-worldly sounds of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This book takes a close look at the science behind “science fiction” music, as well as exploring the way sci-fi imagery found its way into the work of musicians like Sun Ra and David Bowie, and how music influenced the science fiction writings of Philip K. Dick and others.

The Science of Sci-Fi Music is available from all the usual places, such as Amazon.com or Amazon UK, either as a paperback or an ebook.

To give a flavour of the contents, here’s a link to a short video preview of the book:

Writing for Magazines

2019 magazine covers

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.

Science + Fiction + Music

Sci-fi music books

I’ve just started writing my 4th book in Springer’s Science and Fiction series, following Pseudoscience and Science Fiction (2017), Rockets and Ray Guns (2018) and Fake Physics (2019). Like those books, this one focuses on the three-way overlap between science, science fiction and some other subject – which in this case is music.

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!

Out now: Astrobiology

Astrobiology cover

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?

New book: Is Buddhism Scientific?

Is Buddhism Scientific?

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.

Researching Life on Other Worlds

Astrobiology books

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.

Musical Symmetry Revisited

Symmetric 8-note scale

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.

Fake Physics: Spoofs, Hoaxes and Fictitious Science

Fake Physics Springer Science and Fiction

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.

Apollo Nostalgia

Apollo 11 souvenirs

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: