April 5, 2020

Review: Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe

On sale now.

There. We said it.

So, you think you know Sir Isaac Newton? Some of the most fascinating tales of science and history lurk in the footnotes, down the tiny side avenues and rabbit holes that most traditional biographies only hint at. Rittenhouse passed out during a transit of Venus. Tycho had his nose shot off during a duel.

Of course, most science history books only tease us with these glimpses and asides in favor of the standard narrative of discovery. One recent book that breaks this trend is Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe by Florian Freistetter out from Prometheus Books.

Sure, you learned Newton’s laws of motion in high school science class. You’ve heard the apocryphal tale of the apple. But did you know that, as the head of the Royal Mint, Newton also actively persecuted counterfeiters? Or that he was not only a staunch critic of his contemporaries, but a firm defender of his own work?

The book portrays Newton at his idiosyncratic best, an abrasive character with a drive to understand the inner workings of nature and the universe at all costs. Newton was fascinated with the nature of gravity and light, and once famously stuck a needle in his eye (don’t try this at home) in order to better understand the nature of sight and light perception. Though these early experiments may seem frivolous at best and dangerous at worst, Newton did give us the first functioning design for a reflecting telescope that now bears his name, the Newtonian reflector.

The book also delves into the controversy over the invention of calculus and Newton versus Leibniz. A product of his time, Newton’s efforts in early chemistry were also tied up with its arcane roots in alchemy and the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, a material said to have the ability to transmute any substance into gold. The ruling powers of the day so feared Newton’s reputation that the King of England actually issued an edict against any such transmutation, lest it collapse the national economy overnight.

Newton also dabbled in the occult, and analysis of the Bible in search of hidden meaning and the history of early humanity. Newton also used his studies in the chronology of the Bible to extrapolate the date for the apocalypse in 2060. This fascinating aside gives a glimpse into a time that may seem strange to us today, an era when science and magic were still intertwined. Kepler, for example still practiced astrology, and took an entire year off from his studies of planetary motion to defend his mother from charges of witchcraft.

And while these aspects of Newton’s life and works may seem strange, it also paints a picture of how science with true predictive power and the scientific method emerged. Sure, we all memorized Newton’s three laws of motion in high school, but he also set physics on the right track, a quest to unify the fundamental forces of nature that continues today.

Be sure to read Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe. You’ll never see Newton in the same light again.


Review: Blockbuster Science by David Siegel Bernstein

On sale now…

So. The future is now. Is it what you expected? As a child of the 1970s, 2017 seemed like an imaginably far off date. Heck, 2000 seemed impossibly remote, a year straight out of science fiction. And while we’re not vacationing on Phobos and traveling via teleporter just yet, we are all carrying computers in our pocket, and everything is finally made of plastic. [Read more...]

Review: Quantum Fuzz

On sale now!

Feeling lost in the world of quantum physics? It has been said that only a few human brains on the planet truly understand the bizarre world on the quantum scale. It is true that it involves a fair amount of “mathiness” to even grasp much more than the basic predictions of quantum physics. [Read more...]

Review: Nebula Awards Showcase 2017

On pre-order sale now

(release date: May 16th, 2017)

Note: the 2017 Nebula Awards ceremony is held this year on May 20th in Pittsburgh, PA.

What’s up in sci-fi? Every year, all of science fiction-dom holds their collective breath for that most prestigious of Awards: the Nebulas. Along with the Hugo Awards, the Nebulas (Nebulae?) feature the very best of the best for the genre. First awarded in 1965, a historical list of the Nebula Awards reads like a Who’s Who of science fiction, and includes such now iconic classics as Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970) and Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) as past winners. [Read more...]

Review: True Genius by Joel Shurkin

On sale now!

Chances are, you’ve never heard of one of the great minds of the 20th century. Physicist Richard Garwin was behind some of the major turning points of the past half century, though we’ll have to admit, we’d never heard of him, either. 88 years old now, Garwin was not only at the inception of the hydrogen bomb, but technology used in Vietnam, the Star Wars missile defense initiative, and lots more.


We just finished reading True Genius: The Life of Richard Garwin The Most Influential Scientist You’ve Never Heard of by Joel Shurkin from Prometheus Books. True Genius not only takes you back to the early days of Las Alamos and the good old bad old days of the early Cold War, but shows science at its best, as researchers race to solve problems in the name of national security.

True Genius gets you right down into the nuts and bolts of some of the problems faced by post-Manhattan Project-era scientists, the few remaining of which won’t be with us very much longer. While the creation of the first atomic bomb during World War II is well documented, the later struggle to complete the first hydrogen bomb — utilizing a fission weapon to create a brief but powerful fusion reaction — has been largely untold. And this story is applicable with today’s news as well, as the first hydrogen bomb detonation by the United States marked the closest the Bulletin of Atomic scientists has ever moved the Doomsday Clock at 2 minutes to midnight, an asymptote we’re know just half a minute away from this year.

The book also uncovers some fascinating strange but true stories of intrigue, such as plans to use nukes in Vietnam and some of the the other crazy ideas of the Cold War (James Van Allen’s biography, The First 8 Billion Miles also talks about ideas such as a continuous ‘nuke shield’ over the U.S. which was, thankfully, never implemented.) We won the siege of Khe Sanh during the Tet offensive largely because of technology and microphones dropped around the base that allowed Marines to snoop on Viet Cong encroaching on the surrounding hills, all tech that Garwin had a hand in.

Garwin was also a member of the JASON Defense Advisory Group, a think tank group composed of some of the greatest minds of our time that has advised presidents on technical and scientific issues since 1966 right up through the recent Obama administration.

Garwin was the real deal, a truly curious mind always eager to discover just how things work. Personal anecdotes dot the narrative of the book, such as the time he disassembled and repaired a photocopier, on the spot. Garwin laments of the proliferation of so-called modern day “experts” who often suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, commentary on how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Like many scientists who worked on the bomb, Garwin was also a key advocate for nuclear non-proliferation in later years, a cause he’s still active in today.

Be sure to check out True Genius for a look at a fascinating lifetime journey through 20th century science, and a look at the life of a man who guided America’s path through troubling times.

Next week: we finish up our science fiction duology review with Brenda Khan’s Spear of Light, the sequel to The Edge of Dark.

Review: Kepler and the Universe by David Love

On sale now…

One of the greatest and most tragic tales in the history of astronomy is the life of Johannes Kepler. And though many are familiar with the 16th-17th century scientist, mostly due to his laws of planetary motion, few know the story of Kepler the man. [Read more...]

Review: Explore the Cosmos Like Neil DeGrasse Tyson

On sale now!

Ever want to explore the universe through an astronomer’s eyes?

The reboot of the Cosmos television series has cemented Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s place in the universe as the successor to the late great Carl Sagan. But before he was a science celebrity and a household name, Tyson was a research astrophysicist as well as a tireless science popularizer and the director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium. [Read more...]

Review: Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon

On sale now.

Quick, what was the most pivotal breakthrough of the 19th century? And no, it wasn’t “steampunk”… it was our understanding of electromagnetism, a breakthrough that fundamentally altered our civilization. Electric lights, refrigerators, hi-fis and blogging wouldn’t exist without it. This week’s review looks at the lives and times of two inventors and scientists whose insights made the modern miracle of electricity possible. [Read more...]

Review: Magnificent Principia by Colin Pask

On sale now!

Thank Newton for orbital mechanics. This week, we’ll take a look at the masterpiece that started all with Magnificent Principia by Colin Pask out from Prometheus Books. Sir Isaac published his Philosphiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica on July 5th, 1687. And although every high school physics student is (or hopefully, should be) familiar with the three laws of motion that it advanced, few have ever actually read the original work. [Read more...]

Review Magnificent Mistakes in Mathematics by Alfred S. Posamentier & Ingmar Lehmann

On sale now!

We’ve all be there. Standing at the chalkboard, (remember chalkboards?) we’ve all forgotten to “carry the two,” or made the cardinal sin of mathematics by attempting to divide by zero. Hey, it happens to the best of us sometimes.

So it’s comforting to realize that the rock stars of mathematics are prone to slip up on occasion as well. Only in their case, their mistakes may be so monumental as to approach greatness.   [Read more...]

Review: Rocket Girl by George D. Morgan

On sale now!

The untold tales of the early Space Age are legion. Many of these were shrouded in secrecy, while others simply fell to the bureaucratic wayside. There’s no doubt some amazing stories are still left to tell in the piles of dusty documents and long lost archival footage in vaults that no one remembers… [Read more...]

Review: Signatures of Life by Edward Ashpole

Out in July!

Where are they? That’s the central question that Enrico Fermi asked in what has now become known as the Fermi Paradox. For the past half century, scientists have attempted to answer that question, scouring the skies for searches for extraterrestrial intelligence. [Read more...]

Review: Hypatia of Alexandria by Michael A.B. Deakin.

On sale now!

It seems that the further back you go, the less certain we are of facts in our very own history. Stories become more legendary, tales more fantastical. History seems to love a good story and never cares for any of the pesky hard truths that sometimes get in the way. [Read more...]

Book Review: Perfect Planet, Clever Species by William C. Burger.

On sale now!

It is one of the biggest questions in science. How unique are we? Has the drama of life and intelligence played out countless times in the history of the cosmos, or are we so improbable that we are effectively alone? Either answer is a stunning relation. In this week’s review, Perfect Planet, Clever Species out from Prometheus Books, author William C. Burger uses some of the most recent cutting edge findings to tackle the question of how human intelligence arose. We’ve discussed the “Rare Earth Hypothesis” and reviewed the book of the same name. Proponents posit that the Earth and life on it are the result of a fortuitous set of circumstances, from the existence of plate tectonics to a large axis-stabilizing moon to a large gas giant world (Jupiter) “goal-tending” the inbound stream of comets & debris. [Read more...]

Review: The Dog in the Manger by Mike Resnick.

On sale in November!

Psst! Do you love a good mystery? Do you love the unfurling of the “Whodunit” plot-line, the murder by dimly-lit street light, the “It was a dark and stormy night” settings? Did you eagerly devour each and every Encyclopedia Brown novel as a kid, forcing yourself not to turn to the solutions at the back until you’d figured it out? Let’s see, one more murder-mystery intro… did you always wonder if it actually could occasionally be “Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with a candlestick?

Then Prometheus Books has a great new line for you. Introducing its new imprint, Seventh Street Books, “Where Fiction is a Crime.” I know, we’re straying a bit out of the hard science fiction mold with this week’s review; time to become a more rounded reader, and all that stuff your high school English teacher told you after you handed in the 20th book report featuring Asimov or Clarke. (Has anyone done a Sci-Fi detective story PI-style, I wonder?)

To ease you into the world of mystery, this week’s review is by an author that you might have heard of, Mike Resnick. Fans of this space will recall our reviews of his Starship space opera series, Starship: Rebel & Starship: Flagship. Mr. Resnick’s latest offering, Dog in The Manger sees Cincinnati Private Investigator Eli Paxton on the trail of the disappearance of a prized Weimaraner (the “dog” in the title) and into a deepening mystery where things are not what they seem. Without introducing any spoilers (it is a ‘mystery’ after all) the title refers to a lesser known Aesop’s fable of the same name. OK, I’d never heard of that one either, but the ever present moral revolves around denying someone something that you have absolutely no interest in purely out of spite. Amazing, what talking animals can teach us…

What I really liked about Dog in the Manger was how Resnick took hard-nosed, street-wise Paxton out of his own element (i.e. the streets of Cincinnati) and sent him on the trail of a disappearance that spans Mexico and the American southwest. Aside from being set in our old Astroguyz stopping ground of Tucson plus environs, being thrust into the unfamiliar brings out the best in a character. (Try it sometimes!)

As you might expect, the tale presented in Dog in the Manger is much more than just a story about a missing canine. Watch those casually dropped references, as they come back as clues later on. The book also includes a teaser chapter to another Eli Paxton tale, “Even Butterflies can Sting.”

Looking at the forthcoming catalog, Seventh Street Books has titles soon to be released by Owen Fitzstephen, Adrian McKinty, Mark Pryor, Erec Stebbins, and more. It’s great to see the classic mystery novel finding a new market; lovers of mystery and thrillers now have a new haven in Seventh Street Books!

Next Week: Not to forget Prometheus’s other fiction imprint, we look at The Creative Fire by Brenda Cooper, forthcoming from Pyr Books!


Review: The Stardust Revolution by Jacob Berkowitz.

On sale now!

Pity the astronomers of yore. Unlike other scientists, they couldn’t take pieces of their objects of study and place them under scrutiny in a lab. Were the heavens truly unchanging and immutable, made of truly different “stuff” than mundane Earthly goods? [Read more...]

Review: The God Problem by Howard Bloom.

On sale now!

A personal confession; we almost didn’t read this weeks’ book, but looking back, we’re glad we did! And no, it wasn’t because it clocked in at over 500+ pages, but because we were a bit skeptical of whether or not it was a good “fit” for the science-themed franchise that is Astroguyz… y’all have come to expect standards from us bloggers, right? True, we review lots of sci-fi, and we did review “that one UFO book“… but I’ve only ever turned down one (unnamed) book, on the grounds that the only good thing I could say about it was that you could use if to play “name that logical fallacy” at your next skeptical gathering… [Read more...]

Review: Destination Mars.

On sale now!

Early this August, a historical event will occur. A rover launched last Thanksgiving weekend will descend via sky crane to the surface of Mars. After the first “six-minutes off terror,” the Mars Science Laboratory will be ready to do some serious science on the Red Planet. [Read more...]