Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA – Amy Shira Teitel

This is the story of how the American space program came to be. Starting with humble experiments in the early 20th century, continuing with the German rocketeers of the 30s and 40s, and developing into the advanced US military programs in the 50s.

Ms. Teitel is a space historian and producer of the popular YouTube channel Vintage Space, in which she presents short segments focusing on particular bits of space history. The subject matter of this book is fascinating, and not only because it is not as popular as the early NASA period from the formation of the agency to the end of the Apollo Program, which is documented and described in hundreds of books and documentaries. The story of the German rocketeers before and during World War II reads almost like a thriller.

Ms. Teitel lays out the subject matter clearly, mostly avoiding confusion by periodically reminding the reader of myriad programs and initiatives with repeated mentions of names. Given the very intricate events and relationships of the post-war US rocket launch initiatives, this is no small feat.  While clarity is achieved, a history should focus on bringing people and events to life. This one fails to really grip the reader and would probably not be very an interesting read to the non-enthusiast. A more in-depth focus on a changing society, or a deep dive into technology, or character analysis of particular figures and their motivations, would have made the whole thing more engaging and less bland. Put bluntly, the story told lacks the ability to provoke passion in the reader because there is little depth presented. Many parts read like an encyclopedia entry.

The prose could use some polish, perhaps with stricter editing. There is an overuse of “as well” and “also”. Too many sentences start with conjunctions, making for a sometimes jarring rhythm in the text. The decision to use purely US/Imperial units without conversions even in footnotes makes the text less accessible to readers from most of the world.

The subtitle is somewhat misleading. While the Soviet space program is frequently featured, there is no in-depth analysis of that side, and information on the adversary serves mostly as background to the US program.

Flying the Knife Edge: New Guinea Bush Pilot – Matt McLaughlin

Mr. McLaughlin started his aviation career in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, but washed out before completing his initial training. He then found work as a “bush pilot” in Papua New Guinea for a few years, notorious for some of the most dangerous flying conditions on Earth.

I have a soft spot for aviation memoirs, and I enjoyed this one more than most. Mr. McLaughlin writes with both sincerity and an entertaining dry wit. The humour starkly contrasts many of the events depicted, as in sections the book seems to be the chronicle of a succession of fatal crashes. Highly recommended for the aviation enthusiast, but perhaps not as quite as entertaining for those not enamoured with the field.

The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss – Jason Fung

Dr. Jason Fung is a specialist in Type 2 Diabetes and obesity. The Obesity Code goes back to first principles in order to explain why people become obese, and what they can do about it.

I liked the fact that almost every bold statement in the book, of which there are many, was thoroughly researched and supported by actual data. This is not a pop-science guide with only vague foundations that “seem to make sense”. If the data doesn’t fit, Dr. Fung examines why it doesn’t, and which hypothesis would actually fit. This is tome of solid science targeted at the layman.

What I found most interesting was how complex the mechanisms controlling weight gain and loss are. I had for a long time believed strongly that input vs. output was the only answer. It seems I was wrong, or at least only partially correct. It turns out that most perceived wisdom about weight is, if not incorrect, then at least incomplete, especially if individual factors are taken in isolation. And that is perhaps the key message. You cannot take a single reaction and single it out. A holistic approach is needed.

Now to do some testing on myself.

Elon Musk: Inventing the Future – Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk is looking more and more like the real life Tony Stark, minus the super-powered metal suit. Self-made billionaire, innovating industrialist, visionary and working hard to save the future of the human race. Mr. Vance’s biography draws on thousands of hours of interviews with Musk, his family, his friends, his colleagues and his peers. It takes the reader from Mr. Musk’s beginnings as an awkward wunderkind to the not so distant past of early 2015. Since then, SpaceX has gone from triumph to triumph with ever increasing ambition, and Tesla seems on the verge of following.

The biography gets up close and personal with Musk, declining to gloss over the man’s less pleasant character traits. By all accounts he can lack empathy and is not overly concerned with coddling people. His goals are overarching and he has little patience with people who get in his way.

Even before reading this book, I had noticed a disconnect between how normal people in industry try to analyse Musk and how he actually behaves. Musk’s goals are far more long term than building successful companies. His business empire is a means to an end, not the vehicle of his chosen legacy. It is somewhat baffling that he has repeatedly and clearly stated his goals (most notably removing dependency on fossil fuels and colonising Mars to ensure humanity’s long term survival) but most people either don’t take him seriously (he’s dead serious) or try to judge him as if he were a normal person (he isn’t).

As recently as yesterday, Mr. Musk outlined his refined vision for Mars colonisation. What was interesting is that the competition is now starting to pay attention, coming up with (rather staid) ideas of its own. Ten or fifteen years ago, Musk was a weird guy with weird ideas whom the establishment could ignore. Today, his continued success at delivering on his spectacular promises has already engendered deep shifts in the areas of energy production, the automotive industry and the space launch industry. The competition is imitating and scrambling to catch up, but this was Musk’s goal all along. He always knew that Tesla wouldn’t kill all the other car manufacturers. His goal was to make all cars electric, not to have them all branded Tesla.

For the reader who wants to delve deeper into the thinking behind Musk’s ideas, I highly recommend Wait But Why’s series of excellent in depth articles.

Ignition!: An informal history of liquid rocket propellants – John D. Clark

Ignition was written by one of the scientists working on rocket propellants from the 1940s to the 1970s. Back when there was a Cold War on, meaning missiles of various varieties, and a Space Race on, meaning rockets of various varieties.

The text stretched my high school chemistry to its breaking point, and then broke it. While I won’t pretend to understand much of the actual science, I was drawn in by Dr. Clark’s bone-dry prose and hilariously understated anecdotes, as well as his humourously cynical view of government research projects. When asked how to handle a certain unstable explosive compound, he writes “I recommend a good pair of running shoes”. The period described was a golden age for propellant research, and government agencies were throwing around silly money to projects with little or no chance of success, in the hope that something would stick. In that way it is very much a sideline commentary on a time where mankind went from Earthbound to Spacebound; a time when science and technology were the answer. Just a bit more research and we can crack just about anything.

S.P.Q.R: A History of Ancient Rome – Mary Beard

S.P.Q.R. charts the development of the Ancient Rome from the murkiest depths of its origin mythos to the grant of citizenship to all free men by the Emperor Caracalla in the year 212CE. Dr. Beard carefully parses fact from fiction, while deconstructing the Ancient Roman mythos still very much alive to this day.

Where this book shines is in its meticulous attention to evidence. While stories of what various Roman emperors and military heroes did are in wide circulation today, many are based on later writings which did not have access to primary sources. Certainly many historians from the Classical Era, whom are now viewed as reliable sources, seem to have tainted their writings to make a benefactor, or themselves, look better. Dr. Beard lays bare where there is only incomplete evidence, hints or plain myth. It is a fascinating book for the history buff, though I felt that the author’s style was perhaps a little too ironically British.

My Autobiography – Guy Martin

Guy Martin sees his profession as being a truck mechanic. On the side, he is a world-famous motorcycle racer, and a sometime TV presenter.  He is definitely something of a refreshing character among the divas of today’s media world.

This is his story, in his words.  Mr. Martin is almost brutally frank in his praise and criticism of people, including himself. he book makes you feel as if you’re having a cup of tea with the author while he is yammering away, stream of consciousness style. The man is seemingly not bothered by fame or by following a certain path in life. He simply wants to fix trucks, race motorbikes and take on any other project that tickles his fancy. The publicity around him seems to mostly make him uncomfortable. He comes from a humble background and has no interest in becoming more than a person who works hard and does things “proper”.

The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space – Eugene Cernan with Don Davis

On 14 December, 1973, Gene Cernan re-entered the Lunar Module Challenger after the third and final moonwalk of Apollo 17, the final Apollo Moon Mission. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s aspirations, first as a US Navy Pilot, then as an Astronaut. This is his story, told in his own words.

Mr. Cernan comes across as a straight talker with a rock-solid work ethic; a conservative in the traditional sense. When he wrote this memoir, he gave the impression of being long past any point where he needed to impress anyone.  His account is frank and does not mince words about anyone, including himself. While Cernan will never be remembered like Neil Armstrong, Apollo 17 had much more value from a scientific standpoint. It had the longest stay on the surface, the longest space walks, the longest distance traversed, the heaviest load of samples and the speed record for the lunar rover (unofficial).

A great book for any fan of the space race, or even flying in general.

In a sad coincidence, Mr. Cernan passed away on 16 January of this year, while I was in the middle of reading his book.

The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe – Thomas Levenson

TheHuntforVulcanIn the centuries following Sir Isaac Newton’s publication of the Law of Gravity, scientists equipped with increasingly advanced telescopes tried worked to explain anomalies in the orbital paths of planets. “Wobbles” in the orbit of Uranus led to the discovery of Neptune. Mercury also wobbles, and it was long thought that it was under the influence of a small undiscovered planet named Vulcan. This book traces the history of the search for Vulcan, and how Einstein’s Theory of Relativity finally “killed” the need for the little planet.

As history of astronomy and science, this short book is interesting. However it is not page-turning material, failing to really grip the reader.


Topgun Days: Dogfighting, Cheating Death, and Hollywood Glory as One of America’s Best Fighter Jocks – Dave “Bio” Baranek

TopgunDaysDave Baranek joined the US Navy in the early eighties, becoming a RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) on the mighty F-14 Tomcat air superiority fighter. This is his account of his days on deployment and as a Navy Fighter Weapons School (Topgun) instructor. He was involved in the making of the famous film as a technical consultant, providing assistance with dialogue and during filming of the air combat scenes.

For anyone even vaguely interested in aviation, this should be an interesting read. For me, the details of radar intercepts, flying off a carrier, and how Topgun operated back then were pure gold. I was fifteen when Top Gun came out and it made a huge impression on me, helping to stoke a budding love of aviation that hasn’t abated three decades later. Mr. Baranek explains things clearly for the layman, but knowing something about aviation helps with visualizing the flying described.

Mr. Baranek made a conscious choice not to describe his personal life in order to focus on the professional life of a Navy flyer. Unfortunately this makes the book a bit dry. Some more “out of uniform” stuff, for example details about how Mr. Baranek grew up and how he came to be so interested in flying, would have helped flesh out the book and the person.


Playing the Enemy – Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation – John Carlin

PlayingtheEnemyThe story of how Nelson Mandela became a free man and then united South Africa with the help of rugby.

The story is fascinating, a real-life fairy tale. South Africa was on the brink of civil war but in large part through the efforts of Mandela, disaster was averted, and even turned into triumph. Perhaps this book goes too far in sanctifying Mandela, but by all accounts he was the true statesman depicted. In fact, verbatim quotes from interviews with the main characters lend veracity to the story itself. On a side note, the author’s structure was often somewhat less than smooth, with run-on sentences of ambiguous meaning.

The second half of this book was the basis for the movie Invictus, a favorite of mine.


Gweilo: A memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood – Martin Booth

GweiloMartin Booth moved to Hong Kong with his parents in 1952, at the age of seven. This is an autobiographical account of the first three years he spent in the then British colony. Mr. Booth was obviously a curious and unafraid boy, roaming widely about the streets and hills of Kowloon and Hong Kong while connecting firmly with the local culture and people.

Having lived in Hong Kong for several years now, this book held particular interest for me. Mr. Booth lets us see Hong Kong through his eyes, without adult judgment or bias. I got the impression that he retells his experiences as Booth the boy saw them, not as Booth the man interpreted them later. This infuses the chronicle with a refreshing naivete. Mr. Booth’s stick-in-the-mud bully of a father contrasted with the adventurous and ever curious mother, make for an colorful domestic backdrop to his adventures. While it is easy to think that a young boy did not actually experience all the things described, and that age has romanticized in the author’s mind events which happened long ago, the authenticity of people’s reactions and places described makes me want to believe that Mr. Booth really did all these things. No doubt he was a more adventurous boy than most.

The love that Mr. Booth felt for Hong Kong shines through the pages. His eagerness to seek out new and foreign experiences should be encouraged in all people, not just expats. It was how he became really aware of his surroundings in a way that many expats are not.

NOTE: This book is entitled “Golden Boy: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood” in the USA edition.


Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time – Dava Sobel

LongitudeLongitude is the story of an unlikely genius, John Harrison. Self-trained clockmaker, he solved the problem of determining longitude on ships during the second half of the 18th Century. Determining longitude is trivial today with GPS, but for hundreds of years it was a big problem and inaccurate navigation was the death of thousands of sailors. There was even a Longitude Prize to be awarded for the man who could solve the issue.

In itself, the creation of the Harrison timepieces is a fascinating bit of science history. However, the real prize here is the political backstabbing at the highest levels of the contemporary British science community. The problem at hand was that various methods for longitude determination competed for primacy. Harrison, the relatively undistinguished watchmaker, found it hard to compete with the villain of the story, or in the author’s words the anti-hero. This man was Nevil Maskelyne, who seems to have been a bit of a bastard. To be fair, however, Maskelyne made significant contributions to navigation. Luminaries like Edmond Halley and Sir Isaac Newton also feature prominently.

I have been fascinated with geography since I was a child, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Well-written and without any excessive heft from unnecessary tangents, it should be good reading for everyone, but especially those with even a passing interest in navigation and maritime history.


Failure is not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond – Gene Krantz

Failure is not an Option - Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and BeyondThis non-fiction account of the NASA manned space programs from the early days of Mercury through the triumphs of Apollo was written by Gene Krantz, one of the original flight controllers in Mission Control, and probably the best known. While most accounts of the events focus on the astronauts and the spacecraft, Krantz naturally takes us into the world of Mission Control. It is a fascinating “behind the scenes” look at the people and equipment that led and supported the missions. While the astronauts got most of the glory, the truth is that Mission Control saved the day on many occasions.

This is by all accounts a geeky book. The material is often rather technical and having a prior understanding of some of the mechanics involved definitely helps. Just like the author and his former job, it is written with the precision and honesty that Krantz values.

Setting aside for a moment the spectacular achievements of the American space programs in the sixties, I was struck by Krant’s unabashed patriotism. He is a big fan of John Philip Sousa marches and feels great pride when listening to the national anthem. This is not the showy, hollow national love so prominent nowadays, but a true, deep connection. Krantz worked very hard to achieve great things, and he did it predominantly for his country. He gave to his country through blood, sweat and tears. His feelings are those characteristic of a generation past, one that did not show love of country by clicking “Like”, but actually by sacrificing. It smacks of an innocence lost in the late nineteen-sixties, when Americans stopped looking up to their politicians and when they stopped believing they could achieve great things. Krantz does indeed mention this himself in the epilogue. While reading, I found myself growing very fond of Krantz. He could by all accounts be tough as nails, but he feels an affection towards his colleagues that is very different from the empty corporate speak of many of today’s leaders. The world needs more people like Gene Krantz. People who dare to step up and doing the hard things because they feel that they need to be done.

On a side note, it was nice to see the footnotes in line with the text instead of at the end. On a Kindle, following a link to the footnotes is an annoyance.


Beyond Lion Rock – The Story of Cathay Pacific Airways – Gavin Young

BeyondLionRockTheStoryofCathayPacificAirwaysThis history tackles both strands that begat Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s de facto “national carrier”. One side is the pioneering work of founders Roy Farrell and Syd de Kantzow, both ex-military transport pilots and veterans of the treacherous “Hump” route over the Himalayas during World War II. Farrell bought a military surplus DC-3, the now famous Betsy, and started an airline from nothing before he was soon joined by de Kantzow. The other side is more establishment, with trading and shipping conglomerate Swire, led by Jock Swire, seeking to “get into Air” to further interests in the Far Eastern trade. Swire acquired Cathay Pacific a few years after the founding of the airline and still owns it today.

The book is very well researched, and the author has interviewed dozens of the major and minor players of the airline’s interesting history. It is interesting not only from the point of view of the aviation enthusiast, but very much also for its fascinating glimpses into Hong Kong immediately post war, through recovery and finally into the uncertain future of Chinese rule (the book was published in 1989, eight years before the handover). The author freely admits that he hasn’t bothered much with incidents of drunken pilots, pilots sleeping with stewardesses (or wifes with pilots out flying) or any such since these incidents are hardly peculiar to Cathay Pacific. Mr. Young focuses instead on defining events such as new aircraft types, new routes, scandals and accidents, viewed through the lens of regional history. The brief snippets from interviews with former and (then) current staff, as well as affiliated officials and businessmen, bring vividness and immediacy to the story.

My criticism, or shall we say niggle, with this book is that perhaps Mr. Young seems a touch too enamored with Cathay Pacific and the romance of the Far Eastern trade. But then again who can blame him? Even in the eighties, times were different. Certainly when the airline was started, Hong Kong was a remote and romantic place in the eyes of Westerners. A frontier where fortunes could be made and lost by those bold enough to take the often harrowing risks required.


Bonk – The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

BonkThis non-fiction book describes and explores “sex science” in a way that the layman can understand. Ms. Roach has performed extensive research, traveling around the world and around the US Patent Office website among other places. In a frank but very amusing style peppered with the driest of irony, she goes through everything from sex therapy in antiquity to sex machines for therapy and research, to genital implants.

Despite sometimes cringing at the descriptions of surgeries and other things in intimate regions, I found this a fascinating read. Ms. Roach can probably make any subject fun, and when combined with the somewhat taboo aspect, her writing makes for compelling reading.

If I had one gripe, it was that while all individual chapters were interesting, by about two-thirds of the way through I was losing interest. I guess there’s only so much sex science I can take.


The World According to Clarkson – Jeremy Clarkson

TheWorldAccordingtoClarksonThis book is a collection of Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear‘s columns in the Sunday Times between 2001 and 2003. He muses on everything from Concorde’s retirement to delayed flights in Spain. As usual, Mr. Clarkson is irreverent, frequently offensive, and more often than not just plan provocative. For the most part, he is quite funny and entertaining. I enjoyed it but it is probably not for everyone.


Fate is the Hunter – Ernest Gann

FateistheHunterFor aviators, this is the ultimate, classic memoir. Ernest Gann started flying in the late thirties, flew transport planes all over the world during WWII, and continued flying for airlines thereafter. This book is part chronicle of his many adventures and misadventures, part collection of thoughts on life and flying.

Even a pilot with my limited experience can immediately discern the fundamental authenticity in the erudite voice of this true aviator. The book is episodic, with sequential periods and incidents within serving to move Gann’s destiny forward. Gann writes elegantly, peppering his oftentimes long whimsical tangents with razor sharp understatement. Technical matters become uncomplicated as they are reduced to how they really concern the pilot and his mental state. The essence of what it feels like to fly, in clear skies, in storms and in pouring rain, in Arctic winter and Saharan oven and Amazon jungle, is eloquently explained and examined, with an eye for that poetic and magnificent experience that truly attracts pilots towards flight.

Quite a magnificent book for pilots, and one that will hold the interest of others as well.


The Articulate Executive – Granville N. Toogood

This non fiction book is about how to speak in public and visual aids to that end. The author’s name is a bit worrying and in fact Toogood comes across much as he describes himself: “a fairly facile, somewhat sophisticated Eastern Ivy League City Slicker”.

Don’t let that faze you! This book (or most of it, at least) is a real gem if you ever need to speak in public, or even in a small group in a corporate setting. The tips and tricks, techniques and anecdotes are excellent. Anyone in working life can benefit from this quick read, and I highly recommend it.

There are unfortunately some small factual errors in the examples, but that doesn’t detract from the usefulness of the book. Toogood is undoubtedly a good speaker, but he sometimes gets carried away with his examples to the point of making errors.

In the Beginning… Was the Command Line – Neal Stephenson

Non-fiction from Stephenson. This is the story of the PC as written by a cyberpunk author. Stephenson, not unexpectedly, turns out to be a Linux fanatic. He comes at the events from unexpected angles, making the book quite a bit of fun for the enthusiast. However if you are not a “computer person” this probably won’t interest you.

Bad Astronomy – Philip Plait

Subtitled ‘Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing “Hoax”‘, this book discusses misconceptions related to astronomy. For example, various false explanations to why the sky is blue are talked about. The first part is about things like tides, eclipses. Then the book moves on to things like astrology and the purported Moon landing hoax. There is also a section on bad astronomy in films.

Philip Plait is an astronomer who also runs the excellent Bad Astronomy website. He has made a name for himself as a rationalist and debunker. His casual and easy style defuses any potential animosity in the text. He dislikes fraudsters and but he does not speak condescendingly about those who merely misunderstand. He also goes out of the way to explain complex physical phenomena in ways that laymen can understand.

It’s a fun book even if you don’t have much interest in astronomy, and I learned quite a bit reading it.

Rude Astronauts – Allen Steele

This is a collection of short stories and articles. Steele’s has a journalistic style and tends to describe the actual “normal people” protagonists of an event as opposed to the powers that be. He is seldom grandiose, but his stories tend to be very crisp and relatable. The articles are from Steele’s time as a science reporter in Florida.