Britain AD by Francis Pryor

41jz6dej8wl-_sx326_bo1204203200_Subtitled ‘A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons’, this is thankfully much more than a rehash of Arthurian myths or Anglo-Saxon aggrandisement.  The veteran archaeologist looks at the period from the end of Roman rule to the Anglo-Saxon invasion and tackles parts of the popular view.  In brief, through his archaeological work he finds sites with a continuity that seems to call into question the idea of a huge Saxon invasion.

There are a few problems with this argument – language being the main one; if there was such continuity in population, then why does English have so few words from its Celtic predecessors?  There are also a few potential issues with the style of the book: it is short, but dry and occasionally unfocused – digressions onto anecdotes from Pryor’s early career on dig sites are enjoyable; digressions onto the history of Arthurian myth actually feel tacked on to the main thrust of the book.

Although this book certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, it is an interesting read and often thought provoking.  Pryor uses his experience to offer some speculative arguments, but these feel grounded and plausible (compared to Neil Faulkner, who got a bit carried away on the same topic).  I’d be keen to read his other work (I believe Britain BC offers similar arguments for the Celtic era invasions), or more books that shed light on early British history.

NB/ I believe there was a TV series of the same name in 2004; I have not yet seen it.


The Neutrino Hunters by Ray Jayawardhana

18684781Initial thoughts on this book – it’s much lighter than the other Physics books I have read recently (Dreams of a Final Theory by Steven Weinberg and Strange Beauty by George Johnson).  The introduction references The Big Bang Theory and sci-fi books by Greg Bear.  The tone feels a world away from the manifesto of Weinberg and the heavy weight biography of Gell-Mann.  This is probably a good thing – Jayawardhana covers physics right up to the time of writing, and many of these experiments aren’t yet at the stage of results and are light on entertaining anecdotes, so the style helps keep things pacy.

With my background in Physics, I would actually be interested in more detail on the theory behind neutrinos but Jayawardhana largely leaves this out for quick summaries of the concepts.  In truth this is probably a better option, for the flow of the book and readability for a general audience.  The personalities involved, their motivations and the surroundings of the experiments and theory developments are described more than the actual theory itself – but these are of great interest: people like Pauli and Dirac, experiments like Ice Cube in the Antarctic or SNOLab in a Canadian nickel mine.  These provide more than enough material to fill the book.

The book inevitably tails off a little towards the end when we reach unfinished experiments and possible applications (detecting neutrinos to discover illegal nuclear material, for example) and feels like a little bit of a mish mash of all the ideas and experiments that the author declined to give more prominence in the main chapters of the book.  There are some of these stories that could be covered in further detail – there is just a short paragraph, for instance, on Samuel Ting and AMS.

Neutrino Hunters stays short and sweet though – an enthusiastic introduction to some of the biggest topics in particle physics today.

Strange Beauty by George Johnson

I’m not entirely sure how well known Murray Gell-Mann is outside the world of physics (I’m guessing ‘not very’) but for those who know of him, he ranks among the greats of twentieth century physics.  He’s best known for the Eightfold Way, a way of explaining hadronic particles using sub-particles called quarks.

41cuvv6lhil-_sy344_bo1204203200_Strange Beauty assumes some basic knowledge of physics – not necessarily in detail, but it would help to have a rough idea of the key characters and ideas of quantum physics.  It builds on this to cover the Gell-Mann’s work and methods in satisfying detail.  I would actually go as far to say that it’s some of the best representations of the subject that I have read in a popular science book.  He was slow to publish and often irritatingly cautious in the work he presented, but he wouldn’t let go of a problem once he had latched on to it and worked in very productive collaborations with colleagues (giving a counterpoint to anecdotes showing his abrasive side).  In addition to this, MGM is involved in almost every topic of importance in the field, and comes into contact with many of the other well known figures in 20th century physics.

Gell-Man’s early life is also compelling – his father was an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful Jewish immigrant from Austria to New York.  Murray Gell-Mann seems to have inherited both his demanding nature and his usual hyphenated surname from him (his dad was born a Gellman).  In his later life, after the Nobel Prize, Gell-Mann starts to be involved in more varied adventures.  He has many interests outside physics (unlike his rival Feynman) – languages, archaeology, politics, psychology, conservation and, of course, his family.

As well as his work, much of the book is focused on his character – in a lesser book Gell-Mann could be a caricature of a perfectionist, difficult to work with, and sometimes unreliable (at least as far as deadlines are concerned).  This biography shows much more depth than that.    This multi-dimensional and often flawed personality together with the superb descriptions of his achievements makes this a great portrayal of a great scientist.

Holy Bones, Holy Dust by Charles Freeman

A history of Christian relics seems like a niche thing, and in truth it probably is, but if there is ever to be an accessible introduction for a popular audience it is this book by Charles Freeman.  Working chronologically from early Christians in the Roman empire to the resurgence in the counter reformation, Freeman places relics at the centre of medieval life – motivating travel, boosting economic development and influencing the design of art and architecture.

There are tonnes of anecdotes crammed into the 270 pages.  Some of these are on the light end of things – like Saint Hugh of Lincoln, a popular English bishop who (to French outrage) attempted to steal part of the “arm of Mary Magdalene” at the Abbey of Fecamp.  He eventually managing to chew off a finger to take home to Lincoln, where he was much praised for his initiative.  Other stories are darker – the veneration of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln (no relation) or William or Norwich, a boys allegedly murdered by the Jewish community and used as an excuse for persecution.

Attention is given to how relics played into wider themes including the rise of anti-semitism, popular religion versus that of the central church organization, the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, and finally the rise of the reformation and scepticism.

Freeman keeps away from giving too much modern judgement on these relics and miracles, instead describing the processes and changes in medieval thinking over time.  I liked that, it would be too easy to become heavy handed or condescending when presented with some of these far fetched icons; by avoiding that trap the book has a light, neutral tone that allows the material to speak for itself.

The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V by Hugh Thomas

This is a very authoritative and extensive book on the Spanish empire in the Americas during the reign of Charles V.  It is rich in detail and full of tales of the conquistadors.  There is a lot of material to cover, but Thomas moves quickly enough without skimping on depth and even finds occasional moments of humour.

The book starts rather abruptly in 1520; it is officially the second part of a trilogy but does work as a stand alone if one can accept a few seemingly arbitrary starting or finishing points.  This means that it begins after the rise of Hernan Cortes, instead centring itself on Pizarro’s conquest of Peru and the bloody infighting that followed.

The introduction of the book sets out a contrast between Charles’ possessions in America and in Europe; but the European side and Charles himself are covered less in this volume.  We do see the transatlantic interactions within the empire, but generally with the focus on America.  Charles is such an interesting figure that I might have liked to read more about him, but his stance on the colonies was always a somewhat standoffish one so the book doesn’t develop in that direction.  European events like the Reformation barely raise their head in Thomas’ narrative.

I may also have liked a slightly less character-led approach in places – it would have been nice to get a better picture of the Spanish and native cultures in themselves, as opposed to a picture limited to where they interacted.  The adventures, exploration and amoral scheming of Pizarro, Amalgro and others are interesting, shameful and occasionally impressive; and chapters on the church figures in the Spanish administration show the transition away from private fiefdoms.

The Golden Age is an enjoyable enough book, but at the same time it left me disappointed.  I wanted more from this, and struggled to really build up much of a sense of the empire.

Dreams of a Final Theory by Steven Weinberg

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it on here, but my degree was in Particle Physics.  You start to pick up the big names (if you didn’t know them already) as you learn the subject – Steven Weinberg is one such name.  His work on electroweak unification was a major part of the course.

You also start to pick up the details of previous experiments.  In my era, with the Large Hadron Collider just starting to take data, the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) came up now and then.  This experiment that never was, was cancelled in 1993 due to budget problems.  It would have reached energies well beyond that of the LHC.

In 1992 Weinberg released this book, describing why he believed that a “final” theory of fundamental physics would exist, what it could look like, and justifying the funding of the SSC.  Although he did not win the debate on funding, the arguments in the book still stand – it’s surprising how up to date the book seems.  In the last 25 years, we have discovered the Top quark, flavour changes in neutrinos, the Higgs Boson, gravity waves, and pushes into the limits of Supersymmetry and Dark Matter.  Yet still something more is needed.

Weinberg’s arguments on the importance of spending on fundamental science, and on his field as the most fundamental of sciences, may not land for everyone, but he places them eloquently and (relatively) diplomatically.  His discussion on realism vs positivism is very interesting, it filled in some of the gaps from my very experimentally focused degree.  If you’ve ever heard someone refer to a theory as “beautiful”, this is as good a place as any to get an explanation of what they mean and why this matters.

After writing this I found another recent review of it in the Guardian.  From the early days of the LHC, but I think it too is still very valid.

Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp

17248762This book, from 2011, tries to give a sense of what life was like for non-elite Romans: the poor, slaves, freedmen (outside the high profile imperial ones), soldiers, prostitutes, gladiators, bandits, and just ordinary men and women.  The sources here aren’t as dramatic as those for the trials and tribulations of the imperial family or high ranking senators.  There is a lot of reading between the lines in literature (Apuleius’ The Golden Ass and Petronius’ Satyricon for instance), more esoteric works (Artemidorus’s dream interpretations) or funerary inscriptions.

This meant that it ended up covering similar ground with other books I have read recently – Jerry Toner’s How To Manage Your Slaves (which I was sure I had posted on – that may have to be written), Mary Beard’s Laughter in Ancient Rome, Jerry Toner’s Popular Culture in Ancient Rome, and Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians.  With this, the sections on “ordinary men” and slaves in particular rehashed a things I had already read.  The other books mentioned above have greater depth to them, and weaved the ideas and quotations into greater themes.  In comparison this book had a wider range, but skipped through each topic rather quickly.

Some of the chapters on society’s fringe groups were more interesting for me – much of the material on soldier, prostitutes and gladiators was new to me.  Again, it was rather dry compared to some other authors – the material is set out there and the reader is often left to come to their own impressions and conclusions.  This does have its advantages, being allowed to actually read through selected portions of the sources is rather nice.  There are interesting discussions on how to judge material based on its intended audience, especially on topics like sexuality or societal roles.

As with many of the other books mentioned, there are generalisations here – material is taken from across the span of the empire – in both time and space.  Often from 1st and 2nd century Rome or Greece, but also from Egypt or Palestine (the bible does pop up as an occasional source).  This is understandable.

Overall, it’s a very well put together work.  It’s probably more informative than enjoyable, but it is definitely an accessible and extensive introduction to an area that is only starting to come under the spotlight.

Mendeleyev’s Dream by Paul Strathern


This book isn’t exactly about Dimitri Mendeleyev, he only shows up 260 pages into a 295 page book, but there’s the old line “standing on the shoulders of giants”.  This is about the slow process the chemistry went through to develop from the rather haphazard work of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians to the modern science that it became with Mendeleyev’s Periodic Table.

For the most part, the book is full of tales of the various personalities that paved the way for Mendeleyev.  Big names like Issac Newton, Francis Bacon and Antoine Lavoisier are covered, as are lesser known figures like the unlucky Carl Scheele or the disreputable Johann Becher.  The first half of the book switches between a history of alchemy and a history of empirical science in general, as it needs to.  The later chapters focus more and more on chemistry, and particularly that which led towards the understanding of elements.

It’s a fairly light book, but Strathern does find time to weigh in with opinions – on the views of male scientists that kept it a boy’s club for so long, and on people who either had the right approach but wrong answer or vice versa.  This second point could have had more made of it – it is acknowledged that even good scientists will hold to their beliefs or opinions (Priestly and others trying to hold onto their theories about Phlogiston after Lavoisier’s identification of Oxygen) but it doesn’t really interrupt the sense of progress.

My only real disappointment with the book is the ending point.  Other than a brief comment on the success of the periodic table in the future, the book cuts out at Mendeleyev’s peak.  For what is basically a general history of chemistry, it would be nice to see where the subject went in its mature form.


I am slowly trying to make my way through some of the old Greek and Roman sources.  Juvenal isn’t exactly a historian, but I decided to try my luck with him.  Some of the lines are famous:

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” – Who guards the guards themselves?

“panem et circenses” – Bread and circuses.

“Mens sana in corpore sano” – a healthy mind in a healthy body

It all seems so high brow!  I wasn’t really expecting the constant stream of sexual insults that fills up the rest of it.  He does tackle big issues: poverty, morality, immigration (he’s not a fan of Greeks), wealth and class; but he doesn’t pull many punches.  Some of the homophobic bits in there are particularly shocking (and intended to be so).  It’s actually quite an enjoyable read (I have Peter Green’s translation for Penguin Classics) but probably not for the fainthearted.

Line In The Sand by James Barr

51edrh7kngl-_sx326_bo1204203200_I couldn’t help but compare this book to Robert Fisk’s epic The Great War For Civilisation.  James Barr’s book covers the conflict in the Middle East from the Anglo-French meetings in the first world war up to Israeli independence in 1948.  Fisk’s book featured his experiences of the Russian and American wars in Afghanistan, the Gulf War, Iraq, the Algerian civil war, Israel, Syria, and whatever bits of Lebanon that didn’t make it into his previous book, Pity the Nation.

Fisk’s book is much more personal.  There may be flaws or mistakes, but he is passionate, opinionated, and well informed.  It is a devastating read in places.  A chapter into his father’s experience with a firing squad in World War One provides context.  Jumping from the Armenian Genocide, to torture in Algeria and then to his own investigations into arms manufacturers – it’s not a light read.  It is however very, very engrossing.

James Barr’s book has a lighter tone (most things would in comparison to Fisk) and a tendency to focus on historical character, with the distance that seventy plus years can give.  It reads like a disaster slow unfolding (especially since we know the current state of things), but there are easier moments (the eccentricities of Orde Wingate or the adventures of T.E Lawrence).  Both books have a running theme of mismanagement from the western powers – uninformed decisions, petty diplomacy and careerist politicians and bureaucrats who have landed the role and can’t wait to leave (mixed with the occasional maverick fighting for their own pet cause).

The distance makes Line In The Sand an easier read, and it may have been easier for Barr to write, but ultimately it is a sad prequel to the modern situation in the region.  Both books are well written and even handed accounts of the 20th (and 21st) century history of the region, and definitely worth reading.