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This is a book by Francis Spufford (ISBN: 0571214967) that is divided into six chapters each describing a British triumph of science and engineering since 1945.

The first chapter is about Britain's stillborn space program and its elegant orbital rocket, the Black Arrow. This was a well-balanced chapter that kept me riveted all the way through. It was obvious that it was very well researched and there was a lot of good political background information on Britain. This chapter is also peppered with some brilliant anecdotes - the one that particularly stuck in my mind was where Arthur C. Clarke wrote to C.S. Lewis to meet him to discuss their wildly differing views of space exploration (Lewis considered it an affront to God, while you'd be hard pressed to find a fiercer proponent of space exploration than Clarke). So they met at an Oxford pub (along with J. R. R. Tolkien who is brought along as backup by Lewis) and it turned out that their views were too different to debate so they just ended up getting pissed together. The Black Arrow had a lot in common with the Delta Clipper, a prototype for a SSTO (Single Stage To Orbit) spacecraft. Both had a small budget, used the latest technologies of the day to massively reduce weight, burnt their fuel so cleanly that there was almost no drive flame and both were cancelled. As an aside, it's possible to see an actual Black Arrow prototype at the Science Museum, London.

After that, the second chapter (concerning the development of Concorde) is a bit of a disappointment, since it veers sharply away from any interesting technical detail and focusses solely on the political and economic side of keeping Concorde in the air. There's nothing on Concorde's development apart from an interesting aside on the Vulcan jet bombers but even that is just an excuse to talk about Thatcher (they were used in the Falklands). It's not boring and I guess it does give a good bit of background but I was expecting more. A great anecdote about an SR-71 Blackbird spyplane patrolling over Cuba that has to move aside for Concorde makes for another good ending.

We're back on form with the third chapter in which we learn about the development of the seminal computer game Elite by two students at the University of Cambridge. A good blend of technical detail (great piece about the compression used to generate the thousands of star systems) and social commentary (amusing bit on the division between arts and science students) keeps it interesting even though detail on what the two students are actually like is scarce. It does a good job of capturing the excitement of the early period of home computers and it makes well the point that it was possible for a single person to do something amazing in the world of computers on their own.

The fourth is all about the analysis technique used by Vodafone to determine the optimum position to locate the base station for a cell. Again, nice blending of the global situation, the British political situation and a hefty chunk of the technology behind it all. It's a well rounded chapter that benefits from having a lot of input from the primary engineer behind the system. There is an eloquent ending to this chapter with a poetic ("poesis in Greek meant making") section on how science and engineering is an art.

Moving on to the fast-paced world of molecular biology and the Human Genome Project, the next chapter is how a British organisation stopped an American corporation from sequencing the genome and charging people for access (I'm oversimplifying this). This was an enjoyable chapter - we learn about the people involved, interesting parallels are drawn with the Industrial Revolution and there is a real sense of immediacy through the whole thing. And of course another melodramatic ending to it all.

The final chapter is about the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission to Mars, made all the more poignant as it appears at this point that it has failed. This has some good sections on the British attitude to the probe and Colin Pillinger, the head scientist of the project. It ends with a moving description of the probes descent to the Martian surface, which is a good ending to an excellent book.

I only had a couple of minor issues with the book. I felt that the book could have done with a couple of pages at the end summarising the fall and rise of British technology after the Industrial Revolution, rather than scattering them throughout the book. I also thought that the chapter on Concorde needed to focus less on the economics of the plane. For the most part, the author writes for a layperson in a very readable way, but sometimes he bandies around phrases ("Moore's Law" and "spysats" come to mind) that need a little more explanation. However, these are minor problems and the book is excellent and very much recommended to anyone interested in this sort of thing.

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