Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

Book review: Brunel by LTC Rolt

January 30, 2014

LTC_ROLTShort review
Excellent read on 2 levels: the actual biography is really enjoyable and authoritative because of Rolt’s access to Brunel’s papers; and the introduction describing how Rolt’s hatchet job of John Scott Russell (the “other” engineer on the failed SS Great Eastern project) is probably unfair is fascinating from a historical/interpretation point of view. Overall, I came from a position of relative ignorance about Brunel’s life and work and was surprised at how unsuccessful Brunel was a commercial engineer (though his innovation is almost unrivalled).

Long review
Somehow, I have now been a lecturer at Brunel University for 3.5 years. It seems like only yesterday that I was starting this blog as a postdoc at the University of Manchester. In those 3.5 years my responsibilities have expanded (at home and at work) so, as I said in my last post, blogging has taken a backseat, which is a shame as I quite enjoy it.

The point of a brief autobiographical introduction is that my knowledge of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s life and work was relatively low when I took the job here at Brunel University. I knew he was an official, BBC advocated “Great Briton” but that was about it.

I did have a little go at addressing the conflict of being a climate scientist at a university named after one of the fathers of the Industrial Revolution on my work blog recently (and in a talk for the London Science Festival) but I still felt that I really needed to find out more.

So I picked up a relatively old biography – LTC Rolt’s Isambard Knigdon Brunel, first publsihed in 1957 – which is still considered authoritative as Rolt had unprecedented access to the Brunel archive.

I’m glad I did. It’s really well written and has a nice mix of quotes from contemporary documents and descriptions of the engineering projects alongside important personal events. It flows really well too, which is surprising given the temporal overlap of much of Brunel’s work: I’ve tried to summarise this overlap in a little timeline that you can see below.

A timeline of Brunel’s major projects. Bridges and tunnels are shown in blue; railways in black; ships in red; and other projects in green. Start and end dates are not definitive. I’ve washed out the shading where a project continued without Brunel’s intense contribution. Brunel died in 1859.

A timeline of Brunel’s major projects. Bridges and tunnels are shown in blue; railways in black; ships in red; and other projects in green. Start and end dates are not definitive. I’ve washed out the shading where a project continued without Brunel’s intense contribution. Brunel died in 1859.

The timeline also demonstrates how Brunel’s work was very intense (in a relatively short life – 1806-1859) and covered a wide range of areas: tunnels, bridges, railways, ships and other projects.

As an academic, I was quite interested in Brunel’s “impact”. What surprised me was that relative few of his projects were successful commercially. His ships were all failures commercially. The Thames Tunnel was a death trap that was never used for its intended purpose. The Great Western Railway’s legacy is somewhat tarnished by the “Gauge Wars”.

Perhaps this is a harsh summary of his work but it made me feel a bit closer to him: he wasn’t a great businessman but he was a successful innovator and researcher. His ideas were ahead of their time and were difficult to monetise in that period. His longer term legacy was much more important and changed the way that engineering was done globally.

Perhaps the most interesting passages in the book are those relating to John Scott Russell, who worked on one of Brunel’s biggest failures: the SS Great Eastern. Rolt tries to argue that Scott Russell was the villain in that piece and deliberately tried to undermine Brunel’s ship. However, the excellent introduction (by RA Buchanan) highlights some of the flaws in Rolt’s argument and supposes that Rolt’s position was driven by his desire to absolve Brunel of the SS Great Eastern’s failure and was biased by the contents of the Brunel archives.

Overall, highly recommended reading.

Book review: Teaching What You Don’t Know by Therese Huston

March 27, 2012

Click to find it on Amazon

Short version

Brilliant, even if you know what you’re talking about. Loads of ideas for making university teaching and learning far more enjoyable for everyone.

Long version

So, the first module that I’ve had to coordinate on my own turned out to be something that only overlaps slightly with my research area – I got the Sustainable Development module. In this respect, the title of TWYDK jumped out at me as a potentially useful resource. UPDATE (28/03/2012): when I first posted this I didn’t mention that the book is based on American universities – I am assuming that analysis and ideas equally applicable elsewhere.

I suppose I could’ve just shown the brilliant xkcd comic on this topic (see below) and called it a day but I’m not sure that the students would have appreciated that.

Joking aside, the prevalence of academics teaching at university level on subjects that they have little or no expertise is something that Huston discusses at length from the perspective of the teacher and the student. The argument that I most associated with was that for “survey courses” or “cutting edge courses” (which I hope my SD module was) the experts are many different people for different topics and these topics develop very fast. In that respect, having a module led by someone with only limited experience in the area is not much of a problem.


I decided quite early on to go down the Problem Based Learning route for my module as I’d helped teach on a module at the University of Manchester that used the PBL model and I’d seen many of the students really engage with it. Huston also recommends this as a useful method of delivery for “content novices” as the key is defining interesting and relevant questions rather than compiling hours of lecture material.

As I’m now approaching the end of my module for the first year I’ve run it, I’m glad I did it this way and definitely feel that TWYDK gave me a bit more confidence to try something beyond a standard “Module = 12 x lectures + 1 coursework + 1 exam” model. I think that most of the students have taken to it as well and I’ve jotted down more ideas from TWYDK to improve the module again next year.

More than just TWYDK

Whilst going through the book, however, I started to pick up ideas for other lectures I give on topics that I do know well. In some cases these were very simple ideas but maybe being a “content expert” means that you ignore the little tricks to try to get the students to actually “learn” in favour of just delivering all your hard-earned wisdom.

I suspect that I engaged with this book because it tackled a specific problem but, in the process of reading it, made me think about more general teaching points. This is probably where TWYDK is such a success where more textbook-like higher education manuals barely get opened (you know, like that one with the blue stripe across the middle of the cover and pristine spine 😉 that you see in most lecturers’ offices, mine included).

Things I wasn’t so keen on…

Well, most of the book is based on a series of interviews with university teachers, I think Huston says that it’s around 20 interviews, I could be wrong. Whilst this set off my anecdote vs. data alarm bells I suppose a good teaching idea is still a good teaching idea so I’m willing to let it go! And other parts of the book are based on more robust stats so that made me happy.

My only other point of concern is that the book just kind of ends. In the introduction Huston suggests dipping in and out of chapters as you need to know stuff but I found that it flowed quite well and read it cover-to-cover. The only disappointment with this is that there isn’t a chapter bringing it all together. (In fact, the final chapter is advice for administrators, which I still read and found useful as it gave me a different perspective on my contribution to the department teaching load.) Still, who am I to talk? I couldn’t be bothered to think up a decent end to this blog post.


Pages: 330
Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN-10: 0674035801

Book review: Merchants of Doubt

May 5, 2011

Short review

Excellent examination of the background and tactics used by “experts” to delay the implementation of regulation on important scientific issues. Journalists in particular should have a read but I’d think it would be interesting and comprehensible to anyone.

Long review

This is a somewhat worrying story about a small group of scientists with a disproportionate level of influence.

They successfully spread doubt about issues as wide-ranging as smoking, defence, acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion, second-hand smoke and global warming. Their veneer of authority, despite a lack of relevant experience, appears to have been enough to manage it.

The book is very well researched and extensive references are provided. That said, the style and accessibility of the book remains at the “popular” end of the spectrum, which is good. There’s a website accompanying the book with many of the key documents cited in the book.

Most of the story takes place in the US but the lessons are not exclusive to that region.

There’s an awful lot of issues that come up from the book (media responsibility, motivation of the scientists in question, funding sources, ideology, scientists influencing policy) but I’ll just look at a couple of things here.

The Fairness Doctrine and journalistic balance

One theme that crops up over and over again is the insistence from the “doubt merchants” that they deserve equal time in media debates and discussions. This is really important and, I think, shows that this book should be required reading for journalists working on controversially perceived subjects. Because, as we see time and time again in the book, the controversy is often not based on the science.

I agree that there should be a responsibility placed on the media to be unbiased but, equally, journalists shouldn’t be pressured into presenting a debate as ongoing and/or equal simply because they have not researched the topic.

Or, as Oreskes and Conway put it:

“Balance was interpreted, it seems, as giving equal weight to both sides, rather than giving accurate weight to both sides.”

(Of course, this argument works both ways and also implies that scientists do not communicate well with journalists.)


One thing I had a little trouble with in the book was following the separate strands of the story. Whilst the 5 main strands occur pretty much one after another, almost one per decade, there is considerable overlap. It gets quite hard to follow the stories as the characters are involved with more than one strand at any particular moment. I suppose Oreskes and Conway could have overcome this by focusing on the “Merchants” but that would probably be more confusing. Of course this problem only arises because it’s the same people getting involved in each issue.

What might have been nice, though, is if the authors produced an interactive timeline with book, something a bit like this:

I knocked this up pretty quickly but it gives an idea of the overlap of the different strands. I chose the start and ends points based on key events described in the book. I

Sustainable solutions

This isn’t really something that comes up in the book but it was certainly where my train of thought kept going. (This may, however, be because I’m currently planning a new module for one of our courses on sustainable development.)

So, for action to be “sustainable” it needs to be analysed from (at least) 3 interlinking perspectives.

The triple bottom line

Ideally your solution falls in the centre of the Venn diagram but compromises in one direction or the other are probably necessary.

It seems to me that, in the same way that radical, back-to-the-land environmentalists would sacrifice the economy and technology for the sake of the environment, many of the key figures in the book show a willingness to endanger the environment and social development for the sake of the free market. I assume the reason that we think the “doubt merchants” solutions are seen as more feasible than equally single minded environmentalists are that they have a veneer of respectability and authority from academic careers. However, their solutions run the same risks of having few winners and potentially many losers.

How do we get into the middle section of the diagram then?

I don’t know. I’m kind of interested in all three areas but I only really know anything about a relatively small area of environmental science.

Monbiot covers some of this problem, from the perspective of just one area, here.

Other reviews for Merchants of Doubt

Gavin Schmidt in Chemical & Engineering News focusing mostly on the role of scientists.

Robin McKie in the Guardian focusing on the attack on environmentalism.

UPDATE: Naomi Oreskes has recently won the Climate Change Communicator of 2011 award from George Mason University. On the weight of this book alone, it is well deserved.