Reviews and Previews: The Unstoppables

Cloudy skies, freezing rain, and mechanical trouble couldn’t keep a pair of British fliers from crossing the Atlantic in an open-cockpit biplane.

John Alcock and Arthur Brown survived a not-so-pretty landing in an Irish bog. (NASM (SI Neg. #97-15205~pm))
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Soviet Strategic Aviation in the Cold War

By Yefim Gordon. Hikoki Publications through specialtypress.com, 2009. 272 pp., $56.95.

Yefim Gordon, who was born in the Soviet Union in 1950, chronicles Soviet aircraft development for almost

50 years, up until the breakup of the Union in 1991. The book features 500 photographs (most of them previously unpublished in the West) of such aircraft as the Tupolev Tu-160, which could carry 12 cruise missiles, and the gorgeously streamlined Tu-22, the first Soviet supersonic bomber.

 

Instant Egghead Guide:The Universe

By J.R. Minkel and Scientific American. St Martin’s Griffin, 2009. 221 pp., $14.99.

There’s an extended “Simpsons” couch gag in which after Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie scramble to the couch, the camera rockets backward through the roof and shoots through a layer of clouds, out of the atmosphere, past the solar system, the Kuiper Belt, the Milky Way galaxy, and finally the universe, which turns out to be an atom in Homer’s eye. (It’s a sendup of the famous 1968 film Powers of Ten, directed by designers Charles and Ray Eames.) That’s one way to think of this small paperback: a literary version of the Simpsons bit. In the Instant Egghead Guide, by J.R. Minkel and Scientific American (full disclosure: I contributed to SciAm for seven years or so), each spread covers a single topic, beginning with electrons, then moving toward ever-larger objects: atoms, elements, planets, and star clusters, etc.

Instant Egghead is like snack food for the mind: perfect for the subway, a little too involved for the traffic jam. Each spread cracks the topic into three sections: “The Basics,” to describe exactly what the topic is; “On the Frontier,” explaining what it all means; and “Cocktail Party Tidbits,” a few bullet-pointed fun facts. The clever tidbits might impress someone at a party honoring the recipients of the next MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants. At a recent shindig, I said in passing, “Researchers have used big magnets to levitate live frogs, grasshoppers, hazelnuts, tulips, and other organisms,” and…silence. But it was much more of a “The most abundant elements in the universe are hydrogen and helium” crowd.

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