17 April 2007


Guest posted by Lakshmi.
(a British school student, age 14 at the time of posting)

This isn’t a book about computing or computers, but computers and computing are behind everything that happens in it. It’s a really cool book, even though my English teacher lent it to me. In fact, it’s the second book in a series (the first one, Time’s Eye, is cool too, but doesn’t belong in this review).

The sun is going to flare out and destroy everything on the Earth - not just humans but all life, even bacteria. Mostly, the book is about how this happened and how people try to prevent it. You don’t have to know anything about the science or the computing to enjoy it, but you pick them up along the way without realising you’re learning them.

There’s this weird genius on the moon who uses computers to do a load of maths to let everyone know that the sun is going to flare. That’s one of the ways computing comes into it, because he builds something called a computer model which lets him visualise what’s going to happen to the sun. I didn’t know about computer models before, and you don’t have to know about them, but I got really interested and read about them. His model doesn’t only tell him what’s going to happen though - he runs it backwards, as well, and figures out why it’s going to happen. Then you get a different sort of computer model, and that shows how a huge planet like Jupiter was catapaulted across billions of kilometres of space using gravity wells (I didn’t know what gravity wells were either - that’s another cool idea I learned from this book and then looked up afterwards).

But there’s other sorts of computing, too, not just maths and stuff. The internet has sort of grown up, and become an artificial intelligence, and been recognised as a legal person called Aristotle after an ancient Greek bloke. Then there’s another internet on the moon, and that’s not so big or complicated but it’s intelligent too and it’s called Thales. And finally there’s the huge sunshade they build to protect the earth and it has to be run by a big intelligent computer as well, so that becomes a person called Athena.

I don’t think I’m ever going to be an astronomer, or a physicist, or an army officer or a weird genius, or a mathematician. But this book made me realise that you don’t have to be a scientist to learn science and find it exciting, and that maths isn’t just boring numbers it can be used to do and understand all sort of exciting stuff. I can be someone who understands what those people are talking about. For instance, I stopped ignoring my maths teacher, and started talking to him, and he explained several things in the book using a computer. I was able to watch the big planet being catapaulted across space, and I could change things to see how they affected where the planet went. And my physics teacher used a computer to show me what Lagrange points are. (The big intelligent sunshade had to be on a Lagrange Point, where there is no gravity - there are five Lagrange Points round every planet or moon, and they’re an amazing idea, you can hover on them with almost no fuel, and I understand three of them now even if I couldn’t do the maths myself yet). You can find out about Lagrange points at Wikipedia

Because of this book I’ve started paying attention in maths, physics and biology, and found that they are exciting if you listen to what they are about instead of just assuming that they are boring. And I’ve started learning about computers, and what they can do, and the science programs that help me to learn about how the universe works.

One of the things I like is that several of the important characters are women, not just men like most books: the American president, the European prime minister, the British Astronomer Royal. So if you’re a girl you can see a future in this sort of exciting science for yourself even if the world doesn’t end! One of the women, an army officer called Bisesa Dutt who is the main person in book one and then helps to save the world in book two, is also British Asian like me which is better still.

There’s one slightly gross bit, in the middle, giving too much information about how you have sex in orbit, but it’s only one page and you can skip over it without missing anything.


[originally posted on Scientific Computing World's education pages]

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