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Rob Hardy "Rob Hardy" (Columbus, Mississippi USA)

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Bang! The Complete History of the Universe
Bang! The Complete History of the Universe
by Brian May
Edition: Hardcover

43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Starmaking Machinery, 31 Dec. 2006
It has taken 13.7 billion years, but the Universe has finally produced a coffee-table quality book to commemorate the Big Bang and its consequences. _Bang! The Complete History of the Universe_ (Carlton Books) by Brian May, Patrick Moore, and Chris Lintott is not massive, as coffee-table books go, but its big format is perfect for the dramatic sorts of pictures that the Hubble Space Telescope or the larger Earth-bound telescopes can give us. It isn't just pictures, however. The text does an exemplary job of covering a huge amount of information. Necessarily, in 190 pages laid over with photos, details are skipped; on one page are both the disaster of the Permian Extinction 250 million years ago and the Cretaceous Extinction (wiping out the dinosaurs) 65 million years ago. There is the most detail in the earliest pages of the book, dealing with the events before around 700 million years ago, when there started to be discrete objects like galaxies that we could have actually seen, had we been there at that time. (In a sense, we do see them at that time, as the Hubble's lovely deep field images can show.) This is also the part of the book that makes the least sense to those of us who are stuck in a Newtonian world. There are books with fuller explanations of the strangeness of the Universe immediately after the Big Bang, but none quite so much fun.

For fun is obviously part of the trip the three authors have taken, and it starts right on the cover, which above the book's title shows a huge, glowing, fragmented fireball, obviously the Big Bang in progress. "Our cover artwork is for fun only. There is no suggestion that any part of the Big Bang ever looked like this." Not only that, but it could never have been seen at such a distance, because there was no such distance; space did not exist except within that Bang. There are still gaps in our understanding of the Big Bang and how it produced all we are and all we see. "We must remember that it is impossible to prove a theory, and all one can hope to do is ensure it is consistent with all the available evidence." The evidence isn't all in, and they remind us, "...we would be amazed if in a few years time our book would not need to be substantially re-written." Given all the confirmatory data, it is hard to imagine that the big picture given here would be in error in any large way. After the main text of the book, there are a useful glossary, capsule biographies of the modern astronomers and cosmologists who have added to our understanding of the Big Bang, and a basic primer on practical astronomy that includes good directions about the topic "How to become an astronomer". This is upbeat, compared to the final chapter which has to do with the end of the Universe.

Much has been made in the British press about the personalities who produced the book, although _Bang!_ would easily stand on its own without famous authors. The least known is Chris Lintott, a working astrophysicist who assists Sir Patrick Moore in presenting a famous monthly BBC show _The Sky at Night_, which is now the longest-running science program in the world. Moore himself, because of his show and his hundreds of fiction and nonfiction books, is possibly the world's best known astronomer. The surprise author, for those who do star-gazing of the celebrity rather than astronomical type, is Brian May, who as a kid was inspired by one of Moore's books to take up astronomy. He was a founding member of the famous rock group Queen and a guitarist of some note. May was doing his PhD studies in interplanetary dust when Queen took off (he wrote such songs as "We Will Rock You"). He is currently updating and completing his thesis in between musical activities, although he does already have an honorary degree of Doctor of Science. If a little celebrity power gets people interested in the book, and interested in the huge amount of scientific thinking it reflects, I think it makes up for the additions to our culture made by, say, Britney Spears. _Bang!_ is a wonderful summary for adults and would be a terrific book for any reading young person.

Confessions of a Showman: My Life in the Circus
Confessions of a Showman: My Life in the Circus
by Gerry Cottle
Edition: Hardcover

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It Is All Quite A Show, 14 Oct. 2006
There are plenty of stories about the boy who ran away to join the circus, but few such actual boys. Gerry Cottle is one. He had had a British middle class upbringing, and was sent to a fine grammar school, where "I had done as little work as possible, bluffed my way through every test and bunked a day's school wherever I could in order to work on my circus skills." And so in 1961 at age fifteen he ran away, leaving a message to his parents, "Please do not under any circumstances try to find me. I have gone forever. I have joined the circus. You do not understand me... I have gone." He had at age eight formed his ultimate ambition, to own the biggest circus Britain had ever seen, and he was to make good on that goal, and many others besides. He tells a colorful life story (with documentary maker Helen Batten) in _Confessions of a Showman: My Life in the Circus_ (Vision), a lively warts-and-all autobiography that tells his unique story from elephant muck to big top success, with world travel and cocaine addiction thrown in.

Cottle had taught himself juggling with fruits from his mother's kitchen, and his dad even encouraged performance in front of his Masonic lodge when Cottle was thirteen. He has a memory of his upbringing as simply being a period when he was forced to wear gray, and when the circus came to town, he got to see colors, sequins, and pretty girls. Having left home, he took up in the Roberts Brothers Circus, where among other things he played the rear end of a pantomime horse. He had other menial tasks, cleaning up after the elephants being the worst one; the circus was grubby hard work, and he loved it. He loved the companionship and pestered all the circus staff to tell him stories about their lives. There was an enormous problem for him, though; he was a "flattie" or a "josser", circus slang for an outsider. The big circuses were family affairs, and as a josser, Cottle was not going to get to be a performer. He worked on his juggling, and aspired to be a clown, but the family frankly told him, "You'll never be a clown, you're only a tent man." He went on to a smaller circus that was less picky, and got to perform, but realized that as much as he enjoyed showing off, especially to the girls, he was not the most talented of ring acts. He could only be big in the circus by owning and directing one, and he did get training in important administrative details like how to put up posters (put them in the main streets and concentrate on the better class of shops, and also enjoy the kick of putting your own poster over that of your competitor). But he was still a josser, and he needed the contacts and cooperation of an established circus family: "I was only going to get this by becoming one of them."

The way to do that was to marry in, and that is just what he did. He first saw Betty Fossett as he was working in her family's circus. She did a lasso act and she showed off her performing dogs. She was, however, only twelve. He pursued her avidly, and was in love with her despite the admitted attraction of becoming part of the family. They moved together into a caravan by the time she was sixteen, and they eventually married. It was a tempestuous relationship, complicated by a difficult life on the road and his womanizing and drug use. Before it wound up, the marriage did produce three daughters, who became, respectively, a juggler, a trapeze artist, and a trick rider. Cottle expresses enormous fondness for his daughters, and also for the son who has gone into non-circus public relations.

He has no fondness for animal rights protesters: "Generally they were a filthy lot. Lots of unemployed people and students with nothing better to do than to stir up a fuss." They were no problem when he was starting his career, but in the seventies the tide turned and towns which had welcomed the circus would no longer allow it to set up. At a time when a circus was not thought to be a circus without lions and elephants, the performers felt their whole traditional way of life was being questioned. Cottle was exasperated that giving the animals the demanded exercise cages did not satisfy any protesters (and the lions, being particularly lazy, just lay around as they always did and never got any exercise). He delights in telling about the absurdities of the protests. A week before they were to set up in Dorset, he got a letter from the Weymouth town council to say that unless the picture of King Kong on the posters were removed, the circus could not be set up. Not only was there no real King Kong, there was no real gorilla, only a clown in a gorilla costume. Towns famous for their horseracing protested that circus horses were abused. In one routine, clowns lifted the lid of a dish to reveal a live duck in an otherwise animal-free show, but the local council of Haringey refused to have any live animal performing. Cottle and his assistants went out and counted all they places (especially Chinese restaurants) in Haringey that served duck, and rode a publicity wave of headlines like "You can eat a duck in Haringey but you can't watch it perform!" There were some such publicity successes but eventually keeping animals in the acts was more trouble than it was worth. Cottle thinks that this reflects a prejudice against circuses that is a particular form of English snobbery. "In the rest of Europe circus is seen as a precious art form, which is ironic when circus started in Britain. Here we are seen as barely better than gypsies, and we all know how they are treated."

Cottle moved on to the Circus of Horrors, which was a big success with young people, and to fun fairs, and his current project of the caves and the amusement park at Wookey Hole. He has been clean of cocaine for several years; his book has many harrowing stories about the effects of his habit on his business and on his family life. Cottle, now that he is an elder statesman for the circus, is no longer running a circus, but he has, after many falls, landed on his feet. There are plenty of passages of sadness, financial reverses, and self recrimination in his book, but overall it is a rollicking memoir of a unique life. Readers will learn the vital nature of candy floss (that's cotton candy to us Americans) to make or break a circus's budget. There are details of how to transport a circus overseas, with all the animals, as Cottle responded in 1975 to the decree of the Sultan of Oman: "He wants a British circus in Oman in December." (What simpler times those were.) On another trip he and his circus found themselves in the middle of the Iranian revolution. Like any showman, he gives descriptions that leave the reader wishing to be able to see the thing described, like the "hot-air balloon father and daughter act which consisted of the balloon whirling around at an impossible speed and them falling out and their clothes falling off." He reveals the trick of how to stick one's head into a crocodile's mouth, but there is no trick that will let one escape from the greatest danger, the vile breath of the crocodile. He tells how he staged the worlds largest (_Guinness_-approved) custard pie fight, complete with two concrete mixers to make the custard. His book is a recounting of a romp of a life, full of odd events and funny stories. It's a great show.

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