Non-Fiction Reviews


Backyard Ballistics
Build Potato Cannons, Paper Match Rockets, Cincinnati Fire Kites, Tennis Ball Mortars and more Dynamite Devices

(2001) William Gurnstelle, Chicago Review Press, 8.99 / US$16.99, trd pbk, 169 pp, ISBN 1-556-52375-0

This is too delightful to miss. Indeed we are little late with this one which we only caught by accident: our Simon just got it for his 39th birthday, but reproductive biology and an imminent house move got in the way of his reviewing it himself. Essentially this book does what it says on the can. It is home-based applied chemistry and physics to ballistics. Yes, you too can get objects from 'a' to 'b' with the aid of a few household items and materials...

If you are one of Concat's science regulars then quite possibly back at school you belonged to that select band known internationally as the... 'back bench bucket chemists!'.   They are, that intrepid troop that knew no fear in carving off wedges of sodium metal, or who delighted in the Goldschmidt thermite reaction where temperatures reached a breezy 3,500 degrees C to produce aluminium. If so then this book is for you. (Though no thermite here, so no back yard China Syndrome.)

With chapters entitled 'Back Porch Rocketry (Paper Match Rocket, Hydro Pump Rocket and Pneumatic Missile)' and 'Greek Fire and the Catapult' you get the idea as to what this is all about. Using bangs and various forms of releasing copious energy to move objects through the air, so to exclaim: "Is it a bird, is it a plane?" Nope, it's a science experiment. And, yes, this is educational. There are numerous text boxes and sections on science such as 'explosives' 'Newton's laws', 'Alfred Nobel' and so forth. Indeed one regular chapter section is 'What's going on'. There are even sections on 'making a protractor' and 'ideas for further study'. Yes, these devices may soar but you can make them do so both with 'style' and precision.

The connection with SF and pseudo science is not lost. Apparently back in 1946 some picnickers, one cool still night, came up with the idea of Cincinnati fire and the results were mistaken for a UFO. Well, that's the story anyway, and it leads to a text box on the Montgolfiers' balloon.

Worried that this might be a tad overboard? Well fear not, there are frequent safety tips. Having said that the regular chapter sections entitled 'Trouble shooting' might be misnomered. Who knows? Who cares? This book is great fun for kids of all ages. Indeed one previous reviewer said, 'One is tempted to dub it "the official manual for real boys'." Most apt.

B&W photos and line diagrams illuminate the projects described and most items needed for construction are readily available. However some are not. There is some sparking device that appears common in the US but which our Simon can't get in the UK. (He's currently thinking about importing a few and may sell a couple on e-bay. I have visions now of having to have a whip-round the rest of the Concat team to raise his bail if up for WMD charges. I can see Blair in the House now saying that they weren't in Iraq after all but being manufactured in the English midlands...). Whatever, I look forward to a future invitation to Simon's mission control just prior to the next Great British UFO invasion scare...

Note: Don't be put off by the US publisher as it is available from UK Amazon and was still in print in 2005.

Jonathan Cowie


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