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review 2018-04-28 14:36
Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War - Brandon R. Brown

Every now and then I am looking for an interesting book about a famous scientist and this time it was Max Planck, founder of the quantum mechanics. I was pretty unaware about his history except being German and an important physicist. I'm glad I learned about his fascinating life as well.

Told in an interesting format, where basically the last year(s) of the second world war are the starting point from each chapter which is then also looking back at the rest of Planck's long life. This adds a suspense that I haven't encountered a lot in non-fiction. However, there is also a downside. Some facts were repeated a couple of times too much which made it a bit repetitive.

Would recommend though.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

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review 2017-12-17 00:00
The Planck Factor
The Planck Factor - Debbi Mack When I got The Planck Factor, I thought I was getting a thriller with a solid science base. What I feel like I got instead was the insufficiently scripted screen play version of a good book. A mass market ‘science’ thriller for people who think that science is a word the CDC shouldn’t be saying.*

The Planck Factor had a few issues that really could have been rectified with stronger editing. The needless repetition, for one, got on my nerves rather swiftly. “Millions, even billions” was said a stupid amount of times. And while I understand what the author was trying to do in working the story within a story, it never quite worked for me. It stopped feeling clever and just started feeling too convenient. Actually, that “too convenient” was something that I felt with more than just the double story element.

I’ll admit that The Planck Factor irritated me, but I’m adult enough to admit that its mostly because I didn’t get what I was expecting rather than the story being just outright bad. The story was middling. I made it to the halfway point easily, but after that my interested petered out and it became me forcing myself through it. When you’ve read stuff from authors like James Rollins who are perfect at mixing facts and fiction in a way that keep your head spinning (at least until book 4 or so, at which point everything is just a repackaged version of the previous book), your standards for the genre are probably a bit higher than a book like this can possibly live up to.

Jessica was my favorite part of The Planck Factor. Even if I didn’t particularly care for the story she was involved in, I did feel sorry for her. So, that’s saying something. The dialogue was, whilst not exciting, believable enough. And finally, to end on a positive note, I have to say that the (very) end did surprise me a bit. Because that character is on the page so little, I had basically forgotten about him. (Had to flip back to the first chapter again just to verify!)

Overall, I can't recommend it, and can't say I'll ever seek out the writer's works again in the future, BUT I can see how some readers enjoyed it.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from Netgalley for review consideration.

*I shamelessly borrowed the first half of this line from Michael Hicks when we were talking about the book.
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review 2017-05-20 19:48
For readers with a good attention span who enjoy Hitchcockian suspense set within the world of science and books about writers
The Planck Factor - Debbi Mack

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team and thank Rosie Amber and the author for providing me with an ARC copy of this book that I freely decided to review.

This thriller (technothriller according to Amazon) tells a complex story, or rather, tells several not so complex stories in a format that can make readers’ minds spin. A thriller about a student who decides, on a dare, to write a genre book (a thriller) and whose life becomes itself another thriller, one that seems to mix spies, conspiracies, terrorism, the possibility of the end of the world, and it all relates to quantum physics. (Or, as she describes it in the book: “…a suspense story with a hint of science fiction and a touch of espionage at its heart.”) The parallelisms between the story of Jessica Evans (the protagonist) and that of her fictional character, Alexis, become more convoluted and puzzling as the book progresses and the astounding coincidences will ring some alarm bells until we get to the end and… It is a bit difficult to talk about the book in depth without giving away any spoilers, but I’ll try my hardest.

This book will be particularly interesting for writers, not only because of its storytelling technique (talk about metafiction) but also because of the way the main protagonist (a concept difficult to define but Jessica is the one who occupies the most pages in the book and her story is told in the first person) keeps talking (and typing) about books and writing. No matter how difficult and tough things get, she has to keep writing, as it helps her think and it also seems to have a therapeutic effect on her. It is full of insider jokes and comments familiar to all of us who write and read about writing, as it mentions and pokes fun at rules (“Show, don’t tell. Weave in backstory. Truisms, guides, rules, pointers—call them what you will… And adverbs. Never use an adverb.”) and also follows and at the same time subverts genre rules (we have a reluctant heroine, well, two, varied MacGuffins and red herrings, mysteries, secrets, traitors and unexpected villains… and, oh yes, that final twist).

Each one of the chapters starts with the name of the person whose point of view that chapter is told about —apart from Alexis’s story, told in the third person, written in different typography, and usually clearly introduced, there are chapters from the point of view of two men who follow Jessica, so we know more than her, another rule to maintain suspense, and also from the point of view of somebody called Kevin, who sounds pretty suspicious— and apart from Jessica’s, all the rest are in the third person, so although the structure is somewhat complex and the stories have similarities and a certain degree of crossover, there is signposting, although one needs to pay attention. Overall, the book’s structure brought to my mind Heart of Darkness (where several frames envelop the main story) or the Cabinet of Dr Caligary (although it is less dark than either of those).

As you read the story, you’ll probably wonder about things that might not fit in, plot holes, or events that will make you wonder (the usual trope of the amateur who finds information much easier than several highly specialised government agencies is taken to its extremes, and some of the characteristics of the writing can be amusing or annoying at times, although, whose story are we reading?) but the ending will make you reconsider the whole thing. (I noticed how the characters never walked, they: “slid out”, “shimmied out”, “pounded”, “bounded down the steps”, “clamored down”…) As for the final twist, I suspected it, but I had read several reviews by other members of the team and kept a watchful eye on the proceedings. I don’t think it will be evident to anybody reading the story totally afresh.

The novel is too short for us to get more than a passing understanding and connection with the main character, especially as a big part of it is devoted to her fictional novel, (although the first person helps) and there are so many twists, secrets and agents and double-agents that we do not truly know any of the secondary characters well enough to care. Action takes precedence over psychological depth and although we might wonder about alliances, betrayals and truths and lies, there are no complex motivations or traumas at play.

Due to the nature of the mystery, the novel will also be of interest to those who enjoy stories with a scientific background, particularly Physics (although I don’t know enough about quantum physics to comment on its accuracy). A detailed knowledge of the subject is not necessary to follow the book but I suspect it will be particularly amusing to those who have a better understanding of the theory behind it. (The author does not claim expertise and thanks those who helped her with the research in her acknowledgements). The book also touches on serious subjects, including moral and ethical issues behind scientific research and the responsibility of individuals versus that of the state regarding public safety. But do not let that put you off. The book is a short, fast and action-driven story that requires a good attention span and will be particularly enjoyed by writers and readers who enjoy complex, puzzle-like mysteries, or more accurately, those who like stories that are like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes.

I enjoyed this book that is clever and knowing, and I’d recommend in particular to readers who are also writers or enjoy books about writers, to those who like conspiracies, spies and mysteries, especially those with a backstory of science and physics, and to people who prefer plot-driven books and who love Hitchcock, Highsmith and Murder She Wrote.


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review 2015-08-03 20:49
Planck: Brilliance Broken
Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War - Brandon R. Brown

In this biography of Max Planck, Brandon Brown weaves a spellbinding tale of both genius and naivete. Each chapter starts during the war, World War Two, then flashes back to an earlier period as a way of juxtaposing both Planck's drive (from his youth and middle age) and the process of being broken during the war. While this style may initially seem strange it is very effective and after a few chapters it creates a flow of its own. The discussions of science and math are kept at a sufficient level to understand why some of the ideas were considered bizarre if not outright insane but the discussions don't get bogged down in the science or math to the point that the book becomes about Planck's science rather than his life. Those elements, his science and his life, are both highlighted and brought together to create the sum which is Planck's legacy.

I highly recommend this book for those interested in the human side of scientific discovery as well as those interested in World War Two. The writing is strong and keeps the reader interested, so I also believe this would be enjoyable for someone who simply likes reading a good biography.

Reviewed from an ARC made available by the publisher via NetGalley.

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review 2015-04-02 00:00
Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War
Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War - Brandon R. Brown I got a copy of this from Net Galley.

In summarizing what most of us know about Planck, Brown described my knowledge pretty accurately. I'm a physicist, so I know about his most famous scientific work. And that he had a moustache. That's about it. Most people don't even know that. But he led a fascinating life, both scientifically and historically. His legacy is problematic because he chose to stay in Germany through the Third Reich, famously pledging his allegiance to it in 1933 when so many scientists, including Einstein, were fleeing. But he also never really accepted Nazi ideas, so it's a complicated story of trying to change the system from the inside, or maybe just clinging to the idea that science is completely separate from politics, despite all the evidence to the contrary, or maybe just plain cowardice. Or some combination of the above. But mainly it's a story of a man who saw himself as German and could imagine leaving, believing that this craziness must pass, if he could only last until then.

Einstein credited Planck with being the originator of quantum mechanics, and although not every agrees with that singular characterization, certainly he was crucial to the development of that branch of physics. Planck was already established and serving as a journal editor when Einstein was writing his early papers, and Planck could credibly be said to have discovered Einstein (though surely this was inevitable). Planck was also famous for championing the career of the young Lise Meitner, who was an early nuclear physics theorist, narrowly missing out on the Nobel Prize (but she does have an element named after her). When quantum mechanics was the hot new thing, enthusiastically developed by a group of physicists in their 20s at a breakneck speed, Planck was a well-known voice calling out for caution and conservatism, the old guard questioning the difficult ideas of the new. He died in 1947 at the advanced age of 89. This is remarkable, especially considering where and when he lived: he survived WWI and the starvation associated with it, the terrible economic times of the 1920s, and the rise of the Third Reich and subsequent WWII with all of its bombings. He buried a wife and four adult children: two daughters who died after childbirth from poor nutrition and health associated with hard times, one son killed on the battlefields of WWI, and one son who was executed by Hitler's regime for his supporting role in the 1944 attempt on Hitler's life. His remaining child, shared with his second wife, got stuck behind the Iron Curtain in Berlin after the war.

The book is full of delightful stories. It is not what I would call a historical biography, though. Usually historical biographies are concerned with the timeline of the subject's life, and Brown seems to have much more concern for the relationships and ideas in Planck's life than a straight development of events in any sense of the word. The chapters begin during WWII, near the end of Planck's life, beginning with the trial of his son and ending not long after the end of the war. A very short timeline indeed. The rest of his story is told as asides, almost. Not flashbacks per se, but background. In the first few chapters, a complete outline of Planck's life appears, although hung with few details and little explanation. Then, as the chapters proceed, Brown goes back and fills in pieces of this outline, here and there, as it suits him thematically. We end up with a pretty good picture of Planck's life, but the story-telling can be a bit jarring. It is as if a very knowledge-able person sat down to tell the story of Planck and WWII, but kept getting distracted. Also, the reader should have some sort of historical scaffolding to fit these details into: some recognition of early physicists' names, the names of the principal players in the Third Reich and principle events of the wars, and some German history. The book is not long on context.

Brown, then, does not tell stories like a historian, in context and in a straight line. But he does tell stories like a scientist, with a focus on ideas and relationships. And he's quite good at explaining the necessary basic science, including relativity and quantum mechanics.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this book. But I would principally recommend it to readers who already have a working understanding of the history of this era, and wish to fit Planck's story into that era. I'm not sure that my undergraduate students would be ready for this book. Not because the science is advanced, but because the history is not fully fleshed out.
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