Monday 24 March 2014

Course Review: Introduction to Forensic Science

Today I have author Jo Jenner as a guest to tell us about her experiences with the Introduction to Forensic Science course, offered by the University of Strathclyde via FutureLearn. FutureLearn is a part of the Open University, and offers free online courses, delivered by various universities, in many different subjects. Jo Jenner is an author who regularly blogs at or you can catch up with her on twitter @jojenner40 or on facebook!/jojennerauthor
Here's Jo...
Sitting at my desk drumming my fingers looking for inspiration, or procrastinating, as I believe the professionals call it, I stumbled across Future Learn and their plethora of on line courses or MOOCs. A MOOC is a massive open online course and is aimed at unlimited participants from anywhere in the world.
What better way to avoid writing my crime novel than spending six weeks following an introduction to forensic science. The main selling point was that the course could be completed with as little as three hours study per week. I completed the course with slightly less than that. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Did I get the most out of it? No.
The course was a mixture of videos, audio commentaries and links to articles that could be read to enhance and expand the course. Each week followed a specific topic with the first and last weeks being more of an overview. The course also had a case study which was based upon a real case. This showed how the evidence was gathered and then used to reach a conclusion as to who had committed the murder of a young woman in Scotland.
There was a week looking at fingerprints, or fingermarks as they are sometimes called, a week looking a DNA, one looking at drugs and their abuse and one looking at firearms. At the end of each week there was a pop quiz which was actually quite taxing and did mean that you had to have paid attention to the information you had been given.
I took this course from the point of view that I am writing a crime novel and I am an avid CSI fan. The overview it gave me was great and meant I now know where I am going wrong when I write something but not necessarily why. The extra reading helped to make the course accessible to people of different levels of competence. The chat rooms were very busy and it did give you a chance to understand the different laws within other countries.
I had two niggles. Firstly, two or three times there were live chats which I couldn’t attend because they were in the middle of the working day and this meant I missed out on that part of the learning experience. The second was I would have liked a little certificate to say I had sat this course, and I can get one. But first I must sit an exam and this will cost me £119. There are sixty one test centres in the UK and there is actually one within ten miles of where I live, but I am guessing I am one of the lucky ones. The other thing is I can’t see what value this certificate has. It doesn’t appear to carry any academic weight but on the basis I don’t need it, I haven’t bothered finding out it’s worth.
So, on the whole, a great little course with educated me in the facts behind the TV shows. I have already signed up for the next forensics course. Weirdly though the next course is run by Leicester University and the first was run by the University of Strathclyde. Hopefully they will not be going over old ground but I doubt they will have had time to adjust their course based upon feedback received from the introduction course.
Future Learn is a great way to access free online education but at the moment the courses seem to vary vastly in their content and enjoyability. Hopefully the great courses will quickly squeeze out the not so good and as it’s free why not pick a course that sounds fun and give it a go.
Jo Jenner regularly blogs at or catch up with her on twitter @jojenner40 or on facebook!/jojennerauthor
The FutureLearn course 'Introduction to Forensic Science' was delivered by the University of Strathclyde from 6th Jan to 16th Feb 2014, and and the lead lecturer was Professor Jim Fraser who is Director of the Centre of Forensic Science.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Book Review: Taking Time by Ellie Garratt

From the Back Cover

A collection of dark science fiction stories, where time and space are not always as they first appear to be.

The future of humanity must be decided in Next Phase. Winning the Planetary Lottery is not as lucky as it first seems in Schrodinger's Gamble. An apocalypse and its aftermath threaten to tear one couple apart in Daiker's Children. In Life As I Know It a reclusive man finds both his heart and home invaded during an alien harvest. In Taking Time a vampire seeking shelter on a distant planet finds himself facing a very different kind of demon, after answering a frontier settlement's plea for help.

Stories range from flash fiction to novelette in length.

Taking Time and Other Science Fiction Stories

This is Ellie Garratt's second collection of short stories, and after enjoying her first collection so much I had high expectations of Taking Time. I wasn't disappointed. There is a shift in this collection both towards science fiction, and towards longer stories.

Once again, the author is taking you somewhere completely different, and she's come up with a selection of original and entertaining stories. There are five stories included in this collection, and every one of them left me with something new to contemplate.

Each story will prey on different fears or moral dilemmas, delve into different parts of your mind, and with every one Ellie Garratt strikes a chord. Whether or not you are a science fiction fan, you will be drawn into these beautifully written, clever and thought-provoking stories.


You can find Ellie Garratt at and you will find purchase links here.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Book Review: The Third Daughter by Susan Kaye Quinn

From the back cover

The Third Daughter of the Queen wants her birthday to arrive so she'll be free to marry for love, but rumors of a new flying weapon may force her to accept a barbarian prince's proposal for a peace-brokering marriage. Desperate to marry the charming courtesan she loves, Aniri agrees to the prince's proposal as a subterfuge in order to spy on him, find the weapon, and hopefully avoid both war and an arranged marriage to a man she does not love.

Third Daughter is the first book in the The Dharian Affairs Trilogy (Third Daughter, Second Daughter, First Daughter). This steampunk-goes-to-Bollywood (Bollypunk!) romance that takes place in an east-Indian-flavored alternate world filled with skyships, saber duels, and lots of royal intrigue. And, of course, kissing.

The Third Daughter by Susan Kaye Quinn

This book is billed as 'steampunk-goes-to-Bollywood (Bollypunk!) romance', so what exactly is it? The author fuses carriages, steam trains, airships and clockwork with the rich eastern culture that underlies Bollywood storytelling, and together with royal intrigue, treachery, love and romance she combines the rich clothes and lush settings of court life with adventure in far off places. Everything is there, and the story cracks along at a pace which kept me gripped.

Aniri is faced with a dilemma. Should she follow her heart or do what is expected by the Queen, her mother. Indeed, what the Queen asks of her is no less than to secure the future security of the kingdom. The plot twists leave no-one unscathed, and we wonder just who can be trusted.

Aniri, is a plucky young lady, full of adventure and love. She has her flaws, though, and the result is endearing. If you enjoy a gripping, tense plot, lush settings and plenty of intrigue then this book is for you. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and very much look forward to the next book in this series.

Finally I have to mention the layout and formatting. The overall presentation of the book is awesome. Every page is more a work of art than merely a page of text. The presentation of this book is about as good as it gets.


You can find Susan Kaye Quinn at where you will also find purchase links.

Thursday 6 March 2014

Analyzing The Universe - Blow by Blow

In my earlier post I gave a review of the course Analyzing The Universe. The 6-week course is available, free to students, via the excellent organisation Coursera, and is delivered by Dr. Terry Matilsky of Rutgers University. Here, as promised, is a blow by blow account of each of the six weeks in the course.
Week 1
In week 1 we have an introduction to the history of optical images and their nature, what it takes to make an astro-image, what information they provide and how they are formed. Light, energy and refraction. Lenses and optics.
We see how an x-ray image is formed and why this is different from optical image formation. How we perceive images when we look at them, and how this impacts the kind of images we want and the information we can get from them.
Finally we get an introduction to the free tool DS9, its features and use.
Week 2
In week 2 we begin an in-depth tour of DS9. We look at the supernova CAS A, which was the 'first light' observation from the Chandra X-Ray observatory, and the Coma cluster of galaxies. We look at how to use DS9 to compare the x-ray image with an optical image of the same object. CAS A and Coma are used to demonstrate some of the useful functionality of DS9 such as analysing the energy spectrum of an interesting area of the image.
Getting a bit more theoretical we look at how statistics can be used to add to the knowledge gained from our observations.
Next we look at atomic spectra, black body radiation and the Stephan-Boltzmann law relating luminosity, radius and temperature. We look at cosmic distances, using parallax for measurements, and how Cepheid variables can help us measure distances.
Week 3
In week 3 we look at the Hertzsprung-Russel diagram, how it helps us to classify stars and what it tells us about stellar evolution. We look in some detail at how stars evolve with time, and what different kinds of stars are out there.
We take an in-depth look at GK-Per, which is a double star in the Persesus constellation which went supernova in 1901. We use this as the basis for a discussion of white dwarves, and some periodic phenomena associated with their spectral properties.
Week 4
In week 4 we derive some of the useful formulae for describing circular motion. We go on to the Doppler shift and its detection when we observe binary stars whose orbital motion is aligned to make such observation possible.
We study the nature of pulsars using DS9 to analyse x-ray data from Cen X-3, observing and quantifying the periodicity of the luminosity in the x-ray data. We analyse the possible causes of the periodicity and what it can tell us about the nature of the pulsar. We observe the Doppler shift in the signal from Cen X-3, and together with our other conclusions this leads us to an understanding of Cen X-3 as an x-ray source orbiting a companion star.
We then go on to figure out what exactly Cen X-3 might be. Using our knowledge of the laws of circular motion we determine the mass of the object, and try to gain an insight into how big it is. We conclude that if it was a white dwarf, it is spinning so fast that it's gravity couldn't hold it together, but if it's a neutron star, its gravity would be sufficient.
We then go on to investigate what mechanism leads to the periodicity we've observed, in the process learning much more about the nature of Cen X-3, and pulsars.
We compare observations made at different periods in history to see that the behaviour of the object has changed over a period of tens of years. We analyse the data to seek an explanation for this.
In week 4 we learn a great deal about neutron stars and pulsars, and we fortify that knowledge with our own observations.
Week 5
In week 5 we look at what makes a star shine. We look at the x-ray object Cas-A and analyse optical spectra from different parts of the object. These observations help us towards a model of Cas-A as a type II (core collapse) supernova remnant in which the movement of material shows evidence of the shock waves resulting from the explosion.
Looking at the spectra from different parts of the object we also draw conclusions about what chemical elements are present and how they are distributed in the remnant.
We use DS9 to create an RGB image from the remnant in which red, green and blue each represent an energy band. By adjusting the energy bands and the bias and contrast for each colour we have considerable control over how we visualise the image. This gives us scope for a lot of experimentation in DS9.
In week 5 we learn a great deal about core collapse supernovae and supernova remnants, and we fortify that knowledge with our own observations. Week 6
In week 6 we begin with Cepheid variable stars – how and why they may be used to determine the distance to astronomical objects. With an accurate measure of distance it is possible to determine the size of an object from its angular size. We learn about Hubble's discovery that the further an object is from us the faster it is moving away from us – leading us to a determination of the Hubble constant for the expansion of the Universe and how this can be used to determine the age of the Universe. We see the relationship between red-shift and distance to an object.
We learn how this led to the discovery of quasars, which are more luminous than the brightest galaxies. We see also that quasars are only seen as distant objects, meaning they are a feature of the young Universe, and we consider why that might be.
We use DS9 to analyse data from the closest quasar, 3C 273, which is 2200 million light years from Earth. We see from our analysis that it is a trillion times more luminous than our sun, and we determine its size.
We see that some material appears to be moving at many times the speed of light, and we look at the explanation for the phenomenon.
We see the evidence of gravitational lensing, and the fact that it suggests that there is much more mass in the Universe than we can observe. We look at the evidence that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating, and we see that dark energy is one theory put forward to explain the evidence.
In week 6 we learn much about galaxy clusters and black holes.
For a review of the course, and my conclusions, please see the previous article.
I took this course from 28th January to 25th February 2014

Monday 3 March 2014

Book Review: Passing Time by Ellie Garratt

From the back cover

Nine dark fiction stories that may just give you nightmares. Dare you enter the world of the strange and macabre, where the passing of time is not always as straightforward as it seems?

A man lives to regret Passing Time. A father will do anything to save his son in Expiration Date. An author finds out her worst nightmare is back in The Devil’s Song. A woman gets more than the claim fee when she takes out vampire insurance in Luna Black.

In Dining in Hell, the Death Valley Diner becomes the wrong place to stop.

A serial killer adds another file to his collection in The Vegas Screamer. In Eating Mr. Bone, an undertaker could meet an unfortunate end. A con man meets his first ghost in Land of the Free, and will truth finally be set free in The Letter?

Nine stories originally published between 2010 and 2011. Stories range from very short to novelette.

Passing Time: Nine Short Tales of the Strange and Macabre

I only occasionally dip into short stories, preferring to get stuck into a full length novel rather than skip from story to story. However, when I do venture into the shorter, I sometimes come up trumps, and this book is one of those occasions.

The first thing that strikes me as a lover of books is the quality of the publication. I only wish all publishers would set such a high standard. Everything from the cover design to the internal formatting are a high quality showcase for the high quality writing it contains.

It is, as the subtitle suggests, a collection of nine short stories, and they certainly live up to their billing as strange and macabre. I have to say that the author has come up with some wonderfully twisted and bizarre ideas, all of which are executed in a thoroughly engaging style.

These are memorable stories. I highly recommend this book to any reader, and look forward to more from the same author.


You can find Ellie Garratt at and you will find purchase links here.