I am currently alternating between two of my Christmas books as bedtime reading: What Philosophers Think, edited by Julian Baggini and Jeremy Stangroom, and Francis Spufford’s Backroom Boys. The latter is a polished crystal of popular science writing. Spufford describes technological phenomena in a concrete, evocative way (“smaller engines filled the air with the sound of ripping linen, magnified titanically”) and with great attention to detail.

In a month in which the US landed a probe on Mars and Europe smeared one across the planet’s surface it seems particularly appropriate that I should be reading one part of Spufford’s book. In it, he quotes the father of modern rocket science, Wernher Von Braun, on his research group’s decision to surrender to the Americans after World War II, thereby handing the US immediate leads in missile technology and the space race:

“we feared the Russians, we despised the French, and the British could not afford us.”