The Sixth Extinction

the-sixth-extinctionThe Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert

Based on all that we’ve been able to determine, the universe likes things to be fairly stable. There’s the occasional dramatic explosion from a supernova or galactic collision, but the are exceedingly rare, with galaxies and stars and solar systems and comets drifting around for billions or years more or less unchanged. While on a much faster time scale, life on Earth is also predicated on stability and predictability. Each organism on Earth more or less knows that challenges they’ll face from day to day—how they need to eat, what will be trying to eat them, what the air they breathe is like, etc. Every now and then a random genetic mutation turns up a better way to do things, or an earthquake separates two sides of a pond, and we eventually get a new species out of it. Even more rarely, a struggling species can’t compete with the new one, or their smaller pond, and a species winks out of existence. But this is rare, and mostly, there is a balance. But every now and then, something happens. A wobble brings us further from the sun or the main continent drifts too far south and the temperature change wipes out much of nascent life. A new group of organisms changes the chemical composition of the air and makes it toxic. A miles-wide asteroid hits the planet. And in that moment, everything changes. Thousands of species, genera, and whole families disappear, and with them entire ecosystems that seemed they would be there forever.

There have been five such major extinctions in the past. Under normal circumstances, the background extinction rate is roughly one extinction per million species years. So, for every million species, around 1 would go extinct each year. Families go extinct even more rarely. But under a major extinction event, over a period of thousands of years we’ll lose 70% or more of species, and up to 30% of families. By many measures, we are in another major extinction event right now, one that we ourselves are causing.

The reasons for the sixth extinction, which Elizabeth Kolbert outlines in painstaking, highly readable, and incredibly despairing detail, are many. Part of it is how easily we transport new fungus and bacteria from one place to the next. The fungus killing off bats through white-nose syndrome was most likely imported to the US from Europe. It’s wiped out up to 90% of the bat colonies in some areas and is threatening more than one previously common species with extinction.  Part of it is what we do on purpose—there is debate, but it seems likely we at the least contributed to the megafauna extinction thousands of years ago. Part of the extinction is habitat destruction. And some is the massive amount of carbon we’re pumping into the atmosphere. Climate change is a threat—and the likely cause of at least two previous major extinctions, when the climate changed more slowly than it is today—as is simply the increase in carbon and ocean acidification. It seems likely that at the rate the carbon is increasing in the ocean, coral simply won’t be able to form, well, coral. Even if the temperature doesn’t go up at all from where it is now.

This book wonderfully lays out a history of taxonomy, of the study of extinctions and evolution, changing views and knowledge of mass extinctions, and what we are seeing today. Each day we see evidence of the sixth extinction all around us, in animals and plants we no longer see out our window or find when fishing or hunting, and in the endless headlines of threats to different plants and animals. And yet seeing it all laid out so clearly is harrowing. Kolbert ends with a call to action, the last chapter is titled “The Thing with Feathers.” She clearly has to write this; this book is meant to be more than a witness and a eulogy to the world around us. And yet, even as an activist, it is increasingly difficult not to see how much climate change and species loss has already happened, and how much is still baked into the cake, so to see. It is frightening for me to contemplate what the future looks like for my children. And so difficult not to go through my days crying when I realize it is highlight likely that the coral reefs will be gone within my life time.

And yet I would still say to read this book. Kolbert has done a service to the world in writing it and creating a document that even a lay person can understand. Read the book and take action. Let us limit the destruction as much as we can. The sticker on my laptop says, “We need everyone everywhere doing everything all the time as quickly as possible.” Take it to heart; it’s the only way to save a recognizable world for our children.

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My Year in Books

There was a time, before I had kids, when I looked at the 50 Books challenge and scoffed. Not even one book a week? How was that a challenge? Try to stretch yourself people! Now I find myself in a position where 50 books a year isn’t just a challenge, it’s an impossible dream. But still- I did 37. While working, raising three kids, and #resist-ing. So that’s not too bad, right? Right?

I hope for 40 next year. But my real challenge for 2018 isn’t for 50 books, it’s 52 blog posts. One review a week shouldn’t be too much to ask of myself. I didn’t come even close to that schedule—or keeping up with my reading habit—this year. But that’s what New Year’s Resolutions are for, I suppose.

So, without further ado, my incredibly brief reviews of the books I’ve read this year. With links to a full review on the rare occasions they’re available.

Earth is Room Enough, Isaac Asimov—A collection of Asimov short stories, all of which take place on Earth. Asimov is at his best at a short story writer, and this was entertaining enough. I don’t think any of these are my favorites that he’s written, but they were a perfectly cromulent way to pass the time.

The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible—and Other Journeys through Knowledge, James Burke—In the vein of How We Got to Now and other such stories, this book aims to explain how discoveries in one era can lead to unintended inventions and discoveries elsewhere. I thought that the connections were less compelling than those in other, similar books, and Burke isn’t the best of writers. There are other such books and miniseries done better.

The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris—A while back there was a Facebook quiz thingy asking people to list the 10 books that had most influenced one’s life. Two of my friends listed this. I picked it up at a library book sale and it was fascinating and beautifully written.

The Fragile Absolute, Slavoj Žižek—As might be evident from the fact that I write a book review blog and happily read Umberto Eco and Zeynep Tufecki, I am a huge nerd. Despite some earlier plans, though, I eventually decided a life in academia wasn’t for me, and that academic writing tended towards pointlessness and preening with no meaning. Sometimes I regret that decision. Then I read a ‘popular’ philosopher like Žižek and realize all my worst thoughts of academia are correct and I made the right decision. And on a related note.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, Kim Edwards—The book opens (and this isn’t a spoiler; it’s on the back cover and everything) with a doctor’s decision in the 1950s to tell his wife that one of their twins, born with Down syndrome, was stillborn, and asks his nurse to take the girl to an institution. The book covers how this lie affects everyone’s life for years. It was poignant and well written, and I’ve been talking about it with others all year.

The Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson—Bryson is always hilarious, and his tangents informative and fascinating. My mind is also a weird musty attic for pieces of trivia, so anyone who provides as much as he does is a valued companion to me. Sadly, Bryson is also a grump and, in his old age, a curmudgeon who turns his astute judgments on the absurdity of society to complaints about Kids These Days and their clothes. This book was fun enough for a Bryson fan, but if you’re a newcomer pick up a younger and more cheerful book first.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein—There’s a prison colony on the Moon that wants freedom, and so a super computer and three unlikely leaders plot a rebellion. I’ve read other Henlein books and this is similar in that it starts off interesting enough and then gets sort of strange and goes off the rails. Also this was written when he was quite firmly in his extreme libertarian phase, so there’s that. He has some… interesting… ideas about government and feminism, I’ll give you that.

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, Brock Clarke—Until I was looking through my Goodreads list of books I’d read this year, I completely forgot this book. Which should probably tell you all you need to know.

The Keeper of Lost Causes, Jossi Adler-Olsen—A Scandinavian murder mystery! This was an enjoyable thriller, and I enjoyed the troubled detective enough for his type. If you enjoy the genre you’ll likely enjoy this book. I’ve read a few of these types now, and personally I find the Scandinavian thrillers to just be a bit too tortured and cruel, but I have a lower tolerance for that sort of thing than most.

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, Denise Kiernan—This book was absolutely fascinating. I had no idea of the story of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which was basically created from whole cloth to center around uranium enrichment factories. It was a secret city that didn’t even appear on maps until well after the war ended, and women and men were employed there in almost every conceivable position. If you liked Hidden Figures, you’ll probably like this book.

Armada, Ernest Cline—Ready Player One was absolutely amazing. I loved it. But you can only go to the well so many times, you know?

What is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi—This was, hands down, the most creative book I have read in a long, long time. I read a lot and it is rare that I read something that is entirely original, but this is. I have spent all my time since I read this book wondering why everyone isn’t talking about it and how amazing it is.

Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks—There is always interest to be had and things to be learned with Oliver Sacks. That being said, this wasn’t my favorite of his books. It didn’t have quiet enough variety and just didn’t capture my attention they way others have.

The Secret of Lost Things, Sheridan Hay—This was a book I took with me on summer vacation, and about where I would assign it. It kept me entertained, it passed the time. It didn’t do much more than that.

Flight, Sherman Alexie—I had never read anything by Alexie, and this showed up at a library book sale. It was something, that’s for sure. I read it a few months ago, and I’m still working out all of my feelings, which I take as a good sign in a book. A troubling read, but a worthwhile one.

Murder in the Dark, Kerry Greenwood—I *love* Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on PBS. Because I am a white, upper-middle-class woman and we are obsessed with British* crime dramas. This was the first of the books I’d read, though, and it was great fun. If I ever have time to dive into a series again, I’ll definitely pick them up.

Strangers in a Strange Land, Charles Chaput—Not to be confused with Stranger in a Strange Land, by Heinlein, a very different book indeed. Chaput thinks that traditional Christianity is under attack, and that liberal views, particularly those on sexuality, are to be blamed for most of our current ills. He also thinks that civil authorities letting gay people be married is a far greater threat to our Church than, say, objectivism. He has some great things to say about the ideal society and civics, he just seems to have trouble identifying the actual problems.

Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Zeynep TufeckiAre you part of the #resistance? Good. Get this book. Read it. Bring it to your Indivisible or Flippable or Swing Left or whatever group and have them read it and talk about it together. And follow Tufecki on Twitter. I didn’t think everything about this book was perfect, but she has important things to say and we need to think about the questions she’s raising.

The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obrecht—A moving tale told through the perspectives of a woman in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars and her grandfather. It tells the history of the place, and the story itself, and is imbued with magical realism and a painful sympathy for the region.

The Winter People, Jennifer McMahon—A suspenseful thriller and a modern day ghost story. The genre isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but the book was a page turner, and if you enjoy this type of book I think you’d love this one.

Getting Better, Charles Kenny—I know everything is horrible right now, especially in the developed world. But that’s exactly why a book like this is important. For one thing, it gives you some hope. For another, while so many on the right are trying to tear down the current order, and many of the far left (my political home) are too disillusioned and disappointed to vigorously fight for it, this book reminds us of the tremendous successes of post- WWII liberalism. I’d like to give a copy to everyone.

Nightfall and Other Stories, Isaac Asimov—Asimov is amazingly prolific, and as I mentioned about another collection (old sci-fi paperbacks are usually $.25 on half-price day at the library book sale, so I have several) he wrote so much that his short stories can be hit or miss. But “Nightfall”, the title story of this collection, is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.  Reading the whole book was worth it just for that.

The Best American Essays, 2003, Ed. Anne Fadiman—I love the “Best American” series, and I adore essays and long form articles, so I loved this book. My favorites were Katha Pollit’s very honest “Learning to Drive”, and “Home Alone”, which surprisingly had me cheering on a defense of Martha Stewart and her fans.

The Quiet American, Graham Greene—God, this book is amazing. I kind of want to read it again right now. Why Greene isn’t more held up as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, I don’t know. An amazing spy novel against the backdrop of Viet Nam, before Americans were even in the thick of it. It’s less than 200 pages and has more to say about colonialism, neoliberalism, revolution, and human nature than almost any other book I’ve read.

Disarming Beauty, Julian CarronDisappointing. This collection of essays circled back and occasionally repeated itself, but never built on itself. The whole was less than the sum of its parts.

The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar and the Geography of Desire, Richard Adams Carey—An incredibly engaging read. Carey does a wonderful job of talking about the history and future of caviar, going into detail regarding high end importers, the agents enforcing endangered animal treaties, environmental regulators, organized crime, and the politics of biologists. A great example of the genre of digging down into a rarely examined piece of life.

The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher—Rod Dreher thinks that Christians need to remove themselves from current society to the extent possible to defend the faith because traditional Christianity is under threat from people wanting cakes at their gay weddings and gender theory in schools. It’s basically just like communist Eastern Europe, an analogy he actually uses. But let’s leave that aside for now. The bigger issue is, how does one write an entire book about having lay people exercise a Benedict Option and never once mention lay Benedictine Oblates! I mean, that just seems obvious.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2009 ed. Elizabeth Kolbert­—The Science and Nature writing series is my favorite, and this was no exception. It’s a bit depressing—Kolbert is the author of The Sixth Extinction, and her knowledge of and interest in ongoing environmental catastrophe shows. But there’s plenty of other topics to round it out. Try reading Atul Gawande’s “The Itch” without scratching for weeks. I’m itchy again just thinking about it.

A Long Way Down¸ Nick Hornby—Four people contemplating suicide on New Year’s Eve meet each other and form connections instead. Entertaining, if you like Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) you’ll like this one, too.

Arkwright, Allen Steele—You know all those books by Clarke and Asimov and Heinlein that start out with humans on a planet we colonized long, long ago? This is the prequel. It should be a must read for any sci-fi fan.

Murder at the Dacha, Alexei Bayer—A murder mystery in Soviet era Moscow. Well paced, well written, and a good mystery novel that also paints a picture of life at this time and place.

Equal Rites, Terry Pratchett—The first in Pratcett’s Witch series in Discworld, it follows a girl who was accidentally made a wizard when women clearly can’t be wizards. I still don’t understand how I made it so far in life without reading Pratchett, but I’m doing my best to make up for it now.

Well of Lost Plots, Jasper FfordeThird of the Thursday Next series, our protagonist has taken refuge in Book World while she tries to un-eradicate her husband and plot how to take out Yorrick Kaine, a would-be dictator who’s escaped from fiction to the real world. And if none of that made sense, just start with The Eyre Affair and keep reading.

St. Francis and the Foolishness of God, Marie Dennis, Fr. Joseph Nangle, OFM, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, & Stuart Taylor—My only problem with this book is that it was clearly written to be studied at a prayer or small faith group, with discussion questions and everything, and it wasn’t presented that way up front. There’s limited utility if you’re reading it on your own.

The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian GreeneGreene traces the history of the scientific quest to determine reality and its beginnings from Galileo and Newton and on through modern string theory. It’s fascinating. Also, the difference between discussions at physics conferences and weed intensive college dorms is apparently just how many math equations are used.

Something Rotten, Jasper Fforde—Having left the safety of Book World, Thursday Next is now back in real-world England trying to take down Yorrick Kaine by ensuring Swindon wins the biggest croquet match of the year, deal with a mopey Hamlet, and find reliable child care.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco­—Umberto Eco is amazing. I still think Baudolino is my favorite, and a far too underrated book, but I will always have great love for this one. My fourth (?) time reading it, and I always discover something new.

And that’s it! I suppose not a bad showing on my part, but I could certainly do more writing. My main goal for the coming year.

Happy New Years, all, and Happy Reading.

 

*Okay, technically this one is Australian, but it’s on our PBS station that shows entirely BBC shows, so I think it counts as British Crime Drama.

^My youngest is 19 months, so I figure another 16 years or so until I have spare time.

The Fabric of the Cosmos

fabric of the cosmosThe Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene

Even if you don’t know who Brian Greene is, you’ve probably seen or heard him around. He’s done two miniseries for NOVA, and two TED talks. He’s been on NPR’s Science Friday a couple of times. He did a cameo on the Big Bang Theory. And earlier this year he was on Stephen Colbert’s show with a world-record-setting Galilean Cannon. He’s also a professor at Columbia University’s Center of Theoretical Physics. While he talks repeatedly in his book about how time travel is impossible, I assume he’s found some way of developing a time turner in order to accomplish all of this.

Greene’s also written a couple of books, and this was my second time reading his second book, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality. The Fabric of the Cosmos centers around the fundamental questions of where does everything come from, why does time move in one direction, and just what is everything made of anyway? He’s a patient author, and while I don’t think any layperson reading this will have a deep understanding of all of the different pieces of string theory and why we have all these extra dimensions lying about, I do think he does the best he can without teaching us complex mathematics. Greene also builds up to these theories, starting with Newton and moving through the history of physics and what has brought us to the current theoretical framework.

This book did make me contemplate time quite a bit and, specifically, the changes that occur as one gets older. The first time I read this book, and The Elegant Universe, I remember being fairly blown away by the ideas they contained. The second time around I found myself thinking, “Well, none of this is actually possible. Obviously quantum physics is witchcraft.” I exaggerate slightly, but at a certain point in theoretical physics its hard to see it as pure science anymore. When we’re trying to explain the world in ways that can’t be observed or experimented on, with math that isn’t completed yet and in fact has to be changed up constantly, that one can just add an extra dimension to (string theory had 9 space dimensions and 1 time dimension, then someone united the different theories with M-Theory but to do this you need 10 space dimensions and 1 of time) without substantively altering the theories, and theories predict all sorts of things that by all accounts don’t exist, it’s hard to accept this as the final descriptor. Maybe all off our math is wrong and can only work for classical physics, maybe there’s an as yet unidentified way of truly describing the universe. Maybe we’ve been headed down the wrong path for decades. Maybe we are all holograms?* Now I need to go lie down for a while and watch some House Hunters International until I can purge all of these mind-splitting questions.

In all seriousness, the book is fascinating, but the questions it raises are mind-boggling. I also found myself with a lot of additional questions that I assume there are answers to, or at least have been contemplated since they seem obvious, but the book didn’t address.  I’d love to attend a seminar on all this.  My questions are:

  • How is it possible that particles only ‘decide’ where they are when they are observed, as is the case in quantum physics. I know we’ve shown it’s the case, but don’t they interact with the world constantly? The question Einstein raised about quantum mechanics is, would anyone argue the moon isn’t there when we’re not observing it? But surely even if no human was looking at the moon, it’s being ‘observed’ by birds, gravitons, dark matter, solar radiation, etc. What does the interaction of the rest of the world have to do with quantum mechanics? This must have an answer, but I haven’t seen it.
  • Greene, and other physics explainers I’ve seen, make much of the fact that physics equations work the same forwards in time and backwards in time. Basically, there is no reason, based on the laws of physics, that your egg couldn’t put itself back together and jump back on the counter. Which seems to indicate a basic flaw in the laws of physics to me, but never seems to bother scientists. Greene explains that the big bang caused us to begin with a highly ordered universe, and that the entropy is constantly building, and that’s why we have the arrow of time. But 1) he explained earlier that entropy is just as likely to *have been* than to *be in the future*, so that still doesn’t seem to explain the arrow of time, and 2) even if that explains it for the universe as a whole which is moving to a more disordered state, that still doesn’t explain why it is the case for every single piece of the universe constantly and forever. TL;DR What’s up with time, anyway?
  • Dark matter? Seriously, what is up with that? And now there’s extra unexplained stuff besides dark matter? I’m going back to House Hunters.
  • Greene goes into detail about the potential shapes of the universe (spheres, saddles, or flat) before detailing that it may not matter because the universe is so big, possibly infinite, that it’s more or less flat where we are. Nope, you’ve gotta do better, physicists. We’re trying to determine the shape of dimensions smaller than a Planck length (1.616229 x 10-35 m), an inconceivably small distance, but so-big-it-may-as-well-be-flat is the best we can do for the universe? That doesn’t cut it for me.
  • Despite what I just said, though, that criticism only works if the universe is finite. If its infinite, doesn’t it actually have to be flat? Otherwise, where is the ‘middle’ where it starts to curve for either a saddle shape or a sphere? Is this something that can be answered mathematically, but not pictured? Or does infinite mean flat?

 

I have a lot more questions, too, but they’re more along the lines of how all these extra dimensions fit in, questions I think are still somewhat unanswered, and even if there is an explanation, its only one that exists in theoretical maths^, not anything that can be translated to our world.

Green’s book won’t turn you into a theoretical physicist overnight, but I do think his work is some of the most interesting and accessible on modern physics. Even if it does leave me with more questions and answers. His most recent book, Hidden Reality, explores other dimensions more seriously, so I may have to pick that up. Even if I still think it’s all impossible.

 

*Briefly, the strength of the gravity of a black hole and the amount of entropy don’t correlate with the volume of a black hole, but only with the surface area. Which shouldn’t be the case! But it suggests that at a certain point it’s the ‘projected’ part of the hole that has an effect on its surroundings. This alongside some suggestions that we may actually be a three-dimensional brane wrapped around other dimensions makes it possible that we interact more as holograms than solid beings, a theory Greene thinks has legs. I think the obvious explanation is Elon Musk is right and we’re in a simulation.

^Not an error. I’ve been listening to a lot of British podcasts lately.

Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree Planting Tribe

EDCoverEating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree Planting Tribe, Charlotte Gill

I’m not going to argue Canada is perfect–even if Justin Trudeau is dreamy and wears Star Wars socks and greets refugees. They are still dredging up tar sands, and they’re still not close to meeting their Paris agreement limits. But Canada is a country that has long made money off of their natural resources and, if not strict preservationists, they certainly understand old-school conservation and wise-use of resources. They take sustainable use seriously. This is, after all, a country that boarded a Spanish boat because of illegal fishing. And this means that they want their logging to last a long time as well. Any logging on public land needs to be reforested. And 94% of the logging takes place on public land.

Eating Dirt is a memoir from Charlotte Gill, one of the thousands of Canadians fanning across the country each year to carry out this reforestation. It’s dirty, backbreaking piece work, with people getting paid by the tree, and expected to plant at least 1000 trees each day. Which isn’t impossible. According to Gill, the record holder is 15,700 red pine seedlings in one day. It’s work that’s done often by college students, but also has a contingent of regular migrant workers that come back year after year. Gill is one of these, planting for 20 years.

Gill is an evocative writer. It’s easy to become immersed in the world and feel oneself there, to feel the chill in the air in the mornings, smell the dirt and the damp, feel the tiredness in ones bones. And she does a good job of capturing the camaraderie, painting a sketch of the types of people who come and go, sharing the danger and the fun of the work. And she mixes this with stories of how the tree planting laws came to be, of her small part in reforesting, and a clear view that planting thousands of pine trees does not a healthy, old-growth ecosystem make. These snippets were interesting, but Gill was at her best writing memories rather than information.

Tree planting is also repetitive work, and towards the end of the book I thought that I’d gotten the gist of it. I imagine that’s also how many planters feel at the end of the summer, so perhaps it was what she was going for stylistically, but I did think the book could have either been shorter, or she could have worked on the intermittent thoughts on forests and history a bit more. But that’s a mild complaint. Overall, it was an interesting book on a topic and world I knew nothing about. This is an entire life that many of us aren’t connected to in anyway, and one can’t help but be interested.

The Martian

the-martian-by-andy-weir-r-1000x1000The Martian, Andy Weir    

There are often times in life where I have to explain something to a group, and I’m struggling with how to get started, or to condense a complex topic down to a few power point slides. And as I’m trying to figure out how to do this and playing online, I realize that xkcd has already done this, and so much better than I could ever hope to do.

 

 

the_martian_2x

So. Yeah, that’s a fairly good description of this book. This is an excellent piece of science fiction, with a hard emphasis on the science. I first read this book because I heard an interview with the author on a science podcast I listen to, and the author was hilarious and incredibly interesting. Andy Weir even talked about the challenges he faced running simulations of interplanetary travel at different points in the future to make sure the possible orbits he was discussing would happen at the proper times as he wrote in his book, and that the rocket flights would be mathematically correct. That is a nerdiness and attention to accuracy of which I am in awe.

For a hard science book, The Martian is also a very easy and enjoyable read. For those of you who don’t know the background yet, it takes place in 2035, when Martian missions are relatively new but semi-routine. One mission requires an emergency evacuation and astronaut and botanist Mark Watney is accidentally left behind. The rest of the book is dedicated to Mark Watney staying alive, and the crew and NASA trying to save him. (Mark Watney is played by Matt Damon in the movie, leading to a wonderful breakdown of how much money the world has spent rescuing Matt Damon. Roughly US$900 Billion, adjusted for inflation).

The way all of the problems are solved in the book are wonderful. If you like McGyver, or that one scene in Apollo 13, if you’ve ever done Odyssey of the Mind spontaneous problems, you will love this book. The way that NASA realizes that Watney is still alive is one of the best points, in my opinion, but everything about how he keeps himself alive, builds and rebuilds life support systems, was wonderful. And even when things go wrong-and lots of things go wrong-it was interesting and realistic. (If you didn’t read the alt-text on the xkcd cartoon, it states “I have never seen a work of fiction so perfectly capture the out-of-nowhere shock of discovering that you’ve just bricked something important because you didn’t pay enough attention to a loose wire.”) It also made me consider how absolutely amazing it is that we have ever been to space. Everything, absolutely everything, has to go right, or everything immediately goes wrong.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who enjoys hard science fiction, anyone who enjoys suspenseful novels, and anyone who enjoys a fun beach read. I finished in two days; someone without kids can probably do it in one.  It’s not that the book is perfect, the author admits that in a few places he had to take some liberties with the science in order to make it workable. He just ignored how radioactive being in space is, for instance. But most of it is pretty accurate, and the whole book is a fantastically fun read. If you missed it the first time it went around, you should probably pick it up today.

                                     

What If

what ifWhat If?, Randall Munroe

If you’re on the internet at all, I assume you’re familiar with national treasure Randall Munroe, the creator of xkcd.  It is one of the most consistently excellent sites on all of the global internets.  Before creating a job for himself being professionally funny online, Munroe worked as a robotocist for NASA, so he’s also pretty smart and seems to know some things about science and math.  That’s where this book comes in.

This is one of the most useful reference books a person can own.  There are numerous books, encyclopedias, websites and people that can give you the facts you might need about the Revolutionary War, conversion from ounces to litres, information about Newton’s Laws, or any other number of things.  But I’m fairly certain this is the only book that will tell you how quickly you could drain all of the earth’s oceans if there was a drain placed at the deepest spot, and also what Mars would look like if the glass_peopledrain was a portal that placed all of the water over the Curiosity rover.  Or what would happen if a glass of water became literally half empty.  Or, my favorite, what would happen if you built a wall out of the periodic table of the elements.

(Short answer:

  • You could stack the first two rows without much trouble.
  • The third row would burn you with fire.
  • The fourth row would kill you with toxic smoke.
  • The fifth row would do all that stuff PLUS give you a mild dose of radiation.
  • The sixth row would explode violently, destroying the building in a cloud of radioactive, poisonous fire and dust.
  • Do not build the seventh row.)

This book is also probably the best argument for why it is important to learn advanced math.  No one believes their teachers when they say they’ll use this in the future, but calculus, trigonometry, and differential equations do have real world applications.  And if you don’t learn them you have to write in to an internet cartoonist to find out if it’s possible to build a jetpack using machine guns, instead of being able to run the numbers yourself.

So, if you don’t have the knowledge yourself to find out whether you could drop a steak from high enough that would be cooked enough from heat during re-entry to eat, or the time to figure it out, I suggest you get this book.  I don’t know where else you can find that absolutely necessary information.

 

 

 

The Martian

the-martian-by-andy-weir-r-1000x1000The Martian, Andy Weir

There are often times in life where I have to explain something to a group, and I’m struggling with how to get started, or to condense a complex topic down to a few power point slides. And as I’m trying to figure out how to do this and playing online, I realize that xkcd has already done this, and so much better than I could ever hope to do.

 

 

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So. Yeah, that’s a fairly good description of this book. This is an excellent piece of science fiction, with a hard emphasis on the science. I first read this book because I heard an interview with the author on a science podcast I listen to, and the author was hilarious and incredibly interesting. Andy Weir even talked about the challenges he faced running simulations of interplanetary travel at different points in the future to make sure the possible orbits he was discussing would happen at the proper times as he wrote in his book, and that the rocket flights would be mathematically correct. That is a nerdiness and attention to accuracy of which I am in awe.

For a hard science book, The Martian is also a very easy and enjoyable read. For those of you who don’t know the background yet, it takes place in 2035, when Martian missions are relatively new but semi-routine. One mission requires an emergency evacuation and astronaut and botanist Mark Watney is accidentally left behind. The rest of the book is dedicated to Mark Watney staying alive, and the crew and NASA trying to save him. (Mark Watney is played by Matt Damon in the movie, leading to a wonderful breakdown of how much money the world has spent rescuing Matt Damon. Roughly US$900 Billion, adjusted for inflation).

The way all of the problems are solved in the book are wonderful. If you like McGyver, or that one scene in Apollo 13, if you’ve ever done Odyssey of the Mind spontaneous problems, you will love this book. The way that NASA realizes that Watney is still alive is one of the best points, in my opinion, but everything about how he keeps himself alive, builds and rebuilds life support systems, was wonderful. And even when things go wrong-and lots of things go wrong-it was interesting and realistic. (If you didn’t read the alt-text on the xkcd cartoon, it states “I have never seen a work of fiction so perfectly capture the out-of-nowhere shock of discovering that you’ve just bricked something important because you didn’t pay enough attention to a loose wire.”) It also made me consider how absolutely amazing it is that we have ever been to space. Everything, absolutely everything, has to go right, or everything immediately goes wrong.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who enjoys hard science fiction, anyone who enjoys suspenseful novels, and anyone who enjoys a fun beach read. I finished in two days; someone without kids can probably do it in one.  It’s not that the book is perfect, the author admits that in a few places he had to take some liberties with the science in order to make it workable. He just ignored how radioactive being in space is, for instance. But most of it is pretty accurate, and the whole book is a fantastically fun read. If you’ve avoided it so far, definitely grab it now.