The Martian

The Martian by Andy Weir
The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian
by Andy Weir

We read this book for my SF group this month in anticipation of the film being released soon.  Amazing!

Through a cascading set of mishaps, Mark Whatney is left for dead on Mars by his fellow astronauts. This novel tells the exciting and harrowing tale of attempt to survive.  A few thoughts:

  • While I didn’t find this particularly difficult to read, many of my SF group expressed befuddlement at much of the science in the novel. It is a very “hard” SF book, meaning that it spends a lot of time on technical details.
  • The storytelling is terse and straightforward, which lends a lot to the drama of the moment — things unfold very quickly, but always told in the past tense (as they’re being written by Whatney in his mission log / journal).
  • I love the interplay of Whatney on the planet, the astronauts in the ship flying back from Mars, and the ground control folks.  Excellent.
  • My only complaint about the book is that there are a few too many near misses – it feels a bit contrived in that regard.  But like JAWS getting blown up by an air tank, it works because the story has you from go.
  • Books and stories to consider alongside this one: Robinson Crusoe, Apollo 13, Survivor.

Overall, an excellent, very good book.  If you can get over the technospeak, this is a book for you.


What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

What If?
What If?

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
by Randall Munroe; narrated by Wil Wheaton

If you don’t read XKCD or Munroe’s weekly “What If?” column over at, you’re really missing out.  This book collects some of the best What If columns, plus adds a bunch of new ones.  It’s a simple premise: people ask Munroe questions like “Can dropping a steak through the atmosphere cook it by means of the re-entry burn?” or “What’s the highest a person can throw something?” or “How long could I swim in a cooling pool storing nuclear waste before I died?” And he answers the questions in very funny ways.

The best part of the book is the repeating feature “Disturbing Questions from the What If? Inbox,” in which people ask things like the best way to chop up a body or how many nuclear bombs it would take to wipe out the US.  I imagine they think these are innocent questions (and they probably are) but Munroe rightly recognizes the problems with them, and pokes fun.

There’s not a lot else to say about the book.  It’s great, very entertaining.  And Wil Wheaton’s narration is great, though it’s pretty “Wil Wheaton-y,” so I imagine that if you didn’t like Wheaton or his performative style (as seen on, say, Tabletop), you probably wouldn’t like his narration.  The other down-side to the audio book is that you don’t get to see Munroe’s great pictures, of which there are many in the physical book.

Highly recommended.


Thinking about dead bodies: Stiff, by Mary Roach

Stiff by Mary RoachStiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
by Mary Roach, narrated by Shelly Frasier

As always, Mary Roach explores a topic of interest and (perhaps) disgust with tact, verve, and lots of humor.  In this book–the first of her science books–Roach explores the myriad ways we deal with death and dead bodies, and explains how science uses them.  A few thoughts:

  • The history of medical cadaver use is interesting, particularly the lengths to which early doctors had to go in order to study the human body.  Many dissected their own family members, since these were the only corpses they could get hold of legally.
  • Many military applications (such as body armor for mine sweepers) aren’t tested on human cadavers because of the potential bad PR — there’s a distinct worry that people would be upset to learn that the cadavers of family members were used in this way.  Roach puts it succinctly, “How do you ask someone if you can shoot their grandfather’s corpse in the face?”
  • This book marks a couple early and amusing appearances of Dennis, Roach’s husband who appears in many of her books, often reluctantly participating in zany adventures in the name of science.  One of Roach’s experts is “New York Heart Surgeon, Mehmet Oz.”  This was in 2002 or 2003, before he first appeared on Oprah.
  • The section on transplants was most informative.  We’re already at the point where we could, if needed, do a full body transplant — just moving the head.  The limits on this surgery are significant — the new body would be a quadriplegic since we can’t repair spinal columns yet, but it might add decades of life to someone who was already in a similar situation, even giving them the ability to speak.  One of the big objections, aside from the extreme expense, is that a healthy body could save many lives if its organs are shared.
  • Most fascinating was the innovation of ‘human composting,’ designed to be an alternative to funerals that produce a more environmentally friendly message.  Plus, you have a memorial bush or tree at the end.

It’s a great read, fascinating and wonderful and horrible.  It might not, however, be good lunch reading.

In one end and out the other. Gulp by Mary Roach

Gulp by Mary RoachGulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
by Mary Roach; narrated by Emily Woo Zeller

Mary Roach’s latest book explores the digestive process, from beginning to end, looking at what scientists think and have thought, what they study, and how they go about it.  It’s great, as usual, with lots of funny moments.  A few thoughts:

  • People are generally fine with their own saliva, as long as it’s in their mouth.  As soon as it has left their mouth, it’s gross.  For instance, they’re far less interested in eating a bowl of soup into which they have spit than one they haven’t.
  • Roach gave plenty of room to Alexis St. Martin and Dr. William Beaumont, the former being a man with a fistulated stomach and the latter being the doctor who used the stomach to experiment with digestion, whether or not St. Martin wanted to do so.  Particularly of note for us as Beaumont was the military doctor at the U.S. fort on Mackinac Island, which we visited this summer (and where I first learned about Beaumont, though mostly in a positive light).
  • As with the book on astronauts, there is a long section on flatus and the people who study it.  Flatus samples are now often collected via special mylar ‘pantaloons’ taped at the waist and legs, with a valve for harvesting the samples.
  • Elvis probably died from having a gigantic colon, something that happens after a lifetime of constipation.  His lifetime battle with this condition is part of why the Graceland bathroom was so well appointed.  The King spent a lot of time on his throne.
  • The section on coprophegia, animals that eat their own waste, was equal parts gross and fascinating.  Not only do rabbits and rats perform this most yucky of acts, it’s essential to their digestive practice.  For instance, there are bacteria in the colon of rats that release vitamins which the rat can only absorb in the small intestine, thus the food must make a second pass through the system.

Once again, Emily Woo Zeller does a fine job with the book, giving a wry twist to many of the more amusing passages and really Roach’s perspective.  Another fascinating book in the continuing line of science writing from Mary Roach.  A winner!

See also: Packing for Mars, Spook, Bonk


I know where I’ll be October 17th…

At the Simon Winchester reading at Unity Temple. Viz:

The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible

Please join us for an evening with Simon Winchester discussing his new book, The Men Who United the State: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible.

For more than two centuries, E pluribus unum–Out of many, one–has been featured on America’s official government seals and stamped on its currency. But how did America become “one nation, indivisible”? What unified a growing number of disparate states into the modern country we recognize today? In this monumental history, Simon Winchester addresses these questions, bringing together the breathtaking achievements that helped forge and unify America and the pioneers who have toiled fearlessly to discover, connect, and bond the citizens and geography of the U.S.A. from its beginnings.

Winchester follows in the footsteps of America’s most essential explorers, thinkers, and innovators, including Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery Expedition to the Pacific Coast, the builders of the first transcontinental telegraph, and the powerful civil engineer behind the Interstate Highway System. He treks vast swaths of territory, from Pittsburgh to Portland; Rochester to San Francisco; Truckee to Laramie; Seattle to Anchorage, introducing these fascinating men and others-some familiar, some forgotten, some hardly known-who played a pivotal role in creating today’s United States. Throughout, he ponders whether the historic work of uniting the States has succeeded, and to what degree. (link)

Will you be there?

See Also: Krakatoa, The Crack at the Edge of the World, The Man Who Loved China, The Atlantic

Great, another thing to worry about in the cold dark of the middle of the night.

Solar Flare on a distant sun
Oops! Were you using that planet? Sorry.

Years ago I saw the Discovery channel (or was it SyFy?) movie Super Volcano and added a fear of a massive North American purge in the wake of a Yellowstone eruption to my worry-list.  I read Simon Winchester’s Crack at the Edge of the World  about the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed San Francisco and learned that there is a large fault–mostly dormant–in southern Illinois that could certainly send an earthquake toward Chicago, where none of our buildings are built with earthquakes in mind.

It’s happened again: Solar flares.

Randall Munroe’s latest What If knocks it out of the park with the most-common of physics questions, “what would happen if the sun suddenly went out?”  Among his answers — our children and fighter pilots would be safer.  Most of them are funny.  But this one is downright terrifying, to my mind:

Reduced risk of solar flares: In 1859, a massive solar flare and geomagnetic storm hit the Earth.[1] Magnetic storms induce electric currents in wires. Unfortunately for us, by 1859 we had wrapped the Earth in telegraph wires. The storm caused powerful currents in those wires, knocking out communications and in some cases causing telegraph equipment to catch fire.[2]

Since 1859, we’ve wrapped the Earth in a lot more wires. If the 1859 storm hit us today, the Department of Homeland Security estimates the economic damage to the US alone would be several trillion dollars[3]—more than every hurricane which has ever hit the US combined.[4] If the Sun went out, this threat would be eliminated.

Improved satellite service: When a communications satellite passes in front of the Sun, the Sun can drown out the satellite’s radio signal, causing an interruption in service.[5] Deactivating the Sun would solve this problem. (“Sunless Earth“)

In case the prospect of a massive electrical surge that destroys everything with wires in it doesn’t frighten you, the photo above was taken by the Hubble space telescope of a distant star where the solar flare was so massive that if it had come from our sun, it would have extinguished life on Earth.  But our sun is stable and doesn’t do that, NASA says.

Sure it doesn’t.


The Atlantic


By Simon Winchester

A solid and enjoyable audio book about the history of the ocean and its influence on human society.  A couple thoughts:

  • The Atlantic is getting 4 inches wider each year.
  • The story he tells of how the Grand Banks were wiped out is downright sad.
  • I love Winchester’s voice.

Overall, not bad.  But not as good as Krakatoa or The Crack at the Edge of the World.


Ada Lovelace Day: Rosalind Franklin

Ada Lovelace Day is about sharing stories of women — whether engineers, scientists, technologists or mathematicians — who have inspired you to become who you are today. Come 16 October, simply write a blog post, record a podcast, film a video, draw a comic, or pick any other way to talk about the women who have been guiding lights in your life. Give your heroine the credit she deserves!

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA
Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox

Rosalind Franklin is most remembered now as the unsung fourth contributor who found the evidence for Watson and Crick’s double-helix paper in the early 1950s.  A brilliant experimentalist, Franklin actually made advances in three significant areas in her short life (she died of cancer at the age of 37): the understanding of coal, the shape of the DNA molecule, and the way RNA functions inside viruses.

A few notes about Maddox’s book and this remarkable scientist:

  • Franklin’s specialty was x-ray photography, a science that was used to analyze the shape of molecules and particles somehow.  Thankfully, Maddox spends very little time on the minutiae of how these discoveries work, focusing instead on explaining the broad outlines of what Franklin discovered.   She made her name in this field by studying coal, particularly in her discovery that there were some kinds of coal that never turned into graphite no matter how hot they were heated.
  • In the last four years of her life, Franklin made big advances in the study of viruses, findings that ultimately may have been more significant for the fact that they weren’t at such a heated centerpoint of debate.  Indeed, someone else would have proven the double-helix within a short time if Franklin hadn’t been doing that work.  Her virus work was more singular.
  • Franklin has been characterized as abrupt and cold, aggressive and unable to converse easily.  At the same time, she’s described as caring and heartfelt, passionate and humane.  While these perspectives seem at odds, Maddox describes most of the abrupt personality as tied to her workplace demeanor, while her warmer side was reserved for casual time.  Maddox suggests that her upbringing fostered a defensiveness that may have contributed to this persona she adopted. (Apparently, Franklin was particularly sensitive to anything she thought was anti-Semitic, even if the suspicions were groundless.)
  • In the last couple years of her life, Franklin gained significant recognition for her work, and did two tours of the US, where she met scientists in labs all over the country.  I was interested to read that she spent some time at Cold Spring Harbor, which was the research home for Barbara McClintock in that same era.  I like to imagine that they met one another.

The most debated period of her life stems from her short stint at King’s college, where she and a postgrad were working on x-ray photography of DNA.  At the same time, Watson and Crick were up the street at Cambridge, trying to model the structure of DNA.  Franklin’s colleague at King’s, Wilkins, was also working on the problem, but didn’t have Franklin’s technical skill with x-ray photography.  Thus, when he wanted her to collaborate with him and share information with Watson and Crick, she became defensive and territorial, feeling like a less talented superior was trying to mooch her hard-won data.  Her approach was that models could not prove anything, thatdata was needed in order to prove their case, so she pursued her data.  Then Wilkins shared her data with Watson and Crick without her permission, when it was quite clear that she would not have wanted him to.  Her data led to their breakthrough, and within months they had staked their claim to the theory.

Rosalind FranklinWhile she and Wilkins were acknowledged as contributors in the notes of their paper, Watson and Crick didn’t give them co-author status.  But while Franklin may have felt upset, Maddox points out that she didn’t seem to have any particular anger or grudge over the issue.  Indeed, she was just happy to get away to Birkbeck and begin her research on viruses.  In the years between Watson and Crick’s paper (March 1953) and her own death (April 1958), she carried on a friendly correspondence with both Watson and Crick, going so far as to spend time in a social context with each and maintain a rather hearty work relationship with Watson.

This continued collegiality makes what happened after Franklin’s death so strange.  When Watson wrote his novelistic adventurous tale, The Double Helix, Rosalind appears as a shrewish hoarder, obstinately refusing to share her data but also intellectually incapable of making proper use of it, practicallyforcing Watson and Crick to sneak a peek.  Both Crick and Watson maintained, for a long time, a recognition that her data was crucial to their solution, but withholding proper credit for her work.  Other people in the community were shocked and angered at this portrayal and have, in various places, defended her vigorously; so much so, in fact, that she has become very well known for the unfair treatment she had from Watson and Crick.  Maddox suggests that perhaps their portrayals of her stem from a deep unresolved guilt about having used her data without her knowledge, and then never really getting the chance to share that credit later on.

Maddox does a great job of presenting Franklin’s life in an even-handed way.  She’s fair to Watson without flinching at his missteps and lies, but she also acknowledges where Franklin’s own personality foibles exacerbated occasional problems with colleagues.  This is an excellent book, a strong biography with good storytelling and research.  The second half is better than the first, starting about the time she arrives at King’s college (no surprise that the controversy is the most interesting, I suppose).

See also:
2011 – Henrietta Swan Levitt
2010- Barbara McClintock

The Technologists

The Technologists
The Technologists

by Daniel Pearl; narrated by Stephen Hoye

Set just after the civil war in Boston, Daniel Pearl’s The Technologists follows the adventures of several students at the recently-founded Massachusetts Institute of Technology as they grapple with a madman attacking with plagues of science.  Pearl does a great job building a convincing environment for his story, using both real and fictional figures throughout his story.  A few thoughts:

  • As usual, Pearl constructs a solid mystery built on convincing and realistic characters.  We get reasonable sketches of their motivations and enjoy the interplay between them.  The four main characters, Marcus, Edwin, Bob, and Ellen, each have their own quirks, and these play off one another nicely when they get together.
  • The environment of Boston itself comes alive in the story, from the bustling financial district where the second attack occurs (early in the book) to the undeveloped “Back Bay” where M.I.T.’s new building stood among the mudflats and undeveloped space newly claimed from the water.
  • I love the history of M.I.T. itself — the conflict between science and people was really ramping up after the Civil War, and Pearl captures perfectly the divided perspective people have about science–they’re suspicious of the technology they don’t know, and blissfully blind to how much they depend on the rest of it.  I couldn’t help but think of recent developments, particularly in terms of medicine, where people trumpet both advancement in biological sciences and then scorn the basis of those advancements (Evolutionary theory).
  • Very Minor Spoiler: The terror attacks are carefully researched and creative.  I have no idea how technically accurate they are, but given the care with which Pearl crafts the rest of his narrative, I can’t imagine that he’d propose implausible technologies for the attacks.  The villain does have a touch too much mobility/reach for a single person (along the lines of the Joker in The Dark Knight), but otherwise the story works pretty well.
  • I also appreciated Pearl’s careful use of class conflict throughout the novel. We Americans like to imagine ourselves part of an classless society, at least in terms of people “knowing their station,” but Pearl reminds us that we haven’t always been so opposed to the idea that people should stay where they were.  The novel also broaches the question of technological knowledge as power — if just anyone can get access to science, then undesirable types, with low moral character, would get too much power.  We have, of course, come to see the value of widespread education as a positive thing, but Pearl grapples with the essential question of the power technology gives us over one another.  As we become ever-more-interconnected, we become more interdependent, and more vulnerable to one another.  (I’d argue we become stronger together too, but there it is.)

Pearl also discusses the relationship between technological innovation, science, education, and capitalism.  To whit, one rant from a character:

How long before all industry finds itself bankrupt? 10 years from now, it will not be a question of how many men you employ, but only how many ideas you own.  With the inventions to come the railroad and the telegraph will seem as silly and prosaic to your sons as stagecoaches do to you…. Imagine the public in control of the railroad. Imagine each citizen with a steam engine of his own. A telegraph wire at his disposal at his parlor table. A vast Pandora’s box that would be opened by the destructive decisions and incompetence.  Corporations manage the forces of science for the benefit, for the safety of all. To grant free access to technology? That is the fatal danger.

Such has long been the worry of most or many technologies, no? Technology is power, and providing access to it takes power away from those who’d formerly held that power.  Pearl constructs the build-up to this discussion well, so it doesn’t feel forced or heavy-handed.

Stephen Hoye does a fine job throughout the novel, using East Coast accents where applicable without overdoing it, developing easily-distinguished voices to use.  The Technologists isn’t an amazing book — it’s not quite as good, in my thinking, Pearl’s The Dante Club, but it’s darn impressive nonetheless.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everythingby Bill Bryson; narrated by Richard Matthews

Once again, Bryson turns his hand to something new (he’s written travel books, history, language, memoir, and now science!).  Of course, he does it with aplomb and skill, not to mention a heavy dose of humor.  A Short History of Nearly Everything functions like a quick primer of the state of science circa 2002.  It’s a little dated in certain parts (as in the discussion of DNA, the last eight years have actually revealed a lot), but overall it’s really interesting.  He writes about cosmology, astronomy, geology, vulcanology, platetechtonics, climatology, biology, chemistry, evolution, and paleontology, among others.  Skipping from discovery to discovery, he traces out key ideas through key thinkers, giving us plenty to think about in how they worked and what they were like.  It’s a delight.  A few extra thoughts, mostly in the form of fun stuff I’ve now learned:

  • Huge ecosystem-shaking planet strikes from meteors are very common, from a geological standpoint; at least every 100k years or so. Ice Ages also happen pretty regularly, and the super volcano under Yellowstone that erupts every 650k years hasn’t erupted for 650k years.
  • There have been a lot of petty, mean scientists mixed in with the nice ones.  I was especially irritated to learn how badly Rosalind Franklin, one of the four scientists most responsible for discovering DNA’s double-helix, had been treated.  I’ve decided to read the 2002 biography of her for Ada Lovelace day.
  • After documenting all the ways human beings, particularly 19th Century naturalists, had caused the extinction of numerous species, Bryson writes something to the effect of “If a divine creator were to select a species to husband and care for all the other species on Earth, it could hardly to worse than to choose human beings.”
  • While many of the discussions of geology and astronomy and physics were interesting, I found the life sciences sections most rewarding.  When he starts to write about evolution, he lays out all the ways evolution depends on “random chance” to assemble its creatures, then he reveals that this is a creationist misinterpretation, and demolishes it.
  • Looking at the large mammals who lived not so long ago, he remarks that there used to be “guinea pigs the size of rhinoceroses and rhinoceroses the size of two story houses.”  Also, the era just after the KT event that killed the dinosaurs could quite reasonably be called the age of the turtle after its most diverse and dominant species.

Richard Matthews brings a fine solemnity to the proceedings, cracking Bryson’s jokes with what you can be sure is a straight face.

Clever Bird

"Feathered Dinosaurs 2" cc-licensed image by Aaron Gustafson
“Feathered Dinosaurs 2” cc-licensed by Aaron Gustafson

Found via BoingBoing:

Goodbye, Overgrown Lizards?

Previously, paleontologists have found feathers only on coelurosaurs—birdlike dinosaurs that evolved later than so-called megalosaurs such as Sciurumimus.

Because Sciurumimus is not closely related to coelurosaurs, the new fossil suggests feathered dinosaurs were the norm, not the exception, Rauhut said.

“Probably all dinosaurs were feathered,” he added, “and we should say good bye to the familiar image of the overgrown lizards.”

Previous research had already suggested that feathers were widespread in the Cretaceous and late Jurassic periods (prehistoric time line), noted Corwin Sullivan, a paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing—even if few specimens have been found.

Feathered-dinosaur remains are sparse because “we only find them in places where conditions were just right for their bodies to be buried and preserved in a way that kept the feathers as well as the bones intact,” Sullivan, who was not involved in the research, noted by email. (link)

Thank God Steven Spielberg made Jurassic Park instead of George Lucas.  If Lucas were behind the film, we’d soon be seeing Jurassic Park: Special Edition, with new ILM Featherfonic Technology.  Either way, a whole new generation of dinosaur artists have something new to paint now.

The Titanic Documentary Avalanche

What really sank the Titanic?
What really sank the Titanic?*

Since the week of the 100th anniversary, I’ve watched several Titanic documentaries I recorded off History and Discovery in the week preceding 14 April..  Some thoughts:

Titanic’s Sister Ship: The Sinking of the Britannic

  • Good: decent footage of deep wreck diving by experienced divers Chatterton and Kohler (from the excellent book Shadow Divers).
  • Bad: About 30 minutes of fluff and 10 minutes of actual wreck diving.
  • Other observations: this really had nothing to do with Titanic at all, and to use the more famous ship in the title was just cheesy.  Also, the events here were documented in Titanic’s Last Secrets.

The Titanic’s Last Secrets

  • Good: interesting documentation of discovery of a couple key bottom portions of the ship.
  • Bad: A lot of cheesy music intended to make the dive seem more exciting than the footage allowed.
  • Other observations: You’ll get tired of the phrase ribbons of steel.  Really, you will.

Titanic’s Achilles Heel
Expands on the information from the previous two docs — follows Chatterton and Kohler on a boring dive of Britannic.  Should have been blended into the episode about Britannic — there was plenty of fluff they could have trimmed to make the two into one episode.

  • Good: The historical portion of the show focused on the hearings in both the U.S. and Britain.  Interesting recap of the British whitewash and American scouring.  The brief discussion of how the changed expansion joint would have been stronger works nicely.
  • Bad: Underwater footage is terrible — the viewer sees none of the interesting new evidence they find.  The bulb at the end of the expansion joint–the key discovery–is invisible to the viewer.  Making a lot of hay out of nothing (as in: Will the inexperienced Greek boat captain be able to find the wreck? Yes, he did it! Ugh.)
  • Other observations: The documentary leaves out poor Stanley Lord of the Californian.  He took quite a whipping in both investigations, but has been exonerated so these docs ignore him completely.
  • Writing of scapegoats, the poor naval architect Roger Long gets full credit for being wrong in this episode.  Every chance they get, the narrator says “Roger Long believes… .”  Then we see him admit that they’ve “shot holes in his theory.”  It’s like a little schadenfreude in lieu of something interesting to see on the dive.

Titanic at 100: Mystery Solved!

  • Good: cool robots being used to map 15 square miles of ocean floor around the wreck site, accident investigators hired to piece together what happened, cool digital effects, cool footage of the wreck site.
  • Bad: if you strung together the content of the 120-minute show without commercials, re-caps, or pre-commercial promos, it’s probably no more than 70 minutes of show.  Lame.
  • Other observations: the show doesn’t mention the stop/start detailed in Last Log of the Titanic, has flawed explanations of the rivet tests (or else flawed tests), offers same old excuses for deaths.  Only Andrews comes out looking better because they decided there was not a technical flaw in the ship’s design.

*I spent a couple minutes trying to track down the original fabricator of this image, to no avail.  Such things circulate on the Internet much like jokes in daily life — yes, someone told it originally, but its author gets lost in circulation.  The difference, of course, is that re-posting an image someone else made takes no creative spark or ability whatsoever.  Telling jokes takes at least a memory and a performative spirit.


Packing for Mars

Packing for Mars
Packing for Mars

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
by Mary Roach, narrated by Sandra Burr

In Packing for Mars, you will learn how much volume of flatus a burrito causes the average human to expel, you will learn that Russian scientists regularly smuggle alcohol aboard to bribe cosmonauts to conduct their experiments carefully, and you’ll join Mary Roach as she digs through archives both astronomical and pornographic in an attempt to learn whether humans have ever had sex in space.  As with her previous books, Roach takes us on a whirlwind tour of the people and places where research is being done, and uses her footnotes to keep us laughing throughout. A few thoughts:

  • While it was interesting, this book scores higher on the grody scale than any of her previous books have done.  I haven’t read Stiff, though.  Spook had only the mildest grossouts, and Bonk‘s issues were challenges to my  modesty rather than my stomach.  Strangely, I thought the chapter on food prep was more disgusting than the chapter on evacuation.  I think Roach intended it this way.
  • I love the bits of dialogue Roach includes from oral histories and tapes of crew conversations with mission control.  Jim Lovell and his partner on the Gemini missions were particularly funny.
  • I listened to the audio of this book, so I wasn’t in danger of missing any of the footnotes.  Be sure you consult them, if you read the physical book.  They’re where she stashes her best comedic gems, like Groucho Marx mumbling asides to the audience.
  • I didn’t realize how much your body maximizes efficiency all the time.  Apparently astronauts lose massive bone density and weight in ways that don’t completely heal.  When there was a crash coming back from the ISS, they weren’t as much worried that the astronaut wouldn’t be able to get out of the capsule, but that when she did she’d break a hip running away.
  •  I love the moments where Roach mentions her husband, who puts up with her science writing antics.  I remember fondly the descriptions of talking him into joining her for intimate time in an MRI machine while she was writing Bonk.  I’m not sure how that compares to having her store potable recycled (and purified) urine in their refrigerator.

Once again, Roach writes with intelligence, wit, and savvy about her science of choice.  She covers a wide range of topics and speaks to scientists throughout the world.  A great, entertaining read.

The Wave

The Wave
The Wave

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean
by Susan Casey, narrated by Kristen Potter

For years, sailors have told tales of freak waves, three or four times the size of the surrounding waters.  Dozens of ships disappear each year, often swamped without a sound or any warning by these freak waves.  In The Wave, Casey chronicles two groups of people who pursue and study these waves — ocean scientists who want to understand the physics that create these strange waves, and big wave surfers who want to understand the core of their being by riding the biggest waves they can.  A few thoughts:

  • Casey is a remarkable writer, deft in telling the stories of surfers and the ideas of scientists.  She deploys an endless variety of descriptive adjectives and powerful images as she describes wave after wave after wave.  She knows just the right balance to make between explanation and excitement, between description and action.
  • While I found the science part of the book interesting and the shipwreck/ shipping stories compelling, the tales of surfers are both the core of the book and the most interesting part.  Casey paints a strong picture of her main subject,  Laird Hamilton, an early pioneer of tow-surfing (the process of being flung onto fast-moving gigantic waves by a jet ski) who believes more in the philosophy of big wave surfing than the commercial practice the industry has become.
  • The utter destructive power of the freak waves Casey describes makes the prospect of sea travel absolutely frightening.  When ships encounter these freak waves, they are overwhelmed and often sink with little or no warning or chance for lifeboats.  Most distressingly, many of the ships are far past their sell-by date, being crewed by substandard captains and third-world crews.   She also writes in very compelling–and terrifying–ways about the grim prospect of uber-tsunamis that threaten the coasts.  These waves, which occur so rarely as to be unheard of by anyone NOT taking core samples, will sweep dozens of miles inland, scouring the ground.  And there are some very populated places that are due.
  • In Casey’s conversations with wave scientists, she regularly asked about whether we’re seeing changes in the oceans due to climate change.  Pretty much every one of the scientists she spoke to hesitated–you could sense their gunshy language in talking to a writer about this–and then said that, yes, climate change is disrupting the oceans.  Yes, the waves are getting bigger.
  • I listened to The Wave as an audio book, so when I first heard about Hamilton’s big-wave method, I thought the term for it was toe surfing, referring somehow to the way one rides the board in big waves, or something.  Casey quickly explains that the only way for a surfer to get moving fast enough to keep the pace of a big wave is to be towed by a jet-ski and launched onto the wave.  Thus, it became clear to me that it was tow-surfing, not toe surfing.  Despite this realization, I still heard toe surfing for most of the book.

As with Devil’s Teeth, Casey does a great job telling a complex tale involving science, adventure, and the ocean.  It’s a solid read, well worth a listen.


Regarding IL bill HB 4085

Hello Rep Yarbrough,

I’m emailing as a constituent of yours (resident of the 900 block of Elgin Avenue in Forest Park, IL) to urge you to vote NO on HB 4085.

As a Democrat, I suspect you are already voting this way, but I would urge you to consider the following post, written by a doctor on John Scalzi (a prominent SF novelist) blog, in discussing the issue with your colleagues.

Thank you for your time.
Brendan Riley