Category Archives: science

Books about science.

Review 219: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

LL 219 - The Pleasure of Finding Things OutThe Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman

Here’s the problem with having high expectations: they’re so often dashed.

In my years trawling the web and being a science nerd, I heard a lot about Richard Feynman. There are legends about him, that he was the Puck of physics – brilliant, untamed, and really, really funny. I read another book of his, Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I thought that this book, with a title that appealed to me and by an author-scientist whom I respected, would be as much fun.

When I got the book, I was expecting to read a lightning-quick volley of ideas that would set my mind alight with the wonder and infinite possibilities contained within a lifetime’s pursuit of science.

Yeah, that didn’t quite happen.

"Robert Oppenheimer kept formulas in this watch, son. And do you know where he put it?"

“Robert Oppenheimer kept formulas in this watch, son. And let me tell you – Feynman never found it”

Don’t get me wrong – Feynman is indisputably brilliant, and far from the classic mold of the physicist. He had no patience for titles or honors, and in fact couldn’t give a damn about them as long as he had science to do. He would tell Nobel laureates – men whose names were bywords for scientific brilliance – that they were wrong, without hedging or worrying about their egos. He liked to play the bongos, loved a good party, and delighted in playing tricks. One of his more irritating hobbies was safe-cracking, and by the time he left Los Alamos labs after the Manhattan Project there were no places left to hide secrets from Feynman.

So Feynman was no doubt a really cool guy, the kind of scientist you would want to invite to your party without hesitation. His first interest was science, and as scientist go, he was one of the best.

That doesn’t mean that reading him is always entirely entertaining.

The book is, for me, not very readable for two reasons. The first is that it goes get terribly technical at times, and while I love science, I am not educated enough in it to grasp a lot of the technical details. Indeed, it broke my heart when Feynman said that, when it comes to physics, if you don’t know the math, you don’t know the science. True, yes. Humbling, yes. But still….

Were I editing a collection of Feynman’s work, I would have started with the Big Ideas, defenses of science as an integral function of humanity’s ultimate progress. Then, having made the reader comfortable with how Feynman thought, they could have gotten into what Feynman thought.

The pitcher of ice water was an integral demonstration item, by the way.

The pitcher of ice water was an integral demonstration item, by the way.

But no, the book starts off with highly technical lectures on quantum electrodynamics and the difficulties in getting parallel computers to work. If you don’t know a lot about how computers work, or you don’t have a detailed awareness of atomic theory, you’re going to be a little lost. Or a lot lost. Even his minority opinion on the Challenger accident, something I was especially keen to read, was far too dry to be as enjoyable as I wanted it to be.

The second reason why I didn’t really enjoy this book is because a lot of it is transcripts of speeches and interviews. Very few people are able to speak in a readable manner, and someone with a mind like Feynman’s – always moving, always active – isn’t one of them. There are a lot of asides and false starts, wandering thoughts and truncated paragraphs. Even his more structured speeches aren’t structured very well for the reader.
I think it would be different to listen to him, to sit in the audience and watch the man speak. Indeed, if you go to YouTube and look around, there are a lot of videos from interviews that he gave, and he’s great fun to watch. He had the kind of infectious energy and enthusiasm that would make it easy to gloss over structural problems and really enjoy the speech. When you listen, you easily get the passion that he has for science and for physics in particular. Turning speech into print is always dangerous, however, and here I think it fails.

The first image in a search for "Feynman Acolytes." Tell me this man couldn't have been a cult leader.

The first image in a search for “Feynman Acolytes.” Tell me this man couldn’t have been a cult leader.

For different people – people who are deeply involved in physics or who are Feynman acolytes – this book is probably a fascinating look into the mind of one of the 20th century’s greatest scientists. For the rest of us, we’re going to have to find other things to enjoy from the text, and it is there. One of those is, indeed, the title of the book – the pleasure of finding things out.

For Feynman, science wasn’t a rigor or a job, it was a joy. He attributes a lot of that attitude to his father, an unlikely fan of science. As a uniform salesman, Feynman’s father was not a scientist and had no scientific training. But he raised his son to think about the world. Rather than tell him why, for example, a bird picked at its feathers with its beak, encouraged Richard to observe the bird, to form a hypothesis and then see if observations confirmed it. His father taught him to question everything, to form his own opinions about the world, and by doing so, made him into a scientist from an early age.

It is that attitude which should be the dominant theme of this book, rather than Feynman’s technical genius. He says, over and over, to doubt everything. Ask yourself why things are the way they are, rather than just relying on what other people tell you. Observe, experiment and test, and you’re doing science.

He has some disdain for social sciences, and a pretty healthy dose of misogyny in a couple of places, but if he is arrogant, then it is probably deserved. Feynman was a man fascinated with how the universe worked, all the way down to its smallest components, and that was his passion. Not awards, not titles, not praise – just the work, the discovery and the pleasure.

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“I don’t know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.”
– Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
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Filed under essays, memoir, physics, Richard Feynman, science

Review 218: Why does E=MC2?

LL 218 - Why Does EMC2Why Does E=mc2? by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

Way back in the mists of ancient time, when I was a college drama student, we all went down to New York City to see Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. I don’t remember much of it now, but I remember it had to do with math and fractals, time and space, and that when the play was over and we all went outside for a smoke, I had a moment of what could only be called sublime clarity. I stood out there with my cigarette, staring off into the middle distance, and – for just an ever-so-brief time – I understood everything.

Not the play, mind you. Everything. It all made sense. It was nothing I could have put into words or explained in any period of time shorter than a lifetime, but it all worked. It all fit together, and I knew what the universe was and what my place in it was. It’s probably how Fenchurch felt in The Hitchhiker’s Guide right before the Earth was demolished.

It... it all makes sense now.

It… it all makes sense now.

And that feeling was wonderful.

It passed, though, because no one can be allowed to hold on to that kind of clarity of understanding. We’d never get anything done. By the time I got on the bus, I was trying to claw my way back to it, understanding but not caring that this was a place you couldn’t find the same way twice. The fine, crystalline perfection of the universe had once again been hidden from my mind, and all that was left was the memory of what it had felt like to know that everything was as it should be.

Reading this book was kind of the opposite of that experience. On every page, I knew that if I would be able to hold on to these ideas just a moment longer, if I could just put the pieces together a little faster, then I would have true understanding of the elegant beauty of creation. But I couldn’t, and I was left with the feeling that it was my own shortcomings that were at fault, rather than those of the authors.

Cox and Forshaw have set a very interesting challenge for themselves in this book. They want to explain one of the most famous equations in human history, and to do it in such a way that the non-scientist reader can understand not only what it means, but where it came from and what its implications are. This is no mean feat, of course, on any front. For all its simplicity, E=mc2 contains within it some of the most important and fundamental understandings about how the universe works. To truly understand this equation is to understand time and space, matter and energy, existence in four dimensions and at scales both vast and tiny.

They begin with what looks like a very simple question: where are we? Galileo pondered this question for a while, and came up with an answer that was probably both enlightening and horrifying for his time.

We don’t know.

Very helpful, thank you.

Very helpful, thank you.

Oh sure, we can know where we are in relation to something else – between a pair of arbitrarily numbered latitude and longitude lines, for example, or at a position around the star that we orbit. But a moment’s thought reveals that we still need to explain where the reference point is, and that we can only explain that in relation to something else, which can only be positioned by yet another relative measurement. In other words, there is no such things as an absolute location in space. There is no universal “there” there by which we can understand the position of anything.

Man, that must’ve freaked him out.

The next insight is that if there is no absolute place, then there also cannot be any absolute motion. As I type this, I am sitting in my comfy chair. As far as I’m concerned, I’m motionless. But I’m not. To an alien on the moon, I’m moving with the Earth’s rotation, whipping past at a breakneck pace of about 1,600 kilometers per hour. On top of that, the Earth is moving around the sun at over 100,000 km/h. which is in turn dragging the whole solar system around the center of the galaxy at roughly 220 kilometers per second, and the galaxy itself is moving through intergalactic space at over 600 km/s, and space itself is expanding at what can only be Ludicrous Speed.

So questions that seem like they should be simple turn out to be really hard to answer. But what comes next is even worse: if there is no absolute place or motion, then what about time? How can we have an immutable, fixed time if there is no such thing as an immutable, fixed place?

Look, I don't know how to make it any simpler than this.

Look, I don’t know how to make it any simpler than this.

Cox and Forshaw proceed to lead us by the hand through the discoveries and realizations of scientists such as Faraday and Maxwell, with a little bit of Pythagoras and Galileo, before bringing us to Einstein and beyond. Through the use of lightspeed trains, mirror-clocks, and a whole variety of illustrative analogies, they take us step-by-step through the process of moving from our understanding of three-dimensional semi-Euclidean space to a four-dimensional spacetime. They guide us through physics and geometry, on scales both large and small, and show not just what E=mc2 means, but how Einstein got to it, and how we’ve proven it so far.

In that sense, this book is a great success. The popular vision of Einstein is that he came up with Relativity because he was bored at work, and that it popped into his head fully formed. But without the work of countless scientists before him, Einstein wouldn’t have had a place to start. E=mc2 is built on the foundations of meticulous science, and is supported by a logical structure that is both elegant and simple. What’s more, his theories of relativity have been tested again and again in all kinds of ways, and they have stood up to those tests. And not for lack of trying, mind you – there isn’t a physicist alive who wouldn’t be thrilled to prove Einstein wrong and propose a more accurate version of reality. But so far, it seems to be the best explanation there is.

For all their care and meticulousness, however, the book is still a bit tough to get through. One of the things that got in my way was how they constantly apologized for using math. I understand why they did it – a lot of adults have a hate-fear relationship with math, and especially equations that start using letters. Math still has an element of mystery and wizardry about it, at least if you’re not very proficient in it, and I get that they didn’t want to scare off any math-phobics from their book.

Wau!

Wau!

But at the same time, I think I would rather they had said, “Okay, follow along with us – it’s about to get MATHTASTIC!” Well, maybe not those words, but I started to get a little tired of being talked to like a timid child as the book went on. They said over and over that I could skip the math parts if I wanted to, and sure enough that’s what I ended up doing. But I think I would have come out of this book with a much better sense of understanding and accomplishment if Cox and Forshaw had said, “We’re going to do math and you’re going to understand it.” As it is, they talked to me like I was a slightly dim child, and I still didn’t fully understand. So what, then, does that say about me?

That I seriously overthink things, for a start.

In any case, even if I didn’t get the math, and didn’t see where all their conclusions came from – especially when they started going over the Master Equation of particle physics near the end – I at least came away with a better understanding of both the chain of reasoning that led to E=mc2 and the ramifications it has on our understanding of the universe. I don’t understand everything this time, at least not yet, but I know more. And that will have to do.

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“Science at its best is driven by inquiring minds afforded the freedom to dream, coupled with the technical ability and discipline to think.”
– Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw, Why Does E=mc2?

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Filed under astronomy, astrophysics, Brian Cox, Jeff Forshaw, mathematics, physics, science

Review 202: Time Traveler

Time Traveler by Ronald Mallett, with Bruce Henderson

There are a lot of reasons to want to build a time machine. To learn the truth about historical places and events, to see creatures that have been extinct for millions of years, to kill Hitler – always a favorite. You could go to the Library of Alexandria and save the works of great scientists and philosophers that have been lost to history. You could document the Crucifixion or watch the fall of Rome first-hand. You could see Jimi or Elvis or Janice or Kurt in their heyday, watch the original performances of Shakespeare’s plays, or talk engineering with DaVinci. With a time machine, the whole of history is open to you, and your options are just about limitless.

All Ron Mallett wanted to do with his time machine was see his dad.

Mastering time travel is easier if you have several lifetimes.

This book is not just about how one man went about figuring out how to travel through time. That in itself would be interesting, since time travel has been a dream of mankind ever since we figured out that time was a thing. There’s a lot of complicated science that goes into not just manipulating time, but figuring out that it can be manipulated, and it takes half a lifetime to master. A lot of popular science books focus on the science, unsurprisingly, and talk about how certain things were discovered and what can be done with them in the future.

That’s all well and good, but this book adds an extra element that’s often missing from other popular science texts. It talks about why.

When Ron Mallett was ten years old, his father died of a heart attack brought about by a combination of smoking, poor dietary choices, and a genetic inclination towards heart problems. Overnight, the man that young Ron loved and idolized was gone, leaving him directionless at an age when having a father can be so very important. With the loss of a beloved parent, it’s entirely possible that Ron could have seen his life crippled from that day onward.

It might have been, if not for H.G. Wells and his famous book, The Time Machine.

After he read this book, the notion that time could be navigated became the center of his life. His first attempt at a time machine – built of pipes and wires in his basement – was unsuccessful, of course. But he was undeterred, and realized that if he was going to make this dream come true, he would have to buckle down and start learning some science. Just the idea that he might one day build a machine to travel through time was enough to give him direction and purpose, and it set him on a course that would go on to define his life.

If he manages to make this work, the UCONN Velociraptors will be unstoppable!

The book is a memoir of his own travels through the world of physics and relativity, moving from one point to another as new ideas and discoveries signposted his route towards a theory of time travel. Initially guided by Einstein, Mallett went from being a young academic to programming computers for the Air Force, to becoming a full-fledged academic at the University of Connecticut. He makes sure that the reader can not only follow all the steps that he took, but that we can also see why he took them. What chance encounters and lucky finds pushed him forward, or what unfortunate incidents slowed him down. He reminds us all throughout the book of why he has chosen to do science, and never lets us forget this motivation.

At the same time, he is sure to tell us about two rather significant obstacles to his progress. The first, of course, was that he felt he couldn’t be honest about why he was studying what he was studying – relativity, black holes, lasers, that kind of thing. For fear that he would be labeled a crackpot and denied the opportunities he would need, he revealed his ambition to build a time machine only to those he felt he could absolutely trust. As far as anyone else was concerned, of course, he was just another theoretical physicist trying to figure out how the universe worked.

The other challenge he faced was that he was African-American in a field that was very, very white at the time. He had to deal with racism in both its overt and covert forms, and work even harder to prove himself to those who couldn’t – or wouldn’t – see past his skin color. He doesn’t dwell on it in this book, since that’s not what this book is about. But I’m sure if he wanted to write about what it was like trying to break into physics academia as an African-American in the 60s and 70s, he probably could.

Ladies and gentlemen, the father of time travel.

What’s most important, though, is that he continually reminds us of why he’s doing what he’s doing. He talks about his father, and the memories he had of him. He keeps his non-academic life in view, letting us in on his personal triumphs and failures, his struggles with depression and his joys at advancing towards his goal. The end result is a book that is not only about science, but about a person. The emotional thread that runs through this book is strong, and even if you can’t quite follow the science, you can still follow the passion that Ron Mallett has for this project.

The book, while fascinating, is technically unfinished. He has yet to build his time machine, and there’s no proof that the ideas he’s come forward with will actually work, even if the math says they should. As the book finishes, he has a plan, and he lays out the way he thinks his machine should work, but we’ll have to wait to see how that works out. Whether he succeeds or fails, though, he has built up a lifetime of research that has expanded our understanding of space and time in such a way that Einstein – and Ron Mallett’s father – would no doubt be proud of.

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“Time stopped for me in the middle of the night on May 22, 1955.”
– Ron Mallett, “Time Traveler”
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Ron Mallett on Wikipedia
Time Traveler on Amazon.com
Ron Mallett’s UCONN homepage

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Filed under autobiography, nonfiction, physics, quest, Ron Mallett, school, time travel

Review 188: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks has probably saved your life. If not yours, then almost certainly that of someone you know.

And you don’t even know who she is.

Or, rather, who she was. The original Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who lived near Baltimore, grew up in poverty, worked hard, and died in 1951, overcome by a cancer that started in her cervix and spread out to take over her whole body. She left behind five children, a husband, and a legacy that would forever change our understanding of biology and medicine.

This picture is required to be inserted into any discussion of Henrietta Lacks, for good reason.

When she first went to Johns Hopkins Medical Center and was diagnosed with cancer, her doctor took a small sample of cells from the tumor and sent it to his colleague, George Gey. Gey had long been in the pursuit of what seemed like an impossible dream: to culture human cells and keep them alive in the lab. By doing so, he hoped to create new ways to test medicine and study human biology without all those pesky patients getting in the way. Unfortunately, his work had thus far been a failure. Human cells, no matter how hard he tried, simply would not survive outside the body for very long. Gey tried all kinds of media and methods, inventing some machines that have become invaluable to cell culture research, but he simply watched culture after culture die in the lab.

All of that changed when he got HeLa.

The cells from Henrietta Lacks, which were known as “HeLa,” not only didn’t die – they thrived. They were so robust that Gey and his staff soon had more HeLa cells than they could keep, much less use, so they started sending them off to any researcher who asked. With HeLa, researchers around the world began to make discoveries that would save lives and change the world.

But with this ever-growing cell line – which was baked, boiled, frozen, irradiated, cloned, cut up, and sent into space – it was very easy to forget that there was once a woman named Henrietta Lacks, with a family and a legacy of her own.

Plenty has been written about HeLa in the last fifty years, and any researcher who works with cells is probably well aware of its existence and importance. But very few people know about Henrietta, and it was this oversight that Rebecca Skloot is trying to correct in this book.

Henrietta finally gets a gravestone

She began her quest with a simple question: “Who was Henrietta Lacks?” The fact that she got the right name was surprising enough, actually. HeLa had previously been identified as Henrietta Lakes, Helen Lane, and Helen Larson in various publications. Skloot believed that there was more to the story than just a bunch of immortal cells, and was determined to find Henrietta’s surviving relatives and learn more about this woman who had somehow become so important to the world.

Skloot wouldn’t be the first, however. A writer for Rolling Stone, a con man, and the BBC had all attempted to look into the life of Henrietta before, and found that the surviving Lackses were not only unaware of what their mother had become, but largely unaware of why it was important.

The children and grandchildren of Henrietta Lacks had grown up in the Baltimore area, mired in the poverty of being black in the end of the twentieth century. Drug abuse, alcoholism, and a lack of education meant that their lives were full of hardship and struggle, and not likely to get any better. When they found out that Henrietta’s cells were not only unique to science but being sold all around the world, this was news that they weren’t all prepared to cope with. Some saw it as a religious visitation, others as a massive conspiracy, and still others as just a way to make money off some poor black folk from the city.

Deborah Lacks

The center of Skloot’s narrative is Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter and the one Lacks who seemed most determined to find out what had happened. Deborah wanted so hard to find out what had happened to her mother that it almost killed her. The stress of not knowing – or, even worse, knowing but not understanding – took a heavy toll on her physical and mental health, and she was reluctant to talk to anyone at all about her mother. But it was Deborah that Rebecca had to convince if she was going to write this book, and in order to do that, she had to promise that the book would be about the woman Henrietta was, not just the cells she was famous for.

That’s probably what makes this book as readable and engaging as it is. While the science is handled well and smoothly, it’s not nearly as fascinating or emotionally gripping as the stories that she tells about the Lacks family. She shows us a family that is held together by the strength of their faith in their God and each other, and who are desperately trying to understand their place in the world and how Henrietta came to be what she was.

HeLa cells, as seen stained under a microscope

When the original cells were taken from Henrietta, it was done without her consent. She also had no say in what happened to those cells and how they were used, nor did any of her family find out the truth until years later. In an era long before the phrase “informed consent” was even coined, the medical establishment made massive scientific and financial gains, and in the meantime the Lacks were mired in poverty. As several of her children note, Henrietta has changed medicine forever, but her children can’t go see a doctor.

The struggle to understand must have been enormous. One of the moments that was most surprising and illuminating to me was when Henrietta’s son Zakariyya asked Rebecca, “What’s a cell?”

Just like Rebecca, I had to take a moment to absorb that question, and it put into sharp perspective the vast assumptions that I had made, coming from a well-educated white background. I thought that everyone at least knew what a cell was, but that assumption couldn’t have been further from the truth. Deborah and her family are people of minimal formal education who are trying to understand a topic that people study for their entire lives. Their dedication to this quest is so strong, and the struggle is so great that their attempt is nothing less than heroic, to my way of seeing things.

The Lacks Family

The story is still unfinished. HeLa is still out there, making news and causing trouble. The Lacks family is still living in poverty, although the new generation has been able to go to school and are aiming at a brighter future for themselves. And while patients’ rights to control what is done with their bodies and their tissues is improving, the law is still on the side of the doctors and hospitals. Medical ethics is a lot better than it was, but the fight is fierce, especially when there’s money involved.

This book is not just the story of cells or of science. It’s the story of a woman and her family, and how sometimes people get lost in the inexorable movement of scientific progress. Some parts are infuriating, some are heartbreaking, but the book is an illumination into what is sometimes sacrificed in pursuit of a better world.

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“When I saw those toenails, I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”
– Mary Kubicek, assistant to George Gey

Rebecca Skloot on Wikipedia
Henrietta Lacks on Wikipedia
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on Wikipedia
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on Amazon.com
The Henrietta Lacks Foundation website
The Lacks Family website
Rebecca Skloot homepage

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Filed under biology, disease, family, nonfiction, quest, Rebecca Skloot, science

Review 187: The Physics of Superheroes

The Physics of Super-Heroes by James Kakalios

Comics have always had a rough relationship with science. Many comics had their roots in science fiction, so it cannot be said that science is entirely missing from comic books. It’s just that, occasionally, science gets in the way of a good character or a good story. When that happens, one of them has to go. Since comics are a medium for storytelling, it’s easy to guess which one loses out.

As long as you can suspend your disbelief, the egregious abuse of science in comics can be overlooked. Things that we know to be impossible are not only forgiven when reading comics (and many other forms of fiction, be they movies, TV or books) it is truly necessary. I mean, that’s the whole point of fiction – to show us a world that isn’t our own.

And a lot of those nitpickers were overjoyed at this sequence. (World’s Finest #4, 2012)

Still, for the nitpickers, there’s plenty to object to in comics. Gross violations of the square/cube law, impossible particles, anatomical impossibilities, causality problems – you name it. It’s very easy to look at the use of science in comics and point out what they’re doing wrong.

So why has James Kakalios gone to so much trouble to point out what comics get right?

Two reasons, really – he loves comic books and he loves teaching physics. And he found (much to his pleasure, I’d imagine) that he could do both at the same time, using comic book examples to boost the interest of his students, making it the kind of physics class I would have loved to have taken.

In this book, Kakalios gives us a basic physics course in a few brief sittings, starting with the Newtonian Classics and working his way up to quantum physics. By using the popular superheroes of the day, he gives us a way of thinking about physics that is not only interesting, but also makes sense.

We’re right there with you, Kyle. (JLA #19, 1998)

For example, he uses good old f=ma (with a few extra bits of math thrown in here and there) to determine exactly how fast Superman (back in his Golden Age, pre-flight incarnation) was going when he leapt over buildings in a single bound. He looks at The Flash and how he might use quantum tunneling to go through walls, as well as why running on water would not only be possible, but at the speeds the Flash reaches, absolutely necessary. And of course, the Atom gets a lot of page space when it comes time to look at the world of the incredibly small, and the quantum rules that govern it.

Could Spider-Man’s webbing really allow him to swing like that, and why was Gwen Stacy’s death one of the best uses of physics in a comic? How are Iceman and Storm’s powers related, and how do Magneto’s powers really work? Did Krypton have a core of neutron star material? Does Conservation of Energy apply to the Flash, and how does the technology work to make Iron Man’s suit possible?

Two things make this book much more entertaining than The Science of Superheroes. The first is that it focuses solely on science, instead of trying to split its attention between the science, the characters and the history of the comic book industry. This is a real science book, despite the presentations – there are formulas in here, and it does sag a bit in places (especially the quantum physics part, but he does warn us about that).

The Hulk’s pants are a HUGE miracle exception. And I want the number of his tailor.

But that’s okay, because Kakalios isn’t out to debunk these heroes, and that’s the other reason why this book is good. He grants them a “miracle exception” that allows them their powers, and then asks, “Okay, assuming Ant-Man can shrink down to six inches, would he still be able to do what he does?” And then he goes on to show how the hero can (or can’t) do what he’s supposed to be able to do.

One of the biggest problems in science education is keeping students interested. Your average high school (and college) physics class will go on about weights and levers and inclined planes, presenting the laws of the universe in a fairly abstract (and dull) fashion. Like many students, I found myself thinking, “When will I ever actually use any of this?” For most students, the answer is Never. Same goes for a lot of what’s taught in high school – it may broaden your mind, but it’s likely to be impractical knowledge.

But knowledge doesn’t have to be practical to be worthwhile. Knowing how the universe works, what its laws and restrictions are, may not help you in your day-to-day life, but it makes you into a better citizen of the universe. It imbues the physical world with some semblance of rationality, an assurance that while we may not always like what the world throws at us, there is at least a reason for why things happen the way they do. There is consistency, there is order, and in a mixed up, topsy-turvy world like ours, that’s nice to know.

Even my disbelief will only suspend so high, GRANT MORRISON. (Action Comics #12, 2012)

What’s more, this book helps do what I always try to do – bring legitimacy to superhero comics. Even in this day and age, it’s very easy to look at Superman and Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four and say, “That’s just kids’ stuff.” It’s not. Okay, yes, the stories tend towards the simple; they’re flashy and bright and often espouse rather basic moral schemes. But they can be examined in many lights beyond that of simple entertainment, and reveal a wealth of information and understanding about the world in which we live.

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“If a twisted, evil maniac like the Green Goblin can learn physics, then there’s hope for us all.”
– James Kakalios, The Physics of Superheroes
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James Kakalios on Wikipedia
The Physics of Superheroes on Wikipedia
The Physics of Superheroes on Amazon.com
James Kakalios’ homepage

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Filed under comic books, education, James Kakalios, science, super-heroes, supervillains

Review 176: Adventures Among Ants

Adventures Among Ants by Mark W. Moffett

Moffett knew from a young age that he wanted to be a field biologist – traveling the world in search of the most interesting animals he could find. And ever since his childhood, he’s had an abiding interest in ants.

And who could blame him? There are thousands of species of ants, found all around the world, and once you get down and really look at them, they display some amazing behaviors. They communicate through a series of smells, functioning almost as a group organism to take care of the nest, forage for food, and move from place to place. Some species of ants live their whole lives without touching the ground, while others ravage the ground they walk on, devouring everything in their paths. Ants are nature’s workhorses, utterly communistic in their behavior and presenting a model of order that humans should envy.

WHERE IS YOUR GOD NOW?!

We follow Moffett as he travels around the world to find the most interesting representatives of ant-dom. In India, he found the marauder ant, a vicious species of ant that goes on raids to find food near its nest. Connected by a complex system of trails, the marauder sends out every able-bodied ant it can muster, from the tiny workers to the (comparatively) giant soldier ants. They find, subdue, and dismember their prey with frightening efficiency, and carry it back to the nest, all without a leader to give them instructions or make sure they’re going the right way. Each ant just knows what her job is, and just does it. In that way, the ant super-organism takes care of itself.

In Africa, he hunts the famous African army ant, a species that is famous for its terrifying raids and voracious appetites. They swarm out around their nest, devouring anything in their path, sometimes raiding other nests for food and larvae. When army ants come, the lucky prey gets out of the way.

Ants are not confined to the ground, of course. The weaver ant is a tree-borne species that has mastered its domain with harshness and efficiency. The Amazon ant kidnaps pupae from neighboring nests and raises the young ants as their slaves. The leafcutter ant invented agriculture fifty million years before humanity even walked the earth, and the Argentine ant lives in supercolonies that cover hundreds of square kilometers and engage in violent, no-quarters war with each other.

Hey. So. How’s that picnic?

The sheer variety of ants on this planet is astounding, and Moffett shows an unstoppable enthusiasm for the little critters. What’s more, he’s an outstanding photographer, who has developed his technique and equipment to be able to get some remarkable shots of these tiny, tiny creatures in action. The hardcover edition that I have is printed on nice, glossy paper, pretty much in order to showcase Moffett’s photographic work, which he has regularly done for National Geographic Magazine.

What’s more, he continually seeks to find connections between ants and humans, who have more similarities than one might expect. We both live in large, complex societies, where individuals take on specific roles that often last that individual’s lifetimes. We engage in wars, slavery, and varied communal activities that benefit both the individual and the society at the same time. Like us, the ants build highways and infrastructure, communicate over distances, tend gardens, hold territory, plan for the future and learn from the past. And they started doing all this thousands of millennia before we even thought about standing upright. We are not the same as ants, of course – ants are unmoved by things such as status, greed, or ambition, but their instinctual dedication to the greater good of their colony is probably something that we could use a good dose of.

For all that, however, I don’t think this was the right ant book for me. Written by a person who truly loves ants, I think that would be the best kind of person to read it. I don’t have a particular fondness for the little buggers, and there were a lot of times where I had to stop and start over, or where I found myself looking for anything else to do rather than continue reading, which is never a good sign. It isn’t Moffett’s fault, I think. He put a lot of work and detail into this book, assuming that the reader would find ants just as fascinating as he does.

I mean I do, I DO! I’m so sorry don’t kill me!! (photo from Myrmecos.net)

And I don’t.

Oh sure – I find them fascinating in abstract, but not quite fascinating enough to get into the down-and-dirty details about how they construct trunk trails out of their nests, or the exact division of labor that exists between one class of ant and another. I’m not sure what I thought the book would be when I saw Moffett on The Colbert Report, but it wasn’t quite enough for me to sit down and devour the way I hoped it would be.

If you like ants – or you know someone who does – this is a great book, and it gives an excellent insight into what it means to be a field biologist (lots of staying in one place, apparently). For anyone who really loves insects in general, and ants in particular, this book will be a welcome addition to their bookshelf.

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“Is [an ant] intelligent? To my way of thinking, yes. We know a worker can evaluate the living space, ceiling height, entry dimensions, cleanliness, and illumination of a potential new home for her colony – a masterly feat, considering that she’s a roving speck with no pen, paper, or calculator.”
– Mark Moffett, Adventures Among Ants

Mark Moffett on Wikipedia
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Review 175: The Last Continent

The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett

Quick – what do you know about Australia?

I reckon if you live in Australia, you probably know quite a lot. If you’ve known someone from Australia or perhaps have visited there, you might know a few things. If your experience is limited to a few “Crocodile Dundee” movies and the Crocodile Hunter, then you could probably stand to know a little more. No matter what your level of Australiana is, though, you probably know at least enough to get a lot of enjoyment out of this book, Terry Pratchett’s homage to the strangest continent on Earth.

Now keep in mind, Pratchett does state quite clearly that this is not a book about Australia. “It’s about somewhere entirely different which happens to be, here and there, a bit… Australian.” So that’s okay then.

This adorable little thing? IT WILL END YOU.

Really, this is Pratchett’s homage to Australia, a country that he clearly likes a lot. In reality, Australia is a pretty strange place. It’s a giant island, most of which is barren desert. It’s been disconnected from the other continents for so long that evolution has given us species unlike any others on Earth. Pretty much anything that you come across, from the lowliest spider to the cutest jellyfish to the weirdest platypus, is deadly. The country is a tribute to Nature, both in its beauty and its danger, and really deserves more attention than it gets.

In one memorable scene, Death asks his Library for a complete list of dangerous animals on the continent known as XXXX, aka Fourecks. He is immediately buried under books, including Dangerous Mammals, Reptiles, Amphibians, Birds, Fish, Jellyfish, Insects, Spiders, Crustaceans, Grasses, Trees, Mosses and Lichens of Terror Incognita, volume 29c, part three. A slight exaggeration? Perhaps. He then asks for a complete list of species that are not deadly, and gets a small leaflet on which is written, “Some of the sheep.”

This book isn’t about Death, though, as much fun as that may be. This is about the worst wizard on the Disc. The classic inadvertent hero, who had seen so much of the world but only as a blur while he ran from danger. The hero who truly just wants to be left alone, perhaps with a potato – Rincewind.

What you most need to know about Rincewind is that he absolutely does not want to be a hero. He craves a boring life, one in which the most he has to worry about is whether to have his potatoes baked, mashed, or deep fried. He does not want to be chased by mad highwaymen, put in prison for sheep theft, or required to completely change the climate of an entire continent. He doesn’t want to time travel, be guided by strange, otherworldly kangaroos or fall in with a troupe of suspiciously masculine female performers. He just wants peace and quiet.

This? This is an Australian rain forest.

The universe, of course, has other ideas. And so it is up to Rincewind to once again save the day. The continent of Fourecks has never seen rain – in fact, they think the very idea of water that falls from the sky is ludicrous. But there are legends of what they call The Wet – the day when water will be found on the surface of the ground, rather than hundreds of feet below it. And while they don’t know how it will happen exactly, they do know it will happen. Lucky for Rincewind, the universe has chosen him to make sure that it does.

I really can’t list all of the Australia references because there are just too many. From drop bears to Vegemite, Mad Max to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, they’re pretty much all there.

This book is, like so many other Discworld, books, a lot of fun to read. One of the more interesting sections in the book is one that’s not strictly necessary. Exploring a strange window in the University which, for some reason, leads to a beach, the Wizards of the Unseen University find themselves marooned thousands of miles away and thousands of years back in time. On this weird little island, they meet one of the most unusual gods on the Disc – the god of evolution.

And sometimes even gods get bored.

This god isn’t interested in the normal godly things – lolling about and being worshiped, occasionally smiting a few followers here and there. As Pratchett puts it, “It is a general test of the omnipotence of a god that they can see the fall of a tiny bird. But only one god makes notes, and a few adjustments, so that next time it can fall further and faster.” This god of evolution is devoted to making life forms better, often one at a time, and lives on a strange little island where there’s only one of everything, but everything yearns to be useful. With him, the wizards are able to explore evolution and natural selection and figure out why sex is just so darn useful.

I say that this section isn’t strictly necessary because it just isn’t. It’s certainly interesting, and I suppose the god’s island is a nice echo of the real Australia, where evolution has had a long time to tinker and come up with some really weird stuff, but in terms of the story, it’s not all that important a plot point. In fact, the wizards in general don’t contribute much to the story other than to make it longer and funnier. Their exploration of evolution and Rincewind’s unwilling quest to bring rain to the barren land of Fourecks are almost wholly unrelated to each other, up until the very end.

I can’t see how a group like this would ever cause trouble.

This isn’t to say that they’re unwelcome – I love watching the wizards explore the world. The combination of personalities whenever all the wizards get together is one that offers endless hours of reading fun, and I think that without them, the book would have been less enjoyable. They’re just not essential to the plot, is all, and if that kind of thing is important to you, then you might not enjoy this book so much.

Me, I love science and I love Discworld. While the actual Science of Discworld series was kind of dry and boring in the end, I love it when Pratchett explores real-world science through the eyes of his Discworld characters. By looking at science from another perspective, he is able to make it perhaps a little more understandable to people who otherwise might write science off as “too hard.”

This book is a trip through time and space and Australia. It’s a long, strange trip, to be sure, but an entertaining one.

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“It’s not many times in your life you get the chance to die of hunger on some bleak continent some thousands of years before you’re born. We should make the most of it.”
– The Dean
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Terry Pratchett on Wikipedia
The Last Continent on Wikipedia
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