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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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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.

—–
“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 169: The Disappearing Spoon

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

One of the prettiest books I have on my shelves right now is Theodore Gray’s The Elements, a visual collection of all the elements that make up the physical universe. “Everything you can drop on your foot,” as he says. In it, he provides wonderful pictures and descriptions of the elements that we know, arranged as they would be in the periodic table. It’s a gorgeous book, one that everyone should have – especially if you have children. If you want your kids to become interested in science and investigating the world around them, you could do far worse than to have this book on your shelves.

Eventually, though, they’ll be old enough and canny enough to ask, “Well, how do we know all this? Where did we find these things, and how? And why are they in this order?” That’s the point where you hand them The Disappearing Spoon, sit back, and let Sam Kean take over.

Ytterby. By all accounts, a lovely place. Photo by Bertil Nelson on Flickr.

The story of the elements, and our understanding of them, is governed just as much by personality as by p-shells, as much by competition as by charge, as much by ego as by electrons. While the elements themselves don’t pay any attention to human affairs, the quest to understand the building blocks of matter have sent us to the hearts of stars, the depths of the earth and, for various reasons, Ytterby, Sweden. [1]

Kean starts with how he got into the elements, with a story that would horrify modern-day parents: mercury. When he was a kid, his mother would collect the mercury from broken thermometers and keep it in a little bottle on a high shelf. If they were lucky, she would let her children play with it for a while, swirling it around and watching while this shiny liquid metal split apart and fused back together perfectly, never leaving a bit of itself behind. It was a metal that flowed like water, and it was fascinating. If he had known at that age that ancient alchemists thought there were spirits living in mercury, he would not have been surprised.

Oh, mercury, How can anything so pretty be so dangerous? Photo by Len Gatey on Flickr.

Keeping an eye out for mercury, he learned that modern scientists are able to follow the expedition of Lewis and Clark using mercury. The explorers carried with them a good quantity of Dr. Benjamin Rush’s Bilious Pills, a “cure” for any illness that mainly contained mercury chloride. It was vile stuff, poisoning everyone who took it, but without an FDA around to stop this kind of nonsense, Rush made plenty of money. It probably didn’t hurt his credibility that he was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In any case, he gave samples to the Lewis and Clark expedition, and their latrine sites can still be found today by the unusually high levels of mercury that were deposited there as the men’s bodies tried to get rid of the heavy metal as quickly as possible.

Mercury also taught Kean about mythology – the Roman god of communication, modeled on the Greek message-bearer. It taught him etymology – the chemical symbol for mercury is Hg, which is derived from the Latin hydragyrum, which means “silver water.” It informed him on literature, especially the Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland, who was based on the poor crazies who used to breathe in the fumes of mercury while setting felt for their hats.

This one weird, eerie element was a door into so many other topics that he figured there must be others. And so he started work on this book, a collection of histories and tales, gossip and hearsay, all centered around the 118 physical elements that make up our universe. “As we know,” he writes, “90 percent of particles in the universe are hydrogen, and the other 10 percent are helium. Everything else, including six million billion billion kilos of earth, is a cosmic rounding error.” Within that rounding error, though, some amazing things have been found.

One look from this bearded madman and the elements fell into place right quick.

In the 19th century, the Russian Dimitri Mendeleev examined the common properties of different elements and was able to sort the elements in such a way that took advantage of their similarities. The violent alkalies along the far left, which will explode if given half a chance, and their cousins, the halogens on the far right, some of the most reactive elements in nature. Separating them are the noble gasses, which don’t react with anything unless pushed to extremes. Without knowing about electron shells and the weird quantum things that happen on the atomic level, Mendeleev managed to put together a table so good that he was able to leave gaps in it that corresponded to elements that hadn’t yet been found. And by telling the world that these gaps existed, the race to isolate and discover the elements was on.

Kean’s book is a great look at the way science works on a human level. How the search for high-quality porcelain led to the discovery of an entire class of elements, how Marie Curie would get into trouble by dragging her (male) colleagues into dark closets to show them how radium glowed, how nitrogen kills with kindness and lithium quiets an unsettled mind. The competition to not only find these elements but to name them and find uses for them has driven science forward in all fields, from geology to neurology, for the last two hundred years. Those 118 squares on the periodic table have driven men to travel the world, to create economic and political empires, to love, to hate, and to murder.

If this kind of thing were taught in high school chemistry class, there would probably be a lot more kids interested in science as a career.

A quantum jump is exactly like this, except in that it's nothing like this. Not even remotely. But otherwise, yes.

The book is very readable, even if it does drift from time to time into more technical areas. One of my colleagues, who doesn’t have an extensive background in science, said she was a little slowed down by talk of electron shells and quantum jumps, which I guess were not aided by Kean’s elevator similes. But it did get her asking the right questions – how do we know atoms exist if we can’t see them? How can we be sure that what is in this book is true?

Those are the questions that Kean tries to answer in the book, but it’s also the kind of book that may bring up more questions. It’s “gateway science,” one of those books that pulls away the cold, rational veneer of the scientist and his or her endeavors, and shows what an exciting, weird, messy and dramatic place science can be. What’s more, it shows how science is deeply ingrained not only into our technology, but our language, history and politics. An understanding of science, even at an amateur level, is a wonderful way to open your eyes to the great, complex and bizarre world in which we live.

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“We eat and breathe the periodic table; people bet and lose huge sums on it; philosophers use it to probe the meaning of science; it poisons people; it spawns wars. Between hydrogen at the top left and the man-made impossibilities lurking along the bottom, you can find bubbles, bombs, money, alchemy, petty politics, history, poison, crime, and love. Even some science.”
– Sam Kean, The Disappearing Spoon
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[1] The town has the distinct honor of having four elements named after it: yttrium (Y), ytterbium (Yb), terbium (Tb), and erbium (Er). What has your hometown got?

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Filed under chemistry, history, nonfiction, Sam Kean, science, technology

Review 132: Cosmos

Cosmos by Carl Sagan

If you’ve known me for more than a little while, you know that one of my great loves in this world is science. Even though I tend to get stymied by the math, and I probably couldn’t call up all the right data from my head at the right time, it is the idea of science and the stories of science that truly interest me. Just the fact that we live in a universe where it is possible to know how things work, where we can devise a way to look at the whole of creation, from things so large that they defy imagination to things so small that they can barely be said to exist at all. Science is imagination put into practice against the universe, and as much fun as stories and myths are, as hope and prayers may be, science is the best, most reliable way for us to come to grips with the Cosmos.

It is to Carl Sagan that I owe this love of what humans have done with ourselves.

Go ahead. Stare at this for a while.

When I was a kid, my father had a copy of Cosmos, and, since I was but a child, I never really read it. I tended more to flip through it for the interesting pictures – the speculative Jovian life forms on pages 42 and 43, the Viking photos of Mars in chapter 5, the gorgeous paintings of the views from other worlds around other stars, the photos of nebulae and galaxies, all of these things fascinated me, and if I had been a bit more patient I would have found out about them. But I was a kid, so that can be excused. What the book did for me was to open my mind to a universe of possibilities that were all within our reach, or at least would be someday.

As I got older, I saw the TV miniseries of the same name on PBS. Now the pictures that I had lingered over in the book were right before me, accompanied by Sagan’s soothing baritone. His ship of the imagination somehow managed to take us unfathomable distances from our home and bring us back again. He talked to his viewers like we were intelligent adults, fully capable of understanding and appreciating the vast scope of scientific discovery rather than a bunch of attention-deficit teenagers who couldn’t be trusted to keep watching without a jump-cut every ten seconds. Carl Sagan believed, despite the occasional evidence to the contrary, that human beings were capable of overcoming our barbaric pasts and forging a bright new future together in the stars.

The purpose of Cosmos, both the book and the TV show, was to educate. It was, as Sagan put it, “to engage the heart as well as the mind,” perhaps to help shed the image of science as a cold and passionless pursuit. He wanted to show how science became what is is, from the ancient scientist/philosophers in Ionia and Alexandria all the way up to the engineers and astronauts working at NASA. It’s all part of a long chain of knowledge that ties human history together and which engages one of our deepest desires: to know how the universe works.

Go ahead, do this one yourself. We'll wait.

Each chapter focuses on a different theme of knowledge – from the way the planets form and what they’re like to the nature of the furthest reaches of space. He starts with how Eratosthenes measured the world with just a shadow and some math, and how the ancient thinkers of Alexandria were asking the same questions about the nature of the Earth that we ask today. He follows the tortured path of Johannes Kepler in his quest to understand how the planets move, the arrogant brilliance of Newton as he completely redefined the clockwork of the cosmos, and the casual miracle that Einstein pulled off when he told us that not only are we not the center of the universe but that there is no center. Each great mind led to another.

Unfortunately, each setback cost us what may be valuable time. For all his wonderment, Sagan understood how petty and ignorant human beings could be. From the beginning, and at various points in the book, he reminds us of the millennium we lost with the destruction and corruption of the ancient thinkers of the Mediterranean. As far as we can tell, the men and women who made their home in Alexandria were investigating questions and scientific problems that would have changed the way we understand the world. If the library hadn’t been burned down, if religious terror hadn’t murdered scientific insight, who knows where we would be today? It’s impossible to know, but it’s tempting to think that we might have been well on our way to the stars by now.

My brother gave me this poster. He knows me so well...

The latter chapters underscore that theme pretty heavily, reminding us over and over again that we have one world, and only one world. Not only does Sagan fear that we could obliterate ourselves with the nuclear weapons we love and fear so much, but he also fears that self-annihilation may be a natural outcome to any intelligent civilization. Our search for intelligent life on other worlds may be fruitless, because they might be just as self-destructive as we are.

But we don’t know. We can’t know, at least not yet. Our understanding of the universe is still not clear enough, our technology is still not good enough, and perhaps it never will be. But for all our stumbles and failures, Sagan wants us to remember and understand just how much humanity is capable of, and how good we could be if we really put our minds to it. And in that sense, there is a lot of value to reading it now, thirty years after it was published.

A glorious dawn indeed....

While we have not eliminated nuclear weapons, we have made great strides towards controlling them and reducing their numbers. The hopes that Sagan had for future space exploration – Mars rovers, a probe to Titan, contact with comets – have all been made real, and with outstanding results. We know that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor impact – something that Sagan is clearly unsure of at the time of writing. We have mapped the human genome and developed personal computers that have revolutionized the way we explore space. With the internet, any person on earth can catalog galaxies or explore the moon, there have been advances in nanotechnology and materials and bioengineering and evolution that would have made even Sagan’s eyes pop.

Despite all our flaws, we continue to advance. We continue to build knowledge upon knowledge and to further our understanding of how the universe works. Maybe we will one day leave this planet ourselves, perhaps just for a visit or perhaps to start a new world. Maybe if we persist in our quest to comprehend the world we live in, to shut out the howling and screaming of the voices of unreason, we can make the world a better place for generations to come.

Maybe we should all just have some pie. How much time do you have? (photo by Nicole)

In the great argument that is raging these days between the rationalists and the believers, the faithful and the atheists, it has become fashionable to try and shout the other side down. To adopt a position that excludes compromise and promises only defeat for one side or another. Sagan never would have wanted that, and I think he hit upon a solution that needs to be revisited.

Rather than try to turn people to science through cold logic or heated words, through derision and coercion and fear, do as Sagan did: win them over with wonder. The cosmos is too big, and there is too much to know to waste our time with petty arguments and pointless feuds. If you want people to appreciate science, turn to people like Sagan, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, Phil Plait, Mary Roach, Michio Kaku, Ann Druyan, Bill Nye, Adam Savage, or Dava Sobel – people whose enthusiasm and love of science will instill people with wonder, one person at a time. And it is in that way that we will go furthest towards ensuring humanity’s place among the stars.

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“Every one of us is precious in the cosmic perspective. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
– Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Carl Sagan on Wikipedia
Cosmos on Wikipedia
The Carl Sagan Portal (music plays when you open it, just FYI….)
Cosmos on Amazon.com

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Filed under astronomy, astrophysics, Carl Sagan, evolution, made into movies, nonfiction, science

Review 131: The Earth

The Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey

Is it possible for a book to be utterly fascinating and yet, at the same time, a perfect cure for insomnia? I never would have thought so, until I read this one.

That does sound horribly contradictory, and yet it is true. Reading this book, I found myself drawn in by the power of Fortey’s words and this obvious enthusiasm for the subject. He’s a paleontologist by trade, but his era of expertise goes so far back that it’s practically geology anyway. And geology is what this book is all about.

There are those who believe that there are forces beyond our ken that shape our lives. Some believe that the universe itself is alive, filled to the brim with some kind of formless substance that wants us to have what we want. Others attribute great influence to the motion of non-terrestrial planets – just recently I saw a warning the Mercury was in retrograde, and that such apparent motion would spell disaster in communications-related endeavors. Other people believe there are gods, or ghosts, or fairies whose wishes and whims have decided who we are and who we will be. But Fortey knows what’s really going on.

Not this guy, no. But close. (photo by Jenn and Tony Bot on Flickr)

Fortey knows it’s the rocks.

Not just the garden-variety ones you pick up in your garden, no – the real rocks. The gneiss and the schist and the granite, the great, lumbering tectonic plates, relentless in their motion across the face of the Earth, carrying the continents on their backs. The churning, unknowable mantle that holds it all up, revealing only the tiniest glimpses of itself through the effluvium of volcanoes. The Earth tells us who we are and who we will be, for it is the motions of the Earth that made our world what it is. It gave shape to the continents, it has raised and lowered mountains, created and unmade deserts a hundred times over. The rich and fertile fields in which we grow our crops, the barren wastelands that we avoid because we know that they are places where we do not belong – all of those were created by the engine of plate tectonics. Billions of years of relentless motion, of continents smashing into each other, coming apart and then colliding again, have conspired to create the thin, almost evanescent period of time in which we live. And it will continue, long after we are gone, without ever having bothered to notice that we are here.

If these boulders could talk... Man, I'd be really freaked out.

This book is humbling, to say the least. When you think that the Appalachians used to be mountains that rivaled the Alps and the Himalayas, that they were the product of not the most recent supercontinent, Gondwana, nor the one before that, Laurasia. The gentle, rolling hills of the Appalachians, along which thousands of summer and weekend hikers travel, were born three hundred million years ago in the creation of Pangaea. Time, wind and rain wore them down to what they are today, but they stand as evidence of Earth’s deep history. Though not quite as old as the Grenville rocks of Central Park, remnants of mountains formed a billion years ago, before life was more than a thin film of algae on a hypoxic sea.

Fortey writes well. It’s hard to overstate how important that is when considering a book meant for the general audience. Not only can you tell that he obviously loves his subject, but you can see that he is a good and devoted writer, who spent a great deal of time thinking of ways to communicate the literally unthinkable amount of time necessary for the motions of the Earth to have put things where they are today. Geologic events are slow and hard to picture in our minds eyes, but he tries. He tries to get into your head the vast temperatures and pressures that operate just a few miles below where we sit right now, and the utterly alien environment they create. He brings to life the arguments and battles that went on between geologists who tried their best over centuries to untangle the folded and twisted stories of the rocks and figure out how they came to be the way they were. The story that Fortey is telling is four and a half billion years in the making, a timespan that we simple humans cannot truly grasp.

I got your mystical geology right here.... (photo by mtsrs on Flickr)

And he does have an excellent way of phrasing his points. In talking about the hot springs of Italy in which the ancient Romans lounged, he says, “These springs were the exhalations of the magmatic unconscious.” In reminding us that the movements of the Earth determine where we can live, what animals we can raise and what crops we can grow, he says, “The geological Unconscious cannot be denied, for it still guides the way we use the land, and rules the plough. We are all in thrall to the underworld.” Finally, in a phrase that evoked Sagan in my mind’s ear, he says, “In this way, the depths intercede in our superficial lives: there are unseen and unbidden forces, as indifferent to the fate of the sentient organisms living above them as the distant stars.” The man has a way with words, that much is for sure.

For all that this is the story of our world and, therefore, ourselves, it is a hard book to keep up with. Indeed, I found myself nodding off more than once, no matter that I wanted to keep reading about the manner in which the Colorado River cut through the ever-rising plateau through which it coursed. The book, I believe, skirts the edge of Popular Science and Specialist Science. Fortey doesn’t skimp on the technical language, and seems to be talking to an audience that already has a pretty good grasp on the terminology and concepts of geology. The readers that he’s after in this book are the ones who used to be called “rock hounds” when they were kids, and who know a gneiss from a granite. Which I, technically speaking, do not.

This was not me as a kid. (photo by woodleywonderworks on Flickr)

While I do love science, and find the whole history of plate tectonics fascinating, I never got into geology as deeply as I did other sciences. And that’s not to say that I never will – if anything, this book made me look more closely at the rocks I see around me and wonder at their provenance. The granite facing of buildings all the way to the simple sand of a baseball field – they’re all ancient in different ways and have fascinating stories. When I read the book, though, I was lacking in a certain entry-level understanding of the science, and that was probably what made it such a tough book to get through.

So if you’re a rock hound, or know someone who is, pick up a copy of this book. If you like to break your brain thinking about the vast expanses of time required to make a planet on which Homo sapiens can be the species it always wanted to be, this is the book for you. If you are having trouble getting to sleep and you aren’t fond of using medication to send you off to slumberland, well… This book probably wouldn’t hurt.

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“If you have just missed your train, you can at least lean on a bar that is 1500 million years old and reflect that perhaps half an hour is not that serious a delay.”
– Richard Fortey, speaking of a bar countertop in Paddington Station, The Earth: An Intimate History
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Review 90: The World Without Us


The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Death is a bummer.

I mean, here’s the thing – we all know we’re going to die. It’s part of the human condition, knowing that sooner or later the only existence that we’ve ever known is going to come to an end. And that’ll be it – no more us. It’s a creepy thought, to be honest, which is why most of us do our everlovin’ best to ignore it. We all know that we’re going to die, but we don’t want to know it, so we ignore it. We eat our Super-Double-CheezyFries, go BASE jumping, vote Republican, willfully ignoring the inevitable truth that these things are going to end up killing us.

Even when we are confronted with our mortality, we still find ways to console ourselves. We look around at our families and our friends and say things like, “No one truly dies so long as they’re remembered.” And we accept that even if we aren’t there, other people are. The things we’ve done in our lives, no matter how tiny, will echo around humanity as long as it lasts. If we are truly lucky, we will have contributed greatly to our species as a whole and gained a very special place in history.

But then we remember that even history is impermanent. The average species only gets to live about four million years, and we’ve already eaten up about a quarter of that. What’s more, we seem to be doing our level best to come in below average. Science tells us one inescapable fact: nothing lasts forever. One day, maybe sooner, maybe later, the last of the humans will die. Perhaps we’ll be replaced by another intelligence, one that can continue our work. Or perhaps we’ll just leave everything behind. All that will be left will be artifacts, objects that tell the story of humanity.

And that cheers you up a bit. We’re good at leaving marks, after all. We built a wall that’s so big it’s practically landscape. We split two continents apart in the name of commerce. We have girded our land masses in iron and asphalt, erected great cities of glass, concrete and steel. We have lowered mountains and raised seas, extracted the blood of the earth and bent the rivers to our will. Even if the human race vanished tomorrow, some far-future alien archaeologist would still be able to come here and know that a brilliant and puissant species once walked this world.

Yeah. About that….

This book was inspired by a very simple question: what would happen if all the humans just… disappeared? How it happened doesn’t really matter. Maybe aliens, maybe Jesus, perhaps some strange, species-specific quantum Critical Existence Failure. Whatever the cause, the sun rises in the morning and humans just aren’t there anymore. How would the world handle our disappearance? Would it even notice? What has humanity wrought that would last?

It’s a simple question with an incredibly complex answer. In order to even begin to know what would happen upon our disappearance, we need to know how the world works. We need to look at the forces that drive evolution and species propagation. What is it that allows life to spread and to flourish, to adapt to changing circumstances and make the best of a hard situation? What do we know from our studies of the unimaginably distant past that will help us foretell the future?

In addition, we need to know what effect humans have already had on the world. We’ve all heard the horror stories about the species driven to extinction by carelessness or ignorance – the passenger pigeon, the moa, the dodo – but our effect has been so much greater. Weisman is willing to categorize humanity as a force of nature thanks to the effect that we’ve had. Our relentless conquest of the Earth has, in small ways and large, unavoidably set evolution on a path that would have been very different had we never arisen in the first place. In a way, our influence can never be truly erased, and will likely survive for as long as biology does.

Finally, we need to know about the things we’re leaving behind. What is our world made of, and how well would it survive the rigors of time? The oceans of concrete that we’ve poured will freeze and thaw over and over again, and, aided by the surprising power of flowers and grass, will split, crack and crumble in time. Our massive steel skyscrapers will be undone by water and creeping vegetation. Our stonework will be worn down by wind and water, our satellites will fall, dams will burst and the wilderness will relentlessly take over the sacred places of the world. In the end, the only testament to our existence will be a handful of bronze statues and gold ornaments, and the impassive visages of the faces on Mt. Rushmore.

And even they will one day fall.

If you’re one of those people who worries about the impact that humanity has had on the earth, this will be a heartening book. As the geologic record shows, there’s pretty much nothing the universe can throw at this planet that can kill it. At least not so far. And the impact that humans are having isn’t anywhere near the great extinctions of the past, in which great swaths of death cut through the biosphere in a matter of decades. Understand this: there is nothing that we can do to the earth that the earth cannot undo, given time.

And that is a comforting thought. We do sometimes get wrapped up in our own awesomeness and assume that our actions have infinite consequences when, in fact, they don’t. We beat our breasts about the ozone hole and the Amazon, the Northwest African Cheetah and the Sharp Snouted Day Frog. We read about garbage gyres in the sea, and irradiated wastes on the land and despair over what we have done to this world.

The truth is that the world will move on after humans, and the future will hardly know that we were here.

That’s where the book got depressing for me, though. You see, I can take or leave individuals. I think The People are, in general, dumber than a Texas schoolbook. But all in all, I like Humanity. In the two hundred thousand years or so that Homo sapiens has been wandering this world, we’ve done some really neat things. We’ve built globe-spanning civilizations, produced unparalleled art, music and architecture, and invented worlds of brilliant fiction. We’ve examined the universe at its largest and peered back in time to the moment it began. We have gazed into the heart of the atom to know how reality works at its smallest levels. We’ve danced and sang and lived. And even with the terrible things that we’ve done, both to each other and to our world, I still think we’re a species worth knowing. We’re a species that deserves better than oblivion.

But the universe doesn’t care about what we deserve.

So if you take anything away from the book, let it be this – our existence here as a species is temporary. There’s no reward for our goodness, nor punishment for our sins. But here and now, we are alive, and capable of amazing things. It is up to us to decide what those things will be, and how to spend the time remaining to us.

Let’s make it wondrous.

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“Below the surface, the oxidizing metal parts of chemical alley will provide a place for Galveston oysters to attach. Silt and oyster shells will slowly bury them, and will then be buried themselves. Within a few million years, enough layers will amass to compress shells into limestone, which will bear an odd, intermittent rusty streak with sparkling traces of nickel, molybdenum, niobium, and chromium. Millions of years after that, someone or something might have the knowledge and tools to recognize the signal of stainless steel. Nothing, however, will remain to suggest that its original form once stood tall over a place called Texas, and breathed fire into the sky.”
– Alan Weisman, The World Without Us
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Alan Weisman on Wikipedia
The World Without Us on Wikipedia
The World Without Us on Amazon.com
The World Without Us homepage

And if the sure and certain knowledge of your own eventual cessation has got you low, watch this. It might cheer you up a bit….

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