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Review 89: The Science of Superheroes AND The Science of Supervillains


The Science of Superheroes and The Science of Supervillains by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg

By all rights, I should have loved these books. I mean look at them! They combine two of my favorite things, as you loyal readers should know: science and superheroes.

I’ve been a big fan of science since I was a kid. I used to flip through Carl Sagan’s Cosmos when I was young, just barely understanding the enormous ideas he was presenting in it. My father had the Time/Life Science Series (which I still have somewhere in a box back in my mother’s house) and I spent days going through those, learning about the wheel, water, drugs, matter, time…. Science never seemed imposing or intimidating to me (at least until I started trying to get the math), but rather a celebration of the human intellect.

On the other side – super-heroes. I still remember buying a copy of Crisis on Infinite Earths #10, the one with the Spectre and the Anti-Monitor facing off at the very dawn of creation, with dozens of heroes and villains trapped in a whirling maelstrom. To this day, that entire series has great meaning for me – not just because it’s an incredibly dense story or because it features some of my favorite characters of all time, but because it addresses greater questions of heroism, duty and sacrifice. And if those themes were left out of the more mundane run of monthly comics, well, that didn’t matter. These bright and powerful people had captured my imagination and still hold it to this day.

And as much as I’ve always wanted to be a superhero, there have been plenty of times when I’ve wanted to join the other side as well.

I mean, how many times have you wanted to don some goggles and a lab coat, stand on your parapet (you do have a parapet, right?), backlit by lightning as you scream, “The FOOLS! They called me mad? I WILL SHOW YOU MADNESS! HA! HAHAHAHA!! HAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHA!!”

Or something like that.

Anyway, there’s something to be said for the life of a supervillain, and if you’re a really good one then you’ll make it into the pages of history. Names such as Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom, Magneto and Sinestro – these are names that will live in the hearts of comic book fans forever. Indeed, it is said that the greatness of a hero depends on the greatness of his villain. Where would Superman be if he only had to foil a few muggings once in a while? Or Spider-Man if he were just tracking down garden-variety murderers? They might be heroes, but they certainly wouldn’t be superheroes.

So, with that in mind, let me tell you that I was somewhat disappointed with these books.

I think part of the problem is the mission of the text: reconcile what we see in comic books with what we know of science. The trouble is very simply that we can’t. Comic book super-heroes are, by their nature, not beholden to the laws of physics that we all know and obey, and the true mechanics of their powers are often unknown even to them. Has a Green Lantern ever actually asked what the power source is in the Great Battery on Oa? Does Superman know the biological process that goes on in his cells that turns sunlight into his amazing abilities? Can even the mighty mind of Reed Richards explain why his DNA and that of his colleagues was transformed, rather than ripped to shreds? Would Lex Luthor’s climate-altering machines of his youth really be able to change the climate of an entire region? What is it about the Anti-Monitor’s peculiar flavor of antimatter that allows it to overtake normal matter rather than destroy it? And how does the Vulture – an elderly man with wings strapped to his arms – not plummet to his death? Can comics examine these issues and still put out good stories?

Comics have tried to answer this question, actually. In the 1990s, as part of their Invasion! series, DC Comics introduced the concept of a Metagene, a particular mutation that was carried by a small percentage of the public. Under the right circumstances – such as being struck by electrified chemicals, being at ground zero of a nuclear explosion, or being immersed in a powerful chemical bath, the gene would activate and alter the person’s entire genetic structure to allow it to survive. That alteration would produce powers such as super-speed, nuclear manipulation, or extreme elasticity. But even the meta-gene idea was a kind of nudge-nudge wink-wink from the writers, who were far more concerned with telling a good story or creating good characters than they were with sticking to good science.

Which brings us back to these books. Through the books, Gresh and Weinberg look at some of the most famous heroes and villains from DC and Marvel Comics and try to see how well their behaviors and their origin stories hold up under the weight of established scientific truth. The answer: not well at all.

The Atom, for example, has the problem of extreme density to deal with, as well as the fact that the white dwarf matter with which he activates his power should be impossible to lift. On the other end, Giant-Man shouldn’t be able to move his own weight, thanks to the good old cube-square law. The Flash has a whole host of problems, starting with an anti-friction aura that curiously doesn’t extend to the soles of his feet and finishing with a serious defiance of relativity. The Fantastic Four and Dr. Banner should have come out of their radioactive disasters with a severe case of death at the very least, and half of Peter Parker’s powers actually have nothing whatsoever to do with spiders.

The basic message here is that the heroes and villains we know and love are, for the most part, scientifically impossible. But we knew that. Everybody who reads comics knows, in their hearts, that science is not in the driver’s seat when it comes to super-heroes. As much fun as it would be to stand out in a thunderstorm yelling, “SHAZAM!” with a golf club in the air, I know that the only super-power I would gain would be the ability to occupy a hospital bed. If I was lucky.

Batman, on the other hand, is reasonably plausible, given the nigh-infinite resources of Bruce Wayne. The technology for most of his gadgets and gimmicks is extant and not too hard to either acquire or produce. Also, it wouldn’t be impossible to re-write the Hulk’s origin using an angry biochemist who has a particular talent for mixing up new and interesting steroid cocktails.

There are heroes – and villains – who show us a goal to reach, in a weird way. Doctor Doom, for example, uses a metal exoskeleton that confers upon him great strength and endurance. Would it be possible for us to build such a thing, only not looking several centuries out of date? As it turns out, yes we can. Or at least we will be able to soon. The science of body assistance has been making great progress recently, and it’s only a matter of time before we are able to augment our own bodies from the outside and do amazing things.

Or look at Poison Ivy, one of Batman’s recurring villains (and the only female in the villains book). She makes great use of plants that look like nothing Nature has ever produced. Could we, with biological engineering, do the same? It turns out we already are, just not as cool. Instead of giant venus flytraps that catch and eat human beings, we’re engineering better strains of vegetables that will go towards feeding more people for less money. But if we really wanted to, we could have murderous plants in our future.

All of these bad guys offer us a chance to explore science, both fundamental and cutting-edge. The Lizard, a poor, beleaguered enemy of Spider-Man’s who cannot control the beast within, may give us the clues to regenerating our own limbs. Magneto offers us an understanding of how powerful and pervasive electromagnetism really is. Dr. Octopus shows us the potential of prosthetics, and Mr. Mxyzptlk is a great way to start looking at not just the fifth dimension, but the very concepts of dimensions that are beyond the paltry ones that we inhabit.

These books make a reasonable attempt to inject the history and theory behind the science that our heroes defy, putting it into the realm of books that handle popular science. But as popular science books, they’re rather disjointed and uneven, going into great detail in some sections but skimming over others. There’s some serious axe-grinding, for example, in chapter 9 of the Heroes book: Good, Evil and Indifferent Mutants – the X-Men. Not only do they not address the scientific nature of the X-Men’s powers (which they could have done with a simple page or two of “None of these are possible”), but they spend five or six pages detailing the historical and ongoing conflict between Creationism and Evolution. While it’s an interesting topic, it’s not germane to the X-Men and really doesn’t belong in this book. Perhaps a discussion about successful adaptations in the human genome would have been better – what alterations have occurred in Homo sapiens that have made the species better? Or perhaps how our understanding of genetics is leading us to modify our own species faster than nature would have intended? There’s a little of this, but it doesn’t balance out the unnecessary evolution-creationism segment.

The biggest issue for Gresh and Weinberg is that the writers of comics put scientific accuracy lower on their priority list than good storytelling and good characters. Yes, The Flash should never even be challenged by villains – at his speed, there’s no one who should be able to even surprise him. But that makes for a damn boring comic book. And the same goes with Spider-Man. If Peter Parker really exhibited the traits of a spider, he would probably just build a web where he expected bad guys to be and spend the entire comic just waiting for them to stumble in. Then he would drop his trousers and spray them with webbing from a place the Comics Code won’t let the artist draw.

More than once, they strayed from the science to criticize the villains’ motives – why is Vandal Savage so hot to take over the world? Why not just invest his money, wait a few hundred years and live a life better than any human had before him? Or why would Lex Luthor do something so stupid as to drop a nuclear bomb from a helicopter? Helloooo? Ever hear of a little something we like to call “poison gas?”

While those may be excellent story points, the books are not called “The Plot Holes of Superheroes and Villains.” They’re about the science, and trying to gain the appreciation of comic book fans by pointing out why their favorite bad guys are idiots, well…. That’s probably not the best way to handle it.

Other books about superheroes and science start off by accepting the reality of the comic book. James Kaklios’ The Physics of Superheroes does exactly that – he grants the heroes a “miracle exception” and then moves on from there. His book is founded on the tacit understanding that comic book writers are more interested in the story than the science, but that if you look hard enough, you can find scientific lessons everywhere.

Science is important, but so is fiction. We willingly suspend our disbelief for super-heroes so that we can better enjoy their story. Science can tell us a lot, but it doesn’t have much to say about loyalty, heroism, sacrifice and responsibility. It’s hard for us to insert ourselves into science’s stories – imagine being a hydrogen atom or a rock strata or a particularly interesting strain of e. coli. While science and super-heroes don’t have to be incompatible, it’s no great loss if they are. There’s an interview at the end with a group of writers, all of whom very clearly state that story comes first. “The story always outweighs the science,” says Len Wein, one of the industry’s pre-eminent writers. Super-heroes aren’t scientifically accurate, but they were never meant to be.

While I don’t doubt that Gresh and Weinberg know their comics, I don’t get the feeling that they really love comic books for what they are – fantasies with just enough science stuck on to make them seem plausible. Rather than looking for ways that comic books can open readers’ eyes to science, they seem to be more interested in tearing down the comics themselves for trying – and failing – to use science in their stories. They’re more focused on the flaws than the potential, and I found that tiring after a while. By trying to combine popular science with super-heroes, and by maintaining a dismissive attitude towards comics, Gresh and Weinberg have created books that have their moments, but don’t really succeed being what they want to be.

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“By now, if you’ve been reading this book chapter by chapter, your brain should be screaming in pain.”
– Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg, The Science of Superheroes

“By now, anyone reading these books knows that we never ask a question without having an unpleasant answer ready.”
– Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg, The Science of Supervillains
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Lois Gresh on Wikipedia
Robert Weinberg on Wikipedia
The Science of Superheroes on Amazon.com
The Science of Supervillains on Amazon.com
Lois Gresh’s webpage
Robert Weinberg’s webpage

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Filed under Lois Gresh, Robert Weinberg, science, super-heroes, supervillains

Review 88: Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman!


Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman! by Richard P. Feynman

A while back, I read another book by Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, and I wasn’t all that thrilled with it. It was kind of disappointing at the time. I knew that Feynman’s fame came not only from his scientific brilliance, but from the fact that he was a genuinely interesting, funny and mischievous person. I had hoped that I could find some of that in the book, but to no avail. And so I gave it away so that someone else could get the pleasure from it that I could not.

Still, I was not completely turned off Feynman. There are videos of him around the internet that really show his vibrancy, his energy and the passion with which he approached the world, and I knew there would come a time when I would have to give him a second chance. Thus, this book.

Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman! is the story – or rather a collection of stories – about what can happen to a person with immense confidence in his own abilities, an insatiable curiosity about the world, a willingness to make mistakes, all topped off with a generous helping of genius.

First, as Feynman calls them at the beginning of the book, some vitals.

Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, taught at Caltech, and won the Nobel Prize in physics for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics. He was also one hell of a bongo player, an accomplished artist, and a self-taught safecracker. He was a joker and a prankster and a ladies’ man who could bluff his way into pretty much anything he wanted to do, and was often surprised that people believed his bravado. He had a passion for mysteries and puzzles and figuring out how things worked, from combination locks to the movements of electrons to why water curves the way it does when it comes out the tap, and he didn’t give a good goddamn about what the rest of the world thought of him.

In other words, Richard Feynman was a pretty awesome guy.

This book is a collection of Feynman’s stories, the kind that he might tell at a party or with a bunch of friends traveling. They’re the variety of story that might begin with, “Did I ever tell you how I joined a samba band in Rio?” and just go on from there. He starts with his youth, how he was the kind of boy who just loved to tinker with things. He would take electronics apart and put them back together, and then go to junk shops to buy parts that he could build into better radios. He did experiments with ants to find out how they communicated, and dedicated himself so hard to solving puzzles that eventually all he needed was the first line, and he could immediately come back with, “He starts by chopping every other one in three parts.”

He was one of those kids whose curiosity was boundless, and who never even imagined that there was anything “better” he could have been doing than exploring how the world worked. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if young Feynman were around today, he’d be medicated to the eyeballs just to stop him being so “weird.” But you know me. Cynic.

We follow him through his days at MIT, pulling pranks with friends and discovering those interesting weaknesses in human thought processes that allowed him to get away with murder when he was young. His habits of wondering how things work carried him through his participation in the Manhattan Project, his travels to countries like Brazil and Japan, and led him through a life that was never without fascinating and entertaining discoveries.

Long story short (too late), Feynman is – or at least should be – a model for young people today. While the book isn’t pitched towards young people, there are several lessons in it that should be taught to every child.

The first is that the world is infinitely interesting. Any kid who whines that she is bored needs to be shown the million and one ways that you can combat boredom just within a ten-foot radius of where you’re sitting. Look at something – anything and ask yourself, “I wonder how that works,” and then go find out. The possibilities are endless, and the potential exists that you may discover a passion you never knew you had. Feynman didn’t start out wondering how electrons work – he fixed his neighbors’ radios just because he could. One thing led to another, and next thing you know – BAM! Nobel Prize.

The second point, and it is connected to the first, is to never say No. In his essay, “But Is It Art?” he talks about how he learned to draw. It started when an artist friend offered to teach Feynman how to draw if he would teach the artist about science. While Feynman believed that he would be an absolutely atrocious artist, he still agreed to the challenge, and he stuck with it. Eventually he became well-known as a decent artist, even managing to sell some of his works. Now obviously, there are limits and caveats to “never” – there are times when saying No is the right thing to do. But when you find an opportunity to expand your abilities, to learn new things and face new challenges, the automatic “No” may deprive you of a joy that you never knew you could experience.

Third, you must know who you are. One of the problems inherent in living in a society is that there’s always someone trying to tell you who you are, or at least who you should be. Your parents, teachers, friends, all have an image of you in their heads, and are all trying to mold you into that image, consciously or unconsciously. Add to that the government, media, corporations, advertisements, shysters, preachers and other deliverers of hokum and propaganda who are also trying to tell you who you really are, despite having never met you and being pretty sure that you don’t already know yourself. And many people, sadly, don’t. But Feynman did. He knew who he was, and that was all he needed. He occasionally let people think differently about him, but the thread that runs through this book is a rock-solid self-awareness that allowed him the self-confidence to pick up showgirls or try to turn down a Nobel Prize.

The caveat to this, and a corollary to the second point, is that you can always discover new things about who you are. All through the book, we see Feynman faced with a new opportunity that he thinks he can’t do because it’s just Not Him. Drawing, playing music, learning languages – those skills didn’t fit into the mental model of who he thought he was, a flaw that all of us possess. A lot of us, without even giving it a try, might immediately discard something by saying, “Well, that’s just not me.” Maybe it could be. It takes courage, and the willingness to fall flat on your face, but if you can discover a new talent or a new passion, isn’t it worth it?

Finally, remember that everyone else around you is just as human as you are. Don’t be impressed by titles and uniforms, fancy suits and impressive business cards. Don’t assume that just because someone wears a soldier’s uniform or a thousand dollar suit that they are somehow “better” than you. Feynman not only resisted authority in so many of these tales, he actively worked to subvert it. Whether it’s trying to sneak codes past military censors or breaking into the safe that held all the secrets of the atomic bomb, he never let a title get in the way of learning or growing.

One of my favorite Feynman stories related to this last point isn’t actually in this book, but I’ll mention it anyway. After the Challenger disaster back in 1986, NASA was called on the carpet to explain to Congress why their shiny new space shuttle went Kaboom. The NASA managers went on and on about the O-rings, filling their talk with supercilious jargon and doublespeak, hoping that their haughty attitudes and impenetrable explanations of why the cold weather made the O-rings fail would be comprehensible enough to satisfy the committee, yet obtuse enough to avoid actually admitting that they had done anything wrong.

While they were doing this, Feynman put a piece of the O-ring material into a glass of ice water and let it sit there for a while. Then he took it out, stretched it, and showed that it had lost the pliability that it needed to do its job. With a simple demonstration, he not only showed the fault that led to the Challenger explosion, but at the same time put a bunch of self-aggrandizing stuffed shirts in their places.

I love that story.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a Feynman book to read – and who isn’t? – this is the one to start with. There’s not much hard talk about science in it, just lots of stories about a really interesting guy. Even if it doesn’t make you want to get into quantum electrodynamic theory, I hope it still makes you look at the world in a different way.

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“You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.”
– Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman!
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Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman! on Wikipedia
Richard Feynman on Wikipedia
Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman! on Amazon.com

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Filed under autobiography, Richard Feynman, science

Review 87: A Short History of Nearly Everything


A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

This book absolutely lives up to its title, except possibly the “short” part. The hardcover clocks in at 544 pages, including notes and index, which makes it quite luggable. I suppose, however, when compared to the geologic ages that preceded our brief existence on this earth, the book and the years it took to write it are indeed quite short. In those 544 pages, however, we explore everything, from the dawn of time up until the dawn of human history, from the infinitely tiny hearts of quarks to the infinitely huge scale of the universe. Biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, paleontology – whatever your science of choice is, it’s in this book. And even if you’re thinking, “Science really isn’t my thing,” I have good news for you – it will be when you’re finished.

One of the things that makes Bryson an excellent writer is simply his ability to make you enjoy reading his work, no matter what the topic is. He’s most well known for his travel books, such as Notes from a Big Country and A Walk in the Woods, as well as his books on the English language, such as Mother Tongue. When I first read him, he struck me as a more literate version of Dave Barry – a very intelligent guy with a fantastic sense of humor. No matter what he writes, you can’t help but enjoy it.

This book, then, must have been a massive challenge for him. He admits right in the beginning that, before he started this book, he pretty much had no idea what he was going to find out. He wasn’t a scientist or a naturalist, and had no idea how it was that we knew, for example, that the Earth had an iron core, or how we knew that the universe was expanding or why uranium was so easy to split up. How do we know that the continents drift across the face of the globe, or that we really are cousins to chimpanzees? He started from a state of ignorance, and spent three years removing himself from that state.

That, in and of itself, is admirable. There seems to be an unfortunate trend in thinking that science is too hard for the normal person to understand. In some cases people believe that if it is indeed too hard for the normal person to understand then, why, it must be impossible to understand. This is the “argument from ignorance” fallacy, and it’s something that’s easy to fall prey to. After all, no one likes to admit that they don’t know things, and if your pride is bigger than your conscience it might be all too easy to assume that if you can’t understand it then no one can. Thus the whole Intelligent Designer nonsense and the continuing battles…. in the TWENTY-FIRST GODSDAMNED CENTURY…. over whether or not evolution is the process by which we can explain the fantastic diversity of life on this planet.

Sorry about that. The neurochemical processes that allowed my distant ancestors to fight off predators (AKA the famous “fight or flight reflex”) tends to manifest itself these days as blasphemy and shouting. I’ll try and keep it down from now on.

If you’re like me, and you’ve been a dabbler in science for a long time, you’ll still learn something new. Not the least of what you will learn is what the Greatest Scientific Minds of our Time were like as people. Bryson does his best to bring out the humanity of people like Newton, Lowell, Einstein, Kelvin and everyone else. There’s a whole lot of fighting, lying, deceiving and backstabbing that brought us to where we are today, and if they had taught me that in science class when I was a kid, I probably would have gotten better grades.

In fact, one of the most interesting things about this book is that it’s not so much a book about science as it’s a book about scientists. By looking at the people who figured out how the universe works, we learned about why science works the way it does – and sometimes doesn’t – and get a real sense of how human understanding progresses. There are flashes of insight and stubborn refusals to see what is plainly true. There are lost geniuses and shameless opportunists, missed chances and serendipitous discoveries. Science, in short, is a human endeavor, with all the glamor and tarnish that comes with it. By emphasizing the humanity of the men and women who have driven science forward, Bryson is able to let us see our own place in the process.

What’s more, Bryson takes great care to point out the areas where we have failed, or at least not yet succeeded. Cells, for example, are baffling organic machines that outperform human-made devices by an outlandish margin. We don’t know as much as we think about pre-history – our fossil record is far more spotty than the Natural History Museum would have you believe, mainly because fossilization requires very specific conditions, not the least of which is a bit of good luck. There could be entire branches of the tree of life that we don’t know because they had the misfortune to occupy an environment that didn’t promote fossilization. We don’t even know how many species of life are on Earth right now – or how many we’ve lost.

The history of humanity is twisted and confusing, with no clear answers as to where we came from, how we arose and how we spread across the globe. There are so many mysteries to be solved, and so few people available to solve them.

If you’re not a science nerd, you’ll still enjoy the book. Remember – up until he wrote it, Bryson was one of you. His style is very readable, and he guides you very deftly from one topic to the next, illustrating a very important point: all science is connected. There is no discrete boundary between, say, chemistry and biology (no matter what the chemists and biologists might tell you), just a fuzzy blur where we pass from one to the other. The greatest advances in our knowledge of how the universe works have come from the most unlikely places, and sometimes knowing why atoms behave the way they do can help understand why the universe behaves the way it does.

Yes, learning is hard. But when you’re done, you are rewarded with a new sense of understanding and awe about how the universe works. And that wins over ignorance any day.

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“We live on a planet that has a more or less infinite capacity to surprise. What reasoning person could possibly want it any other way?”
– Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
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Bill Bryson on Wikipedia
A Short History of Nearly Everything on Wikipedia
A Short History of Nearly Everything on Amazon.com
Bill Bryson’s website

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Review 71: The Pluto Files


The Pluto Files by Neil deGrasse Tyson

What was the biggest story of 2006? The arrest of the shampoo bombers in England? Small fries. The first World Baseball Classic? YAWN! The death of Don Knotts? Nothin’.

No, as interesting as they were, none of these generated nearly as much public interest and argument as the much ballyhooed “demotion” of Pluto by the International Astronomical Union in August of 2006. Poor little Pluto, hanging out there on the edge of the solar system, got bumped down to “Dwarf Planet,” rousing much ire from people all across the United States. And, in a way, Neil deGrasse Tyson bears some responsibility for it.

To be fair, stripping Pluto of its designation as a planet was never on his agenda. No matter what angry elementary school students may have thought, Tyson had no beef against Pluto. It was just that Pluto had the bad fortune to be an oddball planet, and Tyson was working on the redesign of the Rose Center for Earth and Space in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Whether he wanted to or not – and I’m pretty sure he didn’t – he became the public face of this issue, one which gripped the country.

That in itself is weird. Americans are not the most scientifically literate of people. Sure, we like to use the fruits of science, but most people don’t really pay attention to things like astronomy unless it’s a shuttle launch or a pretty Hubble picture. What’s more, the public in general has never really gotten involved in matters of taxonomy. If you went up to someone and said, “Hey, the scientific community is thinking about revising the nomenclature regarding the classification of anaerobic bacteria,” they’d probably just walk away swiftly, looking back a few times to make sure the crazy person isn’t following them. But tell them that the IAU is planning to demote Pluto, and what you have is a firestorm.

This book is not so much about Pluto itself, but our relationship with that weird little ball of ice and rock. Tyson takes us through our history with Pluto, from its discovery back in 1930 to its demotion in 2006, and tries to figure out just what it is that has endeared it so to the American public.

One possibility, of course, is the fact that Pluto was an American discovery. Percival Lowell was the one to start the hunt, and Clyde Tombaugh finally found it. While the name was suggested by a teenage British girl, everything else about the discovery of Pluto was American, and that was a point of pride. There were only three non-Classical planets in the heavens, and we had claim to one of them. So even if the average American doesn’t know the history of Pluto’s discovery, we still have a certain love for it.

Despite its diminutive size, Pluto has loomed large in the American imagination. Perhaps there’s something of the underdog love in there, too. Americans love to see the little guy win, and if you look at a lot of the pro-Pluto artwork from 2006, the theme of big planets ganging up on a little one was very popular. As odd as this perception might seem from a scientific standpoint, I think a lot of Americans were supporting Pluto because it was being pushed down by The Man, as it were.

And so the country went a little nuts. Newspapers, blogs, websites – even sports reporting got in their digs on the Pluto controversy. There was something for everyone in this story, and everyone who could manage a Pluto reference did so with gusto. It was a mixed blessing, to be sure – the American public was finally excited about astronomy, but it was the excitement of a bar fight, rather than the highbrow intellectualism that many astronomers might have preferred.

What was also interesting about this book was the look at the professional arguments that went on as well. Dispelling the dispassionate image of the astronomer, professionals got really worked up about this, on both sides of the issue. Grown men and women, many of whom were well-versed in many aspects of astronomy, spoke passionately about Pluto. Some called on our sense of tradition and cultural memory, acknowledging that while Pluto may be an oddball, he’s our oddball. Others were more than happy to throw Pluto into the Kuiper Belt with the other icy mudballs.

So often, Science is assumed to be some monolithic entity that describes the world with a unanimity of voice. It is supposed to be dispassionate and rational, and we don’t really think about the reality of scientific progress. To use the analogy often given to marriage, science is like a duck – stately and sure on the surface, but with a whole lot of work going on down below. The history of science is full of more passion, debate and anger than you might suspect. In order to decide the issue, symposia were convened, meetings were held, and finally the International Astronomical Union was forced to do something that had never occurred to anyone before: precisely define what is and is not a planet.

In case you’re wondering, the definition is quite simple: It has to orbit the sun, be big enough to have attained a spherical shape, and it has to have cleared out its orbit. Pluto fulfills the first two requirements, but badly fails the third. Therefore, it is not a planet. They created a new designation: dwarf planet, including Ceres in the asteroid belt and Haumea, Makemake and Eris out past Pluto. The public may not like it, but that’s how it is.

Tyson points out that this is not the first time we have done such a reclassification. With the discovery in the mid-19th century of objects orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, a new class had to be invented in order to keep the number of planets from rocketing into the thousands – and so asteroids were born. The Pluto case is quite similar. Long after Pluto was discovered, more objects, similar in nature, were discovered nearby – some even bigger than Pluto was. The region of rock and ice was named the Kupier Belt, and if Pluto were discovered today, it would most certainly be named as part of it. As much as it pains me to say it, the decision to reclassify Pluto was the right one. At least Tyson and I have revised the Planet Mnemonic the same way: My Very Educated Mother Just Sent Us Nachos.

The rise and fall of Pluto is an interesting story, and a lesson for science educators. No matter how bad it may seem for science in the United States, people can still be surprisingly passionate about scientific topics. It’s also a warning against resistance to change. With all that we are learning about the Solar System, to just rattle off a list of planets and be done with it is insufficient. There are so many other ways to look at it now, so many ways to group the hundreds of bodies out there, that perhaps Pluto is more comfortable out with the other Trans-Neptunian objects. With its own kind, as it were, instead of being shoehorned in with eight other guys that it doesn’t really have anything in common with.

Ultimately, of course, Pluto doesn’t care what we call it. That point was often made on both sides of the argument, and they’re right. We could call it Lord Snuggypants the Fourth and it would keep doing what it does out there in the cold and the dark. But it’s important for us, and not just because science needs things to be organized so we know what we’re talking about. Being able to reclassify Pluto is an indication of the breadth of our knowledge – had we not made such progress, Pluto’s classification would never have been in doubt.

The “demotion” of Pluto is a sign of our amazing achievements over the last eighty years. We have not lost a planet – we have gained understanding. So in the end, the Great Pluto Debate is one that we should look back upon fondly.

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“It’s always a little scary when the person who hired you calls you up and asks, “What have you done?!”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Pluto Files
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Neil deGrasse Tyson at Wikipedia
The Pluto Files at Wikipedia
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Review 70: Bad Astronomy


Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait

What do you think you know about astronomy? For example, what causes us to have seasons? If you said that it’s our distance from the sun – sorry, you’re wrong. Or how about why the sky is blue? If you think it’s that the sky reflects the sea, nope. Wrong again. Or perhaps you think that the moon’s tidal effect makes people crazy, or that an egg can only stand on end if it’s the Vernal Equinox or that an alignment of the planets will cause a terrible buildup of gravity that will kill us all!

All wrong. But you would not be alone. For a society as technologically advance as ours (and if you’re reading this, then chances are good that you live in a technologically advanced society), the general public has a big problem with science. People see it as being too hard to understand, or too removed from their daily lives. Politicians bemoan the fact that American schoolchildren are falling behind in science, but science funding is almost always on the list of cuts that can be made to save money. We love technology, but hate science, and that is a path to certain doom.

Of all the sciences, though, astronomy is perhaps the worst understood. A lot of people still confuse it with astrology, which is probably a huge part of the problem right there. For millennia, we have thought about the planets and stars as celestial things, unknown and unknowable by such base creatures as ourselves. It’s only in the last hundred years or so that we’ve been able to rapidly improve our understanding of the universe, and popular knowledge hasn’t caught up with that yet.

And so bad misconceptions of astronomy persist in the public imagination.

Fortunately, we have people like Phil Plait to set the record straight, and that is indeed what he does in this book.

While there are many educators out there who believe that a wrong idea, once implanted, is impossible to eradicate, Plait sees it as a teachable opportunity. Take, for example, the commonly held belief that on the Vernal Equinox – and only on the Vernal Equinox – you can balance an egg on its end. Many people believe this, and it’s an experiment that’s carried out in classrooms around the country every March. Teachers tell their students, and the local news media tell their viewers, but no one stops to ask Why. Why would this day, of all the days in the year, be so special? More importantly, how can we test that assertion?

Fortunately, that’s within the powers of any thinking individual, and it should be the first thing teachers do once they’ve finished having fun balancing eggs: try and do it again the next day. If you can balance an egg on April 3rd, or May 22nd or August 30th, or September 4th or any other day of the year, then you have successfully proven the Equinox Egg Hypothesis wrong. Congratulations! You’re doing science!!

Or perhaps you’ve heard the story that you can see stars from the bottom of a well, or a tall smokestack. This is because, the idea goes, the restricted amount of light will not wash out the stars so much, giving you a chance to do some daytime astronomy. Well, there’s an easy way to test this one too, if you have an old factory or something of that nature nearby. What you’ll discover is that no matter how much you try to restrict your view of the sky, it’ll still be washed out and you won’t see any stars at all.

One more good one that a lot of people believe – the moon is larger in the sky when it’s near the horizon than when it’s at its zenith. Again, this is something that’s very easy to test. Go out as the full moon is rising, looming large in the sky, and hold up an object at arm’s length – a pencil is usually recommended. Make a note of the moon’s apparent size as compared to the eraser. Then go out again when the moon is high in the sky and repeat your observation. The moon appears to be the same size, no matter how it may look to you.

Of course, there’s a lot of science into why these things are the way they are. The chicken egg thing is because there’s no singular force that is only acting on chicken eggs and only doing so on one day of the year (which is not even universally regarded as the first day of spring). As for the inability to see stars in the daytime, that’s because our pesky atmosphere scatters a lot of the light coming from the sun, so light appears to come from everywhere in the sky. The only thing you’re likely to see in a blue sky is the moon, and MAYBE Venus, if you’re really sharp-eyed and lucky.

The Moon Illusion is not well-understood, actually. It’s probably not the brain comparing the moon with objects on the horizon – the effect works at sea, too. It’s probably a combination of competing psychological effects that deal with distance, none of which can accurately deal with how far away the moon is.

Regardless, all of these things are easily testable by anyone. The problem is that so few people take that extra time to actually test them, or even think that they should.

There are some myths and misconceptions that take a little more expertise to explain, such as why tides and eclipses happen, how seasons occur and why the moon goes through phases. But these explanations aren’t very difficult and are well within the understanding of any intelligent adult. Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths that are stubborn, entrenched into the heads of people everywhere and very hard to get out. Not the least of these are the beliefs that UFOs are alien spacecraft and that we never went to the Moon.

Interestingly enough, both of these rest on the same basic problem: we can’t rely on our own brains to accurately interpret the data that we see. Plait recounts a story where he was mesmerized by some strange lights in the night sky while watching a 3 AM shuttle launch. They seemed to hover in place, making strange noises, and it wasn’t until they got much closer that he was able to see them for what they were: a group of ducks that were reflecting spotlights off their feathers.

Our brains believe things, and interpret the observations to fit those beliefs. So when the dust on the moon doesn’t behave the way we expect dust to behave, some people believe that to be evidence of fraud, rather than the natural behavior of dust on the moon. We are creatures of story, which is why we like conspiracy theories and astrology. We want the world to make a kind of narrative sense, so often the first explanation we come up with is a story that sounds good. Unfortunately, just because the story sounds good, that doesn’t make it true.

He also takes a swipe at bad movie science, but in a good-natured manner. Even he admits that movies are more likely to favor story over science, but there are some common errors that make it into so many science fiction films – sound in space, people dodging lasers, deadly asteroid fields – these things may be dramatically interesting, but they’re all bad science. And while it would be annoying and pedantic to pick out every example of how the rules are bent for sci-fi (“Please. Why would the aliens come all the way to Earth to steal water when it exists in abundance out in the Kuiper Belt? I scoff at your attempt!”), they do offer an excellent opportunity to teach people about how science works.

One of the things I’ve always liked about Plait is his obvious enthusiasm for not just astronomy but for science in general. Here we have this excellent system to cut through the lies our brains tell us and get closer to knowing what’s actually going on. Science forces us to question our assumptions, look at things from many points of view, and arrive at a conclusion that best describes the phenomenon we’re observing. When Plait talks about science, he is not condescending or dry or super-intellectual, the way so many people imagine scientists to be. He’s excited that he gets to use this amazing tool for understanding the universe, and he wants other people to use it.

If you’re an astronomy buff, like myself, you probably won’t learn much new information from this book. But hopefully you’ll be re-invigorated to go out there and look at the world through a scientific, skeptical eye, and you’ll be willing to confront these misconceptions when next you come across them. Even better, you might start thinking about what else you think you know, and how you can go about testing it.

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“If a little kid ever asks you just why the sky is blue, you look him or her right in the eye and say, ‘It’s because of quantum effects involving Rayleigh scattering combined with a lack of violet photon receptors in our retinae.'”
– Phil Plait, Bad Astronomy
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Phil Plait on Wikipedia
Bad Astronomy on Wikipedia
Bad Astronomy on Amazon.com
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Review 34: Death by Black Hole


Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I have often lamented the passing of my favorite popular scientist, Carl Sagan, by talking about how necessary he is right now. We are at a point in our history where scientific illiteracy is growing, where people are not only ignorant of how science works, but are proud of their ignorance. What we need is someone who can reach the majority of Americans who are not especially scientifically literate – the people whose automatic reaction to science is to think, “That’s just too hard for me to deal with.”

Enter Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He’s appeared on countless television programs, including The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, to talk about the current state of astronomy and astrophysics. He’s an engaging and entertaining man, who claims that Pluto was “asking for” its demotion, who seems to take perverse pleasure in describing all the terrible ways the universe could take us out. He knows that we’re in a precarious position, here on Earth, and he revels in it rather than worrying about it.

Whereas Sagan seemed to come from the point of view that the universe was a place of infinite wonder, where one could look anywhere and be awed and humbled, Tyson’s attitude is more of the universe as an infinite theme park – a place where you could see your electrons stripped from your body, watch gas clouds larger than our own solar system collide and ignite, or see planets crumple under cosmic bombardment. Tyson’s universe is an adventure, as big as it gets.

This book is a collection of essays that Tyson wrote for Natural History magazine over a ten year period, on a variety of subjects related to science and scientific inquiry. In many ways, it’s similar to every other pop science book out there – and there are so very many of them – but it is his perspective and his voice that makes this one stand out from the crowd.

He’s grouped his essays into seven sections, on topics ranging from the difficulties inherent in actually knowing anything about the universe to the understanding of how life went from little mindless bacteria to we clever Homo sapiens to the intersection of science and religion. Most of it is accessible to the average non-scientist, though he does get a little technical at points. But he understands that, and he tries to compensate for for the fact that, by and large, the public is intimidated by “real science.” In the essay entitled, “Over the Rainbow,” he discusses this particular challenge by using spectroscopy as an example.

In spectroscopy, astrophysicists look at the spectrum of a star, hunting for telltale dark lines that indicate the physical properties of stars. It’s like looking at a rainbow with bits blackened out of it, as though the CIA had somehow gotten to it first. Those black lines contain all the vital information about the star’s composition and, more importantly, speed. Very little can be gleaned by just looking at the star, as it turns out. He notes five levels of abstraction, starting from the star itself:

Level 0: A star
Level 1: Picture of a star
Level 2: Light from the picture of a star
Level 3: Spectrum from the light from the picture of a star.
Level 4: Patterns of lines lacing the spectrum from the light from the picture of a star.
Level 5: Shifts in the patterns of lines in the spectrum from the light from the picture of a star.

These descending levels of abstraction can apply to any branch of science, not just astrophysics. The challenge, as he notes, is getting people past level 1, which is easy to understand but is not the level at which true science is done. It is up to educators, he says, to help make people comfortable with looking at real science, and not just pretty pictures.

Indeed, there are several sections of the book dedicated to the intersection between science and the public. He talks about how easily we are baffled by numbers (why are below-ground floors not labeled -1, -2, -3 etc?) and how casually we disregard actual scientific facts. He brings up some of his favorite moments in bad movie science, and how he single-handedly saved Titanic from ignominious astronomical shame. At least, on its DVD re-release. He addresses the historically shifting centers of science in human history, how things like NASA are truly a global endeavor. Without the discoveries made through history by people all over the planet – from England to Greece to Baghdad – there would be no NASA, nor any science that we recognize. And to assume that the United States will always be the center of scientific discovery is to willfully ignore history.

And, of course, there’s a section dedicated to the conflict between religion and science, a never-ending battle that has existed since science began. Tyson believes that there can be no common ground between the two – science relies on facts, religion relies on faith. This is not to say that one is better than the other, any more than, say, a hammer is better than a screwdriver. It’s just that you can’t use them interchangeably. And he points out that becoming a scientist doesn’t require you to give up your faith. There have been, and still are, countless scientists who are believers in the Divine. It’s just that most of them know enough not to confuse science and spirituality.

The place where they meet, historically, is on the boundary of ignorance. Isaac Newton, having figured out gravity, couldn’t quite work out how you could have a multiple-body system like our solar system without the whole thing falling into chaos. His conclusion – God must, from time to time, step in to keep things on the right path. Having done that, Newton went on to do other things, and it wasn’t until the next century that Pierre-Simon laPlace decided that he wasn’t satisfied with Newton’s “Insert God Here” argument, and did the math for himself.

In other words, God is a marker on the boundaries of ignorance, and the best of us are tempted to let Him answer the questions that we can’t. To do so, however, impedes the path of science and stops progress in its tracks. What if Newton had said, “No, I’m going to figure this damn thing out.” Would we be a century ahead in our technology by now? Maybe, maybe not. What if the Catholic Church had listened when Galileo said, “The Bible tells you how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” Might more progress have been made? So many great thinkers have come up to the boundaries of their knowledge and, humbled by what they do not know, chose to allow The God of the Gaps reassure them.

But that’s the whole point of science, and it’s what this book, and others like it, are trying to instill in people. The unknown is not horrible, it is not terrifying, and it’s not a place to just stop. It’s a place of awe and wonder and bafflement and opportunity. To say, “I don’t understand it – it must be God” is short-changing ourselves and our heirs out of even greater knowledge of the universe.

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“Scientists cannot claim to be on the research frontier unless something baffles them. Bafflement drives discovery.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson, Death by Black Hole
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Neil deGrasse Tyson on Wikipedia
Death by Black Hole on Wikipedia
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Review 24: Death from the Skies!


Death From The Skies! by Phil Plait

I’ve always found the end of the world fascinating. So many cultures have put together their own ideas of how the world will end, from the Norse Ragnarök to the Christian apocalypse to the Hindu cycle of creation and destruction. We live in a world that was, for a long time, unpredictable to us and on many occasions seemed to be outwardly hostile. Our ancestors faced floods and earthquakes and disease, with no idea of where these things came from, why they happened or how to stop them. And so they made myths and stories to explain the dangerous world in which they lived. From that, they extrapolated – if the world is this dangerous now, how dangerous could it be if it really tried? And so came our myths of a world that not only succeeds in hurting us, but in wiping us out altogether.

Even in the modern age we have our myths. Books, television, and movies all use the end of the world (or end of a world) to tell stories – usually about the resilience of mankind and our ability to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and rebuild human society, hopefully for the better. As good as this is for fiction, there are two problems when we try to apply these myths and stories to the real world: the world will end, one way or another, and no amount of heroics, cleverness or pluck will save us. Not in the long term, anyway.

Science has accomplished what religion and fiction could not – it has seen the future and can make fairly accurate prophecies about how this world, and our civilization upon it, will die. Renowned astronomer Phil Plait is your prophet for this trip into all the ways the world will end….

In this book, Plait looks at nine possibilities for the end of the world as we know it. In order, they are:

Death by Impact
Death from the Sun
Death by Supernova
Death by Gamma Ray Burst
Death by Black Hole
Death by Aliens
Death of the Sun
Death by Galactic Collision
Death of the Universe

In each chapter, Plait outlines the ways in which that specific event could injure or kill us, with as much science as he can comfortably put in. He explains, for example, why we can’t just send Bruce Willis up to hit an incoming meteor with a nuke (it probably won’t work) and why any black holes produced by the LHC won’t do us any harm. He looks at how a supernova happens, what it is about a black hole that turns it into one of the deadliest weapons in the universe, and tries – very, very hard – to make the reader understand exactly how long “forever” is. (Hint: it’s a lot longer than you think. Longer than that, even. Nope, keep going….)

Each chapter outlines the processes by which we could experience the destruction of our civilization or, in a few cases, the planet itself. He looks at the scientific foundations of these events, explaining in detail what it is about the sun, for example, that makes it a cauldron of chaos and torment, or why we really, really don’t want to get even a smallish black hole anywhere near the planet. And I have to say, of all the unlikely ways we could be toasted, gamma ray bursts are my favorite – a deadly beam of energy from thousands of light-years away, cooking the planet all the way down through the crust and utterly devastating the planet’s ecosystem so as to kill off anyone who was lucky enough to be on the other side of the world. I mean, wow. And there’d be no warning, either. By the time we knew what was happening, it’d be too late. So that chapter (with a line paying homage to Douglas Adams, even) is just mind-boggling.

Probably my favorite chapter, though, is the one about supernovas, mainly because his careful, step-by-step description of exactly how a supernova occurs made me think, “What I wouldn’t give to see that in person,” disregarding the fact that a) the best parts would happen way too fast for me to observe and b) it would vaporize me. Still, it’s a beautiful and terrifying chain reaction, which Plait describes in fantastic detail. The other chapter that evoked the same reaction was the one on the end of the universe. Despite timelines for which the word “vast” is terribly inadequate, Plait tells us what science knows about how the universe will end – the ever-increasing expansion of spacetime, the eventual death of the stars, evaporation of galaxies, the reign of the black holes and the slow, careful deaths which even they face. It all ends in darkness, all matter gone into a few stubborn subatomic particles and the eventual collapse of the very fabric of space and time.

And as bleak and miserable is the future looks, I still thought, “I really want to see that.” So if I can figure out how to live one googol years (that’d be a one with one hundred zeros after it [1]) and not have my very atoms decay into nothingness, then I’ll be able to… um… be really, really bored, probably. Since after that, there’s absolutely – literally – nothing to do. Until the universe experiences vacuum collapse, or a brane collision, possibly hitting the reset button on the cosmos and we get to do it all over again….

Most of what’s in the book isn’t new to me, but that’s probably because I grew up reading Cosmos, and I follow countless science TV shows, podcasts and blogs (including Plait’s own Bad Astronomy blog, which is well worth keeping up with, as well as his regular appearances on SETI’s podcast, Are We Alone? and occasional guest appearances on The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe – both of which make for excellent listening). For people new to astronomy, though, this will be a rather dense learning experience – and reading it will be time well spent.

In addition to its user-friendly style, I really like the way it’s arranged – from small-scale (relatively) to large, with “Things that are absolutely certain to happen” at the beginning and end, and with “things that probably won’t happen” in the middle. And my favorite aspect of this book is that each chapter begins with a short vignette describing that particular end of the world, from the perspective of someone watching it happen. It’s not something you often see in books of this nature, and I’m really glad that Plait decided to put it in there. It makes it a little less academic and abstract and more real.

For all its death and destruction, the book isn’t really a downer. For one thing, while things like asteroid impacts and the death of the sun are inevitable, they don’t have to be fatal, and Plait describes a few ways in which – in theory – we (or our distant, distant descendants) might be able to avert or at least mitigate these catastrophes. It’s not easy, of course, but saving the world never is.

It’s mainly a marvel at the forces that surround us in the universe. It’s easy to forget, looking up at the sky from our brief, limited scale, that the universe isn’t just some pretty lights drifting about in empty blackness. Things are exploding and dying, burning and freezing, moving quickly and slowly – the cosmos is replete with activity and danger. Most of the universe isn’t just uninhabitable, it’s actively hostile to life as we know it. And yet, without the black holes, the supernovas and the galactic collisions, without massive meteor impacts and breakaway comets, solar flares and deadly radiation – without all that, life probably wouldn’t exist at all. So read this book, and take a moment to appreciate how lucky we are to be here at all, all things considered….

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“They say that even the brightest star won’t shine forever. But in fact, the brightest star would live the shortest amount of time. Feel free to extract whatever life lesson you want from that.”
– Phil Plait, Death from the Skies!
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[1] 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000

Phil Plait on Wikipedia
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Death from the Skies! on Wikipedia
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