Category Archives: Science

Apollo 8: The Trilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon by Jeffrey Kluger

Very well written pop history. Kluger also co-write Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 with Astronaut Jim Lovell that the movie Apollo 13 is based on. He is a clear fan of the space program and that shows through in this book. There is very little here NASA’s public relations office would disapprove of.

It is a straight ahead history of the December 1968 mission of Apollo 8, focusing primarily on Frank Borman, commander of the mission, with a somewhat lesser focus on the other crew members – Jim Lovell and Bill Anders. He also spotlights some of the managers, technicians, and engineers at NASA who made the mission possible, particularly Cris Kraft, Gene Kranz, and Jim Webb.

Kluger does a nice job with the narrative that does keep you interested throughout. If your sole interest is the mission itself and not the messy crap that happens behind the scenes when human beings are involved, this is the book for you. It was engrossing in that sense.
If you are looking for more behind the scenes stuff, the political and turf wars at NASA, how the Astronauts interacted with each other and with NASA, the finger pointing after the Apollo 1 fire, and more than a superficial look at the private lives of those involved, there isn’t too much here.
If you are looking for an deeper analysis of Apollo 8’s impact on America and the world, you won’t get much of that here either; Kluger begins with the assumption that the mission had a positive, even transcendent impact.

An example of this is his treatment of the Astronauts’ famous Christmas message from the moon in which they read passages from the Book of Genesis. Kluger treats this as a defining moment in the flight, and doesn’t even attempt to question whether it was appropriate. In fact Madalyn Murray O’Hair, America’s most hated atheist, sued the U.S. Government claiming it violated the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment. And while the suit was dismissed due to lack of jurisdiction, NASA never allowed it to happen again. As an atheist myself I have to say I wince a bit when I hear those transmissions, and in my view O’Hair had a case. But in truth I was not all that bothered by it. It was a different time, a dangerous time, and though the passages have no effect on me (other than eye rolls), I can see they were welcomed by a weary world at the end of a very bad year!

In any case, the point is Kluger is not attempting to provoke a debate, or to look at the space program in a wider context. He is telling the story of the Apollo 8 flight to the moon, and that’s it.
In this he succeeds admirably. If that is all you are looking for, it is well worth a read.

Note: I listened to the audio version of this book. Besides the book, Kluger’s recorded interview with Frank Borman is included as well as an edited version of mission transmissions. A nice bonus!

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My Rating:
4.0 rating

WrightBrothers



One thing you can always say about David McCullough’s books; you are always going to find the story interesting no matter what the topic. Though his works rarely break new interpretive ground, no one working in the field of History today tells a story better. As I’ve said before he could make refrigerator repair read like the most monumental event in American History. And, in addition to an excellent narrative style McCullough’s sourcing is impeccable. Through his extensive use of primary sources, letters and diaries primarily, he gives his works a very “in the now” feeling, and his newest work, The Wright Brothers, provides no exception to this rule.

While it would be fair to characterize this book as a biography, the bulk of the text is devoted to the years when Wilbur and Orville Wright worked on developing the first machine capable of powered flight. Relatively little attention is paid to their childhoods or to the time after they became the preeminent builders of flying machines. This latter period actually featured some very trying times for Orville Wright that also had profound consequences for the advancement of aircraft technology in the United States.

Wilbur and Orville Wright are usually characterized as two humble, small town bicycle sellers who took up aeronautics as a hobby and by sheer luck stumbled on the formula for powered flight. In fact the story is much different. While neither had much formal education both were serious about academic pursuits, becoming very talented, self taught engineers. Both were well read with extremely curious minds that led them to become conversant on a wide range of subjects. They were also exceptional businessmen. In the late 1800s when the craze for bicycles was at its peak they opened their own shop, at first selling and repairing models sold by other companies, and later producing a line of their own design. In this they were very successful, using part of their profits to subsidize their growing interest in flight.

That interest was apparently piqued in the 1890s probably by the accounts in the newspapers of glider flights by among others Otto Lilienthal who was killed during one of his flights. After much study and through the encouragement of Octave Chanute, a Chicago engineer with an interest in flight, the Wright’s began working seriously on the problem of control. That a glider could be propelled forward was well known, and several had taken “flight” on gliders over the years. Controlling the flight path of these gliders however, particularly the ability to turn, bank, and control the landing, were problems that had yet to be solved.

Birds of course have solved that problem, wheeling and turning in the sky at will. Men for generations have dreamed about flying like the birds do. How birds fly, and in particular how they controlled their direction is what ultimately gave the Wright’s the idea for “wing warping” to control their flying machines. They noted that birds tended to turn up or down their wing tips which allowed them to turn in a controlled manner. They decided to incorporate a version of this into their glider and later airplane designs. Through a series of guide wires and pulleys, controlled by body movement (like turning on a bicycle), they were eventually able to design gliders in which it was possible for a practiced pilot to achieve controlled turns, to bank in the wind, and to come to a controlled landing. This set them on a path to finally achieve what men have dreamed about for millennia…controlled human flight.

Photograph of the first Wright Brothers flight. December 17, 1903.

Photograph of the first Wright Brothers flight. December 17, 1903.

The rest of the story is fairly well known. After a series of test glider flights conducted in Kitty Hawk, NC the Wrights designed and built a powered aircraft. Utilizing an 11 horse power engine powering two rear facing propellers they were able to finally achieve sustained powered flight on December 17, 1903. Unlike modern planes these early models were unable to gain enough ground speed to get themselves in the air. They were propelled along a single rail initially by two men running alongside, and later by a dropped weight system that foreshadowed the catapults used on modern aircraft carriers. Over the next 10 years they continued to refine their designs, building planes that could travel faster, farther and higher. They eventually signed contracts with the United States government and a company in France to sell their planes. They applied for and received a patent on their wing warping technology. ANd they became wealthy.

There were bumps along the way of course. There was the continuous stream of claims by others to have actually achieved the first flight. None of these have come close to being proven. They were subject to the doubts and skepticism of rivals who refused to believe two upstart Americans could have solved such a complex problem. On September 17, 1908 during one of several demonstration flights Orville Wright made for the United States Army, and with a passenger aboard, his Flyer crashed, nose diving into the ground from about 100 feet. The crash killed the passenger, Captain Thomas Seflridge, who became the first fatality in world history from an airplane crash, and Orville was severely wounded with a broken pelvis, broken leg and rib fractures. It took several months before he was able to resume his work. During all of this the Wrights never wavered from their conviction to advance the quality of their flyers, and to protect the proprietary claim of their wing warping system against those that tried to incorporate it into their designs without permission. It was this latter effort that caused enormous problems for Orville Wright in later years, and actually retarded the advancement of flight technology in the United States for several years, allowing the French to overtake it as the leading manufacturer of flying machines.

Wilbur Wright died in 1912 of Typhoid fever at the age of 45. Orville continued on with the business, assuming the Presidency of the Wright Company. For the next several years Wright was in court, accusing several airplane makers of using the patented wing warping technology without permission or license. Many of these lawsuits were eventually settled in the Wright Company’s favor, but it took so long that advances in the technology were put on hold until they were resolved. Other countries began to overtake the United States in the manufacture and design of aircraft.

Orville eventually merged the company with Martin Aircraft company, which subsequently became the Wright Aeronautical Company, which in turn merged with the Curtiss Aeroplane Company to form the Curtiss-Wright Corporation which is still in business today. Ironically, Glenn Curtiss, a noted aviation pioneer and founder of the Curtiss Company was one of those sued by the Wrights.

Orville Wright finally died in 1948, having lived into the era of supersonic flight. All in all a very remarkable story that is not wholly appreciated today.

I have few criticisms of this book. McCullough is a master manipulator. He is expert at using selected incidents to build tension before a dramatic and uplifting conclusion. As with some of his other works on American history he is out to tell an uplifting American story, so he spends very little time on things that might detract from that, such as the patent battles and Orville’s later shameful shunning of his sister. These are mentioned of course, but very little detail is provided.

If you are familiar with McCullough you know what you are in for. And what you are in for is a master story teller at his peak!

Highly recommended

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My Rating:
3.0 rating

20663769



This is a nice little book about the process that resulted in the downgrading of Pluto from full planethood to a status of Dwarf Planet by one of my favorite people, Neil deGrasse Tyson. From his perspective as the Director of the Hayden Planetarium, and as one of the scientists involved in the reclassification of Pluto Tyson gives us a nice, easily readable and humorous account of this process. It was one of those rare times that what should be a strictly scientific process got caught up with tradition, history, culture and public opinion.

Tyson does a very nice job placing Pluto in our culture as the most popular of the planets. As the runt of the solar system it was often used as a metaphor for over achievment. It’s mystery provided the fodder for dozens of science fiction works, mainly aimed at kids…and even Disney named one of its characters Pluto.

The outcry when it was discovered a change to its classification was being contemplated was fairly stunning, with the public firmly supporting retaining its planethood, while astronomers and planetary scientists were surprisingly divided on the question. At it’s heart the debate revolved around what the definition of a planet was. That term had never really been defined before.

If we consider planets to be round bodies, with a regular orbit around the sun and not orbiting another object then Pluto qualifies. If size is taken into account, well there are several moons in our solar system larger than Pluto so the answer is less clear. It is out of place in the solar system, with the inner planets (Mercury, Venis, Earth and Mars) being rocky worlds, and the outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) being large gas giants. Pluto does not fit into either of these categories. Analysis suggests it is largely an icy world, closer in composition to a comet than any of the other planets.

Most recent image of Pluto from the New Horizons probe.

Most recent image of Pluto from the New Horizons probe.

Pluto lies in what is called the Kuiper Belt, a belt of objects extending from the orbit of Neptune outward. It basically contains the leftovers from the formation of our solar system. Pluto is a Kuiper Belt object. One of the proposed criteria for classifying an object as a planet was whether it was large enough to clear out its orbital path. In other words as the object circled the sun did it accumulate enough of the debris in its orbit to basically remove everything but itself. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune all do this. Pluto does not. It is only one of thousands of objects in the Kuiper Belt, albeit one of the largest. Those wishing to keep Pluto classified as a planet advocated ignoring this requirement due to Pluto’s size. The question then arose; what would happen if another Kuiper Belt object was found that exceeded Pluto in size? Would it then be a planet as well? And in fact this did happen with the discovery of Eris in 2005 as this debate was taking place. Eris is 27% larger than Pluto, and for a year was considered the solar system’s 10th planet.

Finally, in 2006 it was decided Pluto, Eris and similar worlds would be classified as Plutoids or “dwarf planets.” As Tyson points out however, this will do little to diminish people’s affection for Pluto. After  all a dwarf human is still a human…so for most people, Pluto remains a planet.

If you have a few hours to kill and have any affection for or interest in Pluto…or are a Neil deGrasse Tyson fan, you will enjoy this!

 

Note: The New Horizons space probe, the fastest object ever launched by human beings humming along at 37,00 mph, is scheduled to reach Pluto in August of this year. It should provide many of the answers to questions we have had about Pluto since its discovery, including its exact size, the compostion of its atmosphere etc!

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My Rating:
4.0 rating

Darwin



A really pleasant account of Charles Darwin’s academic life and the process by which he eventually published one of the most impactful books in human history – The Origin of Species, in which he postulated the theory of natural selection, or as it is known  today, evolution. He later expanded his theories to include homo sapiens in The Descent of Man. What is really terrific about this book is that it presents a Charles Darwin completely devoid of the stereotypes of him we are familiar with today. Among those who continue to adhere to a biblical version of creation Darwin is a villainous anti-Christ, sent here to destroy people’s faith in God. Among those who revere his work he has become an untouchably great man, devoid of flaws, and who epitomizes the triumph of reason over superstition. Though I have always leaned towards the latter view of him, and believe it to be closer to the truth, neither stereotype really fully captures the man. In this book however, the author has done exactly that.

The basics of how Darwin arrived at the theory of evolution are fairly well known. Shortly after graduating from Oxford in 1831 Darwin signed on as an informal member of the crew of the H.M.S. Beagle, about to depart on an extended voyage of discovery. As a naturalist in training Darwin did not hold an official position other than as observer and collector. The voyage took over five years, visiting places as varied as Chile, Patagonia, the Galapagos and Falkland Islands, South Africa, and Singapore. Observing the variation and geographic distribution of species during this voyage eventually led Darwin to postulate natural selection (known as transmutation of species then, evolution now). In particular, fossils of birds collected primarily in the Galapagos and Chile showed not just variation in a particular species, but the development of new species adapted to the environment they inhabited. Finding one species abundant on one island, and completely absent on another nearby led him to consider how species developed over vast periods of time. After returning to England Darwin formulated his theory which he published in his two earth shattering volumes, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life later shortened to Origin of Species, and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex shortened to The Descent of Man. This “theory” which has been reconfirmed over the ensuing years has become one of the most controversial scientific conclusions in world history. Hardly the result one would have expected from this unprepossessing man who generally shunned controversy, and for whom any kind of stress or conflict would induce bouts of debilitating illness.

Darwin_Tree_1837

Page from Darwin’s Journal “B” whee he sketched out his theory of natural selection.

What most don’t realize about the well accepted version of Darwin’s evolution on evolution, was how long it took between the time he initially began formulating his theory until it was actually published – thirty-one years. He spent much of that time publishing on other topics including a well received account of his time aboard the H.M.S. Beagle and a ten year study he conducted on barnacles…yes…barnacles. During that time he kept refining his thoughts on transmutation that he recorded in a series of journals. He felt no rush to publish. While others had postulated variants on transmutation, most famously Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who proposed a kind of directed evolution in which organisms could pass on acquired or learned traits to their offspring, no one had proposed anything as radical as what Darwin was contemplating…until June of 1858 that is.

On June 18, 1858 Darwin received from Alfred Russel Wallace, an amateur naturalist and collector, a manuscript he had written based on his observations during several overseas trips. Disturbingly close to the theories Darwin had been refining for nearly 30 years he realized he was about to be overtaken. Unwilling to discard honor in order to usurp Wallace, Darwin turned to friends who arranged to have both papers read jointly at a session of the Linnean society. Honor satisfied Darwin turned to writing a longer abstract of his theories. Abandoning the multi-volume, minutely cited work he had intended Darwin produce a 500 page book that he referred to as an abstract of his theory. This of course was Origin of Species. He had intended a more sedate release of his work, allowing his theories to percolate out rather than exploding all at once. Wallace’s challenge sped up that timetable. Darwin seemed to realize once the implications of what he proposed sunk in, that he would be the focus of unwanted attention, both good and bad. This was something his delicate constitution had trouble adjusting too.

For most of his adult life Darwin was subject to periods of debility that manifested  as headaches, heart palpitations, foggy headedness, nausea and most annoyingly, excessive vomiting. It got so bad he had a special alcove constructed in his office to allow him a place to get sick while working. He saw a number of doctors who failed to arrive at a satisfactory diagnosis. He tried a number of quack cures that seemed to offer relief at various times. That he lived so long with this condition indicates it was very likely a psychosomatic illness brought on by stress and conflict. Luckily he had the support of a devoted wife, his first cousin Emma Wedgewood, who helped support his work, cared for him during illness, bore him nine children, and who made sure his legacy was preserved. Ironically, for Darwin was a confirmed agnostic, his wife was a devout Christian who feared for the immortality of her husbands soul.

So, far from being the single minded zealot who set out to destroy faith, or the mythical demi-god who brought the light of truth to the masses, conventional views of Darwin today, he was rather a shy, introverted family man, married to a devout Christian, who shunned controversy and conflict. The irony of his life then was that his work was not only controversial but that to this day it induces the most heated conflict, and, that he was devoted to a woman who espoused a view of life his theory directly contradicted! The author illuminates this side of Darwin brilliantly. Most historical biographies attempt to bring life to their subjects. This is an example of a success. I think it was a great choice not including extensive detail on his voyage aboard the Beagle, concentrating instead on the intellectual and emotional journey Darwin made to the eventual publication of his theories.

Even more impressive than the theory itself, is the fact that he came up with the idea for natural selection without the benefit of the kind of biological proof that would confirm them over the next century. The science of genetics had not yet been born when Darwin published Origin of Species, yet all genetic work since then has confirmed the accuracy of his conclusions, to the point where it is no longer considered a theory in the common sense of the word, but as it is used in science, to indicate to a near certitude its veracity – as in the theory of gravity. Yet many, not wishing to abandon the faith they were raised with continue to deny its truth. I can only hope more books like this will be included in school curricula so we can get to a point where knowledge is no longer a slave to faith.

Highly recommended!

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My Rating:
4.0 rating

SeaofGlory

More great beach reading from Nathaniel Philbrick. This time he tackles a now mostly forgotten expedition known as the United States Exploring Expedition (or US. Ex. Ex.) which took place between 1838 and 1842. Led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes the expedition consisted of six ships whose charge was to explore and survey the Pacific Ocean. Consisting of Navy officers and seaman, and a corps of scientists, the expedition was one of the most successful in terms of discovery, in American history.  Included among its many accomplishments are  the charting of the coastline of Antarctica for the first time, becoming the first expedition to reach and map the Fiji islands, charting the area surrounding the Columbia River in Oregon whose ownership was a matter of dispute between Great Britain and the United States, climbing both  the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes in Hawaii, and by providing the first accurate explanations for the formation of the coral atolls that dot the South Pacific. They encountered numerous indigenous peoples throughout their journey, and cataloged and took samples of enough flora and fauna to fill a museum, and indeed it was one of the first collections added to the new Smithsonian Institution. Despite this enviable record of success however the expedition is all but forgotten now.

Philbrick’s purpose for the book is twofold; first to bring the accomplishments of this expedition back into the U.S. canon of human exploration, and second, to provide a narrative that explains why it’s accomplishments have been so overlooked. The expedition itself had adventures worthy of anything one might find in a Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling or Daniel Defoe novel – including angry  cannibals. All of this is expertly dealt with by Philbrick whose writing is always clear and compelling. He brings something else to this work though, something that I thought was a bit lacking in his other books, and that is a real talent for illuminating the personalities of those involved in the events he describes. This is fortuitous as it was these personalities that were at the root of the expeditions later obscurity. I’m not going to go further than that because I don’t want to accidentally reveal any spoilers, for while this is primarily a book of history,  it reads like a great adventure!

Highly Recommended!

 

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My Rating:
5.0 rating

RisingTide

Don’t let the title fool you, while the focus of the book is the great 1927 flood (an event overlooked today), this is a book about the Mississippi River and man’s attempt to live with and in some cases tame it. Full of rich descriptions of men and women whose lives were shaped by the river and the 1927 flood, and of powerful men who tried to control and profit from it, including one who became President,  this book really grabs you from the outset.

Starting with early attempts to erect bridges over it, to map its courses and devise ways to keep it from hampering economic growth in the Mississippi Delta, through its role during the Civil War, and how it affected economics, culture and race relations in the south, the Mississippi River itself is a character in this story, with a personality all its own. This is expertly brought to life by Barry.

Most fascinating for me was the many ways in which the 1927 flood so profoundly changed the character of the deep south, and how in many ways it set back nascent progress on race relations. In order to combat the flood blacks were forced to work, shoring up levees, hauling supplies and digging trenches, all at gunpoint and without adequate food and shelter to sustain themselves. In many places (particularly Greenville, MS which in many ways was the epicenter of the flood), white leaders, aided and abetted by the Red Cross virtually re-instituted slavery. Prior to the flood, through the cooperation of local blacks and the relatively enlightened views of its leaders, particularly LeRoy Percy (a central figure in the latter half of the book), race relations had seen improvement. The flood, and the reaction of the white leadership to it nearly destroyed all that.

It also profoundly reshaped the labor system in the South. One reason why white leaders were so eager to keep blacks under foot during the crisis was to prevent them from leaving the Delta where they were the primary source of labor. However, once the waters had receded and it became apparent promises of restitution from local leaders and from the federal government were not going to be forthcoming, many blacks began migrating to the north. This caused a huge problem for large landowners who relied on the labor blacks provided, and from their percentage of income from sharecropper activities. It certainly helped hasten the transition to a de facto free labor system which had only existed in name only up until that time; a transition that continues to be a very painful one for the region.

Also interesting is the affect the flood had on presidential politics, and on the eventual shift in the relation between the federal government and her citizens that we saw under President Franklin Roosevelt. Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge’s Commerce Secretary of Commerce was tasked to coordinate the government response to the flood. It was his work, and the positive press he received from it that propelled him to the White House.

Hoover was tasked by Coolidge to coordinate the efforts of mostly private organizations as they attempted to deal with the enormous human suffering that was the result of the flood. Coolidge himself refused to set what he considered a dangerous precedent by providing the type of government disaster relief we take for granted today. As a result he was the focus of extensive media and public criticism for what was viewed as a heartless reaction to the crisis. All the while Hoover was being  lionized in the press as the only member of the administration willing to do something about the crisis. Coolidge’s opposition to government relief, however, was a policy with which Hoover totally agreed. However, it also foreshadowed the disastrous way he reacted to the Great Depression.

In hindsight the resources brought to bear by Hoover were wholly inadequate, and in many case failed to provide even minimally  adequate relief. It was this same strategy that he used as President, to try and relieve the suffering experienced by so many during the Great Depression; a strategy that failed miserably and gave rise to FDR and the more active governmental role he implemented. It was also the beginning of the end of the alliance between African-Americans and the Republican Party.

I found very little to criticize in this book. Occasionally  Barry provided a bit more detail, particularly about financial matters, than was probably necessary to make his point, but that is a minor quibble. Overall highly valuable book, about a significant even in American history that is often overlooked. Highly recommended!!

 

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My Rating:
3.0 rating

Moon

A workmanlike look at the U.S. space program from 1965 to 1969, encompassing the Gemini program, the Apollo I tragedy and the first five flights of the Apollo program. This book is the second of a trilogy looking at the entirety of the race to the moon and its exploration by the United States.

Overall I enjoyed the book in the same way I enjoy a really well written Wikipedia entry. I get all the information I want, with the pleasure being the information itself and not so much the writing.

It was cool having such a detailed description of each Gemini mission which is often overlooked in the history of the space race. The sections that looked at the Russian program were also interesting in I had read very little about it in the past. Detailed and lengthy reflections by the Astronauts and Cosmonauts themselves was also interesting.

Where this book falls short in my opinion is in its obvious attempt to avoid any hint of controversy. Astronaut biographies read like NASA press releases, and in sections that looked at controversies that were so public they could not be ignored the authors inevitably tried to take as sunny a view of them as possible.

If you are looking for a good first book to read on this era of space history you could do worse than this book. If you are looking for a book that puts the space race into a wider political, social and economic context you should look elsewhere. A good book on this topic is …The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age by Walter A. McDougall.

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My Rating:
3.0 rating

tinkercreek

This was one of those books that made me wish I had taken a much earlier interest in literature and creative writing. I am absolutely sure I would have gotten more enjoyment from this book than I did had that been the case. Commentary I’ve read about it compares Annie Dillard’s work to Thoreau and the other transcendentalists. Of course, I had precious little exposure to them in school so the comparison is largely lost on me. I did not pursue creative writing beyond the minimum requirements imposed on me as part of my course of study, so the style, rhythm and cadence of this work didn’t resonate with me at anything but a superficial level. So, my opinion of it will necessarily be based on my experiences and education.

I kind of view this book the way I would look at an abstract painting; like an artist trying to portray their feeling about a physical place or object through their art, the author here  is trying to do the same with words. The book I think employs a narrative form and consists of several reflections and internal monologues on nature, existence, life, death and religion. It all revolves around the environment near the authors home adjacent to Tinker Creek in Virginia. The book is divided into four sections representing the seasons, and within each section chapters that enhance and amplify the larger theme.

I really enjoyed much of this, particularly sections in which Dillard would focus her observations on a particular animal or event. Monologues describing her efforts to get close to the muskrats living in the creek, her fleeting attempts to observe fish and insects were very enjoyable. She also did a wonderful, almost mystical, job of incorporating the latest (at the time) discoveries in the fields of physics, astronomy and chemistry into the narrative as though those aspects of the physical world were as much a part of her immediate surroundings as were the insects, birds and reptiles she was observing.

Some parts I didn’t buy, particularly the overall theological theme. Dillard describes her work as a theodicy – the study of why a benevolent God would allow manifestations of evil in the world. The cut throat existence most living beings endure in nature are used as examples. The often cruel and gruesome ways many of “Gods” creatures meet their ends is used as the anchor point for this exploration. Being an atheist I don’t believe there is any deeper meaning other than that evolution provides for. Creatures exist and evolve as a consequence of the environment they live it, not because some benevolent God has allowed it. So these themes had no resonance with me.

She uses the concepts of via positiva and the via negativa, with the first half of the book being the former and the last half the latter. The first refers to the notion that God is present in nature and is in some way knowable. The second refers to a God which cannot be comprehended and therefore what happens in the world are only attributes of God’s will and not a knowable truth. Dillard finds the latter more attractive based on her observations of the natural world as represented at Tinker Creek. Of course from my perspective there is no will at work here as there is no supreme being to work that will. I understand things as part of a quantifiable and understandable process that doesn’t contain the mystery Dillard see around her.

Nevertheless I came away from reading this feeling closer to the nature Dillard describes than a dry recitation of fact could ever convey. I think there is something in all of us that wants the world around us and our place in it to have a higher meaning. I think that desire is a result of an evolutionary impulse. Yet, it is within me and works such as this satisfy some of that need.

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My Rating:
4.0 rating

78

My review of this book won’t be long, not only because it took me a full two months to finish it, which would have required me to go back to review what I read waaay back then, but also because  my mind is not well adapted to the minutiae of scientific discourse. I would have a very difficult time  recounting what I read in any coherent way.

Having said that however, I really did enjoy this book. I love science in the only way a historian can, by exploring its effects on people, society and culture. It was with that mindset that I began reading Annals of the Former World by John McPhee.

This work is essentially a geological travelogue, an amalgam of five books that  describes the history of the formation of the earth. But rather than trying to present it in a dry, linear way that most assuredly would have induced me to put it down within the first dozen pages or so,  McPhee chose to structure the book in a unique and effective way; using trips he took across America along Interstate 80 – the only highway that traverses the entire country – as the anchor point to which the narrative always returns. Accompanied by noted geologists along the way, he uses their observations to illuminate how the earth was initially formed and how it evolved.

Much of the book is steeped in geological jargon – rock types, formations, faults, tectonics etc. I learned very quickly that I was not going to be able to stop and look up every one of these terms if I ever wanted to finish the book. So, rather than attempt that, I simply let them flow by me as I tried to grasp the overall story that was being told. And you know what? It kind of worked. Occasionally I found myself getting lost, but McPhee is such an excellent writer that he always pulled me back just in time. So while I could not begin to explain to you much of what I read, in my minds eye I understand what  he was trying to get across.

My favorite parts of the book however, were those sections that deviated from the science of geology and moved into how the geology he was describing affected people,society and culture. In academic terms geology is as much a humanity as it is a science. It is so complex, and has so many interlocking parts that interpretation of data is often as much intuition as it is analysis. Geology is also more than just the science of rocks; it also has very important implications for how life formed and evolved on Earth, and how societies rose, fell, and rose again. Particularly effective are his narratives describing some of this. His recounting of the gold rush in the mid 19th century, and how the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California made its effects felt, stand out here. Lastly he includes some old fashioned biography, including sketches of some of the early pioneers in the field of geology including a very moving one of one of his travel partners – Dr. David Love of Wyoming.

I cannot say this book was easy to read; long stretches were almost incomprehensible to me. It required me to internalize and come to grips with descriptions of vast periods of time. But McPhee is such an outstanding writer that he always brought me back into the narrative in such a way that by the end of every set piece I had a grasp of what he was trying to convey. And at the end I felt I had acquired a real appreciation for the stunning complexity of the history of earth’s formation and evolution; and more importantly how that history is intimately entwined, with the creation and evolution of the life forms living on it. It really is two parts of the same story.

If you have the time and have any interest in science, or feel like getting out of your comfort zone for a while, I highly recommend this book!

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Bucket Source (Pulitzer Prize Winner for General Non-Fiction)
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My Rating:
4.0 rating

LastStand

A wonderfully written book on a topic that is probably not well known to most people. With the life of George Bird Grinnell as the vehicle, this book explores the death of the old west, the rise of the conservation movement, and the campaign to save the last herds of wild Buffalo.

At its peak the population of wild Buffalo in America ranged as high as 30 million individuals. In the course of 40 years that population had dwindled to little over 1,000. For Native Americans the Buffalo was the primary source of sustenance. For the United States Army, killing the Buffalo was a way to resolve the “Indian problem.” Add to  that unchecked hunting of Buffalo for hides, robes and as decorative accouterments for Gilded Age homes, and there was no way it could survive the onslaught. It was only through the efforts of a handful of men that the last remaining individuals were saved.

George Bird Grinnell is probably someone who should be more well known. A central figure of the early conservation movement, he played a pivotal role as owner and editor of Forest and Stream magazine, lobbying for and finally achieving protections for Yellowstone National park and the remaining wild Buffalo that lived within its borders. That herd, which had dwindled to only 23 by the early 20th century, now numbers about 4000 thanks to Grinnell and those he was able to enlist in his cause, including Theodore Roosevelt.

A scion of an elite family, his father became wealthy providing financial services to some of the great barons of the Gilded Age. Escaping that life through the influence of one of his college professors, Grinnell made several trips west on various expeditions were he interacted with many of the west’s most famous figures, including George Armstrong Custer and Buffalo Bill Cody. It was through these experiences, along with the tutelage of Lucy Audubon, (John J. Audubon’s widow), that Grinnell developed a love of the west, and an ethic of self sacrifice.

The author made an excellent choice focusing on Grinnell because he represents in one man the transition from the conspicuous consumption and lust for wealth that characterized the Gilded Age, to an ethic that demanded America’s natural and cultural heritage be preserved even if it meant the sacrifice of profit – something we should be paying attention to today.

Though perhaps not intended by the author, this work should be regarded as a cautionary tale, as in many ways we are witnessing a return to the Gilded Age ethic that nearly destroyed our natural heritage and completed the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. As we witness rollbacks in protection for the environment, denial of the effects of man made climate change, and a return to the mindset that the earth and its resources are here only to enrich us monetarily, we are forgetting the lessens  learned by such short sighted behavior only 100 years ago.

I’m not all that familiar with the history surrounding the birth of the conservation movement or of the rise of the new west, so I cannot comment with any authority on the accuracy of everything in this book. I have seen comments that point to some inaccuracies. However, I have not seen any criticism of its value as a popular work of history, or that these few inaccuracies detract from the power of its message.

Highly recommended!

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Bucket Source (Personal Addition)
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Current Bucket Status

Currently Reading: The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

Current Audio Book: The Free State of Jones by Victoria Bynum

On Deck: Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. by Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood

In the Bullpen: Summer for the Gods: The Scopes trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson

Last Read: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline


From Bucket Authors


New Bucket Books

An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield

The Case Against the Supreme Court by Erwin Chemerinsky

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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