“Genesis Revisited”

It is a good thing I was not drinking anything when I read “Genesis Revisited,” or I would have had coffee or tea all over my ereader. (I’m reading The Portable Atheist, which contains a lot of great – and some quite challenging – excerpts of various mostly atheist authors. That’s where I found those Shelley quotes, and I decided I have got to read Middlemarch due to Eliot’s chapter.)

If Ideas Had Shapes

By now the valley of the shadow of doubt was overrunneth with skepticism, so God became angry, so angry that God lost His temper and cursed the first humans, telling them to go forth and multiply themselves (but not in those words). But the humans took God literally and now there are six billion of them.

(quoted in The Portable Atheist)

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Free fantasy novel: The Winds of Khalakovo

I’m not a Kindle girl, myself, but I just noticed that Amazon is offering up the Kindle edition of Bradley Beaulieu’s The Winds of Khalakovo for free right now! I have no idea how long this will last, but it’s really an interesting fantasy novel and a great read—not overly simple. I wrote a review after I read it last summer (having found it as one of Barnes & Noble’s Free Fridays selections—their best one still, if you ask me), so have a look at that if you want to know a little more. But goodness, dear reader, it’s a free, good fantasy novel!

If you have a Kindle or one of their reading apps, by all means, go download it.

The Winds of Khalakovo is the first of what—I believe—is supposed to be a trilogy. The second volume, The Straits of Galahesh, comes out within a couple of weeks.

Edit: Winds isn’t the only thing being given away, it turns out. Beaulieu RTed my tweet about the free Kindle edition, so (naturally) I checked out his profile, where I found this tweet from earlier today:

The response to The Straits of Galahesh Giveaway has been amazing. Still time to enter! Prizes of a Nook Tablet, Kindle http://streamified.me/9d3b47

Turns out the author and his publisher, Night Shade Books, are running a free contest with prizes of ebooks, signed paperbacks, even a touch reader or B&N or Amazon tablet. (And there’s an interactive map with Easter eggs. whee 🙂 ) Pretty impressive for a giveaway to hype a book release! It’s open for entries through April 3, the release day for Straits. Follow to link above to give it a shot.

Darwin ain’t your nanny

…so don’t expect him to hold your hand while you mouth the words you’re trying to read out of his tome. If he feels like quoting somebody in French and you don’t know the difference between salut and adieu, well, tant pis pour toi!

"Gratiolet opens his preface with the aphorism, 'Il est dangereux dans les sciences de conclure trop vite.' I fear he must have forgotten this sound maxim by the time he had reached the discussion of the differences between men and apes, in the body of his work."



But seriously, he quotes various people in the original French, some of it important and thorough technical information, and he never translates a word for the reader. Just assumes you can read it or will work it out if you care. The picture is the fourth instance, at least, in Descent of Man, and it’s by far the shortest and simplest quote. The first of the book proper (there’s one in the introduction, too) appears on page four of my edition and reads as follows:

“It is notorious that man is constructed on the same general type or model as other mammals. … Vulpian remarks: Les différences feelles qui existent entre l’encéphale de l’homme et celui des singes supérieurs, sont biens minimes. Il ne faut pas se faire d’illusions à cet égard. L’homme est bien plus près des singes anthropomorphes par les caractères anatomiques de son cerveau que ceux-ci ne le sout non-seulement des autres mammifères, mais même de certains quadrumanes, des guenons et des macaques. But it would be superfluous here to give further details…”

I speak a little French, but I’m missing a bit of this, too — I think feelles, at any rate, is antiquated language if it’s not a typo. The gist of the long quote is that the differences between the human brain and that of the anthropomorphous apes is very small, much smaller than the differences between the higher and lower primates. The author quoted says we should not delude ourselves about this. (Side note: sad, isn’t it, that some still insist on deluding themselves about such things more than 140 years after Darwin was quoting somebody else who already had said this.)

The handwritten quote in the image says that it’s dangerous, in the sciences, to make hasty conclusions. Same’s true outside of science, of course–first lesson of philosophy, for one.

Science Book Challenge Review: Dance for Two (Lightman)

When I was a junior undergrad, a fellow student–a physics major–recommended Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams as one of his favorite books. Having had a small taste of physics in a mechanics course that fall, I was hungry for more–especially since we stopped just short of an introduction to relativity. I picked up a copy to read over winter break, and that novel became one of my favorites, as well. Five years later, I’ve finally gotten around to reading more of Lightman’s work.

Dance for Two is a collection of essays centered on the interplay, differences, and similarities between science and art. “It seems to me,” Lightman observes, “that in both science and art we are trying desperately to connect with something–this is how we achieve universality. In art, that something is people, their experiences and sensitivities. In science, that something is nature, the physical world and physical laws.” And pure science, he believes, offers a kind of immortality akin to that of great art:

“Hundreds of years from now, when automobiles bore us, we will still treasure the discoveries of Kepler and Einstein, along with the plays of Shakespeare and the symphonies of Beethoven.”

The essays are themselves artfully written, sometimes vividly poetic, sometimes almost musical in their composition. The opening piece, “Pas de Deux,” describes the physical forces acting opposite a ballerina with no less delicacy than we imagine of the dance itself. It is as if she dances not alone on stage, but with all of nature as her partner, each move paired in exquisite synchrony.

Lightman balances fictional narratives and beautifully detailed explorations of natural processes with autobiographical essays on his own journey as a scientist. These latter range from a humorous tale about a semester-long lab project gone awry (Lightman, as he learned, was destined for theory, not the lab) to a poignant reflection on the early age at which scientists reach their peak. Above all, he brings a beauty and a human touch to science prose that I can recall seeing in no other author save Carl Sagan.

There are occasional digressions from the main science versus art theme. In one, “Progress,” Lightman expresses his concern about society’s headlong rush to assimilate every new technology we create; he cautions that “we cannot have advances in technology without an accompanying consideration of human values and quality of life.” In another he advocates the pursuit of pure science–science for science’s sake–arguing that what may seem useless entertains, changes our worldview, deals in truth (“there is no greater gift we can pass to our descendants”), and more practically, paves the way for uses we cannot predict. “If we stop paying for pure science today,” he argues, “there will be no applied science tomorrow.”

In all, Dance for Two is a pretty easy read, though the essays do sometimes show their age, as when Lightman writes that the universe is approximately 10 billion years old instead of the current estimate of about 13.7 billion years. Regardless, it is a delight to read, offering interesting comparisons to art and an engaging reminder of what drives us to do science. I would recommend it as readily as any science book I’ve read, and I plan to pick up another of his books soon, myself.

Ratings:

  • Scienticity: 4/5. It’s not all science, but I think there’s more tucked in here than you might notice at first glance.
  • Readability: 5/5. This seems like one of the easiest reads I’ve picked up recently, in the best way–it’s simply clear prose, never oversimplified or patronizing.
  • Hermeneutics: 4/5. Lightman clearly knows his stuff. In one or two of the vignettes, though, I struggled to find his meaning or intent (fun as they were).
  • Charisma: 5/5. If I could give 10/5, I would; his prose is spellbinding.
  • Recommendation: 5/5. Unreserved.

Bookishness manifest

Well, it’s December 31, GRAIL-A (still unnamed?) has just entered moon orbit, and I haven’t written a word about the science books I’ve read this year. Slap on wrist.

I have read a few science or math-related books, namely Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist (yeah, I’m counting that); Melanie Mitchell’s Complexity: A Guided Tour (winner of the 2010 Phi Beta Kappa book award in science); and Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World. Not quite the same, I also worked my way through a GRE math section prep book (Nova GRE Math Prep Course), which I did review…and, after completing it myself, recommended and lent to a fellow alum of my alma mater. (I’d like it back, still… 😛 )

So I still owe the science reading challenge some reviews, but for now, I would recommend any of these books as good to excellent reads. Harford’s is easy (kind of econ-light), Sagan’s is easy to medium and ranges over a broad territory of subjects circling around critical thinking, and Mitchell’s is medium-hard (but as much worth reading as Sagan’s, which is saying something).

Had some good non-science reads this year, too, mostly fiction but including the newly released nonfiction book on typefaces and typographical design, Just My Type (Simon Garfield). The fiction books were The Winds of Khalakovo (fantasy novel by a new author, Bradley Beaulieu), A Game of Thrones (G.R.R. Martin), The Blue Light Project (Timothy Taylor), Juliet, Naked (Nick Hornby), War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells), What Is the What (Dave Eggers), Faust Eric and Witches Abroad (Terry Pratchett), and an unpublished novel by an acquaintance (I was a test reader–just finished and need to get feedback to him still). This, if you’re curious, is a year in which I did not read nearly as much as I wanted to. Of course, I spent a few months prepping for the GRE, which took approximately all of my spare time, and soon after was selected to attend the GRAIL NASATweetup, which spurred me to read up online about the mission. I also spent a lot of time for a few weeks in between the GRE and GRAIL making Zazzle gear for the SaveJWST campaign (enough of which has sold so far to make $75 in donations to the American Astronomical Society for public policy advancement–much more than I expected!).

I’d like to say what book was the best one I read this year, but that’s an impossible task for a bookworm with wide-ranging interests. I wouldn’t recommend against any of the published books. Pratchett’s Discworld series is endlessly entertaining and frequently insightful. The Winds of Khalakovo surprised me, as I got it as one of Barnes & Noble’s “Free Fridays” selections, which don’t usually appeal; it’s a fantasy novel in a Russian-esque setting, with airships and magic and politics and betrayals. It’s meant to be a series, and I’ll look for the next one when it’s released next year.

What Is the What would have shocked me, coming from the author of Heartbreaking Work… (which I found arrogant and tedious…it oozed false bravado), had I not already seen Eggers’ TED Prize talk. He’s actually a pretty awesome person. What Is the What isn’t a light read; it’s a survivor’s tale, and a good one. So maybe I should give HB another go. I probably don’t need to say much about Game of Thrones; it is incredibly gritty for a fantasy novel, though, and I look forward to reading the second novel (if I can find time to read another brick–that felt as long as Atlas Shrugged, and I’m one of those who say you didn’t read Atlas if you skipped over the 60-page Galt rant). I want to own Complexity so that I can read it again; it covers a lot of different interwoven subjects, and is very interesting, but also quite a bit to absorb.

…And when I do leave my current employer, I might just buy everyone there a copy of The Demon-Haunted World. They could use it–no one batted an eye when an associate gave everyone a copy of the near-death experience story, Heaven Is for Real. But of course they didn’t; the CEO consults a psychic about the business every year and insisted that the office be designed based on feng shui–as a result of which the walls are pretty colors but there’s an extreme lack of functional space and light–and another employee believes in auras and ghosts and “cleansing the energy” of a place, and claims, with encouragement from credulous coworkers, to have some sort of paranormal “powers.” Incidentally, according to the thinking profile the office does, you might expect her to be second in logical bent only to me–she has the “know-it-all”/”I’m-the-smartest” profile. (Her copy should include details on the James Randi prize…)

Anyway, good books this year, though I’d have liked to read more. So here’s to good reads in 2012. And go GRAIL!