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.
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Adding my own #GRAIL #NASATweetup poster mock-up to the mix

Everyone seems to be playing in Photoshop today (probably yesterday by the time I post this 😛 ), so I had to, too. I’m working on a poster in an 18×24″ size; whether my fellow space tweeps want to use it for the big poster or not, I’ll likely print a couple copies of the end result in about 9×12″ as a surface for signatures in case we get the opportunity. A couple rather than one, in case I could persuade people to sign one for me, one for my baby niece. Gotta start making a respectable nerd of her early, right? (Is 9×12″ big enough? Maybe 12×16″?)

Here’s where I’m at. I’ll probably play a bit more before I’m done, but I’d love suggestions (but please don’t be hurt if I choose not to follow them, because I take or leave advice at will).

Edited shortly after posting: I kept playing a little bit–modified the font style to smooth the edges and changed the GRAIL font to a slight variant with cut-out lines. Not sure which I prefer but here’s no. 2:

Here, I shifted the moon and twins a bit because they seemed a bit clumped in the middle and the moon wasn’t centered right.

Wherein I go to the Sunshine State only qua nerd

That’s right, qua. Like it.

NASA has, for at least a couple of years now, run events called tweetups for their followers on Twitter. A group of tweeps descends upon one of the NASA space centers for the event, which can last two days and is focused on a launch scheduled at that space center. They bring in speakers (Bill Nye was at the last one!), tour the facilities, and watch the launch. And of course, the tweeps get to meet each other in person and hang out for good times. 🙂 I first learned about these tweetups at some point in the last few months (probably after the GRE, since I was a wee bit oblivious to everything else while I prepped for that).

On September 8, if all goes well, NASA will launch the twin GRAIL craft to the moon from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This launch has an associated tweetup, for which over 800 people registered–only 150 can come, picked randomly. Now, my luck has a history of being quite bad, but somehow, somehow, my name was one of those pulled. So I’m going to Florida to see a rocket launch at KSC!

I have never been to Florida before; I’ve never been to a NASA facility; I didn’t even know about NASA tweetups a few months ago. Now I have plane tickets, lodging, and rides all or nearly all sorted out; I’ll be staying in a beach house with five other tweeps who all seem like a cool bunch; and my Twitter and Facebook streams have more or less exploded in a flurry of space-nerd fervor. Chouette, non?

What I can’t decide is whether to let myself use the tweetup as an excuse to get a Canon G series camera at long (loooonng) last. I’ve been eyeing those cameras since the G9 came out but could never justify spending that kind of money–especially when I was in college, working (essentially) with a fixed budget. But now…

Now the Canon G13 is likely to come out in another month or two, if not sooner. They’ve kept a tight lid on the release date, so as far as I know it could be released on Monday or in October. I would really like to wait for that camera. But my current (old) little point & shoot won’t cut it, and I’m loath to ask to use (or in fact to use) my brother’s Rebel.

Ah, dilemmas. 😛

I guess I’ll have to post more about GRAIL itself later. Meanwhile, this seems somewhat apropos. Also it’s stuck in my head (may it become stuck in yours):

Updates on SaveJWST gear and my newfound luck

First things first: I am thrilled by the amount of interest there’s been in the SaveJWST gear that I have published for sale at Les Étoiles. As you may know from my earlier posts, the James Webb Space Telescope–successor to the incredibly successful Hubble–is in danger of being scrapped by Congress; I am very much against this; and I am donating my earnings from JWST gear to the American Astronomical Society.

To my knowledge, I am not only the only shopkeeper donating proceeds–I am the only one on Zazzle selling SaveJWST gear. My shop is small; it has a fairly steady trickle of visitors, but no torrent. So I expected to receive perhaps a few dollars from these items: a token donation for AAS, offering more a symbol of sentiment than actual support. So I am thrilled to say that, barring cancellations, Les Étoiles has earned over $30 so far from JWST gear and there are dozens of stickers, bumper stickers, magnets, and keychains out there helping to make the Webb a more visible topic.

Since my last post, I have added a lot more, with the help of the folks at SaveJWST on Facebook. They lent me the use of their logo, so I have shiny new bumper stickers, magnets, … even mini bookmarks available. Here’s a sampling:


You can find the rest at the gallery.

Now, in the title I also alluded to some unexpected luck. This post has gotten long already, so I’ll just say that I am one of 150 Twitter-followers of NASA who will be converging on Kennedy Space Center in early September to hang out, make good times, and watch the launch of the twin GRAIL satellites to the moon. I am not accustomed to winning things. 🙂

Show your support for JWST & Les Étoiles will donate proceeds to AAS

I was busy over the weekend, making … well, propaganda, essentially. 😉 I’ve made a bunch of materials in my Zazzle store, Les Étoiles, that you can use to show your support of the James Webb Space Telescope and to help spread the word. There are stickers, bumper stickers, keychains, buttons, magnets, and mini bookmarks (1×3″ cards). Everything I receive from sales of JWST items I will donate to the American Astronomical Society for their efforts to advance public policy.

In fact, if you purchase anything at my store and send me a message with your name & what you bought, and tell me you want to help save JWST, I will add any commission I receive from your whole purchase–JWST items or not–to the donation for AAS. There’s a direct contact form available right from my store. And you can customize pretty much everything in the store, so feel quite free to find any image on any item you like and add your own text, since you’re probably much better at slogans and witticisms than I am! 😛