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War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells), What Is the What (Dave Eggers), Faust Eric and Witches Abroad (Terry Pratchett), and an unpublished novel by an acquaintance (I was a test reader–just finished and need to get feedback to him still).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!

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Much-delayed photos from GRAIL tweetup, part IV

Here are a few final images from September. The last one was taken by a friend on her iPhone, since I had (for no good reason) left my camera in the car that day.

The coolest celestial globe I've ever seen. It's monstrously heavy, lifted enough by the fountain that you can--with effort--rotate it.

...like so.

The #DiscoveryHouse Bludgeon Whale.* This guy is solid metal, and very heavy. *No mammals were harmed in the naming of this whale. 😉

On our way back to Orlando for flights home, three of us Discovery House folk visited Downtown Disney, where I saw a familiar--and wholly unexpected--sight. A genuine Guatemalan experience is Pollo Campero! My mom, brother, and I ate at one when we visited at the end of his year working in a Xela (Quetzaltenango) language school. I'm still kind of curious what a Guatemalan chain restaurant is doing in the middle of Disney/Orlando. Anyone?

[fin]

Much-delayed photos from GRAIL tweetup, part III

GRAIL’s launch was originally scheduled for the morning of Thursday, September 8, so we all got up and headed for the buses when it was still dark outside. Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘held court’ with a bunch of us as we waited in the parking lot; I don’t remember everything he talked about, but I do remember the Pleiades. They were overhead, and Tyson told us that, although the Pleiades does not comprise seven stars, it’s called the “Seven Sisters” because of ancient myths. The Greeks and Romans gave the subjects of their myths places in the celestial sphere, as you see over and over if you read Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Sisters was the closest they could come to matching a character/set of characters from myth to what they saw in the sky. (In the myth, Orion pursues the Pleiades until Zeus makes them stars, and the constellation Orion still ‘follows’ the Pleiades cluster in the night sky.) So they tried to make what they saw fit the myths they believed in.

Eventually, though, we boarded the buses and headed for our viewing site at the causeway. We had quite a while to wait, and I was so tired that, I’ll admit, I took a chair and nodded off. Too bad I did, because I saw a kind of crowd a ways down from where I sat; only later I heard that Tyson was still talking to everyone who stayed nearby. In fact, it sounded like he would have talked straight through the launch, if it hadn’t been scrubbed due to weather/wind concerns higher in the atmosphere.

Here are a few photos I captured on the causeway, at any rate. It looked like a beautiful morning, but clouds started to roll in by the first launch window.

Sunrise at the causeway.

Setting up cameras for the launch.

Waiting, as more watchers arrive.

Helicopter flying over from the south.

The view of SLC-17 from the causeway (plus some grasses because I like taking pictures with distant objects framed against near ones).

Wherein I get distracted by patterns, water droplets, light and shadow while I wait.

Much-delayed photos from GRAIL tweetup, part II

Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke twice during the GRAIL NASATweetup in September, once during the afternoon of lectures after our tour and once the next day, after the scrubbed launch attempt. Other speakers on Wednesday included Charlie Bolden, NASA administrator; Maria Zuber of MIT, the head scientist behind the GRAIL mission; Jim Adams, a planetary scientist at NASA; and Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame [Lt. Uhura], who–and this was a surprise to me–spent time recruiting female and minority astronauts in the 70s and 80s.

Tyson would talk all day if you let him, and if he were talking to you, you probably would. Very engaging speaker, and he interacts with the audience a lot more than other speakers (which is part of why he’s the only one I got pictures of on Wednesday–I also should have just turned on flash and set my camera to auto, but oh well). He was the only one who came into the audience, which gave us in the back a good chance to shoot photos…including one of him dragging an audience member out of his seat in illustration of a point about providing evidence for your claims… 😛

"Our sensory system is not only feeble, it deceives us. You cannot claim to understand the universe through sensory devices where half the time they're giving you the wrong information or allowing you to interpret it the wrong way."

"Drag the alien back with you!"

"We have to love the questions"

At the end of the talk on Thursday, Sept. 8, Tyson made the comment that scientists have to “love the questions themselves.” It’s a quote straight out of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and I got really excited to hear him say it; it’s not that common for people to cross the boundary between art and science naturally, without making a fuss about it, and I’ve since seen a video in which he used it in another talk. I believe he knew the reference he was making, which is both very cool (scientist quoting poet) and very odd (Rilke goes on to say “do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you”). There may be ways of interpreting Rilke’s statement such that Tyson’s use of it doesn’t mean “don’t try to answer the scientific questions that seem very difficult,” but that tension is there. Yes, live the questions, as the poet said, but don’t let that stop you from seeking answers.