Categories
Books Film Science

The Martian

I conducted an experiment with The Martian. Too many times I’ve read a book before seeing its movie version and have come out of the theater disappointed they didn’t show this or showed too much of that, and above all that I knew what was going to happen. Seems the conventional wisdom is that you should read the book beforehand to get the truest experience first and prepare for seeing the movie, but this doesn’t make any sense. Prepare for what? Knowing what’s going to happen so you’re not surprised? I like not knowing what’s going to happen in a movie. So I postponed reading Andy Weir’s book until after I saw the movie.

Ridley Scott’s rendition captures the book quite well. It condenses Watney’s extensive, often mind-numbing passages on the technical aspects of his survival process while maintaining the spirit of the book. (At some point a character tells another “Walk me through it,” and I thought that could easily be the title.) Watney’s play-by-play is (mostly) fascinating, absolutely, but changing it for the movie to Matt Damon directly addressing the camera/mission log allows us to see Watney’s personality come to life in real time.

The movie also, for me, elevated interest in the deliberations at NASA and on the Hermes. Screenwriter Drew Goddard cleaned up a lot of Weir’s cringeworthy dialogue in the book, or at least made it more palatable for the very talented supporting cast of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig (!), and Sean Bean on earth, and Jessica Chastain et al on the Hermes.

The book lived up to its reputation as an exciting, extremely detailed, chatty thriller slash user manual. I assumed, having seen the film, that I knew how it was going to end—that they wouldn’t have made any drastic changes to the conclusion—but it’s a testament to Weir that I stayed with it the whole time. Indeed, my palms were sweating during the climax. No doubt there’s a scientific solution for that.

Categories
Etc. Science Technology

How to Feel Small

I like things that make me feel small.

Like If The Moon Were Only 1 Pixel, a “tediously accurate scale model of the solar system” that, as you scroll horizontally, reveals the vast span of our neighborhood:
moon

Or Why Time Flies, a philosophical exploration of our fungible awareness of time:
time

Or The Scale of the Universe (my favorite), which, as you zoom in and out, shows the comparative sizes of all creation, from the largest supercluster to the smallest neutrino (notice how everything at some point is the same size):
scale

Or Lightyear.fm, a “journey through space, time & music” that plays songs of the past according to how far their waves have traveled from Earth since they were released:
lightyear

Or The Deep Sea, made by Neal Agarwal, which shows as you scroll down the creatures (and shipwrecks) that live at different depths of the ocean. Spoiler alert: the ocean is very deep.

Categories
Books Review Science

How We Got to Now

howI couldn’t put down How We Got To Now, Steven Johnson’s six-part book on “innovations that made the modern world.” The book is an exposition on the theory of the “hummingbird effect,” which occurs when “an innovation, or cluster of innovations, in one field ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether.” The theory is so named because of how hummingbirds evolved a new way to float midair while extracting nectar from flowers, thus having one phenomena (plant reproduction) effect change in another seemingly unrelated one (bird anatomy).

Johnson illustrates this theme in six realms: Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time, and Light. The book is beautifully illustrated throughout with pictures of inventors, innovators, and their creations—famous and obscure—whose intuitive leaps of imagination and engineering influenced the world in ways they could never foresee. Fifteenth-century Italian glassmakers displaced by the fall of Constantinople experimented with new kinds of glass, which found use as proto-lenses for scribes in monasteries (their lentil-like shape inspiring the name lens, from the Latin lentes for lentil), which, along with Gutenberg’s printing press allowing for cheaper and portable books, contributed to the rise in overall literacy, which exposed the farsightedness of these new readers, who suddenly realized they needed lenses to read, thus creating a new market for eyeglasses. As Johnson points out, Gutenberg didn’t set out to create a new market for eyewear: the hummingbird effect simply made it happen step by step.

It’s more complicated than that, and Johnson takes care to paint a much richer and fascinating portrait of this phenomenon in action over centuries. I had a lot of fun reading How We Got to Now because Johnson lays out a continuous string of tasty knowledge nuggets from beginning to end. On every page I learned something that I wanted to write down and share with others. We’re living in a big, beautiful, deep world that has a great story to tell. How We Got to Now helps explain why.

Categories
Books Film Science

Einterstellar

My new definition of cosmic irony: to be in the midst of Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe as I went to see Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a marvel of a film that directly references Einstein and his theory of relativity. I had a chuckle during the film when that moment arrived, not because I understand the theory of relativity in the least, but because the universe is mysterious and funny in that way.

Einstein would probably agree, according to Isaacson’s book. I picked it up on a whim. For being such a ubiquitous figure I knew nearly nothing about him, and since for the last few years I’ve grown increasingly interested in (and therefore increasingly perplexed by) astrophysics and the stuff of space, I thought a well-regarded biography of one of astrophysics greatest would be a good place to start. And indeed I’d recommend it to anyone, even, or especially, those who will have to skim over the arcane science passages as I did.

I think Einstein would have loved Interstellar.

Categories
Books God Review Science

Deep & The Divine Milieu

freedivercrop

At one point in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Mason asks his father if there’s magic in the world. Probably not literal magic, his dad replies. But then he asks the boy: if you didn’t know what a whale was and someone told you there was a giant mammal that lived underwater with a heart as big as a car and arteries you could crawl through, wouldn’t you find that pretty magical?

I’d say so. But more than that, I’d call it divine. Scientists, I’m sure, would frown upon using a religious word to describe biological processes and characteristics, but I find it quite appropriate, especially after learning about the profundities of the ocean from James Nestor’s new book Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves.

Perhaps it’s because the book I read before Deep was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu, a meditation on the earthly omnipresence of the divine. Consistent with the Jesuit motto of “finding God in all things,” Teilhard, a Jesuit priest and archaeologist, saw the natural world’s evolution not in conflict with the eternal Divine, but convergent with it. Thus the “divine milieu” is not just in heaven but on earth too, manifest in the world around us. Deep, though a study in scientific phenomena, aligns in fascinating ways with the spiritual phenomena described in The Divine Milieu.

Consider the “master switch of life,” a term that refers to the physiological reflexes in the human body that are triggered when we enter the water and intensify the deeper we go. This transformation, writes Nestor in Deep, “protects our organs from imploding under the immense underwater pressure and turns us into efficient deep sea-diving animals.” But this isn’t an automatic switch. It requires intensive training, coupled with total peace of mind and body, to fully realize its power and unlock the so-called “doorway to the deep,” the point at about 40 feet down where the ocean stops trying to spit us out and instead draws us down. Surrendering to the immersive power of the ocean is the only way to survive.

Likewise, writes Teilhard in The Divine Milieu: “The man who abandons himself to the divine milieu feels his inward powers clearly directed and vastly expanded by it with a sureness which enables him to avoid the reefs on which mystical ardor has so often foundered.” Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the freedivers Nestor meets all describe their underwater experiences in spiritual, almost mystical terms: “transcendent, life-changing, purifying. A new shimmering universe.” They could see new things in a way that a life on land couldn’t fathom.

The ocean, like the world itself, seems suspended between the tangible and mysterious, the clearly natural yet utterly magical. Nestor’s book is an ode to the people who inhabit that space in-between, who plunge into the unknown to push the limits of human understanding, like theologians of the sea. (Is sea-ologians a word? It should be.) The water beckons us to explore, to contend with the mystery of the divine as Paul does in Ephesians 3:18-19: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

A dive into the water, taken on faith but also with a clear mind, transforms and renews us all. Only when we’re in over our heads, holding our breath as we’re baptized into the deep, do we really live. Sounds like a divine milieu to me.

Originally published at ThinkChristian, August 2014.

(photo)

Categories
Books Libraries Science Teach Me How to Dewey

DDC 110-119: Let’s get metaphysical

A Teach Me How To Dewey production

The Rundown:

  • 110 Metaphysics
  • 111 Ontology
  • 112 No longer used—formerly Methodology
  • 113 Cosmology (Philosophy of nature)
  • 114 Space
  • 115 Time
  • 116 Change
  • 117 Structure
  • 118 Force and energy
  • 119 Number and quantity

Time to get college-dorm-at-2am up in here. I mean, just look at the subtopics in this 10-spot: change, space, time (though unfortunately nothing on the space-time continuum), energy… Each of these concepts are their own unfathomable galaxies within the blown-mind universe. Sometimes it seems these kinds of heady topics can only be discussed after a few pints at the pub. Does anyone outside of academia actually sit down and read books about this stuff? For a non-STEM person like me, books like The Infinite Book below are great because they are meant to make the dense quandaries of high-level science more accessible for English majors like me. But perhaps I need to challenge myself.

Or I’ll just read another novel.

The Dew3:

The Phenomenon of Man
By Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Dewey: 113
Random Sentence: “The paradox of man resolves itself by passing beyond measure.”

The Infinite Book: A Short Guide to the Boundless, Timeless and Endless
By John D. Barrow
Dewey: 111.6
Random Sentence: “Pythagoras believed infinity was the destroyer in the Universe, the malevolent annihilator of worlds.”

Grammars of Creation
By George Steiner
Dewey: 116
Random Sentence: “It can be cancelled and reduced to trackless silence.”

Categories
Science

Math Is A Wonderful Thing

I don’t know whether it’s due to some paucity in my education, a natural curiosity, or a sort of intellectual masochism (or all three), but I’ve occasionally sought out books about topics that often don’t agree with my brain yet still fascinate me. Being free from the shackles of syllabus reading (however instructional and edifying it often was) has allowed me to dabble in whatever topics I want, leading me down educational pathways I rarely dared to traverse before. I’m thinking specifically about math, science, and the other non-writing disciplines I failed to grasp or hone throughout my structured education.

The Joy of x by Steven Strogatz, a mathematician, is my most recent addition to this “continuing education” subgenre of my reading, and a delightful one. Dubbed “a guided tour of math,” this collection of bite-sized surveys paints key mathematical domains like Numbers, Shapes, and Data in broad strokes, simplified enough for English majors like me to understand them yet dense enough to require complete attention and critical thinking. I view Jennifer Ouellette’s splendid Black Bodies and Quantum Cats in the same league: right-brained books written for left-brainers, gateway drugs to some deeper, weirder stuff that should only be handled by professionals.

And I’m happy to leave that stuff to people like Strogatz (or his counterpart in astrophysics: Neil deGrasse Tyson), who are adept at communicating the importance and often invisible influence of the heady material they study to laypeople like me. The more books like The Joy of x and Black Bodies that are out there on library shelves and bookstores and talk shows, the more likely their subject matter gets the sympathy and support it needs. Though I came from the humanities, I also want STEM to get all the love it needs.

Categories
Books Review Science

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Chris Hadfield couldn’t just be a fighter pilot, engineer, astronaut, photographer, musician, or the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station; he just had to be a damn good writer too.

At one point in his superb memoir An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield describes what it’s like to exit the ISS into the vacuum of space for the first time:

What’s coming out of my mouth is a single word: Wow. Only, elongated: Wwwooooowww. … It’s like being engrossed in cleaning a pane of glass, then you look over your shoulder and realize you’re hanging off the side of the Empire State Building, Manhattan sprawled vividly beneath and around you. … It’s overpowering, visually, and no other senses warn you that you’re about to be attacked by raw beauty.

There was something similarly surreal and dreamlike about the sight in front of me now, which I couldn’t reconcile with my prosaic fumbling with the tether hook a moment before. Holding onto the side of a spaceship that’s moving around the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour, I could truly see the astonishing beauty of our planet, the infinite textures and colors. On the other side of me, the black velvet bucket of space, brimming with stars. It’s vast and overwhelming, this visual immersion, and I could drink it in forever.

In addition to telling the story of his life’s journey to the ISS, Hadfield dispenses great life advice he’s learned over the years and dishes on the culture of NASA. Contrary to the view we have of astronauts as swashbuckling daredevils, Hadfield is humble and forthright about his failings. He’s also candid about the sacrifices he and his family has had to make for him to pursue his dream. Reading this along with Mary Roach’s Packing For Mars provides great insight into the weirdness and wonder of space travel, and the men and women who are just crazy enough to do it.

Categories
Science

Ötzi: A Life

Radiolab has produced another winner in their “An Ice-Cold Case” episode, an illuminating portrait of Ötzi, a 5000-year-old natural mummy discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991. The details scientists have been able to ascertain about this mountain man are astounding. Radiolab, as usual, brings the story alive, telling what we know of Ötzi’s life and death, down to the meal he had before he died. I find it fascinating to imagine the life this mysterious “Iceman” lived before he died alone on a mountain and was mummified by the ebb and flow of ice and snow over millennia. That he didn’t decay like every other carcass, and instead lives among us now as an avatar for a primordial age, is a peculiar miracle that I’m glad to have heard from Radiolab — a crew that seems to delight in the many peculiar miracles around us.

Categories
Media Nature Science Travel

Silence Is Beholden

2013-09-17 12.42.28

I was on a solo hike a few weeks ago on a beautiful northern Californian day in Shasta Trinity National Park. It was a weekday morning, so I had the place to myself. I followed the Waters Gulch trail for about a mile or two as I trekked the path toward Packers Bay. The river (pictured above) was low, exposing the golden sediment beneath the thick green trees. It wasn’t long into the trail when the bustling world outside the Park faded and the world hushed. Though I knew I was walking through a vibrant and wild ecosystem of life in many forms, I was awed by its absolute silence.

Not a car. Not a plane droning above. Just my boots on the gravel. It was divine.

I wanted to capture that moment to take with me back into civilization, but I knew that some moments are better left uncaptured, free to roam on in time for the next eager seeker in need of some bliss. But I think some ought to be documented, if only because places like that — where noise doesn’t intrude on the soothing symphony of nature — are an endangered species.

And that’s why I suspect Gordon Hempton has the best job in the world. He’s an “acoustic ecologist” who records rare nature sounds and the few places on earth where silence still rules. He’s also the founder of One Square Inch of Silence, a research and advocacy project to protect the naturally silent habitats of the Olympic National Park in Washington.

I learned about Hempton through On Being, a podcast hosted by Krista Tippett I recently started listening to. It’s a great interview series featuring makers and doers of many stripes. Some recent guests include a Zen master and poet, a mathematician, a physicist, a pastor, and an oceanographer. Each has their own area of expertise and interest, but what I like about the series so far is how each show, despite the varying subject matter, still lives within the same sphere held together by the centripetal forces of truth, discovery, beauty, and meaning.

Tippett’s conversation with Hempton was so serene and poetic and enlivening. He defines silence not as merely the absence of sound but instead as “silence from all these sounds that have nothing to do with the natural acoustic system.” He sees the world as a “solar-powered jukebox” and links our modern world’s lack of silence to our inability to listen.

I don’t need an excuse to seek out quiet. My introversion calls for a degree of separation from the world in order to recharge, and often that separation leads me to a quiet place, where I can only hear waves overtaking shoreline rocks, or rain falling on leaves. It’s so hard in an urban setting to escape the noisiness of the world, but it’s important to do so. Quiet, as Gordon Hempton says, is a “think tank of the soul.” We don’t have natural ear-lids for a reason.