You can find your own here.
I’ve never forgotten the scene in Men in Black, when Jay (Will Smith) and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) are sitting on a bench facing the New York City skyline. Jay has gotten a brief but shocking glimpse of the secret alien world Kay is trying to recruit him into, one that few people know about.
“Why the big secret?” Jay asks. “People are smart. They can handle it.”
“A person is smart,” Kay responds, but “people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”
This scene came to mind right after I finished reading Thomas Levenson’s new book The Hunt for Vulcan: …And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe. Levenson writes about the now-forgotten period between 1859 and 1915 when scientists believed our solar system had a planet called Vulcan within Mercury’s orbit. An anomaly in Mercury’s orbit affected its gravitational trajectory just enough to suggest another mass was tugging on it. Professional and amateur astronomers alike made several attempts to observe this mystery mass, and some reported doing so. But it wasn’t until decades later, when Einstein applied the principles of his new theory of relativity to the orbital calculations, when those sightings were finally reclassified as misidentified stars and the coulda-woulda-shoulda planet Vulcan was expunged from the solar system.
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.
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:
Or Why Time Flies, a philosophical exploration of our fungible awareness of 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):
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:
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.
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.