A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts

September 5, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

moonA Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin

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I’ve been fascinated by space and space travel since I was a kid. I used to have a copy of Our Universe, and it became one of my most-read, most dog-eared books, since I would pore over it any chance I had. When I was browsing Audible looking for my next audiobook, I stumbled across this one, and figured it would be a good way to pass the time driving to and from work. It wound up not just being a good choice, but the best choice.

Chaikin approaches the story of the missions in an interesting way, focusing on whatever makes the next mission different from the next. He covers in great details the minutiae of the journey to and from the Moon with Apollo 8, the first mission to complete the trip, but by the time he gets to Apollo 11, he skips those parts and focuses solely on the landing and the moon walks. Apollo 13 is covered in great detail, since the mission was one of survival, not of achievement, and the later missions were covered by their moon walks and goals, which grew with each subsequent mission.

The author takes a risk by writing about the Apollo missions in order, since Apollo 1 resulted in the fire that killed three astronauts. It’s a downer of a story, and isn’t the best one to capture the hope and glory that surrounded later missions. Still, this was how the Apollo program happened in real life, and the program opened with this tragedy, which is tragic not just due to the loss of three lives, but due to what it represented to the program, the organization, and even the country. The loss of the mission was as huge as the loss of life, and Chaikin captures that well in his telling of the story.

Chaikin writes about the astronauts and other key figures of Mission Control and the program overall as they become relevant to the story. He tends to focus on their characters, touching on other related people in their lives only briefly. He mentions that one astronaut from the early mission had a wife who turned to alcohol to help deal with the stress of being an astronaut’s wife, but he doesn’t mention how — or if — that was something ever resolved. Chaikin keeps his focus on the astronauts themselves. This makes sense based on his source material (he interviewed all of the astronauts to research the book), but at the same time, these are important facts about the story that are never discussed beyond bringing them to our attention. Wives, children, and support staff are only mentioned when it’s relevant to the astronauts’ stories.

One thing that threw me about the narrative was how Chaikin would write about events from the past, as if they were happening at that moment. He would sometimes use words like “yesterday” or “tomorrow” or “later” to describe a different event, even though the rest of the story was told in the past tense. It was an odd choice (why not “the previous day” or “the next day”?), and it’s not something that happened all the time, but it was frequent enough to raise my eyebrows.

Bronson Pinchot narrated the audiobook, and I don’t think there’s a better narrator they could have chosen for the book. When the story gets tense, he narrates with excitement and breathlessness; when the story tells of the astronauts’ reactions to the grandeur of space and the Moon, his voice becomes soft and awestruck; when the story covers life-and-death decisions that must be made quickly, Pinchot tells us so quickly, frenetically. He doesn’t just tell the story, he performs it, and I’ve about decided that I will listen to any audiobook if Pinchot is narrating it.

The book concludes with an epilogue that shares what the Apollo astronauts did with their lives after going to the moon. It’s an enlightening finish, as some of them became religious, others dropped out of space aeronautics all together, and others dropped out of the public life all together. Only one of the astronauts would stay with NASA long enough to participate in the space shuttle missions, while the bulk of them moved on to business ventures as wide-ranging as real estate to becoming CEOs. It helps to show how grounded the astronauts were, and how their trips to the moon were as much of a job to them as the rest of us have to our own daily grind.

A Man on the Moon is a book for anyone fascinated with space or history or engineering or dedication. We’re nearing the 50th anniversary of the first moon walk, and when we reach that date, it will have been forty-seven years since we last sent someone to the Moon. By then, it will be forty-seven years since we sent a person to any other object in our solar system. As Chaikin writes in his afterword, “How could the most futuristic thing humans have ever done be so far in the past?”

Started: August 8, 2018
Finished: August 30, 2018

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Tesla: Man Out of Time

August 10, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

teslaTesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney

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Many years ago, I owned this book because I knew enough about Tesla to want to know a bit more about all the mysterious inventions he created. I never got around to reading it, but when it came time to pick my next audio book, fresh off of all the Sagan and science books, this one rose to the top of the list. I’ve learned more about Tesla since then, and wanted to get a more complete picture of his life.

Man Out of Time is less an examination into his inventions and more an examination of his personality. This is fine — his personality and claims drew me more to the enigmatic figure than the formulae of his inventions — but I can see people being disappointed with how little it covers his inventions. That’s not to say that we don’t learn about his alternating current generators, the War of Currents, his remote controls, or his X-ray experimentation, but the focus here is on his quirky nature and how it played into all that research.

In short, though, Tesla was crazy. He was brilliant, no doubt, but so much of what he claimed was so out there as to strain credibility. Parts of it were verifiable — his acute senses were demonstrated without question at a young age — but other parts seem to be the source of legend. He claimed to hear a fly landing on a table as a loud, chair-shaking thud. I suppose it’s possible that Tesla knew how to trick people into thinking his senses were that acute, especially when you consider how much of a showman he was as an inventor, but there’s no way to test it with any veracity. Later in life, the inventions he claimed to have never appeared in public, and with no detailed notes left for later researchers to duplicate his results, no one seems to be able to duplicate what he claimed. How much of his legacy is science, and how much of it showmanship?

This is all known to a casual researcher, but Cheney pulls the details together into a cohesive narrative that’s roughly chronological. The narrative compartmentalizes Tesla’s achievements to make it easier to understand what he accomplished and how it had an affect on the world, so it jumps around a bit during his most productive years around the turn of the 20th century, but it makes more sense to organize Tesla’s story this way.

The most interesting takeaway from this book, for me, was how modern inventors continue to run up against the patents that Tesla filed during his lifetime. This was mentioned in a foreword to the book, written at least ten years after the book’s original publication, which is useful since high speed internet and wireless internet was still in its infancy when the book first went to press.

Less interesting was the afterword, where the author raises some questionable theories regarding the final resting place of Tesla’s research papers. There was definitely some scrambling for them after Tesla died, considering that Serbia wanted to claim them as much as the US, but Cheney writes about how the papers wound up in the hands of the US government before mysteriously disappearing. Despite claims that the papers were destroyed, she floats the theory that they still exist, and that the US is using them to develop questionable weaponry. For a thoroughly-researched and scientific book, it ends on a hint of a conspiracy theory, which is disappointing.

Overall, the book is informative, well-written, and engaging. Engineers, scientists, or researchers may feel frustrated at the lack of technical detail therein, but anyone interested in the life of Nikola Tesla will find this to be a comprehensive look at his life, as much as it can be (the author notes that details on his early life are hard to come by).

Started: July 20, 2018
Finished: August 2, 2018

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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

June 18, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

hiddenHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

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This was a deal-of-the-day on Audible around the time the movie came out, and I couldn’t resist it. Like almost every book I buy, it lingered in my “To Be Read” (Listened?) pile, but a long commute pushed it to the top of the list. I enjoyed the movie, so I expected to like the book, as well.

What fascinates me most of all about the book is how little of it actually focuses on the space race (it doesn’t come up until chapter 16, and the book is only 24 chapters long). The central characters of Shetterly’s biography had worked in Langley for almost twenty years before the launch of Sputnik, and the author tells us how their intelligence, persistence, and dedication brought them to be the key figures of this story. The movie shifts some things around, placing some of the achievements from their earlier days at NACA so they’ll occur during the space race.

It turns out the movie took a lot of liberties with the book, which I guess is to be expected, but when a movie purports to present history, it bothers me a lot more. Dorothy’s promotion came over ten years before depicted in the the movie; Mary’s request to attend the whites-only high school was granted without a court order, or any other apparent fuss; there was a colored bathroom at Langley, but the rules weren’t enforced; Katherine gained access to the meetings through her own persistence, and it was because she was a woman, not a black woman, that she was excluded to begin with. The NACA was more progressive, thanks in part to President Truman’s executive order to desegregate the federal government, issued in 1948. That’s not to say they were free from racist comments, but the way Shetterly tells it, those came from outside Langley, not in it, because those in the organization were focused on work, and winning wars, and representing the country. Race seemed irrelevant when put it contrast to all that.

To me, this makes for a more interesting story. The women gained respect and a place at the organization not because a white savior had to step in to make it happen, but because their own determination and skills proved they were more than their sex or their race. Why the movie chose to ignore that angle of the story mystifies me.

As for the book, I appreciated learning the more authentic story of the main characters, and seeing the details of how far they rose through the organization. We don’t get as vivid a look at the three women as the movie presented, but we learn more about the social issues of the time, and see their story more in context with what they overcame in their professional growth. It’s well researched, and presented well, even if the characters don’t leap off the page.

I would recommend this book to history buffs, especially those interested in the Civil Rights movement or World War II. I definitely recommend it to those who enjoyed the movie, since it gives a larger, more cohesive picture of the lives of the women and the organization they represented. Plus, the book gives the NACA the recognition it deserves for being at the forefront of desegregation, and not the then-backward place the movie makes it out to be.

Started: April 25, 2018
Finished: May 3, 2018

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The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

June 5, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

demonThe Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

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In The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan examines science by looking at religion and pseudo-science and its effects on how the public views science. He writes about how scientists straddle the fine line between skepticism and wonder — they need that wide-eyed wonder to want to know about things that seem mysterious, but they also need proper skepticism to not fall for the easiest answer. In this book, he advocates for a healthy skepticism, and discusses how it benefits us across all aspects of society.

Published in 1995, the book is still relevant today. Consider this passage:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or my grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantative content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

Or this one:

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.

What Sagan is doing isn’t soothsaying; it’s reflecting on history. That it’s relevant today shows that we still haven’t learned from the past. Maybe thinking skeptically and scientifically is a way to remedy that inevitable slide to ignorance. The Demon-Haunted World is one way to engage that healthy skepticism.

Started: March 28, 2018
Finished: April 16, 2018

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Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

May 18, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

dotPale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan

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I read something recently about Carl Sagan and atheism. I always suspected he was adamantly atheist, but it turns out that he avoided labeling himself as such. In short, Sagan’s position was that he didn’t have enough evidence to say God didn’t exist, so he couldn’t say for certain that he wasn’t. Those close to him said that he was as close to atheist as one could get without using the word, but that he didn’t do so tells us a lot about how he viewed the world — with evidence.

Pale Blue Dot seems, to me, to focus heavily on atheism. The “Pale Blue Dot” soliloquy (if you haven’t read it, look it up; it’s freely available on the web) strongly suggests it, and Sagan himself dances around the idea that there is no God, even though he never comes straight out and says so. He looks at how our Solar System developed, how life developed on Earth, and how we’ve explored the Solar System, all from a very humanist, look-what-we’ve-accomplished perspective. Most of the book is Sagan explaining how we explored and examined our Solar System, but the first two chapters take a very careful, affirming look at atheism.

As much as I enjoyed learning about the other planets and how we explored them, I found myself missing the historical, philosophical perspective Sagan brought to science through Cosmos. Where there is history to discuss, Sagan does so, but it’s not on as grand of a scale as it is in his most famous book. We learn of the search for life in the Solar System, the highs and lows of discoveries and failures, and the persistence of humanity to want to get the answers to the question, “What’s out there?”

Four years ago, when we landed Philae on comet 67P/Churyamov-Gerasimenko, I said to some co-workers, “Humanity just landed a science lab on a comet traveling over 41,000 miles per hour, over 317,000,000 miles from Earth.” I was excited and inspired, seeing what the combined intellects of so many people from so many different countries could accomplish, and it was probably as close as I’ll ever get to a religious experience. One doesn’t need religion to feel inspiration or affirmation; sometimes we can get it from our major accomplishments. This, I think, is what Sagan is telling us through Pale Blue Dot.

Started: March 16, 2018
Finished: March 28, 2018

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Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher

May 10, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

sixSix Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher by Richard P. Feynman

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About twenty years ago, I read Feynman’s two memoirs based on a co-worker’s recommendation. He led an interesting life, enough so that even when he came across as self-serving, it was still hard to resist his anecdotes. Since I’ve started listening to science audiobooks, I figured it would serve me well to listen to some of Feynman’s lectures. Six Easy Pieces seemed like the place to start.

On the one hand, the best way to absorb these lectures is by listening to them. You get to hear Feynman himself, complete with his sense of humor and somewhat irreverent approach to science, and you can hear the sound of the chalk when he sketches something on the blackboard. On the other hand, you discover that Feynman was a very fast talker, and you don’t get to see the sketches he makes on the blackboard. It doesn’t help that the first lecture had deteriorated so much by the time they produced the audiobook that digital recovery was almost impossible, making the audio muddy and difficult to hear.

It’s also interesting to discover just how Feynman sounded. He was articulate and knowledgeable, of course, but he also had a thick New York accent that belies his appearance and background. I think I’m too used to folks like Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, people who have worked to develop a public personality as well as a scientific background, to expect that to be how Feynman sounded. I don’t want to say it detracts from the subject matter, but I did get pulled out of the lecture whenever I heard him say “yuman”.

Along with Cosmos and A Brief History of Time, Six Easy Pieces is a classic of scientific literature. It doesn’t delve as deeply into some concepts covered in those books, but since these lectures were from a Physics 101 class, it’s hard to fault Feynman for not going into more detail. Given in 1961, the lectures are dated in some ways, but what makes this book important is seeing how Feynman taught these difficult subjects. He taught them without complexity, giving examples that were easy to understand. Hearing excerpts from those lessons tells us a lot about science and about Feynman himself.

Started: March 12, 2018
Finished: March 15, 2018

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A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes

May 8, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

timeA Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen W. Hawking

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I’m not going to lie: I was a little intimidated going in to this book. I had thought about reading it years ago, back when I started to get an understanding of relativity, and I put it off, knowing it was going to be dense and nigh-incomprehensible. Some twenty years later, having listened to two books about astrophysics, I decided to give it a go. As an audiobook.

Surprisingly, the book wasn’t as dense as I expected. I think it helped that I had listened recently to the books by Tyson and Sagan, but I had a pretty good understanding of the concepts Hawking covered in the book. There were a few chapters that eluded me (I think I’m going to need to read a whole book on quantum physics before I get a good grasp of it), but for the most part, I felt comfortable with the content. It was a good mix of familiar and challenging.

I was less impressed with Hawking’s obsession with who won which award, how often he collaborated with his graduate students, and how frequently he disproved other scientists. He comes across as petty and arrogant. I know Hawking is a smart man, and I know he’s accomplished a lot, but I prefer science books that talk about past theories and accomplishments, not the personal tally of the author. Neither Tyson nor Sagan came across that way, despite them both having (and discussing!) their own successes, so it’s definitely a personality thing, not a content thing.

In the later chapters, Hawking focused on his own theories almost exclusively, to the point where it felt like he was jumping to conclusions based on what I thought were some tenuous theories. Granted, I don’t spend all of my time thinking about theoretical physics, but it felt like Hawking was too eager to accept his own theories. As much as he admits changed in as little as ten or twenty years in the field, I would have expected him to show some more skepticism.

Also, the narration of the audiobook was strange, in that it sounded like it was recorded all in one take, without breaks or edits. The narrator stumbled over the pronunctiation of some words, slowed down at some words, as if he were sounding out the word, and there was even one moment where he was supposed to say “sixteen”, but started out saying “nineteen”. I don’t know if the production was pressed for time, or was low budget, or what, but it doesn’t sound professional.

If you’re interested in space and time and the science of both, A Brief History of Time is a book to read. I’m not sure I would recommend it as an audiobook, partly because of the sloppy narration, and partly because the concepts might be better absorbed through reading. If I have to make the choice between this and Cosmos, though, I’d definitely go with Cosmos. Not only is it more approachable, but its scope is also far more interesting.

Started: March 1, 2018
Finished: March 6, 2018

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Cosmos: A Personal Voyage

May 1, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

cosmosCosmos: A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan

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Cosmos is 38 years old this year. A lot has happened in astrophysics since 1980, enough so that I was somewhat concerned that parts of the book would be dated. They are, but the good thing is Sagan doesn’t write from a purely technological or scientific perspective in this book. For each concept he presents, he puts it into a historical and philosophical perspective to show not just how far we’ve come since the original scientific thinkers, but also how much alike we are with them.

Take, for instance, space travel. Sagan likens the modern-day scientists creating vessels to traverse the cosmos to people like Christopher Columbus, who weren’t content just to settle for what was immediately around them. They felt the need to travel, to explore, to send themselves into the unknown to find what was there, and how it might affect our own lives. Columbus’ legacy hasn’t aged well into more progressive times, but that desire to journey, to discover, existed then, and it exists now.

The entire book — all thirteen chapters of it — takes this approach. Like Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (in retrospect, I listened to these books out of order), the book avoids digging into a lot of math and instead focuses on concepts. Sagan takes the approach a step further, though, by delving into history. We learn of the ancient Ionian intellectual revolution, we learn of the Library at Alexandria, and Eratosthenes, the Greek thinker who calculated the circumference of the Earth, along with its axial tilt, to a remarkable degree of accuracy, over two thousand years ago. It’s a brilliant approach to modern science, and it makes the book relevant now, almost forty years after its first publication.

I would recommend this book to anyone. Science and space enthusiasts will enjoy it the most, but Sagan’s approach to science makes it easy to understand the ideas behind complicated theory. He discusses these topics with a great passion, and LeVar Burton, the narrator, brings that passion across in his narration. This book would make an excellent primer into science and space, as well as make a valuable read for anyone already familiar with some of the topics of discussion.

Started: February 15, 2018
Finished: February 28, 2018

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Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

April 26, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

hurryAstrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

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DOES WHAT IT SAYS ON THE BOX.

To wit, the book tells you pretty much everything you need to know about astrophysics. It tells you about the Big Bang, black holes, quantum mechanics, relativity, and anything else you could think about physics as it applies to the universe. Tyson avoids talking about math and formulae, focusing instead on the concepts instead of the proof. It’s a great introduction to astrophysics, though I wonder if it will prepare the reader enough to make the leap to, say, A Brief History of Time.

I listened to the audio edition of the book, narrated by the author, and it was a fun listen. Tyson has a fun charm, which carries over to how he narrates the book. For me, Carl Sagan will always be “my” astronomer, just because of my age, but Tyson does a great job relaying the larger points of his science, delivered in short, easily-understood chunks. It’s a perfect book for people who look at the title and think, “Hey, that’s me!”

Started: February 7, 2018
Finished: February 12, 2018

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Saga: Volume Seven

July 14, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

saga7Saga: Volume Seven by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

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Saga is fantastic. It’s so good, it’s hard for me to be objective about it. I understand why people like it, and I understand why some people are put off by it, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s some of the best graphic storytelling out there.

What makes it work so well (and what makes any good story work so well) is the characters. Marko and Alana, our protagonists, embody the Romeo and Juliet characters, and once Hazel, their daughter, gets involved, they become that much more likeable. The antagonists (and there are several) are all out to kill them, for different reasons, but Vaughan gives them more traits than just being assassins. He makes them likeable in their own way, or at least sympathetic, and the interplay of all the characters across the comic make for some powerful storytelling.

Volume Seven continues with that trend, giving us more insight into the family dynamic of Marko and Alana and Hazel (and all who make up their extended family), giving us joy and happiness, sorrow and grief, and an ending that will break your heart. Vaughan continues to create worlds and beings that are original, and Staples continues drawing them in just the right way to inspire awe, fear, or wonder, depending on the context. The two work so well together that it’s impossible to imagine the series without both of them.

So, Saga. Check it out. You’ll know within just a few pages of Volume One whether it’s for you (yes, you’ll know), but if it is, then you have an astounding world ahead of you. It keeps getting better as the story progresses.

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