Book – A confession: I reached adulthood without ever studying chemistry. Not in high school, not in college–nada. Picking up Molecules by Theodore Gray was an attempt to remedy that ignorance to some small degree. For those who may find themselves in a similar situation, those for whom chemistry classes have become a distant memory, or younger readers looking to Molecules as a first introduction, I can recommend it as both an enlightening and enjoyable experience.
Molecules has all the glossy, heavily photo-illustrated appeal of a coffee table book, but with a lot more authorial humor and charm. Mr. Gray is a collector, both of elements (his first book, The Elements, is every bit as good as Molecules) and everything they combine to make, which amounts to… pretty much anything you can think of. Much of the joy of Molecules lies in the jostling of unexpected photo-partners over each double-page spread, like one including a Victorian mourning bracelet, a hornbill’s beak and a bristle of fibers created by a clam. By packing his pages with concrete, real-world examples, Gray provides a learning resource that will be unintimidating even for the science-phobic. The book is also extremely browsable: open to any page and you can jump right in to learn just a little something about the inner workings of dyes, chili peppers, salt, aspirin or Kevlar, to name a few. For a casual read that will teach you something along the way, it’s a fun and beautiful choice. The only downside: a format too big for easy reading in bed!
Book – Raised atheist by her upwardly-mobile, blue- and then white-collar parents, Barbara Ehrenreich set out on a quest when she was a teenager: to discover the meaning of life. She studied science and philosophy, but mostly she worked through the tough problems on her own, without any assumptions that the answers were already out there waiting for her. And then, when she was sixteen, she had an episode which she thought of then as a bout of schizophrenia, but which she now refers to as a mystical experience, a contact with an intelligence profoundly and completely other than herself.
Most famous for Nickel and Dimed, her analysis of the working poor in America in the late 90s, this book is a little outside Ehrenreich’s usual subject matter, but just as fascinating. She deconstructs her childhood journal entries and her present-day thinking ruthlessly, and she still never assumes that the answers are out there waiting for her, only that it’s important to look for them anyway, and to keep looking, even when what we find is different from what we expect.
I listened to the audiobook, read by the author, but I can’t recommend it – she reads like an academic presenting a paper at a conference. I loved the book despite the dry narration, however, and I think anyone interested in the intersection of science, religion, atheism, and spirituality would enjoy this as well.
TV Series – Breaking Bad features brilliant but timid high school chemistry teacher Walter White, who is diagnosed with lung cancer. A father of a special needs son and husband of a pregnant stay-at-home wife, he worries about how he can possibly pay for his treatments and care for his family in case of his death. He decides to produce meth to subsidize his income. He enlists the aid of a former student and naively embarks on his new moonlighting career. What ensues is chaos, tragedy and hilarity as Walt and his hapless associate encounter ruthless kingpins, territory squabbles and bumbling employees. To complicate matters, Walt’s brother-in-law is a DEA Officer who is (unknowingly) hot on his trail. Juggling matters with his wife (annoyed at his frequent unexplained absences), teaching responsibilities, drug operations and cancer treatments keep Walter busy and viewers entertained. I’m just finishing Season 2 and all other non-essential activities in my household are on hold until we finish the series. Breaking Bad, which was first aired in 2008, ended in 2013 and won over fifty awards.