Packing for Mars (also available as an audiobook, digital or on CD) is in many ways the opposite of most stories about space travel. Expect none of the rose-tinted romanticism of Space-as-Manifest-Destiny narratives that glamorize the patriotic thrill of being first among the stars, or any white-knuckled moments facing down the many terrors of space. Roach’s down-to-earth focus on the humbler details of space exploration may not justify a John Williams soundtrack, but it makes for a hilarious, fascinating read.
As Roach points out, “To the rocket scientist, you are a problem.” Humans are the most fallible component in the precise and delicate machinery of space travel, and Packing for Mars examines the many measures that NASA and other space agencies have taken to address our physical and psychological needs in the harsh environment of space. From an expedition into the remote and otherworldly Canadian arctic where personnel and equipment are tested for moon missions, to the hospital ward where “terranauts” are paid to lie in bed for months to simulate the effects of zero-gravity on bone density, to a parabolic (“vomit-comet”) flight in the upper atmosphere in search of a cure for space-sickness, Mary Roach traveled all over this planet learning how space agencies meticulously plan to reach the next one. The resulting book provides answers to all the questions about space travel that you never thought of or wouldn’t have dared to ask, conveyed with an irreverent wit that makes reading a pleasure.
Book – I read this book as a companion to the Coursera course “Learning How to Learn,” which is taught by the author and is, in fact, nearly identical to the book. But for once I wouldn’t brush it off as unnecessarily repetitive; in fact, I’d recommend both the video lecture-based course and the book together. Reading the book really helped drive home some of the key points from the lectures by actually putting them into practice. Spaced repetition and recall – reviewing material some time after you’ve learned it – are easy to do when the book and lectures are covering the exact same material, but you’re a little behind in the book where you are in the lectures, and vice versa. Oakley also recommends trying to recall the material in a different setting than you originally learned it, to build flexibility into your understanding – easy to do when I was watching the lectures at home on my computer and reading the book at work over lunch.
I’m not in school any more, but I’ve been trying to improve my math skills (I got good grades in school by avoiding math wherever possible), and this book & course have offered me some useful techniques for learning, partially just by making it clear what I was already doing instinctively to learn things that come easily to me. Now that I know what those things are, it should be easier to apply them in situations where I have to stretch myself a little more.
Book – Lots of people have this idea that science and faith are inherently opposed, but the authors of this book – both astronomers with the Vatican Observatory, one a Jesuit priest and the other a Jesuit brother – are good evidence that doesn’t have to be the case. In six casual, chatty chapters, they discuss everything from the beginning of the universe to the end of it; the nature of Pluto, the Star of Bethlehem, and Galileo’s persecution; and, yes, if they (or rather, if Father Paul) would baptize an extraterrestrial.
The authors are Jesuits, so this is definitely a Catholic perspective on both the universe and on the Bible, but I think it’s illuminating for anyone. They argue that both of those vast and profound entities require you to choose how you’re going to go about understanding them, and that if you choose wrong, you’re just going to be more confused than you started – and they offer examples both from the history of science and from the history of theology.
My favorite chapter, though, was the chapter on Pluto. It turns out that both authors were part of the process of re-defining the elements of our solar system that removed Pluto from the list of planets, and they explain the complicated tangle of human categories, actual celestial bodies, and plain old human emotion that made that process so difficult and controversial.
Book – A confession: I reached adulthood without ever studying chemistry. Not in high school, not in college–nada. Picking up Moleculesby 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 – Why do we group some species of animals together, to say these are more like each other than they are like something else? And how do we know we’re right? Carol K. Yoon, a biologist turned science writer, argues that the “right” way to classify things depends on what we’re organizing them for, and in this case, the scientifically “right” way may actually be entirely wrong for the rest of us. Naming Nature is structured around the idea of the umwelt, the natural human sense of the living world around us. Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, worked almost entirely out of his own well-developed umwelt.
Unfortunately, the umwelt does not match up at all with the distinctions important to science – the evolutionary history of species. So the history of modern taxonomy has been a history of ever-more precise definitions of evolutionary relationships which are also ever-more distant from the way humans actually see the world. (For instance: scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as fish, as a category.) Yoon concludes that, given that humans seem to be more and more disconnected from the natural world, we should leave scientific taxonomy to science and re-take folk taxonomy for the rest of us. For most people fish exist, and unless you’re a scientist that’s all that matters.
Magazines – You can enjoy several titles among our eMagazine offerings from Zinio that are not in the regular print collection. I’ve set Zinio to alert me to the availability of new issues of two that I enjoy, Natural Health and GEEK.
Natural Health focuses on health and nutrition, fitness, and the links between mind and body. Typical articles are on health issues like allergies and stress. One article outlines nine things people often do that are aging their bodies more than they probably know. The Nov/Dec issue features holiday recipes from celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis, and drug-free headache remedies. Natural weight-loss is promoted through articles such as the one that teaches readers six Pilates moves that can be done anywhere at any time. There are articles on meditation and other techniques that are helpful for slowing down the pace of everyday life and creating a more relaxed and manageable environment.
GEEK is a bi-monthly lifestyle magazine that includes features on science, movies, television, video games, technology, comics, music, gadgets, and more. The May-June issue included articles on the Guardians of the Galaxy, Mars Rovers, and the curious incidences of our dogs aligning with the magnetic fields of the earth. I found even the advertisements unique and entertaining. One was for a service offering 3D printing of action figures created from your own identity.
Coming soon…Zinio has announced that they will soon simplify their account setup process to make accessing eMagazines even easier!
Book – What would happen if, one day, all the humans on Earth simply vanished? What would happen to the planet, and what would happen to all the stuff we left behind? As a practical question, it’s not a terribly important scenario. All humans on Earth are unlikely to vanish all at the same time. But as an exercise in understanding the processes of the natural world and the durability of human creation, it’s completely enthralling. Be amazed at how quickly New York City would crumble into dust! Be horrified at just how long the Gulf of Mexico would burn if a spark hit an oil rig in just the wrong way! And be utterly humbled by the idea of a world without humanity in it at all.
I first picked this up to research a post-apocalyptic story I wanted to write. I was not disappointed – there’s enough material here to fuel hundreds of post-apocalyptic stories, no zombies required. At seven years old and counting, some of the science is probably getting dated, but it’s still a great read. For advice on avoiding an end-of-the-world scenario, try Scatter, Adapt and Remember by Annalee Newitz, or, for a larger-scale apocalypse, The Life and Death of Planet Earth by Donald Brownlee.