Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book Review: The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science by Will Storr

Stop me if you've heard this one before: a modern journalist walks into a Creationist seminar in Australia, notebook in hand, ready to observe and ridicule. Nothing he sees there convinces him. But something stops the joke before the punchline. He can't follow the script because his own eyes tell him that there is a log in his own eye. It's not that the creationists are right. It's that they aren't stupid and that they are sincere. They are wrong, but the journalist isn't equipped to really engage with how they are wrong. He recognizes that his take on what is true, despite its rootedness in science, is nearly as tribal as the creationists he is trying to mock.

This bothers the journalist (Storr) so much that he visits a dozen or more of different categories of intellectual warriors, including the usual targets (homeopathy, ESP, alien abductions, repressed memories) but turning the same methods and spotlight on his own beliefs and those of the militant materialists (a skeptics convention and James Randi himself). This is not so much about these sundry paranormal beliefs as it is about the nature of knowledge, of certainty, and of doubt itself.

Storr's cosmic scope, his true fairmindedness, and his dogged insistance on interviewing the personalities behind bizarre ideas is what sets this book apart. It's also what sets it back in a few places. He's a bit shaky on the science (brain science especially) but I don't think it's on the substance of matters, and mostly, I'm impressed by how he is clearly willing to step out and learn. He also doesn't really acknowledge the silent majority, both today and yesterday, who have struggled with these same questions and come away with a much more nuanced view than the militants on either side. He briefly alludes to Plato and Aristotle but I think some more reading in the classics and philosophy could be fascinating as he continues on his journey. In particular, many of his questions are theological, but due to his history as described in this book, he doesn't really know how to break into that literature. I think he'd love Owen Barfield for example.

For all its breadth, this book is just a beginning. But as an honest and searching beginning, I recommend it as an example of what it's like to try all these diverse paths. In the end, I think orthodoxy has some surprisingly satisfying answers to Storr's questions -- and I'm also confident that if he continues to ask them the truth will out. May he keep at it.

Book Review: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

About halfway through this book, I realized it wasn't the best for reading aloud to my preteens. Not because it was inappropriate -- even mild profanity is only alluded to and the jokes are solidly PG. Not because it wasn't funny -- they'd laugh out loud every few pages. But simply because of the general sense of cynicism and the constant memento mori. It's the gallows humor that ultimately did me in for this as a read-aloud book. Maybe that translates better through the eye than the ear. Regardless, my kids and I will each finish this on our own. I did so quickly and it was fun, but there's also a reason I don't remember the plot years after initially reading it. The best part is the incidental humor, the word play that Adams puts in and the sudden surprise humor. This really is a funny book, but I'm also glad this saga is divided into 5 parts because I'm ready to read something completely different right now. Man does not live on satire alone.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Book Review: Unruly Places by Alastair Bonnett

Unruly Places is geography popcorn. It's about all those "in-between" places in the world: enclaves, secret cities, floating towns, WWII military platforms off the coast of England turned into sovereign countries, you know, that sort of thing. Each entry is just a few pages long, so that it reads more like a collection of blog posts than a book, but Bonnett makes it work by asking big questions and thinking about what all this means at the end of each section.

Since he's a professor of social geography, this must be what the field is about, and this book packages the insights of the field very well. I would have liked a few more illustrations (although my iPod helped search for pics of the abandoned metropolises) and the connective tissue between sections isn't enough to make it an actual narrative. It's not more than the sum of its parts, but the parts are very interesting parts and it's a lightning-fast read.

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Site with Beautiful Chemistry

How is chemistry like a snowfall?

To find out, see the "precipitation" videos at this wonderful website:

Other great videos include the Chemical Garden and Hydrogen Bonds in Water (which I used in class today).

Here's a video that combines science and art:

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Book Review: The First Brain by One Pagan

There's a novel technology on the street that allows you to teleport yourself into someone else's classroom. It allowed me to sit in on J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf class and now it has allowed me to sit in on One Pagan's class on the flatworms called planarians. Of course, it's a book (it is new on a geological timescale, having only been around for 2,000 years!).

In this book, Professor Pagan is an engaged and excited teacher about these fascinating little worms. Pagan writes in a conversational style, and scattered throughout the book are clever teaching moments that I am going to borrow in class, such as how evolution is more a capital-T Theory than a theory, how Bugs Bunny cartoons introduce everyone to the rhythm of Latinized species names, and how there is a Planarian Man comic book.

Pagan writes with prose as clear as glass, and is able to bring even centuries-old insights on flatworms into the light. I especially like his bulleted lists that show me immediately where there were aspects of nerve function that I, in my biochemistry context, haven't encountered. I'm left with a few questions, like what is the difference between plant growth and flatworm regeneration (if there is one), but since I'm connected to Pagan online, I'm going to virtually "raise my hand" and ask the professor that question!

I would like to see so many more books like this, from scholar-teachers in science. Many of us who teach at liberal-arts colleges are too strapped with obligations to write a book like this, but it would be great to have a library of books written by these teachers, and Pagan's would be an excellent acquisition for the biology shelf. Could this book start a movement?

There is an issue with the genre that I'm not sure how to address. To write for a general audience you have to build up their scientific knowledge. You can't assume they know DNA from RNA or proteins from protons. But the consequences of this requirement is that the first half of any book like this is essentially review for a scientist, even in an unrelated field. I would like to have the second half expanded and updated. Maybe another edition? In general, it would be nice to have some "pre-req" books so that books like this could jump to the meaty stuff, like what exactly the First Brain is, before page158 out of 200. Or maybe there's a creative online solution to this dilemma. I know I've faced it myself in my own writing.

I encourage you to attend Professor Pagan's class. The cost of this book is a lot cheaper than tuition, and the learning-to-dollar ratio is particularly favorable.

(By the way, check out Pagan's blog at, too.)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Book Review: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

A health professional wanders the landscape of modern life and ancient religion, unable to fit in yet unable to be at peace with not fitting in. It sounds like Walker Percy but it's Joshua Ferris. This book combines multiple fascinating elements: a clever plot-driver involving identity theft (both today and yesterday), an ancient religion founded on doubt and contrasted with Judaism, a science-type struggling with life and faith (in Percy he's a doctor, but here he's a dentist), New York City, and even baseball. It's very funny and sad in alternating and simultaneous moments. It's just plain well-done. I don't think the ultimate resolution is all that satisfying (nor do I think it's supposed to be) and the main character is a little too cartoonish to be completely convincing. That's where Percy has one up on Ferris. Still, this is like the second-best phad thai in town -- it's still very good. But if you're allergic to one of the elements listed above, you may want to pass on this dish.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Review: In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin

In Sunlight and In Shadow is both parallel and a counterpoint to Helprin's previous Winter's Tale. Despite the fact that Sunlight's the lesser work and should be read second, I have to give it four stars, I have to say I "really liked it."

Sunlight is set in post-war New York City, while Winter's Tale is set in a mythical 20th-century New York City. Both are about people in that city (this one focusing on a single couple that may wear out their welcome, while the other shares its focus among three or four couples and many more around them), but they are really about the city itself. I would only recommend reading them after a trip to New York itself.

Helprin's prose is sometimes purple, but always vividly colored. He is a Stoic through and through in the ancient Greek sense, sensing the interconnectedness of things and valuing all experience, romanticizing even death and war. For that reason, he's hard for some to take, but I love his writing in the same way that I love The Fisher King as a movie -- despite its flaws, there is nothing else like it, and there is something deeply true in the way Helprin sees the world.

Helprin occasionally oversteps, and antagonists can cherry-pick overbloated or even callous sentences from the 700 pages of this book, but that is patently unfair. In Sunlight and In Shadow is a waterfall of emotion, sometimes sentiment, sometimes even mushy, but sometimes hard and painful as well. I think this is the kind of book Dickens would have written if he was around today.

As a whole, Winter's Tale is more successful than Sunlight because Helprin's hyperbole fits exactly with a fantastic New York which lets the stained-glass colors of his emotions shine. In Winter's Tale, the bad guys are really bad and his good guys really good; in Sunlight they can seem unnuanced when set in the real world. The poetic lyricism of Helprin's writing here clashes with the realism of the world around it. But that's just the point he's trying to make -- that with those for eyes to see, the real world can indeed look like this, even without the flying horse and the cloud wall and the gigantic building project that play major roles in Winter's Tale. The fact that Helprin very nearly succeeds in bringing that sweeping myth into the real world in this book through his language alone is reason enough to dive into it.

Even if it doesn't quite fit at the shoulders, this coat is luxurious and warming, and it does something few other books published this century dare to do -- it looks you in the eye, challenges you to a fight, and knows that the act of reading can still instill virtue in the reader. Helprin wants to transport you, strengthen you, and ennoble you. He wants you to appreciate the heroic element in the everyday choices you make. No, he's not perfect, but even the imperfections highlight the beauty of this world. We need writers like this, and I hope there are more to come.