Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Book Review: Shape and Structure, From Engineering to Nature by Adrian Bejan

This is the first engineering book that kept me up late in suspense. It actually did. I couldn't wait to see what new phenomenon Adrian Bejan would tie into his constructal theory. What we have here is a book that starts off telling about how to build a system coolant that will most effectively cool a hot computer chip. It turns out that the best way to cool an area is to build something that looks an awful lot like a tree. And then how to build a system that will best drain a basin. That system looks like a tree. In three dimensions, Bejan discusses the best shape for a cross-section, which looks like the cross-section of a tree branch, or an artery. Then the best way to transfer heat intermittently is to have a regular rhythm that matches the rate of breathing or heartbeat. And the best way to arrange a city around a central facility. Yep, it's a tree.

This may sound like those mathematicians who see fractals everywhere, but it's different in a few crucial ways. For one thing, fractals are built top-down and continue to infinite detail. That doesn't fit the real world -- after all, atoms are not fractal. It has to stop somewhere. Rather, constructal theory starts with the smallest element that can move heat or matter, and then it builds and array of those elements, then an array of the arrays, and on up. The patterns look fractal but they are built very differently. And the most important thing is that (for all those phenomena listed above) they are predictive.

Only a few times does Bejan stretch his theory too far. A short passage on life and death, and some of the social applications, seem to not account for all the variables. But that means the theory covers only 98 different phenomena rather than 100. It's not that big a deal.

This is a truly unifying theory that explains how chemical things, biological things, and human-engineered things best distribute their flows. Bejan even gets a few philosophical implications in there (though I think there are many more to develop upon reflection). It's something to keep you up at night in a good way. This is what science is for.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Book Review: In the Deep Midwinter by Robert Clark

This book is elegiac and exquisitely described, as it reaches rare depths of reflection on being human, making mistakes and needing forgiveness, all the elements at the base of existence. The book was written in the 90's in Seattle but is set in the 40's in St. Paul with absolute authenticity. Clark traces the changes in a family surviving several blows, the first of which is the death of a brother in a winter hunting accident. Several stories interweave, with painfully accurate descriptions of family dynamics, reactions to loss and love, and the world of medicine half a century ago. This describes how people work and react so accurately that it reached down into my own thoughts and changed the way I think even though my family situation is very different from the one described. It's that universal. The closest comparison I can make in tone and style is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which is a near-classic, so I suppose this must be a near-classic, too. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Book Review: A Kingdom Far and Clear by Mark Helprin

I have no idea why this children's book trilogy is so hard to find. At its heart, it is a fairy tale (I seem to read a lot of those come to think of it) about chivalry, honor, and hope. Helprin writes in his typical fanciful style, which is somehow opinionated, dense, and fun at the same time, with countless parallels to Winter's Tale. Illustrations are by the same artist who drew Jumanji and The Polar Express.

The three books collected in A Kingdom Far and Clear are different in tone and narrative viewpoint but also tell a single story effectively, with more ups and downs than the typical fairy tale. The second one is my favorite because of a moment when science and faith come together absurdly and beautifully like the sun and the moon in an eclipse. Let's just say it has to do with a blatant violation of the laws of thermodynamics, and the fact that I'm even mentioning this about a children's book shows you what a brilliant book it is. All I know is, because nobody seems to know about this book, I have a ready-made gift for children whose parents will read to them, because this book is an incredible find.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Book Review: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

This book is what would happen if Edgar Allen Poe lived today and knew how to draw (and had his style influenced by the strict character limits of social media). Five sharply plotted, truly scary stories that let you see just enough in the darkness to imagine the rest. Chilling fairy tales with an old-fashioned heart.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Book Review: Revival by Stephen King

Revival looks like it will be about faith, but it's not. It's really a mad scientist story with a dollop of Lovecraftian occultism, all dressed up in priestly robes. Since I'm happy with a story about either science or faith, I'm happy with this, but caveat emptor that the title's scientific meaning is the primary one. This book has more doubt and despair than The Stand or Joyland, and it's the most genuinely scary story of King's since "1922". Even so, I think "1922" was better. The psychology of guilt in "1922" seemed more real to me than these characters. It's hard to put my finger on why this one didn't quite come together for me. It's got great elements: hidden secrets of the universe, a Terrible Sermon to end all sermons, good detail about the life of a rhythm guitarist. It just gets so bleak that the sky seems devoid of even stars by the end. And it's the stars I appreciate most about King's work. So this is clearly a well-written "Late King" story and was worth the time. It's just, as my kids say when forced to eat something too bitter for their palates, "not my favorite."

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

This book is somehow both breezy and dark. It is a well-written trip through extreme locales to a disturbing conclusion: human activity is destroying species across the globe, producing a mass extinctions that may have happened only five times before in the past billion years. Kolbert quotes Silent Spring more than once and this book aims to have the same combination of lyrical writing and urgent message as that one. Kolbert succeeds in conveying the pang at the loss of species and the extreme lengths some zoos are going through to preserve them. Where this differs from Silent Spring is the nature of the action that should be taken. There are few clear steps that we can take beyond what is already being taken, so this book raises guilt but offers little absolution. That's the nature of the problem. The end moral is, in my view, philosophical. Humans are indeed special -- especially destructive and homogenizing, especially demonic as well as angelic. This isn't the whole story but it's an important component. I have a few philosophical quibbles about the importance of convergence and the possible silver lining to extinctions, but this book represents the current thought admirably, and I spent most of it thinking about how to absorb elements of Kolbert's engaging voice into my own writing.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Book Review: Letters from Father Christmas by JRR Tolkien

This book isn't quite a book. It was never meant to be. It is just the letters Tolkien wrote to his kids as Father Christmas over a span of a couple of decades. They are sweet and funny, although my little ones didn't keep interest. (Kids these days.) They do combine history and literature to keep the interest of my older ones, one of whom pointed out a connection to Lewis and Narnia that I totally missed. For me as the reading father, it's fascinating how Tolkien's academic work was integrated into the letters -- for example, he has different characters annotate the letters like they are one of his Beowulf manuscripts, but for comic effect, resulting in the best jokes. So, not the best read-aloud book, but an intriguing window that humanizes the sometimes-prickly, sometimes-idolized Tolkien, a sweet Christmas delicacy and a good reminder of tempus fugit for this professor and father of four.