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.

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

I really wish I had read this book a month ago. If so, many of my techie friends would be getting it for Christmas. The best blurb description is "Apollo 13 times ten." In Apollo 13, astronauts had to improvise a way back to earth from orbit. Here, one astronaut is left behind on Mars and has to survive a much longer time in much more dire straits. The cleverness and detail is amazing, the pace is lightning-fast (with a few exceptions that seem to disappear as the book moves on), and there's even a narrative shape with a high-stakes, explosive ending that had me talking to myself as I read it.

The only shortcoming is that I don't think the psychological stress of the situation is carried out fully, and so many difficulties are overcome it starts to numb the reader (and the constant wisecracks by the stranded astronaut start to wear just a little thin). You recapitulate the psychological stress in yourself, I suppose. But you don't ride a rollercoaster for psychology. This book is a better roller-coaster than Michael Crichton, without Crichton's quasi-pseudo-science. Anyone with an interest in engineering, space, how things work, chemistry, science, etc. would be advised to set aside some free time because you'll be compelled to finish.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Book Review: The Stand by Stephen King

This book needs no introduction. It is one of the touchstones for the entire post-apocalyptic strain of movies and literature. As such, I delayed reading it because I assumed I'd already seen it all. Actually, there were a lot of new things in it, probably because King did them so well in this one that the genre moved away from it as a result. The book itself is divided into three "books," which I think of as 1.) Decline and survival; 2.) Community; 3.) Confrontation. From my post-"post-apocalyptic" reader's perspective, it gets better as it goes along. The version I listened to was the expanded version put out in the 80's, and I think I'd recommend reading the original version, because I didn't feel the need for the additional character moments.

The real value of The Stand comes from its spiritual side. Especially in Book 3, the characters encounter some genuine spiritual formation. Even though I disagree with some of King's theology (especially his theodicy), the mere fact that he has a theology and thinks it's important enough to drive his book is a source of astonishment to me.

I also want to remind anyone complaining about the way LOST ended to compare their complaints about that series to the near-universal praise for The Stand. Both sagas are telling stories with a similar shape, and when I put the two series side by side, I actually prefer LOST's plot choices (in every area but the "spiritual formation" one that surprised me most in book 3). I think you can argue that LOST was clumsier in how they presented the mythic elements, sure, and introduced them too late to the story for most viewers' credibility meters -- but both stories start with science and end with spirit. I just think the conventional wisdom that LOST somehow failed is showed wrong by comparing it to The Stand. They are similarly successful in terms of story, which is the most important category to me.

In the end there's too much extra stuff and too little of the theological "meat" that really makes the story worth it for me to rank The Stand in the upper echelon of King's work (which would be 11-22-63, Joyland, and The Green Mile). But it's awfully close to that pedestal, and if I had read the edited version it may have made it.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Book Review: Models of Atonement by George L. Murphy

In my years of attending and listening to American Scientific Affiliation conferences, I've found that George Murphy gives reliably repeatable and ponderable talks. He is a Lutheran pastor with a Ph.D. in physics, and is one of the clearest voices on the (positive) implications of evolution for faith.

This most recent book of his is a high-water mark. With the precision and concision of a physics textbook, Murphy surveys the different ways theologians have thought about Jesus' reconciling work and lays out how he thinks these can brought together with the scientific discoveries since Darwin. This isn't trying to mix oil and water together -- this is a genuine reconciliation on the level of science and religion. I found many resonances with NT Wright's recent huge book on Romans.

The book is so short that I'm left wanting more. For example, Murphy argues for a faith-first view of atonement rather than other views in which love is primary. But what about "the greatest of these is love"? This book opens up a fascinating and helpful avenue for thinking about the sacraments, and makes a strong case that the future is more important than the past when it comes to theology.

I feel like these ideas are the "equations" suggesting application through sanctifying "homework problems." I hope theologians find this book and read it because it opens up so many theological scholarly projects that I can't even keep track of them in my head. A wonderful (if short) book.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Book Review: Darwin's Pious Idea by Conor Cunningham

This book breaks down apparent divides: between organism and environment, between mind and matter, and (most obviously from the title) between Darwin and God. It's even published by a prominent evangelical publisher, although from the title itself you can see that it's intended to challenge evangelicals, so there's an attempt to break down a wall there as well.

The best two chapters are easily those on the concept of progress in evolution and how early church fathers like Irenaeus would have had no problem with evolution. For some reason that latter chapter is placed last, which makes for a nice climax but you have to wade through too much to get to it. Other long chapters include attacks on evolutionary psychology and eugenics, which seem out of place -- I can't imagine anyone is actually defending those and knocking them down doesn't do much to show that evolution is somehow "pious." I would prefer that those chapters be shunted to another book and this one focus on the positive parts of bringing evolution and faith together.

Cunningham gets big points in my book for referencing both Conway Morris and RJP Williams (if he had referenced Eric Chaisson, that'd be the trifecta). He touches on tricky topics like panpsychism and veers close to hand-waving, but sitting back now I think he struck a helpful tone overall. Still, the topic seems a little half-baked, although I can't help but think of Owen Barfield when I read it. I myself am lurching back and forth and don't want to go there now.

So this is a long, sprawling book with a very good aim, but with me, Cunningham's preaching to the choir. I'd like to know if this book could convince a hostile audience, whether one of the ultra-Darwinists or the creationists of the subtitle. I found lots of good ideas that go along with my in-progress manuscript ... and maybe my next one as well.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Chemistry: The Motion Picture (Animated Version)

Todd Martinez and colleagues at Stanford have become directors on the smallest movie set of all time. The paper they published describes how they animate chemical reactions using computer models. The unique angle they take is to watch a simple chemical reaction zoomed in to a medium point. At this point they are focused neither on just one molecule nor on an incomprehensible flaskful of molecules. At this Goldlocks level of complexity, they can see atoms reacting and can catch fleeting side reactions that wouldn't be seen by other techniques -- yet are certainly important. Most of all, the motion of the atoms is as mesmerizing as a lava lamp. I spent decades learning how molecules move so I can have movies like this in my head when I read about a chemical reaction. You can skip to the back of the book and see what's in my head by watching the movie at this link. Try it and let me know what you see.