Friday, October 24, 2014

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Well, that turned out much better than the last book I read on the strength of a superlative-laced Stephen King review (The Accursed). The Goldfinch deserves most of the praise heaped onto it from many quarters. The themes it weaves together -- art, guilt, work, lies, growing up unrooted, family, modern life, and above all prose so lush it counts as a theme in itself -- are driven forward by a narrative almost so strong it belongs in the thriller section. I say almost because the second quarter of the book wallows in teenage aimlessness so much that the reader is likewise confounded. But in the end, some of the aimlessness turns out to be very important, and the book wraps up with an incandescent philosophical meditation on Platonism, meaning, and, of course, art. It's easier to read than I thought it would be, and it's more meaningful than I thought it would be, yet it really could have used a stronger editorial hand. Almost every scene could have been cut by 25%, which would have made this book a much more normal length. I'm hovering between three and four stars and will probably opt for three (because of the lack of editorial focus) but it's a tough decision.

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: BeautifulChemistry.net.

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 baldscientist.wordpress.com, 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.