Thursday, May 30, 2013

Book Review: Housekeeping

It's not every day you get to read the acclaimed first novel by one of your favorite authors. Marilynne Robinson published Housekeeping in 1980, and apparently it by itself was enough to establish her reputation as a writer of writers for two decades plus, till in the 2000's she published both Gilead and Home [reviewed here]. I got on the bandwagon at that point, and have also enjoyed her nonfiction, written with the same precise, elegant style, dividing bone from marrow. Her pattern of more frequent recent output seems to me to be another parallel between her and Terrence Malick. That and the indelible, unique impression they each make.

This book is remarkable, showing the same focus on families -- this one broken deeply -- with the same surprising sunbreaks of upward-eddying transendence, meditations on what are really theological subjects but with non-theological language. Whereas Robinson's other novels are warm, even cozy, this one is cold and sharp, transient where the others are rooted, lake-blue where the others are sun-yellow. Like a train it may start slow but it picks up speed and the last chapter is in my opinion truly breathtaking. Robinson is simply worth reading, and this book is the proper entry point for those on the English-lit side of the spectrum, where the chill edge of loneliness is described in painfully clear prose. Other readers may do well to start with Gilead, in which the narrator is a pastor, or with her non-fiction Absence of Mind, in which Robinson takes on Freud and Dawkins. All are remarkable, for some very similar reasons and for some that could not be more different. Housekeeping was nothing like what I expected and yet it is undeniably Robinson's book and it reminds me all over again why she is one of my favorites.

Before and After at the Nanoscale

On this picture (a sideways triptych?), the bottom panel is how we draw the atomic model for a covalent-bond-forming reaction in organic chemistry class. The triple bonds, shown as extra lines on the left, can react with each other and share electrons to form the multicycle molecule on the right. The top two panels are actual pictures of the molecules, shown before and after heating it up. Looks like our models are pretty good representations of reality, no? Read more here.

Before I took chemistry classes I thought that pictures like this would be easy to take. After all, those models are easy to draw. But it's very hard to see on the atomic scale -- atoms are so small that (in a sense) light waves shine right around them. It's nice to see that technology is catching up to my "when I was a child I thought as a child" perceptions. It's kind of pretty too.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Indiana Jones Biochemistry: The Prevenge of the Black Death

The Black Plague had a prequel.

It's clear that Yersinia pestis was the microbe behind the Black Plague in the 14th century, and there was a worldwide sequel pandemic in the 19th/20th century. But in the 6th-8th centuries a plague swept the Byzantine empire, called Justinian's plague. Now a DNA analysis of the remains of plague victims shows that this plague was caused by Yersinia pestis as well -- and it originated in Asia like the other two pandemics.

This biochemical archaelogy isn't exactly like the Indiana Jones movies, but I find it pretty exciting to see the recurrence of this insidious enemy throughout human history. (Maybe it's more like Doctor Who?) Read the paper here.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Book Review: Tenth of December

Authors like George Saunders are making me rethink my longtime aversion to short stories. In Tenth of December, Saunders crafts several stories that are excellent in two ways: the voices of the characters and the subtle role of science/technology in the stories. The first I expected but the second surprised me. Fully half of these stories say something deep (but not necessarily obvious) about science or technology, and some even have what I would call science fiction elements, if calling them that didn't painfully highlight how much the the typical "science fiction" style of writing pales in comparison to Saunders's writing. I'm not sure I've ever encountered a writer who was able to convincingly voice a teenage girl (in "Victory Lap," the first story) and a middle-lower-class working father (in "The Semplica Girl Diaries," almost certainly my personal favorite) and a terminal cancer patient (in the title story). Saunders clearly understands what it's like to be poor in a way that many other writers simply do not (or at least do not communicate). His characters are painfully tangible and tragicomic, sometimes causing cringe like a good episode of The Office, sometimes evoking heroism in unexpected ways. Only one story, "Home", comes off to me as less than perfectly shaped. Themes of salvation and true humanity and family recur again and again.  This is just what good writing can do. Even better, I got to hear the author himself read it on the audiobook from the library. That is just what a good audiobook can do.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Town Built Under a Rock

This is a picture from Setenil de las Bodegas in Spain, a small town built in -- and into -- a gorge. This results in streets that have natural rock awnings. And rocks in the roof. And rock as a back wall. The village grows out of the rock like an organic development. Which, in a sense, it is.

The house built upon a rock will stand when the flood comes. What about the town built under one?

Take a virtual tour at this page, or visit the Flickr photo network here.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

A spoiler-free review in three run-on sentences (Not quite a haiku, but perhaps an extended one):

What it gets right: The technical realism of the engine room and the entire world, a few things going on the fritz leading to exciting sequences I've always wanted to see (and related to a particular favorite Calvin and Hobbes comic strip), the armor of a certain important adversarial race, Benedict Cumberbatch once he finally really gets going, and enough little jokes and plot twists to keep things going along (one of the hardest things for a Trek movie is to juggle the whole crew, and it's possible this one did a better job than the last of giving everyone something important to do).

What it gets wrong:  too little true cleverness, too little about the characters truly interacting (some scenes depend on an audience connection to the characters that just isn't there yet for me), too obvious at points (at least for this obsessive trailer-watcher and Trek fan), just this side of too much action (and I like the action), and that transwarp device is WAY too powerful.

In short: A smidgen too Star Wars-ish for a Star Trek movie, but I still loved the ride; in terms of the ride analogy, it's more Big Thunder Mountain Railroad than The Hulk Rollercoaster (no inversions, but nicely themed).

Book Review: The Dog Stars

On the scale of post-apocalyptic novels, this one is very high on scientific realism (no zombies, just flu and disease, and very good estimates of what would and wouldn't work after a decade of neglect), very high on the depravity of man (one must be absolutely ruthless again and again), and very high on poetry. Oh, and it may be the best written example of the genre I've read in terms of both description and psychology. Makes you really think through what that "if you were the last person on earth" phrase would imply, and the long impact of devastation, even for the survivors. I don't want to give away too much other than that it's intense and well-written, but I didn't quite connect the way I did with Age of Miracles: maybe someone who's more into dogs, flying, and the outdoors would connect better. It's also not half as gentle as Age of Miracles, this is Walking Dead-style intensity. I understand why it was a staff pick at my local library, but it doesn't make the cut for me, just for personal reasons I don't really control. Yet there's three or four moments/phrases that are just crystalline perfect (one involving the Book of Lamentations), and ultimately I genuinely like what Peter Heller does with the story compared to all the other examples out there of the genre. High quality writing and you may like it even more than I did. If you have a dog maybe.

Monday, May 13, 2013

iPhone + Case = Portable ECG

Alivecor is a company that makes an iPhone case. There's two big bumps on the back of it, but those aren't a design flaw. They are contacts that allow you to complete a circuit with your fingertips and measure your heartbeat, so accurately that an electrocardiogram can be recorded. So a doctor can carry an ECG recorder in her pocket, on an airplane, and/or to Africa ...

When this was presented at a recent meeting, it was mentioned that one of the early-adopter docs who carries this around has been able to take ECG readings on not one but two plane flights so far and diagnose the problem accurately at 30,000 feet.

Here is the website for this fascinating invention. I wonder, what's next? How will cheap, portable computing change health?

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Best Commencement Speech Ever?: The Film

In 2007 (is it possible I've been blogging that long?) I commented on the full text of David Foster Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College, so you should check that out again. A different part of the speech has been made into a film, with visuals that don't interfere with but rather amplify DFW's words. Well worth checking out the film at this link.

(In a side note, I tried to tell the fish joke at the beginning in my biochemistry class about water, in 2008 or 2009. I initially thought it didn't "work" because it didn't get a laugh, but I don't think it's intended to be a haha funny joke, come to think of it. Still, it turns out that Sam and Aidan were "visiting" the class that day and I named the fish Sam and Aidan, and Sam still remembers that. So it had a different level of value than intended. There's something appropriate about that.)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

New Star Trek I-VI Posters Redesign the Past Future

Now that we can look back at the entire series of Star Trek from I-VI, some fans have redesigned the entire series of posters, and I really think they are not only a cohesive whole but also much improved from the originals. Only Star Trek III seems to contain a major spoiler (which doesn't really matter now of course), and in Star Trek V they actually managed to make a good poster for an awful movie. I don't know how they did it. Here's the link to all 6 posters, and here's my favorite, for Star Trek IV:

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Book Review: The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet

This is an excellent book, by a geologist (Robert M. Hazen) describing how the Earth has changed over time. And by Earth, he means earth, the stuff under your feet, and views the ecosystem as an extension of its dirt foundation. This book gives an invaluable perspective on the evolution of rocks, and organizes its chapters in a chronological color scheme: black, blue, gray, red, white and green earth. Hazen hits the sweet spot in his description of the field's development and controversies. I had no problem following his descriptions as someone outside the field. He'll describe an experiment or two, down to the apparatus, once or twice a chapter, but in simple and vivid language that I hope to emulate. Finally, Hazen himself has contributed several important ideas to the field, including mineral co-evolution, that it's not just that minerals shape organisms, but also that organisms shape minerals. This is a fascinating and solid idea, and my only comment is that I wish Hazen brought it out more. You don't usually end up wishing an author talked about his idea more, but here you do.

As a window into an under-described branch of science, I highly recommend this book.