Hardcopied: A July Print-Reading Challenge

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt starts tomorrow! The Hardcopied challenge (see the Hardcopied Facebook page or the Hardcopied Book Club on Goodreads), in which a person decides to read only print books for the month of July, 2015. I’m doing it — are you?

A friend was ruminating recently about reading print books verses reading ebooks. There really doesn’t need to be the word “versus” in there, because both are of value. But we do read differently in each medium, and believe it or not, there are always likely to be print books in the foreseeable future. (That’s what head Harvard librarian, Robert Darnton, certainly believes, as I discuss in a review of his book.) So it’s probably a good idea to keep up our print reading skills as well as our ereading skills.

My primary reader, the Sony Reader (and then Sony sold us out to Kobo, for which I will never forgive Sony, but that's another story...)

My primary reader, the Sony Reader (and then Sony sold us out to Kobo, for which I will never forgive Sony, but that’s another story…)

One of the things that researchers have noticed–in general, so individual people may vary on this–is that when one’s primary reading is done onscreen, we tend much more to read in quick “jumps.” We flit from one thing to another, and our attention span does not seem to be as long. I’ve noticed this myself; I get a bit restless and start feeling an itch to go look at something else. With our screens, tablets, and smartphones, we can do this all too easily, and we never sit on one thing for all that long.

With print reading, we have to spend time. We are concentrating on one thing only, and we have to concentrate to stick with it. This makes us go deeper. It also gives us time to really think about what we’re reading. (And interestingly, some studies show that we retain things we’ve read in print form much more readily than things we’ve read onscreen. Hm.)

So I’m in! I’m going to read only print books in July. Want to join me?

The Most Wanted particle, by Jon Butterworth: A Wild, Exciting Ride

Picture of cover of the book, "The Most Wanted Particle"If you want a fly-on-the-wall view of the project that finally discovered the Higgs boson, are you ever in for a ride! It just doesn’t get better than Jon Butterworth’s new book, “Most Wanted Particle: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs, the Heart of the Future Physics” (or, as it is known more succinctly in the UK and elsewhere, “Smashing Physics: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs”). Butterworth is a physics professor at University College London and, important for this book, a member of the ATLAS project team at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC). So when he talks about the “inside story,” believe me, he’s not kidding.

He describes the slow buildup to the big discovery so that, sometimes, you almost feel as though you were there yourself. You feel the dismay when, nine days after the LHC is turned on, there is an explosion, and it has to be shut down again till they find the problem and repair it. That takes 14 more months, and you understand why some people begin to wonder whether this gigantic experiment, already several years in the conceiving and building, will ever get off the ground—and whether it was worth the enormous cost. But on July 4, 2012, when the people from the various project teams are gathered together in an auditorium and the leaders understatedly begin to show the most recent data and everyone suddenly realizes what it means—that’s a wonderful day, and you want to leap up and cheer. And maybe cry, too.

Butterworth himself is heavily involved in the ATLAS project to research highly massive particles and particle physics at energies that will take us beyond what is called the Standard Model of physics. Interestingly, he himself began as somewhat sceptical of the Higgs boson and wasn’t sure it would be found. In a way, that adds a whole new layer of authenticity (as though he needed that), because it was the LHC data itself that convinced him. ATLAS and its “sister project,” called CMS, have particle detectors located across the LHC ring from each other. So the results were confirmed twice, independently, making the conclusions strong. Humanity has found the Higgs boson.

While this is a fascinating and exciting book, be prepared: you will need to gird your intellectual loins for this one, because even though it’s a “popular” book, there is a lot of physics detail. If you are not a close follower of these things, it will be easy to get lost in the various particles and what they do, what they decay into and from, whether they have mass or spin—all the quarks and leptons and gluons and Z bosons and photons and W bosons (and let’s not even get started on the antiparticles!)—not to mention charm, up, down, and strange particles. Sometimes, reading Butterworth’s descriptions of all these particles and how they behave and are detected, the best thing you can do is smile blankly and nod and keep reading. Because the basic story is very exciting, and you won’t want to miss a moment of this adventure in which one of the greatest scientific discoveries that have ever been made is brought to vivid life by one of the actual participants.

Most Wanted Particle: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs, the Heart of the Future Physics, by Jon Butterworth

2015, The Experiment

287 pages USD $33.53/CDN $33.49 (hardcover)

ISBN: 978-1615192458

Yes, I’m Still Here

Whew! Life gets busy! But am I still here? Yes. And am I still doing my “Reading Through my Bookcases” project? Well…technically, yes. Remember that I did say I was going to allow myself to be distracted from time to time, if something interesting came up. And something did. Fourteen somethings, as it happened.

Boxed set of Seven, the Series

I heard an interview with two authors who were among seven authors who wrote a series of YA books aimed particularly at boys: Seven, the Series. All seven books were released simultaneously in 2012 and could be bought as a set or read individually (in any order), with each book capable of standing alone. The series was about the seven grandsons (from four families) of a man (David McLean) who left each grandson a particular task in his will. Each of the seven authors (six men and one woman) wrote the story of one grandson, with the stories taking us to such places as France, Spain, Iceland, Mount Kilimanjaro, Canada’s far north, and downtown Toronto. The stories aimed to encourage more boys to read, but from the reviews I read, girls are just as likely to enjoy the books too.

Seven - book cover pic 2I loved them, myself. I loved the idea, first of all. But the books had so many exciting and even moving moments. Between Heaven and Earth, where the oldest grandson, DJ, tries to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, just had my heart soaring by the end. In Lost Cause, where DJ’s younger twin brother, Steve, goes to Spain, we learn a lot about the fight against Franco and the fascists. Jump Cut, about Spencer, the rather bored cousin who is only interested in films, is very, very funny. His story links to that of Bunny, his younger brother, whose very simple view of the world gets him involved with some very unexpected and unsavory friends, in Ink Me. And so the books go, as you learn a great deal not just about each of the boys, but about their grandfather David and his amazing life as well.

But just wait. I did say “fourteen” distractions, not “seven.” That’s because the reason I heard the two authors interviewed, that Sunday morning in October, was not so they could talk about the series that had been released two years earlier. No–they were talking about Seven, the Sequels, which had just been released in 2014, simultaneously, like the first ones had been. The first series did so well and was such fun that the lot of them (and Orca Books, the publisher) agreed that there should be another set of books, about the same grandsons, just a few months after their adventures in the first series.

Needless to say, I ran out and ordered them all up at the library. This time, most of the boys are up at their grandfather David’s cabin at Christmas, and behind a panel in the wall, they discover some documents, passports, and other items (including a gun!) that suggests there is much more to learn about David McLean’s early life. So off the boys go again, trying to find out what all of these secret papers mean.

Cover of the book, "Tin Soldier"Steve ends up back in Spain, in Broken Arrow, hunting for an old nuclear weapon lost after World War II. Adam, the only American grandson, finds himself jetting around the Caribbean in Double You, tracking down his grandfather’s apparent double life. In From the Dead, Rennie, the grandson nobody knew about, who helped solve a murder in Iceland in the first series, gets heavily involved in fallout from World War II in, of all places, Detroit. And Webb, possibly my favourite of the grandsons, takes a trip to the southern United States in Tin Soldier, trying to find out why the US military doesn’t want people to know about his grandfather’s role in the Vietnam War. (I think that might be my favourite book of the fourteen, although Jump Cut gives it serious competition.)

On the whole, I loved the books, and I highly recommend them both as reading for boys and for some fairly light, quick reading even for adults who want to take a breather. There are strengths and weaknesses from book to book, of course; for example, I didn’t think the plot of From the Dead held together that well at the end, so I much preferred Rennie’s first story, Close to the Heel, in Iceland. And the plots in the second series, dealing more in the spy world, are somewhat more exciting than those in the first. But on the whole, these are both excellent series, and all of the books are well worth reading.

So…back to my bookcase now? Soon. Probably. :-)

sevensequels

 

Four Revolutions: Some Things about Science and Human Nature Never Change

Four RevolutionsEverything you’ve always understood about science being self-correcting, becoming more accurate all the time as new evidence comes in? Well, that’s absolutely true. At least, it is true over the long term. BUT…

According to James Lawrence Powell in his new book, Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth, if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that a new, more accurate theory about a pivotal aspect of science will be fought tooth and nail and resisted with considerable vehemence, not to mention ridicule, possibly for decades, until it is rather abruptly and matter-of-factly accepted as the obvious truth. At least, that’s how it was for four of the most important theories in the history of science, relating to the nature and history of the earth itself.

This probably happens with “smaller” theories too, where one scientist clings to an older theory about the mechanisms of an obscure single cell, while another scientist provides evidence for a different mechanism. But when it comes to the Biggies—theories that are foundational, that account for the environment in which billions of other scientific events take place—oh, those are going to be fought over, you’d better believe it.

The four divisions in Powell’s book sum up these theories very nicely: Deep Time (the age of the earth), Continental Drift and Plate Tectonics, Meteorite Impact (did it happen? can it happen again?), and Global Warming. One by one over a century or two, each of these concepts intruded into the scientific world view, each of them, in a way, setting the stage for the next one. And all along the way, geologists, biologists, and physicists resisted them with a passion. What was almost as intriguing as this great drama itself, though, was the cast of characters. As you progress through each section, you find yourself thinking, about some revered geologist or physicist, “What? He resisted THIS one too, despite the evidence?” The same “old guard” or, as time went on, their students, always seemed to dig their heels in and never accept the new evidence.

Apart from giving us a fascinating read in the history of science, Powell shows us two things about human nature in this book. The first is that it is as rampant in scientific endeavour as it is in any other human activity. Yes, some people cling to well-earned reputations and can’t see why the standard answers that have served for so long should suddenly be thrown out. And no doubt there are some big egos. Some of the ego is about not wanting to be shown to be wrong before the entire scientific community. But some of it is also a desire not to see one’s entire life’s work proven erroneous and all to have been for nothing. It’s hardly a surprise that that can be a bitter pill to swallow; nor is it a surprise when someone fights against that.

But another thing Powell shows us about human nature is that the tactics of deniers of a new major theory don’t change much. Opposers always seem to provide weak theories or explanations to try to preserve the old theory, that don’t stand up to the new facts. And when those explanations don’t repel the change, these people resort to personal attacks on those who promote the new theories.

This may sound familiar to those scientists currently bringing forward the evidence for global climate change. But they can take heart that this understanding of the world will likely be considered the standard understanding in just another few years. (Let’s hope the people in government get with the program too, as soon as possible, instead of continuing to cling to dead theory that could ruin the world.)

James Lawrence Powell, having a PhD in geochemistry from MIT, is in a position to know something about this subject. He taught geology at Oberlin College for twenty-some years, and is currently the executive director of the National Physical Science Consortium. He gives us a compelling and thorough tour of the history of some powerful changes in what we know about the world as well as the wrestlings it took to get those changes recognized.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in gaining an understanding of how the self-correcting nature of science works behind the scenes, where the facts and evidence, always win—eventually.

2014, Columbia University Press
384 pages USD $31.50/CDN $35.00 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0231164481

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