Archive for Book reviews

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. 🙂



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

A Detour to The Disappearing Spoon

Disappearing Spoon - book cover pic - PhylI may be doing the “Reading Through My Bookcases” thing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t divert from time to time to read something else interesting. I was almost done my Artemis Fowl books (more on them in a future post), and I needed a break. And my birthday came up, and my mom sent some money, and I happened to buy a book that’s been on my TBR list for a long time: The Disappearing Spoon. So I read it.

And listen up, science buffs! It may be four years since it was published, but The Disappearing Spoon, by Sam Kean, is well worth reading, and it’s likely to be timeless. It’s about the periodic table—and yes, you heard me right. This is one of the books that takes the high school foundation of most of our scientific knowledge and actually brings it to life and makes it seem important to our everyday lives.

I’m sure that a lot of us saw the periodic table—that table listing all the known elements of the universe—hanging on the classroom wall in basic science classes or chemistry classes in school. The table organizes the elements in rows and columns that are determined by the things that groups of elements have in common. (Multiples of the same number of protons and neutrons in their nuclei, for example.) But there is way more to that table than just a bunch of lists. When you read Sam Kean describing how these elements were discovered, and then how scientists figured out enough about the elements to organize them into this table, you realize that almost the entire history of science is just sitting there in front of you, calmly waiting in all those rows and all those columns.

I’d always had the impression that most of the elements were just sort of “figured out” while isolated scientists here and there were doing their own experiments. Many of them were, but what I didn’t know was that the science world eventually figured out that there were way more elements out there to discover—there were gaps in the record that indicated that another element should exist between two others, for example—and then the race was on! I didn’t know what jealousies and grudges there could be as one scientist might get credit for discovering an element that another scientist actually discovered first. Oh, the woes of a delay in publication of an academic paper or of its presentation before an august scientific body! There was even a race between famous American and German universities to find new elements, and whenever the Americans found one, the news would make the New York Times.

I suppose we can still distantly relate to that one, can’t we, even though discoveries of new elements are now more theoretical than anything else? Except that we’ve come far enough that we’re now looking for the infinitesimally small particles that underlie those elements. Remember the excitement over the discovery of the Higgs Boson? That sort of thing happened a lot.

Kean gives us many anecdotes that show how fascinating and intriguing the history of the elements has been. Marie Curie got quite a reputation when she used to drag fellow scientists into a closet to show them her experiments with things that glowed in the dark. (The scientists’ wives didn’t take too kindly to this, but you might say that the radioactive elements gave them their eventual revenge by giving Curie aplastic anemia and bringing about her death.) Then there was the story from World War II about the German company (Metallgesellschaft) whose innocent-sounding subsidiary, American Metal, shipped tons and tons of molybdenum from a big mine in Bartlett Mountain in Colorado, to strengthen the huge German guns before the Americans finally stopped the shipments—in 1918.

People have actually hated certain elements, like followers of Gandhi who viewed the government’s requirement of adding iodine to salt (for genuine health purposes) to be just one more colonialist ploy, since common people who mined and sold salt as individuals could not add iodine to their products. People have also loved other elements a bit too much, like those who put toxic mercury into laxatives. What a way to go! And I had no idea that the plentiful aluminum that we easily throw away now used to be the most priceless substance in the world, before Charles Hall figured out how to extract it really cheaply. Put that aluminum tent over your turkey, next Thanksgiving or Christmas, and try to imagine wrapping it instead with a thin sheet of gold. It was like that.

Kean doesn’t deal with each element individually (he’d need 100+ chapters), but he organizes his chapters much a little bit like the periodic table itself is organized. That is, sometimes he deals with elements that are all in the same family, while at other times he talks about elements that all played similar roles. So you get such chapters as, “Elements in Times of War” (molybdenum is in here) or “Political Elements” or “Elements as Money.” The history and the science weave together in a fascinating and—dare I say it?—truly educational way. Chemistry class in high school was never like this! Maybe it should have been.

Oh, and I’m sure you were wondering why the book is called The Disappearing Spoon. You find that out in the chapter where gallium makes its appearance. It’s a silver-looking element that is quite solid at room temperature, but its melting temperature is slightly under 30 degrees Celsius (just below 86 degrees Fahrenheit). Apparently, it used to be a prank in laboratories to mold a teaspoon out of gallium, which would then melt when somebody tried to use it to stir a cup of tea. Oh, those wacky scientists!

I have an advantage in having gone four years since deciding I wanted to read The Disappearing Spoon. Now I can also look forward to reading Kean’s book about DNA, The Violinist’s Thumb, from 2012, as well as his book about how the human brain functions, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons), published just this year. If those books are anywhere near as educational and informative as this one, they’re going to be a real treat!

Book Review: The Shadow King, by Jo Marchant

Cover of and link to the book, "The Shadow King," by Jo MarchantIf there’s one thing archaeologists like to do when studying the mummy of Tutankhamun, the ancient Egyptian pharaoh, it’s top each other’s stories. But that’s not too surprising when you recall that that’s what many pharaohs used to do too: erase the previous pharaoh’s story in favour of their own.

Science journalist and writer Jo Marchant chronicles all the archaeology stories about Tutankhamun in her new book, The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut’s Mummy. Starting in 1922 with Howard Carter, she shows how each successive archaeologist, with each new test and new discovery about the ancient boy king, tried to erase previous theories about his life and death in favour of new ones. Many of the new stories stemmed from genuinely new or refined evidence. But one suspects that some of them also stemmed from the agendas of the storytellers.

But that’s precisely the thing. Marchant gradually concludes that while the evidence is important, the storytelling may be almost more important. Here’s how she describes the history of all those archaeologists’ stories about Tutankhamun: “The king has gone from a tragic child who succumbed to tuberculosis, to a murder victim, daredevil chariot racer, malaria-infected cripple, brave soldier, and even a hippo’s last meal. You can pick whichever story you like.” We can pick because these stories go hand in hand with society’s own fascination with the ancient king’s history; they tell a great deal about us.

Think of Dr. Zahi Hawass, that most famous leading man in documentaries about ancient Egyptian archaeology. It’s very likely that the evidence described in some of those documentaries was just a liiiiittle bit slanted in his preferred direction. In many ways, he’s less of a rigorous archaeologist and more of a storyteller. But he tells his stories for the sake of Egypt, for the idea of Egypt’s continuity from Tutankhamun’s day till today, and for Egypt’s own self-esteem. (And you wonder whether his stories are finally over, as Hawass has fallen out of public favour, and modern Egypt is now in turmoil. Can Tutankhamun’s story—or one of his many stories—ever help Egypt now?)

Marchant takes us on a fascinating trip from the past to the present, giving us the stories and ideas of the archeologists as well as of the young pharaoh. Her book is thorough and objective when it comes to the actual evidence about Tutankhamun, but it’s also an exploration of the complexities of the human tale itself. Through her own story, she gives us hints of what the people in our society want—maybe even need—from the history of Tutankhamun. And given the fact that the boy king’s mummy has been handled so much over the years that it may soon be on the verge of crumbling at last into final nothingness, the book may well be one of the final memorials and stories of Tutankhamun himself.

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