The most persistent aspect of this intriguing book is the questions it raises. Why do we age? Can we do anything...moreUpdated - 8/8/13 - see link at bottom
The most persistent aspect of this intriguing book is the questions it raises. Why do we age? Can we do anything to halt or at least slow the aging process? What might be the implications of extending our time on Earth?
Jonathan Weiner builds his look at the science of immortality around Aubrey de Grey, an odd duck of a British theoretician, a sort of Methuselahn gadfly. De Grey, who looks like he might either play back up with ZZ Top or live in a moss-covered cabin in the depths of a Middle-Earth forest, has big-picture notions of what it would take to significantly increase the human lifespan. He has written professional papers in the gerontological field, although he was not professionally trained, and his wide knowledge of fields related to aging make him one of the planet’s experts on the subject. He has also established an organization, SENS, (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) to promote research into extending human life.
Using Aubrey as his central trunk, Weiner branches off to a variety of fascinating subjects. He gives us a look at how people have viewed the notion of immortality through our history, in religion, literature and mythology. I was most surprised by a biblical account of a city named “Luz” in which the residents remained immortal. It was news to me. He writes about the history of theories of aging, and interviews several scientists working in diverse aging research projects.
In the last two hundred years the human lifespan has approximately doubled. Who’s to say that it might not double again? Improvements in child health were responsible for much of the earlier gains, but lately the focus has shifted to extending life for those who have already achieved maturity. Why are we so plagued today with late onset maladies like cancer and heart disease? What is the role of natural selection in longevity?
Why do our bodies do such a good job of building through our youth, then slow down? Are we really rusting from the inside out? Like a city, our bodies generate considerable quantities of garbage. Thankfully, our bodies also include a sanitation squad that takes care of most of that, but in time the garbage trucks begin to fail and the sort of garbage we leave out on the curb doesn’t catch the crew’s attention. Clog up, shut down, game over. Why does the clean-up crew fail to keep up? Can the technology that uses designed microbes to detoxify contaminated soil be applied to the human body’s difficulties identifying and composting or taking out the internal refuse?
Technical advances over the last century have allowed researchers to see deeper than ever into the operations that go on inside cells and even molecules, giving hope for new understanding and new ways to remain healthy.
Weiner does not look into potential global hindrances to life extension. Things like global warming, resource exhaustion, overpopulation. He does recognize the potential for longevity to be applied to the wrong sort, cautioning that extended lives might produce thousand-year Hitlers, Stalins or Maos. One could certainly see implications for westernized societies, in which those who routinely reward themselves at the expense of everyone else, (think Wall Street and corporate execs) buy themselves onto the beginning of that line. It would not be a huge leap to envision extensions to the existing class divides, with longevity as yet another privilege of wealth, eternal masters and expendable proles. How many Ghandis, Aung San Suu Kyis, or Mandelas would likely gain access to life-lengthening treatments?
In a world of widely available life extension, would we all become risk-averse to the point of stasis?
There are so many questions raised here, that it might take an extended life to consider them all. But I would not wait too long before reading this intriguing book. You don’t have forever.
The May 2013 issue of National Geographic featured a cover story on longevity. Definitely worth a look. But hurry. You know why.
Seen in geological perspective, we are fossils in the making, to be buried and eventually exposed again for the puzzlement of creatures of later eras.
Welcome to Wally World. No, not the one with Chevy Chase and a stiff relation on the car roof, the one that it is a place of real literary wonder. Wallace Stegner is one of our great national treasures, and Crossing to Safety is a very rich read, a surprising look at the friendship between two couples, four friends. Stegner opens with Charity, a wealthy New Englander in the last stages of cancer, bringing the foursome back together for one last hurrah. He dusts off this fossil and shows us where it came from. And in the process ponders the craft he is using to tell his story.
How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?
Stegner is up front about the challenge he has presented himself. How does one write an interesting book about friendship? I suppose one begins with being able to create real people with words. But Stegner might disagree. In the book he says
you’ve got the wrong idea of what writers do. They don’t understand any more than other people. They invent only plots they can resolve. They ask questions they can answer. Those aren’t people that you see in books, those are constructs.
And yet his characters do seem real and that is why we come to care about them.
Larry is a young teacher arriving at his first job in Madison Wisconsin. He is the hard-worker, always writing, articles, stories, a novel, using every spare minute to put words to paper. His wife, Sally, had given up her college career to help Larry through his education, and is pregnant when they set up shop in town. She and Larry barely scrape by. She is probably the least defined of the four, supportive to all, but ultimately the one most in need of the support of her friends. She appears early on with canes and leg braces. We learn later how she acquired them. Sid and Charity are at the very opposite end of the financial spectrum. Sid, from Pittsburgh, inherited considerable family wealth. He is a dreamer, wanting to write his poetry, ponder the land, more of a transcendentalist than anything. Charity came from old New England money. She is the organizer, the one who must be in charge. This unlikely foursome become fast friends almost immediately, finding an Eden of mutual acceptance and admiration. The notion of Eden is one that recurs with some frequency.
From the high porch, the woods pitching down to the lake are more than a known and loved place. They are a habitat we were once fully adapted to, a sort of Peaceable Kingdom where species such as ours might evolve unchallenged and find their step on the staircase of being.
Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained arrive towards the end. In between, Sid and Charity’s first time together at her family retreat in northern Vermont, Battell Pond, is like a stroll through the first garden. An aspect of Charity’s personality is even referred to, during a multi-day hike the foursome take while in Vermont years later, as the “serpent in paradise.” Clearly the Eden of the two pairs’ friendship is not without its dangers.
Although his setting is the Northeast, mostly, instead of his beloved West, Stegner pays close attention to place.
The hemlocks like this steep shore. Like other species, they hang on to their territory
much like Charity is grown from her New England soil. Larry hankers for his birthplace in the Southwest and winds up there, but Stegner satisfies himself with some description of Wisconsin and much of Battell Pond. As the land does in his other tales, this one challenges his characters. A long hike, perhaps standing in for a life journey, is fraught with unexpected impediments, an unmapped beaver pond, storm-downed trees that force unfortunate detours. In Wisconsin, a stormy lake threatens all their lives.
Order is indeed the dream of man, but chaos, which is only another word for dumb, blind, witless chance, is still the law of nature.
But Charity takes it as her mission to prevail over entropy.
Soon spring would thaw the drifts and reveal the disorder and scarred earth, and she would set to work to transform it into a landscape.
We shift between the present and the past, following the friends through the stages of their lives. The two men, both teachers, struggle with getting tenure, finding professional fulfillment and success. We also get a look into the struggles each couple experiences within their relationships. Although all four are offered the stage it is the pairing of Sid and Charity that most lights it up. Stegner offers small details that illuminate and portend. Here Larry describes an interaction with Charity.
the kiss I aimed at her cheek barely grazed her. She was not much of a kisser. She had a way of turning at the last minute and presenting a moving target.
And what happens at the end of our lives, when this friendship comes to its final chapter?
Seen in either geological or biological terms, we don’t warrant attention as individuals. One of us doesn’t differ that much from another, each generation repeats its parents, the works we build to outlast us are not much more enduring than anthills, and much less so than coral reefs. Here everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and present can hardly be told from past.
Stegner shows that there are always more shoots ready to seek the light as ancient woods bow with time, but we cross our lives to safety with the memories of our brief time here, the treasures of love and friendship. One of those treasures is having read this book. (less)
Whereas Newton, Hooke, Locke and Descartes were pop stars of the first scientific revolution in the 17...moreUpdated - July 31, 2013 - added a link at bottom
Whereas Newton, Hooke, Locke and Descartes were pop stars of the first scientific revolution in the 17th century, Richard Holmes looks at what Coleridge called a “second scientific revolution,” the era of scientific breakthrough between Captain Cook’s first circumnavigation in 1768 and Darwin’s journey on the Beagle in 1831. He does this by a sort of relay, beginning with Joseph Banks, a botanist on Cooks’ ship, Endeavor, connecting him to William Herschel, an astronomer who with his sister, Caroline, revolutionized how we look at the heavens, building the first huge telescopes, including a 40 foot reflecting telescope. He discovered Uranus (insert jejune joke here) which had another, less entertaining, name before the final one was universally agreed upon. He and his sister mapped a host of comets, planetary moons and other astronomical phenomena. From the Herschels we ascend to the world of ballooning, quite a big deal at the time, and mortally dangerous. The Montgolfier Brothers put in an appearance as do other daredevils of both scientific and adventuresome bents. Mungo Park was a world class explorer who combined a daring spirit with a medical degree and an interest in exploring unknown Africa. He sought the origins of the Congo and Niger rivers with encouragement from Banks, by then head of the Royal Society. Humphrey Davy figures large in this tale, sharing most of the real estate here with the Herschels. Davy experimented (on himself as often as not) for years with gases of various sorts. He was successful in the short term in creating a lovely form of intoxication, but in the long run, had hit on a safe way to anesthetize medical patients. Later, as a sort of superstar science stud of his day, Davy was asked to come up with a way to make mining safer. He designed the first safe-to-use miner’s lamp. It cut down on fatalities dramatically, and earned him the gratitude of the nation.
Not only do we have scientific advances, we have the arts of the time. These scientists were not lab-bound nerds. Herschel was a working musician, head of a band, a fellow who dashed off 24 symphonies. Caroline sang at a professional level in addition to becoming the first woman to be a paid, professional scientist. The scientists, portrayed here in mini-biographies for the primary characters, also wrote and often sold poetry. This combination of interests and the personal passion to persist against sometimes daunting odds gave the era its character. It is from this time that we get the notion of a Doctor Frankenstein (based on a real person, who was attempting reanimation) the mad, obsessed scientist, alone in his castle. Could one revive dead tissue? If one did would it have a soul?
There was animated discussion going on about what makes us human. Is man merely a product of chemical interactions or is there some vital force, some chi that exists outside the scientifically observable plane, that makes us human, a soul maybe? It became a major political acid test at the time, probably equivalent to the abortion issue today.
These are all fascinating people, with great accomplishments and plenty of quirks to their credit. The period is dazzling in the mixing of art with science, artists with scientists and the renaissance character of many of the figures portrayed here. It makes you want to know more about them and about the era, as well as providing a contrast to our current age of hyper-differentiation.
Holmes writes with great affection for his subjects and with a charming sense of humor. The golden age of ballooning certainly did include the first members of the Mile high club. It is a fun read with new information around every turn, and offers us an appreciation for what an amazing age that was. It won the National Book Critics Circle award for 2009, among other awards. It deserved to win a lot more. There is only one word that can sum up this book, wonderful.
Bringing home mass quantities from storage, in the hopes of becoming unburdened by that obscene cost, I opened a box of National Geographics. And being the sort I am, could not help but skim through. Came across an article from the November 1996 issue, by T. H. Watkins about Joseph Banks, a significant person in the story told in The Age of Wonder. The article is titled The Greening of the Empire. Sadly, the available on-line archive from NatGeo extends only back to 2005. But I did find a smaller version of the article, at the website StranceScience.net. It is a quick and fascinating read. And if you have boxes of National Geographics tucked away in a garage or attic, you might want to go exploring and dig this one out. Your journey will be well rewarded.
Louie Zamperini was quite a character, wild, given to mayhem and thievery, but he straightened out enough to become a world-class runner, joining the...moreLouie Zamperini was quite a character, wild, given to mayhem and thievery, but he straightened out enough to become a world-class runner, joining the US team in the Berlin Olympics. He continued his athletic career at USC, setting running records there, preparing for the next international competition. But the world would skip that event, leaving Louie adrift. He joined the military and washed out, but he was drafted back in after Pearl Harbor, as a bombardier. When Louie’s plane went down in the middle of the Pacific, while on a bombing run, his great adventure began. Unbroken is Louie’s tale of survival.
Louie and two other crew members would drift for an unthinkable duration before sighting land, struggling to collect potable water, desperate to catch fish and birds for food and terrified of being devoured by the constantly marauding sharks. Once they finally landed it was out of the frying pan and into the rising sun, as they were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Enduring years of the beatings, deprivations, forced labor and humiliations that were daily fare in Japanese POW camps made their ocean voyage seem like a pleasure cruise.
This is not only an amazingly researched book, with details that clearly took serious, serious digging to unearth, but Laura Hillenbrand is a gifted story-teller, as any who have read Seabiscuit can attest, and she brings her narrative skills to this remarkable, real-life tale. Having introduced Louie in the early chapters and providing reasons to care, she documents a relentless sequence of trials that he and his mates had to endure. It does get a little repetitive, but there were times when the hairs on my arm stood up and saluted and I had to put the book down because the horrors these men faced were so frightening and upsetting. Think Jaws vs a rubber raft. But I was so captivated by the story that I dove right back in after a short break. The unpleasantness of the Geneva-challenged WW II Japanese military was not news to me, but the details Hillenbrand provides gave that vision considerable depth. There is a psycho-guard character in this story who would fit in well in many a horror film. And yet, with all the monstrtosities of the camps, there is also Hogan’s Heroes-type humor that will make you laugh out loud.
Louie’s life post-liberation was no picnic either. PTSD was not in the lexicon at the time, but anyone today would recognize the symptoms. Even though the unspeakable horrors he endured had not killed him, the internalized terrors he brought home might have finished the job. Hillenbrand takes us through those trials and tells the surprising story of how this incredibly strong, but seriously damaged man, was mended.
Unbroken offers an important portrait about a dark time, but shows how strength, courage, incredible determination and a dose of faith can overcome any obstacle. You will weep, rage, laugh and cheer. What more can a reader ask?
In 1933, William Dodd, a Chicago academic is appointed the first American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany. He enters this cauldron accompanied by his f...moreIn 1933, William Dodd, a Chicago academic is appointed the first American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany. He enters this cauldron accompanied by his family, most particularly by his very modern daughter, Martha. Larson shows us the quickly changing Germany of 1933 through their eyes.
While this is hardly a man-on-the-strasse point of view, a look at the goings on through the experiences of a diplomat and his daughter does get a bit closer to the ground than a more removed historical overview. Larson chose to deliver a one year slice of the darkening life of Nazi Germany. There is plenty in that one year to fill many books.
I was of two minds about this book. On the one hand, I read it rather quickly, which usually indicates a high level of interest. On the other hand, it did not seem all that interesting to me. Certainly there are not a lot of new revelations remaining re the Third Reich. The ambassador seemed like a mostly decent guy who tried his best under what might, at best, be called trying circumstances. His experience highlighted the cliquish, anti-Semitic, quality of the rich-boy American foreign service. ( The Pretty Good Club) Not news. The upper echelons of the Nazi Party included an assortment of mental misfits, from the lunatic-in-chief to Goering, with an ego even larger than his lavishly costumed body, to in-fighting middle-school sociopaths with armies and zero sense of morality. Again, not news. News was some of the nuance involved in why Roosevelt was disinclined to openly criticize the Nazis for their treatment of the Jews. News was the connections the ambassador’s daughter made with questionable characters.
Ambassador Dodd’s daughter, Martha, appears to have had a very lively social life. Her interactions with some of the notables allow us a look at people who were unfamiliar. Indeed, it is the secondary characters that hold the most interest here. One such who emerges from the gunsmoke is Rudolf Diels, the first head of the Gestapo. His scar-ridden face might lead one to see him as a total black hat. Turns out there was more to him than that. Martha also has an affair with a Soviet KGB agent named, of course, Boris. How much of their affection was true and how much was manipulation? Franz von Papen was Hindenberg’s man, vice-chancellor under Hitler. He delivered (or was forced to give) a famous public call for Hitler to scale back some of his atrocities in the “Marburg Speech.” No. I had never heard of it either. But it was significant for the time, and gets some well-merited attention here. Larson offers a bit of a look at the political machinations of the US consul general George Messersmith, as well.
One of the most telling scenes in the book is one in which the ambassador is told that his primary task was to see that Germany paid the banks, uber alles. The relevance to the 21st Century is unmistakable. Larson’s depiction of The Night of Long Knives was riveting, particularly the mysteriousness of it all. Who was killed? How many? Why? Contrary to the post-Nazi claim that most of the population was against Hitler, the portrait Larson paints indicates widespread popular support for the Nazi leader.
It is chilling to see the frustrations of a population which had suffered economic deprivations for so long finding a savior in a madman. There is clearly a willingness in the USA for many people to throw their support to the loudest and meanest, regardless of what is revealed almost daily about the dishonesty of such leaders. It is not surprising that there were so many in Germany who felt that their national honor could best be revived through this bombastic bully. Pay attention to what the crazies say they want to do. Whether it is Paul Ryan promising to dismantle Medicare, or Ron Paul objecting to the Civil Rights Act. Mein Kampf is pretty specific. What did they think they were getting? In the article cited at the end of this page, Larson says,
"The immediate trigger for this book was reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but I read that also at a time when I was feeling uneasy about how things were going in this country. It troubled me that we had these reports of torture of detainees, we had people jailed at Guantanamo Bay who couldn't even talk to their lawyers and couldn't see the evidence against them — sort of fundamental bedrock civil liberties things. ... Look, I don't care what your party is. I went to public school on Long Island, and it seemed every year we were being taught that you had a right to a fair trial and a right to confront your accuser. So it's this kind of vague feeling I had in the background which was, 'What was that like to experience a real extreme version of that?' ... So it made me wonder what allows a culture to slip its moorings."
But even though there were interesting elements within the book, even though I read through it all relatively quickly, I still did not feel, by the time I had finished, that it was all that much. One of the problems with being a damn good writer is that expectations are elevated. It is tough indeed to come up to The Devil in the White City, an astonishingly good book. In the Garden of Beasts does not approach that work. While it might be interesting to see how the flowers grow in this dark garden, there is just not enough meat here to satisfy the fly-traps.