Bertrand Russell is known for his analytic philosophy as well as his principled positions on social issues. This book explores the latter. It's a centBertrand Russell is known for his analytic philosophy as well as his principled positions on social issues. This book explores the latter. It's a century old, written during the middle of World War I, before it became even worse. Later in 1916, Russell was dismissed from Trinity College at Cambridge for his pacifist activities, and after lecturing against the US entering the war, he was sent to prison (where he wrote his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy).
Russell once said, "Patriots always talk of dying for their country but never of killing for their country."
In addition to war and peace, the book discusses the state, private property, education, marriage, and religion, and how to improve them with a coherent and self-consistent philosophy. Russell at times sounds old-fashioned and some of his examples are out of date, but in my opinion, much of this book is still timely, especially the sections in the first half about war. Today when we have supposed liberals supporting "just wars," a never-ending "global war on terrorism," and "targeted killings," these arguments still resonate....more
Quantum physics, cosmology, existentialist philosophy and morality may seem like disparate subjects. But Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech, ties them all together into a cohesive and comprehensive worldview he calls "poetic naturalism." He lays out his views while trying to find meaning in a vast and chaotic universe in his newly published book, "The Big Picture" (Dutton, Penguin Random House Inc.).
Having written two previous popular physics books as well as being active on Twitter and his blog, Carroll takes an interest in communicating complex scientific discoveries. In his new book, he describes some of the fundamental ideas in modern physics with a philosophical lens, while exploring life's biggest mysteries: the origin of the universe and the meaning of life itself. At the same time, with references to Wile E. Coyote, Captain Kirk and "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," he avoids an overly serious tone.
In recent years, prominent scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and Stephen Hawking have downplayed the importance of philosophy or even denigrated it. Carroll is not among this crowd.
"There are a lot of scientists and science promoters who have said not entirely complimentary things about philosophy, but that misses the point about what it's for," Carroll said in an interview. "The purpose of philosophy is not to be the handmaiden of science."
Though his Ph.D. is in physics, Carroll has a strong interest in philosophy as well, and minored in it in college. He sees philosophy as a method for interpreting science and for a deeper understanding of physical phenomena. He uses philosophical concepts such as causality, determinism and mind-body dualism to explore everything from the tiniest subatomic particles to the accelerating expansion of the universe -- as well as the role humans play somewhere in between.
For Carroll, naturalism means that there's one world, the natural world, it obeys the laws of nature, and you can discover it using science. To this he adds that "there are many ways of talking about the world," stories that people can tell to make sense and meaning of the world and their place in it. He even address issues of free will, consciousness, ethics, and life after death...
[Please see the full review published by Inside Science on 19 May 2016.]...more
First came the Apollo era. Following Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, the first satellite and human in space, the United States leaped into the space race. Within 11 years of NASA’s formation, and with incredible public support, they managed to launch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon. The moon!
Then came the space shuttle era, also a time of lofty and grand missions. NASA astronauts flew the shuttles on 135 missions, to deploy space probes like the Hubble Space Telescope and to assemble the International Space Station. But all good things must come to an end, as they say. Margaret Lazarus Dean, in her new book, Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight, witnesses and chronicles the final flights of the Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis shuttles in 2011. For each of those three shuttles, she describes the visceral experience of watching the launches and landings, including the responses of diverse fellow onlookers at Cape Canaveral on the coast of Florida.
Dean reflects on the space shuttle program’s many impressive achievements, as well as its shortcomings and failures, in the case of the tragic explosion of Challenger in 1986 and the breakup of Columbia in 2003. (She previously wrote a novel about the Challenger disaster.) Throughout the book, she provides a record of a wide range of people grappling with the end of the era and wondering about what might come next.
She encounters both aspiring and accomplished astronauts—she’s starstruck as she meets Aldrin (and I don’t blame her). Dean also talks to space workers, as well as other writers and journalists, somehow trying to figure how to put these momentous events into words. She makes many references to iconic writers, during what she considers the pinnacle of American spaceflight. Especially Norman Mailer (author of Of a Fire on the Moon), Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff) and Oriana Fallaci (If the Sun Dies) clearly influenced her.
Dean sprinkles many telling and intriguing anecdotes throughout the book. At one point she quotes a conversation she overheard, in which a NASA public affairs person corrects a Reuters journalist, saying that it’s not the end of American spaceflight, but “the end of American spaceflight as we know it,” which seems to be a subtle distinction. She also points out that in spite of NASA currently accounting for a small fraction of the national budget, her university students overwhelmingly overestimated how much funding the agency actually receives. It gets about 0.4% of the national budget, but most of her students guessed it was more than one fifth! Maybe that demonstrates NASA’s ability to have a big impact and inspire the public imagination with relatively few resources.
Dean’s book is more a memoir than anything else. It’s often fascinating to read, but it feels too wordy and verbose at times. She includes far too many mundane or irrelevant details, including the drive to and from Florida, the motels she stays at (one reference to Mailer is enough there), and numerous texts and social media posts. Omar Izquierdo, a NASA technician, host and new friend, makes for an interesting character, but every single interaction with him doesn’t need to be included. It’s as if she documented in detail every step she took and every thought that popped in her head and shoehorned them in. She also writes many times about her husband and child, who made sacrifices so that she could make these trips; she raises important concerns, but they would belong more in a book more directly touching on work-life balance and gender equality. She and her editors could have cut 100 pages from this book, in my opinion, strengthening its impact without losing any substance....more
As I work on improving my essay writing skills, I’ve attempted to expand my horizons and read a wide variety of authors, including those with whom I’m not familiar. I recently came across Lauret Savoy, who in her new book, Trace, offers us a different perspective of nature, the environment, geography and American history, including its evolving race relations. She focuses on how people and communities interact with nature, which shouldn’t be viewed as some pristine thing that white people enjoy every once in a while.
Her writings dovetail with environmental justice, which is something I’ve been thinking about over the past few years. It refers to the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income” (as the EPA defines it) with respect to environmental regulations and policies. In my opinion, people whose work or activism involves race, class, gender and other power relations often ignore environmental issues, while environmentalists are often white and operate in a vacuum as if those other divisions aren’t important.
But environmental justice brings these issues together. It grew out of the civil rights movement when people of color realized they were often suffering silently while disproportionately affected by toxic waste sites, power plants, landfills, and other environmental hazards. In one of my first guest blog posts (outside of this blog), for the Union of Concerned Scientists a couple years ago, I argued that climate change is an environmental justice issue, as the people most harmed by rising sea levels, floods, extreme droughts and heatwaves are those who did the least to contribute to the problem. Savoy considers these kinds of issues as she weaves in environmental justice in her new book, referring to “people of color and the economically poor [who] live, and die, next to degraded environments.” She argues that the concept of “ecological footprint” should account for dispossessed people and people’s labor.
In Trace, a slim yet powerful volume, Savoy invites us to accompany her as she traces through her travels, her past, and her family history, following the paths she and her predecessors have taken. She explores varied and uneven terrain through ever changing and troubled relations between race and the American landscape. The book is sort of a collection of interconnected essays, which fit together into a cohesive story. Each chapter searches a particular place, asks questions about its origins and names, and considers her and others’ experiences there. “The American landscape was in some ways the template, but also the trigger, to each of the searches,” she said in an interview about the book......more
I'm a big fan of Rebecca Solnit's writing, which I first encountered in her columns in Harper's magazine. I enjoyed reading her "Field Guide to GettinI'm a big fan of Rebecca Solnit's writing, which I first encountered in her columns in Harper's magazine. I enjoyed reading her "Field Guide to Getting Lost," which included environment and nature writing, historical and literature references, and her musings through life. (You really have to read it to see what I mean.) If you like Annie Dillard, I think you'll like Solnit too....more
Elena Ferrante writes with a vibrant and vivid style, with incisive shards that lodge in your mind. Her book takes you into some dark and disturbing pElena Ferrante writes with a vibrant and vivid style, with incisive shards that lodge in your mind. Her book takes you into some dark and disturbing places, but all the while, her fascinating writing will draw you through the story.
I definitely recommend The Days of Abandonment, and I look forward to reading her Neapolitan novels....more
This is a fascinating book and definitely worth reading. Elizabeth Kolbert investigates the demise of a variety of species, including close cousins toThis is a fascinating book and definitely worth reading. Elizabeth Kolbert investigates the demise of a variety of species, including close cousins to humans, and she describes the rise and fall of species over time. She makes a strong case that we're entering a sixth extinction period, primarily caused, purposefully or unwittingly, by us humans.
Kolbert briefly tries to inject hope for the future toward the end of the book, but it doesn't suit her attitude, which I think is too cynical about humanity. She seems to think that humanity's dominant and unchangeable qualities are selfishness, destructiveness, and shortsightedness. Humans have contributed to the extinction of countless species, but that's a trend that need not continue indefinitely. She also mentions climate change and suggests that the only positive way we might address it is with farfetched geoengineering schemes, but that's not true....more
"Independent People" is an amazing book and a fascinating epic. It's a classic. It's an evocative tale of struggling rural sheep farmers, especially B"Independent People" is an amazing book and a fascinating epic. It's a classic. It's an evocative tale of struggling rural sheep farmers, especially Bjartur of Summerhouses and his daughter Asta Sollilja, and it takes place in a remote Icelandic landscape around the time of World War I. The story also includes elements of magical realism. Laxness's writing reminds me of Annie Proulx, Gabriel García Márquez, and occasionally Alice Munro. I definitely recommend reading it--you will not be disappointed.
I give this book 4.5 stars because of the sexism that comes up multiple times, but in Laxness's defense, he wrote this 70+ years ago....more
This short fast-paced "cerebral" novel packs many surprises, provocative scenes, and humor throughout it. I've never read a book quite like this one bThis short fast-paced "cerebral" novel packs many surprises, provocative scenes, and humor throughout it. I've never read a book quite like this one before, and I look forward to reading her second novel as well. Zink focuses on a character named Tiffany (who apparently includes some autobiographical elements) and her husband Stephen, who live in Switzerland and then Germany. The characters' evolution over the course of the book seems slightly far-fetched, but I suppose that's part of the point. Also, the characters are birders and nature-lovers, which I enjoyed reading about. I wouldn't say that Zink's (characters') description of environmental activist campaigns isn't entirely accurate, but that's a small quibble. I definitely recommend this book....more
This short and interesting novel is difficult to describe. It's a story about a wife, her husband, and their difficulties as a couple and parents. TheThis short and interesting novel is difficult to describe. It's a story about a wife, her husband, and their difficulties as a couple and parents. The wife, whose name we're never told but whose voice gradually emerges, makes all sorts of literary and philosophical connections throughout the book, which appears to consist of sets of brief stories, observations, and aphorisms. I definitely recommend the book if you like Lydia Davis or Nell Zink (and reviewers also mention Renata Adler, whom I haven't read).
One of a few passages that stuck with me as I read the book: "Three things no one has ever said about me: You make it look so easy. You are very mysterious. You need to take yourself more seriously."...more