I just finished Forty Signs of Rain (2004), the first volume of Kim Stanley Robinson's latest trilogy, on the subjects of rapid climate change and how the processes of science and scientists work (or don't work, in some cases). I love the realistic feeling of this novel - from the fascinating bits of science to the characters to the workings of the NSF, a biotech startup, and a senator's office. Set in the very near future, this book rang true for me on every level. Of course it's also the setup for a gigantic disaster - very much like our current real life. I look forward to the next two volumes (the third was just recently published) and to perhaps meeting Mr. Robinson at ISDC in Dallas. I'm enough of a fan to bring along a book or two of his (Green Mars?) and to try to get an autograph. ...more
Though I'm trying to save trees by buying most of my reading material in electronic form these days, I still have a thing for books, especially good books that are really cheap, like the $4.99 hardcover copy of The Planets by Dava Sobel that I found in a bookstore last week. I've known about this 2005 book for some time, but I thought of it as something of a collection of anecdotes that I'm probably familiar with anyway, so I never bothered to read it.
Silly me. Of course it is pretty much a collection of anecdotal essays about the planets and their places in history and human culture as well as in science. But if you have any interest in astronomy and human history, it's a great read, and Sobel does a fine job of tying together the many threads of the planets' roles in human thought, with a different theme and/or viewpoint for each chapter. Perhaps the most unusual is the chapter on Mars, which is written from the point of view of ALH 84001, a meteorite found in Antarctica in 1984 and later shown to have come from Mars (carrying microscopic evidence of something interesting - possibly ancient microorganisms). This solar system "old timer" (4.5 billion years old) has seen a lot and tells a good story.
Sobel is an excellent writer, which I knew from having read her book Longitude in 2007 when I visited the Greenwich Observatory in England (Sobel is also a fellow JPL Solar System Ambassador). I understand that her book Galileo's Daughter is also very good, and I just ordered a used copy (unfortunately it's not currently available in the Kindle format I use on my iPod Touch where I'm currently reading Neal Stephenson's ginormous but very entertaining novel Quicksilver with only about 15,000 page flicks to go). ...more
Writing this blog Studying Japanese Learning to fly light airplanes Writing and recording an astronomy podcast Learning to fly simulated spacecraft in Orbiter Writing and recording songs Being a Solar System Ambassador
For me, these have all been forms of "adult play," what Lynda Barry calls creative concentration (I'm not doing all these things now, but I have invested significant time and energy in all of them over the last 35 years or so). I just discovered this idea of "creative concentration as adult play" in her amazing book, What It Is, a sort of graphical... something or other. Journal. Writing workshop. Comic book. Memoir. Self-help book. All of the above. More than the above.
I've always had a feeling that creativity is an important part of my life. I strive to put creativity into the work I do in my job, and I have had success and satisfaction with that. But it's the work that I don't have to do that seems to demand the most in the creativity department. It takes a lot of time and energy (and sometimes money) - so why do this stuff at all? Is there a shortage of songs that I need to make up? Does the world need this blog? Does it need another private pilot? Does it matter that I know how to dock a simulated space shuttle with a simulated space station? Probably not to anyone but me. But one of the points that Barry indirectly makes in What It Is is that creating something is an experience worth having - regardless of what it is that is created.
Of course it's hard to avoid the inner critics, with questions like "does this suck?" and "what's the point of this?" - but it's important to learn to ignore them at least during the creative process, and to recognize that when you re-read or review something you write or otherwise create, that "critic" is not the same part of your mind as the part that did the creating. The critic has a different agenda (like maybe preventing embarrassment). Barry suggests for writing exercises that you not read them over for at least a week! Of course my "critic" re-read this blog post an hour after it was written and discovered an incomplete sentence!
As I read this over, I realize that it sounds like "the journey is its own reward" or some similar cliche. But it's more than that. She has pages upon heavily-illustrated pages that ask questions like what is playing? What are thoughts? What is self-consciousness? When did you stop drawing pictures, and why? There are also exercises adapted from her writing workshops, so there are specific things you can do with this book. But overall, it seems more like a primer on trying by not trying, on seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, on discovering (or rediscovering) the wonder of your own creativity.
I feel lucky to still have some of that sense of wonder, especially with music - when I write a new song and record a simple demo, I will listen to it over and over, amazed that this little collection of words and harmonious sound structures, which didn't exist yesterday, now does exist. Maybe it's good, maybe it's not, but it's still amazing, and I sometimes even experience that "floaty feeling" that Barry describes from her childhood (for her it came from drawing lines on paper and having them become something).
The shuttle Discovery (STS-128) docked with the International Space Station today, on the 25th anniversary of its first launch (STS-41-D, August 30, 1984) - that's amazing in itself! I haven't been following this mission very much this weekend, but I have been reading a very good 2008 book by former astronaut Tom Jones and planetary geologist Ellen Stofan, Planetology (subtitle: unlocking the secrets of the solar system).
Jones is a planetary scientist who flew as a mission specialist on four shuttle missions from 1994 to 2001 (his memoir Sky Walking is excellent). His first two flights in 1994 were Space Radar Laboratory missions, which used special imaging radar to map the surface of the Earth. Some of his "ground truth" training for that mission featured geology field work that also included his co-author, Ellen Stofan.
I'm trying to save money and shelf space by using my local library more, and I happened to find this book there last week. The cool thing about it is that it is not your typical solar system tour coffee-table book, with a profile of each planet from Mercury outward. Instead it takes a functional and comparative approach, looking at water, volcanoes, tectonics, wind, etc. on Earth and on the other planets and moons. This takes advantage of our extensive knowledge of the Earth which can be compared with imagery and other data from our various probes. It's very up to date, well written, and profusely illustrated. The authors have done a good job writing for a general audience, but their approach reflects the way the science is actually done more than many books "about the solar system."
The only problem will be convincing myself to just read the library copy and not buy a copy for myself! ...more
I noticed The Girls' Guide to Rocking in the gift shop at the Experience Music Project in Seattle when I was out there recently (great museum, BTW). I wasn't sure if it was serious or not, so I waited to check it out on the web before buying it "for my daughter" (wink, wink).
Turns out it's a fun book, but also quite serious, and despite the title, not just for girls. Author Jessica Hopper covers pretty much all the bases for anyone who might be thinking of picking up an instrument, writing and recording some songs, or forming a band. Topics range from how to select a guitar or drum set to how to deal with conflicts in a band, how to record demos at home, how to promote gigs, and much more. Other topics include musical instruction, lyric writing, producers, managers, touring, stage fright, and the importance of ear protection when you're exposed to amplified music. It's a great book - Hopper covers a lot of useful and practical ground in 224 pages. Most of the quotes in the book are from female musicians (not all of them "rockers"), and there is a lot of encouragement aimed at girls, but this book would be really helpful for anyone trying to get started doing music (other than classical, I suppose).
I wish I had something like this when I was trying to be serious about doing music back in my college days (I was pretty clueless). And I actually do plan to give it to my daughter now that I've read it. ...more
I've been sucked into Naomi Novik's "Temeraire" series. As I've written about before, this is an "alternate history" series that takes place in the early nineteenth century and revolves around the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. It's reasonably good historical fiction with one major addition: intelligent dragons that interact with humans in various ways. In the first book (His Majesty's Dragon), they were pretty much featured as platforms for aerial warfare, but in the second book (Throne of Jade), Temeraire and Laurence traveled to Imperial China, where dragons are deeply integrated into the culture and respected as independent, intelligent beings (though there is still plenty of fighting). The third book (Black Powder War) brought Temeraire and Laurence to Turkey after a harrowing cross-country journey from China. There were new characters and many adventures, but I found it hard to get through some parts of this book - certain contrivances threatened my willingness to suspend disbelief, and I found the plot "dragon" in some parts (sorry!). I even resolved to quit the series with this book.
But Novik managed to hook me in the end when Temeraire and Laurence finally arrived home to find that a horrible dragon plague was threatening to leave Britain wide open to Napoleon's invasion plans. This made me curious enough to download and read the next book, Empire of Ivory. This book takes place mostly in South and southern-central Africa, where there is reason to believe a cure for the dragon disease can be found, and of course more disasters and adventures ensue, and we meet a civilization with a human/dragon culture quite different from either the Chinese or European models. For me, Empire of Ivory was much better than Black Powder War (though if you should decide to read these books, I strongly suggest you read them in order and not skip any - characters and plot elements from the earlier books are important in the later books, and there isn't too much back story explanation in the later books).
This brought me to the last published book in the series (Victory of Eagles) which finds Temeraire and Laurence imprisoned as traitors (long story!) and temporarily out of the action as Napoleon's invasion of Britain looms. It's quite a page-turner (or screen-flicker since I'm reading all these books in Kindle format on the iPod Touch) and it's keeping me from my music plans, the Augustine report, and some promised housework. Fortunately the sixth book (to be set in Australia) is not due for a while so I'll be able to get some stuff done once I finish this one later today.
I normally don't go in for fantasy (for example, I like the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies, but could never finish any of the books). But Novik's dragon books don't strike me as fantasy - the world she builds is richly detailed and historically and culturally realistic in most respects. The fact that there are talking dragons just happens to be the way things evolved, and it just works for me as long as I don't think too much about the flight physics and implausible payloads of these enormous dragons. Somehow it's all made possible with "air sacs" (hmmm - helium sacs maybe?)....more
I've just finished reading Candle, the one novel of John Barnes' Century Next Door or "Meme Wars" series that I had somehow missed up to now. I really love Barnes' SF writing. Although there are many things that are hard to believe in these books, within the world of the books, they make perfect sense. He sounds like he's simply telling you what's going on. The Sky So Big and Black is still my favorite, followed by Orbital Resonance, Candle, and the weird and disturbing Kaleidoscope Century, the book pictured here because its title captures the scarily plausible alternate recent history and near future that these books describe.
Although filled with engaging characters, amazing ideas, and plenty of action, these are not light or cheery books by any means. There are human and non-human monsters, depressing dystopias, and all sorts of wars in them, as well as hopeful social experiments involving space colonization. The future is not a simple time in Barnes' books, and although space plays a big role (Sky So Black takes place on Mars, Orbital Resonance in a hollow-asteroid colony/shuttle space ship whose orbit "resonates" between Earth and Mars), and space colonies provide a lifeboat for small fraction of the population of a fast-sinking Earth, space is not the main point. Space is also not a utopia - people are still people, good, bad, or indifferent, wherever they may be and whatever technology (good, bad, or indifferent) they may possess.
These books connect in my mind to a lot of things, including a sobering article in this week's Space Review called "Space and the End of the Future." I guess the future did fail to arrive as sketched by Walt Disney, and I guess there was never any golden age of space where more than a tiny fraction of the world was engaged beyond an "oh wow" at the idea of some guys walking on the Moon, and then yawn, turn back to the game. The connection is this: things are complicated now, and the future won't get any simpler. Things will get even messier. We will break more stuff on Earth before we fix much of it, drown all the polar bears, and even a space elevator won't get enough of us off the planet to make much of a difference here. That's if we make it through the next 50 years or so at all. Lots of short-term risks that could shut down the whole game.
But space (private, public, whatever) could be part of a solution, could be a tool or a lifeboat or even a source of major help for this troubled Earth. Someday we may need every kind of tool we can get, and when we do, we will be glad for whatever preparation we have made in learning to live somewhere other than here. I don't expect everyone to get inspired by it - my most hopeful scenario for educational outreach is that a handful of kids get excited about learning something, get themselves educated, and start to tie a few knots for the flimsy rope bridge we are building toward the future, even while some other kids are playing with matches, trying to light the ropes on fire. And maybe some of the ropes are actually carbon nanotubes stretching thousands of kilometers into the sky. ...more