Book Review: Frequently Asked Questions about the Universe by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson

Cover of the book Frequently Asked Questions about the Universe by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson
Frequently Asked Questions about the Universe
by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson
Riverhead, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on September 15, 2021.

Cham, a robotics scientist, and Whiteson, a professor of physics and astronomy, are cohosts of the podcast, Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe. In their new book, they attempt to answer the most frequently asked questions they receive from their listeners. In twenty chapters, interspersed with tongue-in-cheek comic illustrations, they tackle topics ranging from the origin of the universe, time travel, warp drives, black holes, how the world will end, the predictability of human behavior, and even whether we’re all living in a giant computer simulation. These are some of the biggest questions humanity has ever asked and the authors tackle them with wit, humor, expertise, and humility. The chapters are just the right size to mull over and digest one at a time, but the book also reads quickly enough that it can completed cover-to-cover in one or two sessions. It can also be read out of order, picking the chapters that are of the greatest interest. This is an excellent, easy-to-understand resource for curious people who want to start learning about cosmology.

This title has been recommended for young adult readers:

YA/General Interest: The format and style make this especially well-suited for inquisitive teens.

Book Review: Ten Days in Physics That Shook the World: How Physicists Transformed Everyday Life by Brian Clegg

Cover of the book Ten Days in Physics That Shook the World: How Physicists Transformed Everyday Life by Brian Clegg
Ten Days in Physics That Shook the World: How Physicists Transformed Everyday Life
by Brian Clegg
Icon, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on September 15, 2021.

Science writer Clegg argues that physics and engineering have shaped our world in profound ways. He identifies ten developments which he believes have had the greatest influence on our daily lives, each dated to the publication of a work, the date of patent, or a specific event. Newton’s Principia, harnessing electricity, steam engines, the discovery of radium, Einstein’s most famous equation, LEDs, transistors, and the first connection of the modern internet are all foundational to the modern world. Chapters contain a historical summary of the time period, brief biographical details of the individuals involved, a summary of the event, and an exploration of how it affected—and continues to affect—our lives. Some are discoveries which revolutionized our fundamental understanding of physics. More recently, the focus shifts to engineering and the application of physics to technology. He concludes with an exploration of what day 11 might bring. Despite the title, this isn’t quite a worldwide view of the subject since all ten events took place in Europe or America, but it is a good addition to popular science collections.

Book Review: Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving by Peter Norton

Cover of the book Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving by Peter Norton
Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving
by Peter Norton
Island, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on September 1, 2021.

Autonomous vehicles promise to eliminate congestion on our roadways, reduce traffic accidents to near zero, and end greenhouse gas pollution. But as Norton points out, we’ve heard these promises before, many times. Car manufacturers have been proclaiming solutions to traffic problems since the 1930s, always by adding more roads and putting more cars on them. Autonorama is a deep dive into the history of our car dependency and the ways automotive manufacturers have strung along American consumers with promises of “just over the horizon” solutions to the problems cars themselves have caused. Norton argues the goal of car manufacturers has never been to satisfy mobility needs but to promote ever-increasing car dependency: Charles Ketterings’ famous maxim to keep the customer dissatisfied. Autonomous vehicles offer more of the same: empty promises of imminent solutions which can only increase our dependence on cars. Car dependency itself is the problem and cars can’t solve that. This is a bracing challenge to the dogma of autonomous vehicle enthusiasts and a clarion call for more varied and humane mobility solutions.

Book Review: Life Is Simple: How Occam’s Razor Set Science Free and Shapes the Universe by Johnjoe McFadden

Cover of the book Life Is Simple: How Occam's Razor Set Science Free and Shapes the Universe by Johnjoe McFadden
Life Is Simple: How Occam’s Razor Set Science Free and Shapes the Universe
by Johnjoe McFadden
Basic, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on September 1, 2021.

Occam’s razor, “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity,” is more than just a useful tool. McFadden believes it’s the key that unlocked the potential of modern science. More than a search for truth, science is a search for simplicity, where every major paradigm shift leads to a simplification of our understanding of the cosmos. McFadden places the Franciscan friar William of Occam in the historical context of the fourteenth century, exploring the religious and intellectual culture that gave rise to his philosophy. He then traces how his eponymous razor, ideas of nominalism, and his insistence on the separation of science from religion influenced the subsequent course of science in the Western world. From Copernicus, Galileo, and da Vinci to Darwin, Einstein, and Planck, encompassing mathematics, physics, statistics, and biology, Occam set us on a path to seek simpler solutions. As it turns out, simplicity appears to be a bedrock of our universe. This is a compelling assessment of an idea many of us know but few deeply understand. William’s legacy is one for the ages.

Book Review: The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence by Stephen Kurczy

Cover of the book The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence by Stephen Kurczy
The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence
by Stephen Kurczy
Morrow/Dey St., 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on August 20, 2021.

The National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ) was established by the federal government in the Appalachian area around Green Bank, West Virginia, in 1958, to protect a National Science Foundation radio telescope from signal interference. Within the NRQZ, everything from cellphones to WiFi to microwave ovens is restricted by law. In addition to attracting world-class astronomers to the region, the lack of technology over the years has attracted hippie communes, back-to-nature homesteaders, people suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome, and even the famous clown doctor, Patch Adams. In addition, the remote location made the NRQZ an ideal location for one of the most dangerous neo-Nazi organizations in the country, an NSA surveillance site, and murder and disappearances. Kurczy, a millennial journalist who rejects cellphones, spent several years visiting the NRQZ to learn why this place, of all places, would bring such disparate folk together. Turns out, the quiet zone isn’t all that quiet and not everyone wants it to be. An engaging and sympathetic study of the myriad people who call this unique place home.

Book Review: A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next by Tom Standage

Cover of the book A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next by Tom Standage
A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next
by Tom Standage
Bloomsbury, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on July 30, 2021.

Traffic jams. Accidents. Pollution. Safety concerns. This was the situation faced by cities at the end of the nineteenth century, with a glut of horse-drawn vehicles clogging streets and dirtying roads. The car was supposed to solve all that. Instead, automobiles came with their own problems: congestion, deadlier accidents, climate impacts, and the worsening of economic and cultural divides. Standage believes a look back at the history of wheeled vehicles and their impacts is useful to guide us toward the future. Cars fundamentally altered the landscape of the modern world, driving the redesign of urban areas and fueling the rise of suburbia. The popularity of cars had ramifications even beyond urban planning and traffic: factory mechanization, planned obsolescence, and the creation of teenage culture were all affected. He offers a balanced overview of new options being explored: autonomous vehicles, ride-share apps, vehicle sharing, and integrated transit systems. All offer potential benefits, and all come with risks. Any new technology will have consequences we don’t foresee. This is a well-researched exploration of an urgent subject.

Book Review: Where Did the Universe Come From? And Other Cosmic Questions by Chris Ferrie and Geraint F. Lewis

Cover of the book Where Did the Universe Come From? And Other Cosmic Questions by Chris Ferrie and Geraint F. Lewis
Where Did the Universe Come From? And Other Cosmic Questions
by Chris Ferrie and Geraint F. Lewis
Sourcebooks, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on July 21, 2021.

**STARRED REVIEW** Our understanding of how the universe works is governed by two models: relativity and quantum mechanics. Both models have proven their accuracy time and again, but we also know that both can’t be true. The quest to marry the two into a single coherent model remains the ultimate goal of physicists. In Where Did the Universe Come From? two physicists explore the various ways our universe is governed by both relativity and quantum mechanics, from its origins in the big bang to the evolution of galaxies, from the death of stars to the heat death of the universe. They also summarize the history of how these concepts developed. They identify the gaps in our understanding and examine ideas for how a “theory of everything” might be forged. The authors do an exceptional job of explaining quantum-physical concepts in layperson’s terms, using examples and metaphors to illuminate the important ideas without the need to understand the mathematics. This is incredibly complicated stuff and it can only be simplified so far. Where Did the Universe Come From? is one of the most accessible summaries of the present state of cosmology on the market.

Book Review: Hold Fast through the Fire by K. B. Wagers

Cover of the book Hold Fast through the Fire by K. B. Wagers
Hold Fast through the Fire
by K. B. Wagers
Harper Voyager, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on July 21, 2021.

The Near-Earth Orbital Guard Interceptor ship, Zuma’s Ghost, has a new commander: Nika Vagin, Jenks’ brother, returning from his stint with Intel, and a new ensign, Chae Ho-ki, from the Trappist colonies. The only problem: both of them have something to hide and it’s messing up the dynamics of the team. When Zuma’s Ghost is sent to the Trappist system, it becomes a target of a deep conspiracy to disrupt trade and reignite a war with Mars. Loyalties and relationships are tested in ways they might not survive, and a shocking tragedy strikes deep. This second entry in the NeoG series (after A Pale Light in the Black, 2020) packs an emotional gut punch. What makes Wagers’ work stand out in the field of military science fiction is how characters rely on forgiveness, kindness, and trust to solve challenges. They’re vulnerable, share their emotions, and rely on each other, and Wagers shows how this can be people’s greatest strength—a bracing contrast to the typical braggadocio of the genre. Their talent for creating characters readers care about is on full display.

Book Review: Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium by Lucy Jane Santos

Cover of the book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium By Lucy Jane Santos
Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium
by Lucy Jane Santos
Pegasus, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on June 1, 2021.

Given the known dangers of radiation, it’s difficult to comprehend how anyone could have thought it was healthy. But for nearly half a century after the discovery of radium, radiation was touted by scientists and medical experts as a cure-all for a whole range of maladies, from cancer to tuberculosis to various skin conditions. Radium was used in spas, steam treatments, salves and poultices, face creams, hair tonics, toothpaste, and more. People were even encouraged to drink radioactive water. Scientists recommended a range of radiation-based medical treatments and worried about unscrupulous businesses selling patent medicines that falsely claimed to contain radium. It was only over time that the dangers of radiation became clear. The development of the atomic bomb marked the end of radium’s golden age. In telling this history, Santos is careful not to judge from the perspective of hindsight: the use of radiation in medicine wasn’t quackery, it was supported by the best current scientific understanding. It’s an entertaining and eye-opening tale of a strange time in the early history of modern science.

Book Review: Secrets of the Force: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Wars by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman

Cover of the book Secrets of the Force: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Wars by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman
Secrets of the Force: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Wars
by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman
St. Martin’s, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on June 1, 2021.

Gross and Altman continue their series of deep-dive oral histories with their latest entry, which is on the beloved and influential Star Wars universe. They present interviews with cast members, creative staff, production crews, and executives from all three film trilogies and the television shows, detailing back stories about the development of the franchise: script writing, production design, filming, scoring, promotion, and merchandising. Lucas didn’t just create beloved movies, he used his success to invent new technologies that revolutionized the film industry more than once. Also featured is analysis of the cultural context and impact of Star Wars, along with critical perspectives. While the bulk of the content focuses on the movies and television shows, the books, comics, and games of the Expanded Universe are also covered. By presenting quotes in the format of a group interview, the authors juxtapose different perspectives. The work is comprehensive, although occasionally repetitive. It doesn’t break any new ground; rather, the value lies in gathering so much information in one place. It’s sure to be in demand with Star Wars fans.