Book Review: Soviets in Space: Russia’s Cosmonauts and the Space Frontier by Colin Burgess

Cover of the book Soviets in Space: Russia’s Cosmonauts and the Space Frontier by Colin Burgess
Soviets in Space: Russia’s Cosmonauts and the Space Frontier
by Colin Burgess
Reaktion, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on June 30, 2022.

This is an accessible, comprehensive history of the Russian space program from the end of WWII to the present day. Soviet missions were long shrouded in secrecy, the facts obscured by active disinformation tactics. It’s only been in the past several years that primary-source records have been declassified and released to the public, providing insight into everything from initial dominance in the 1950s and ’60s, through multiple failures in the 1970s, to the spirit of East-West cooperation in the 1990s, to the defining success of MIR and the Russians’ present-day role as mainstays on the International Space Station. It’s remarkable how much information Burgess fits into a fairly short volume; in around 200 pages, he covers just about every known mission and crew member, along with the politics and larger context surrounding the space race, without the reader feeling like anything important is missing. It’s a quick read and a useful overview of our best up-to-date understanding of the reality of the Russian space program.

YA/S – special interest: This is an excellent beginning for young people wanting to explore the history of the Space Race.

Book Review: The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars by Simon Morden

Cover of the book The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars by Simon Morden
The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars
by Simon Morden
Pegasus, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on June 1, 2022.

Our understanding of Mars has grown immensely over the past few decades, to the point that we can meaningfully speculate about its past and how this unique planet came to be. Morden, a science-fiction author and trained geologist, serves up a natural history of Mars, from its formation over 4.5 billion years ago to the present. He summarizes what we know about its physical features and the geological history behind them. Mars is unique in several ways, and there are several different possible paths it could have taken to become like it is today. We don’t currently have enough information to know which possibility is the truth. Morden embraces this uncertainty and paints a multifaceted picture of what might have been. Morden’s writing style is friendly and accessible, and his excitement for the subject shines through. It’s impressive how much information he packs into a narrative that flows so easily. The Red Planet is an excellent overview and an easy recommendation for space buffs, geologists, or anyone with a general interest in science.

YA/S – special interest: Science-inclined teen readers will enjoy this overview of Martian geology.

Book Review: Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age by Lori Garver

Cover of the book Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age by Lori Garver
Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age
by Lori Garver
Diversion, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on May 1, 2022.

America’s space program has undergone a seismic shift in recent years, from a partnership between the government and the aerospace industry to an open, competitive field for private start-ups like SpaceX and Blue Origin. Garver, a self-proclaimed “space pirate,” was a primary architect of this change, in a career spanning her time with the nonprofit National Space Society through two stints at NASA from 1996 to 2013, culminating in her confirmation as deputy administrator of the agency in 2009. Frustrated by NASA’s lack of vision and progress in the decades after the Apollo program, Garver believes that expanding our space presence is essential to proper stewardship of the earth and a healthier future for humankind. She championed a more innovative and visionary direction, fueled by the conviction that private industry is better suited to developing cost-effective launch technology, which can free the government to pursue large-scale science and exploration. Her changes at NASA haven’t been without controversy and criticism. She makes a compelling case and offers a hopeful vision for the future of America’s space program.

Book Review: Horizons: The Global Origins of Modern Science by James Poskett

Cover of the book Horizons: The Global Origins of Modern Science by James Poskett
Horizons: The Global Origins of Modern Science
by James Poskett
HMH/Mariner, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on March 25, 2022.

Poskett describes how the history of modern science is traditionally presented as the work of white European and American scientists working in isolation, pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake. This story is wrong. The history of science is one of constant cultural exchange across the world, and it’s deeply embedded in commerce and politics, linked to slavery, war, colonialism, and empire. The discovery of the New World inspired European thinkers to question the accepted knowledge of the ancient Greeks, European explorers depended on sophisticated indigenous knowledge, and trade along the Silk Road brought new ideas from as far away as China and Africa into the intellectual world of Europe and vice versa. These influences were acknowledged at the time but omitted from history for largely nationalistic reasons. The rise of industry and large-scale conflicts inspired great scientific advancements. Europe’s Scientific Revolution spread and inspired similar revolutions worldwide. The history of science is global. Poskett delivers a necessary and welcome corrective to our understanding, highlighting how many of the achievements and influences of people across the non-Western world shaped modern science.

Booklist Backlist: Keeping Up with Science

This list was first published by Booklist on March 1, 2022.

The past several years have delivered one of the most exciting periods of scientific discovery in the modern era. New technologies have fostered fresh revelations that upended old understandings. Biology, evolution, psychology, sociology, cosmology, climatology: all these fields and more are expanding in fascinating and compelling directions. These past years have also seen a proliferation of science books written for popular audiences. This is a wonderful time to dive in and learn!

Continue reading “Booklist Backlist: Keeping Up with Science”

Book Review: Never Panic Early: An Apollo 13 Astronaut’s Journey by Fred Haise and Bill Moore

Cover of the book Never Panic Early: An Apollo 13 Astronaut's Journey by Fred Haise and Bill Moore
Never Panic Early: An Apollo 13 Astronaut’s Journey
by Fred Haise and Bill Moore
Smithsonian, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on March 1, 2022.

“Never panic early” is learned by military pilots to stay calm in moments of crisis. This advice served Haise well over the course of his 40-plus years career. Most famous as one of the three Apollo 13 astronauts and their aborted moon landing, he also worked as a test pilot in the Marine Corps and as a NASA test pilot, and he was a member of the four-person test-pilot team to fly the first space shuttle, Enterprise. While at NASA, he served as CapCom for Apollo 14, was assigned to several backup crews, worked the closeout crew to prepare for Apollo 8 and 11, acted as a technical advisor on various projects, and even completed Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program. He eventually went to work as an executive for Grumman Aerospace. This memoir eschews self-revelation in favor of a focus on the work. It’s dense with detail of the day-to-day reality of being a Marine pilot, engineer, and astronaut, filled with acronyms and technical jargon. It’s a down-to-Earth counterpoint to the typical dramatizations about the space race.

2021: My Year in Reading

I read 57 books in 2021, which is surprising, given that I didn’t want to read all that much this year and went weeks at a time without cracking open a book.

I also started watching more TV this year. My TV watching has been abnormally low for the past few years—partly due to being distracted by the internet and partly due to self-consciousness and a reluctance to watch stuff by myself. I’ve always been this way: I don’t like using the TV to watch stuff no one else in the house is interested in. I love watching with other people, I’m just not comfortable using a shared TV to watch things only for me.

So this year, we set up a second TV in our back room where I can go watch by myself without worrying about it. It’s also a smart TV, so I can stream YouTube full screen and Bluetooth connect my noise cancelling headphones to it. (First world solutions for first world problems.) I spent a good amount of time catching up on some of the shows I’ve missed, which is nice.

Continue reading “2021: My Year in Reading”

Book Review: How to Take Over the World: Practical Schemes and Scientific Solutions for the Aspiring Supervillain by Ryan North

Cover of the book How to Take Over the World: Practical Schemes and Scientific Solutions for the Aspiring Supervillain by Ryan North
How to Take Over the World: Practical Schemes and Scientific Solutions for the Aspiring Supervillain
by Ryan North
Riverhead, 2022

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

North, creator of the webcomic Dinosaur Comics, offers budding supervillains a how-to guide with instructions to pull off a variety of evil schemes, from building an impregnable fortress, to cloning dinosaurs, controlling the weather, becoming immortal, ensuring your evil message survives to the heat death of the universe, and more. But unlike comic books and movies which rely on unbelievable and fantastical devices, these are schemes you can theoretically accomplish with existing technology, based on real-world science. Make no mistake: these schemes will be difficult and costly, but they’re just this side of actually possible. This humorous framing device, accompanied by delightful illustrations by Carly Monardo, allows North to explore a range of topics around science and technology, explaining the current state of our knowledge and ability and considering what might be possible within an array of subjects. It’s an eclectic journey, full to the brim with North’s trademark sarcasm and humor. An excellent starting point for anyone interested in learning more about cutting edge science or becoming a supervillain.

This title has been recommended for young adult readers:

YA/S – special interest: This playful, humorous approach to science concepts will be a hit with many teens. —Julia Smith

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.