Book Review: Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life beyond Earth by Avi Loeb

Cover of the book Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life beyond Earth by Avi Loeb
Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life beyond Earth
by Avi Loeb
HMH, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on December 1, 2020.

On October 19, 2017, astronomers discovered ‘Oumuamua, the first known interstellar object to pass through our solar system. But its behavior was strange. While many hypotheses have been presented to explain its anomalies, Loeb, the longest-serving chair of Harvard’s Department of Astronomy and founder of the Black Hole Initiative, postulates the most likely explanation is that ‘Oumuamua is evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. He offers strong evidence to support this conclusion, but perhaps more valuable is how he uses this as a jumping-off point for much broader musings on the state of science. He critiques the tendency of science to be too conservative and the pernicious effects of scientific elitism toward the public. He considers the larger implications of what it would mean if we do obtain proof of other intelligent life in the universe, including the need for humanity to overcome our shortsightedness and invest in further exploration. Some of his digressions are a bit of a leap, but whether or not readers agree with him, his vision and curiosity are compelling.

Book Review: The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2020 edited by Michio Kaku and Jamie Green

Cover of the book The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2020 edited by Michio Kaku and Jamie Green
The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2020
edited by Michio Kaku and Jamie Green
HMH, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on November 1, 2020.

The common thread in most of the works here is disaster and how one recovers from it. Disasters range from extinction-level asteroid impacts to natural disasters to accidents and illness. Works raise two questions: “How did this happen?” and “What comes next?” These questions occupy many of the writers featured here, and the exploration of the recovery process will be particularly resonant for current readers; because all of the pieces included here were published in 2019, the 2020 edition of this series feels a little like a pre-pandemic time capsule. Selected works cover everything from climate change to medicine to ecology to geology to cosmology to chaos theory: proof that any subject makes a good story in the hands of a talented writer. Also striking is the way this collection as a whole jumps through time, with articles about dinosaurs and the geological K-t boundary alongside explorations of future technology. However, the articles focused on the present are the most personal and carry the deepest emotional resonance. This series remains a must-buy for most library collections.

Book Review: How I Learned to Understand the World by Hans Rosling

Cover of the book How I Learned to Understand the World by Hans Rosling
How I Learned to Understand the World
by Hans Rosling
Flatiron, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on November 1, 2020.

In this deeply personal memoir, Rosling takes account of his life with the goal of exploring how he came to understand the world. Most famous for his work in worldwide health data analysis as the founder of the Gapminder Institute and one of the inventors of the Trendalyzer software system which creates animated graphics of data over time, he sought to comprehend the big picture as clearly as possible, to make the best decisions about how to improve the health and living conditions of the world’s most needful. He dedicated much of his effort to correcting the common misunderstandings most Western countries have about the state of non-Western countries. Rosling began his career as a physician in Mozambique shortly after that country gained independence, and pioneered new epidemiological methods to better address the lived reality of the people he served. Over the years, he applied these same methods throughout sub-Saharan Africa, all while he and his wife raised three children and he battled cancer twice. His memoir is kind, humane, and unflinchingly honest.

Book Review: How to Astronaut: An Insider’s Guide to Leaving Planet Earth by Terry Virts

Cover of the book How to Astronaut: An Insider's Guide to Leaving Planet Earth by Terry Virts
How to Astronaut: An Insider’s Guide to Leaving Planet Earth
by Terry Virts
Workman, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist in August 2020.

How to Astronaut is an amusing and enlightening insight into an astronaut’s work life. Virts joined NASA near the end of the construction of the International Space Station (ISS) and continued as an ISS crew member. During his time, he led crews, performed space walks, docked the space shuttle to the ISS, worked as a medical officer, performed many science experiments, and even filmed an IMAX documentary—all of this after his first career as a fighter and test pilot with the U.S. Air Force. He shares stories from his many experiences: what it’s like to train, the terror of a launch, how to handle weightlessness, the pains of suiting up, how physically demanding space walks are, what the Earth is like from orbit, how astronauts eat, sleep, work, play, and—yes—go to the bathroom. This is an eye-opening insider’s view on what it’s really like to be an astronaut: the joys, the dangers, the fear, and the day-to-day reality of it. Virts’ writing is humorous, playful, down to earth, and often wise.

Book Review: Weird Earth: Debunking Strange Ideas About Our Planet by Donald R. Prothero

Cover of the book Weird Earth: Debunking Strange Ideas About Our Planet by Donald R. Prothero
Weird Earth: Debunking Strange Ideas About Our Planet
by Donald R. Prothero
Red Lightning, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist in August 2020.

In his latest, science teacher and proud skeptic Prothero takes on a raft of pseudo- and anti-scientific beliefs and handily debunks them: flat earth, hollow earth, young earth, geocentrism, moon landing conspiracies, faked fossils, flood myths, Atlantis, dowsing, and more. He briefly describes these schools of thought, where they come from, and summarizes the scientific evidence which shows that these beliefs are incorrect. But he wants to do more than just debunk. He believes scientists need to explain why and how they come to the conclusions they do. He ends most of the chapters with a section called “How We Know,” listing all the evidence supporting the relevant scientific conclusions. Also valuable is his introduction, in which he neatly summarizes how science works, how it evaluates evidence, the requirements for peer review and burden-of-proof, and how that process offers trustworthy understanding. Finally, he explores the reasons why some people reject science. Popular trust in science is eroding alongside decreases in scientific literacy; Prothero wants scientists to show their work to help earn that trust back.

Book Review: Star Settlers: The Billionaires, Geniuses, and Crazed Visionaries Out to Conquer the Universe by Fred Nadis

Cover of the book Star Settlers: The Billionaires, Geniuses, and Crazed Visionaries Out to Conquer the Universe by Fred Nadis
Star Settlers: The Billionaires, Geniuses, and Crazed Visionaries Out to Conquer the Universe
by Fred Nadis
Pegasus, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on July 31, 2020.

Star Settlers is a cultural history of the human quest to conquer space. People have dreamed of travelling through the heavens for centuries, and the scientific advancements of the twentieth century have brought the possibility close to reality. Nadis seeks to understand the reasons why people want to expand out into space: as evolutionary imperative, as necessary for the survival of our species, and as spiritual quest. He traces the development of these ideas, from their earliest expressions in the seventeenth century to the present, and profiles many of the individuals and organizations who have pursued them. Some focus on colonizing Mars or the Moon, some want to build space stations, and some see humans filling entire star systems. Terraforming, ecosystem design, robots, AI, and transhumanism all have potential roles to play. The dream of space has been nurtured in science fiction, philosophy, spiritualism, and among the engineers and scientists of the Space Age. Ultimately, it’s not just a question of how we do it; it’s a question of whether we should.

The Essential Importance of Fiction in Social Justice

This post by Jasmine Guillory is wise, wonderful, and true. Stop now and read it if you haven’t already.

Reading Anti-Racist Nonfiction Is a Start. But Don’t Underestimate the Power of Black Fiction
(Time, posted online on June 30, 2020, accessed July 1, 2020)

Black lives are not a problem to be solved or an academic text that can be studied. To recognize Black lives as ones to celebrate, empathize with and care about, here’s your antiracism work: read more fiction by and about Black people.

It brings to mind a story that has become core to who I am and how I see the world:

Continue reading “The Essential Importance of Fiction in Social Justice”

Book Review: Shuttle, Houston: My Life in the Center Seat of Mission Control by Paul Dye

Cover of the book Shuttle, Houston: My Life in the Center Seat of Mission Control by Paul Dye
Shuttle, Houston: My Life in the Center Seat of Mission Control
by Paul Dye
Hachette, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on June 19, 2020.

Dye started working for NASA as a college student in 1980. He eventually spent 20 years as a Flight Director in Mission Control, responsible for coordinating all the myriad teams and departments necessary to make the Shuttle fly, complete its mission, and land safely back on Earth. He ascended to the “center chair” during the first cooperative ventures with the Russians and the Mir space station, and stayed there through the construction of the International Space Station, to the last Shuttle flight in 2011. This gave him a front row seat to the entire span of the Space Shuttle program. His passion for his work is most apparent when he dives into the technical details of how missions are planned, how the Shuttle’s systems work, and the complexity of managing each flight. There are a lot of acronyms and jargon, descriptions of machines and computer systems, as well as some fundamental science, but nothing overwhelming. He does a fine job of explaining things without oversimplification. Shuttle, Houston is a fascinating insight into inner workings of NASA.

This title has been recommended for young adult readers:

YA/S – special interest: This title is recommended for teens with a strong interest in space flight.

Book Review: Ghost Road: Beyond the Driverless Car by Anthony M. Townsend

Cover of the book Ghost Road: Beyond the Driverless Car by Anthony M. Townsend
Ghost Road: Beyond the Driverless Car
by Anthony M. Townsend
Norton, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on June 1, 2020.

Autonomous vehicles (AV) are on their way and Townsend (Smart Cities, 2013) wants readers to be prepared. AV will fundamentally change the nature of communities in ways even the most optimistic prognosticators can’t imagine. Self-driving cars won’t be the end of it: this technology opens the door to everything from intelligent hoverboards to self-driving buildings. Fleets of driverless trucks and delivery rovers will upend manufacturing, shipping, and delivery systems. Algorithmic analysis of traffic patterns can drastically reduce carbon emissions and virtually eliminate accidents. There’s tremendous potential to be tapped into that can transform the world for the better. But there’s also great danger. Technology tends to worsen social inequalities, it threatens to create ubiquitous surveillance, and the fortunes to be made could easily lead to the near-complete privatization of public space. Townsend posits a set of principles for individuals to commit to so they can take control and demand a human-focused future before it’s decided for them. Ghost Road is a balanced, well informed, and ultimately hopeful examination of AV.

Book Review: Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth by Kate Greene

Cover of the book Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth by Kate Greene
Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth
by Kate Greene
St. Martin’s, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on May 15, 2020.

In 2013, science journalist Greene was selected to participate in a four-month experiment simulating a crewed Mars mission: the Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS). As NASA works toward sending humans to Mars, many of the thorniest issues they need to solve are psychological and not technical: the effects of isolation, the difficulties of communication, the reality of boredom, and the conflicts that arise when small groups of people are stuck together for long periods of time. The object of Greene’s experiment was to study “menu fatigue” and whether it would be beneficial to let astronauts cook their own food. Greene uses her experience in HI-SEAS as the basis for 12 essays exploring these issues and others: questions about who gets to be an astronaut and why, how extreme circumstances alter our perceptions of time and space, the ethics of human research, the complicated relationship between public and private efforts to explore space, and the personal aftermath of such endeavors. She addresses them with wit, insight, compassion, and, ultimately, hope.