Book Review: The Alien Perspective: A New View of Humanity and the Cosmos by David Whitehouse

Cover of the book The Alien Perspective: A New View of Humanity and the Cosmos by David Whitehouse
The Alien Perspective: A New View of Humanity and the Cosmos
by David WhitehouseR
Icon, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on October 15, 2022.

The question of whether we’re alone in the universe is one of the most profound, and one which struggles to be taken seriously in scientific circles. It’s a question that extends beyond science into the realms of religion and philosophy. Evidence of intelligent life elsewhere would upend our understanding of our place in the universe. In his latest, Whitehouse summarizes the efforts we’ve made to search for other life in the universe, from SETI to UFO sightings, and the limitations such efforts must overcome. He assesses what we actually know about the likelihood that anyone else is out there. He also explores possibilities for what alien life might be like, an impossible question to answer, as we only have ourselves as an example, whereas life on other planets could be radically different. Finally, he examines what’s in store for the future of the universe with an eye toward whether or not life might survive. In the end, without definitive contact with extraterrestrials, any searches we make tell us more about ourselves than about life elsewhere.

Book Review: Flush: The Remarkable Science of an Unlikely Treasure by Bryn Nelson

Cover of the book Flush: The Remarkable Science of an Unlikely Treasure by Bryn Nelson
Flush: The Remarkable Science of an Unlikely Treasure
by Bryn Nelson
Grand Central, 2022

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

As a rule, we try not to think too much about our poop. It’s one of the most taboo topics in our society, and our sewer systems are designed to keep it out of sight as much as possible. And yet, poop is a treasure trove of resources that we can use to make the world better. Scat can cure diseases and protect us against several major health concerns, aid in forensic and medical investigations, replenish our soils, and even become a source of energy, precious metals, and clean drinking water. New methods to make better use of our sewage can also help reduce pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions. Poop can help heal our planet. Nelson dives into the science of scat and profiles several examples of how people are using poop in new and innovative ways. Wide ranging and deeply informed, with a wry sense of humor, this is a solid recommendation for fans of Mary Roach, as well as anyone interested in out-of-the-box ideas to help fix some of our most pressing problems.

Book Review: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Future: What Yesterday’s Science and Science Fiction Tell Us About the World of Tomorrow by Steven Novella and others

Cover of the book The Skeptics' Guide to the Future: What Yesterday's Science and Science Fiction Tell Us About the World of Tomorrow by Steven Novella and others
The Skeptics’ Guide to the Future: What Yesterday’s Science and Science Fiction Tell Us About the World of Tomorrow
by Steven Novella and others
Grand Central, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on August 5, 2022.

People have a long history of trying to predict the future, especially with the rise of modern science and science fiction. Several futuristic tropes have become common, such as cyborgs, brain-machine interfaces, robots, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, immortality, space exploration and settlement, energy weapons, faster-than-light travel, flying cars, and more. Novella turns his skeptical eye on futurism, assessing whether any of these predictions are possible, from the likely to the probably impossible. He identifies several common fallacies which plague our attempts at futurism, most notably the tendency to overestimate short term advancement while underestimating long term change, and our insistence on picturing people in the future as just like us. Old technology persists for surprisingly long times, and new disruptive technology can radically alter who we are and our relationship to the world. Predicting the future isn’t an exact science, but skeptical scientific inquiry can help assess the likelihood of our various visions for it. A fun overview of both the current state of modern science and a general survey of the history of futurism.

Book Review: A Divine Language: Learning Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus at the Edge of Old Age by Alec Wilkinson

Cover of the book A Divine Language: Learning Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus at the Edge of Old Age by Alec Wilkinson
A Divine Language: Learning Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus at the Edge of Old Age
by Alec Wilkinson
Farrar, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on July 15, 2022.

Wilkinson was never very good at math. Deep into middle age, he decides to relearn algebra, geometry, and calculus to return to the subject that defeated him and conquer it anew. The project doesn’t exactly go as planned. The difficulty he encounters challenges many of his core beliefs about himself. Maybe a lifetime of experience isn’t enough to do better the second time around; maybe mathematics isn’t what he assumed it is. In a unique combination of memoir and intellectual spelunking, Wilkinson takes readers into the heart of math’s complex mysteries and the biggest questions that arise. What unfolds is a wide-ranging exploration of identity, philosophy, faith, the history of mathematics, and the nature of the divine. Mathematics has always been a subject pointing its practitioners toward a sense of the unknown, and Wilkinson’s quest becomes something akin to a spiritual pursuit. This is a deeply insightful, lyrical, and erudite work, filled with gems of wisdom and fascinating digressions, all characterized by Wilkinson’s delightfully dry, self-deprecating humor. He proves it’s never too late to learn something new, even if what you learn isn’t what you expected, and even high-school math can blossom into surprising vistas of metaphysical and psychological significance.

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.