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.

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.

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: 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.