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.

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: 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.

Book Review: How to Die in Space: A Journey through Dangerous Astrophysical Phenomena by Paul M. Sutter

Cover of the book How to Die in Space: A Journey through Dangerous Astrophysical Phenomena by Paul M. Sutter
How to Die in Space: A Journey through Dangerous Astrophysical Phenomena
by Paul M. Sutter
Pegasus, 2020

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

Astrophysicist Sutter has some advice for anyone interested in exploring our universe: don’t. It’s really dangerous out there, and How to Die in Space catalogs the many things that can kill you when you venture into space. Sutter uses this humorous premise to explain the current best understanding of the cosmos and the physics behind it, macro to quantum, covering everything from local hazards like comets and solar flares, to more distant threats like planetary nebulae and all the various ways stars can incinerate you as they die, to deeply mysterious monsters like white dwarves, quasars, and black holes. He even delves into purely theoretical ideas such as dark matter, wormholes, and the possibility of alien intelligence. He has a gift for explaining cutting-edge physics and quantum mechanical concepts with clarity in nonspecialist terms, often utilizing delightful similes. The tongue-in-cheek alarmist tone offsets Sutter’s deep fascination, and his joy of discovery is infectious. This accessible overview of our bizarre universe will encourage readers to delve deeper and learn more.

This title has been recommended for young adult readers:

YA/S – special interest: The humorous approach to astrophysics makes for teen-friendly reading.

Book Review: Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics by Leonard Mlodinow

Cover of the book Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics by Leonard Mlodinow
Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics
by Leonard Mlodinow
Knopf, 2020

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

In his latest, Mlodinow (Elastic, 2018) offers a heartfelt account of his friendship with theoretical astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. They met in 2003 and collaborated on two books before Hawking’s death in 2018, A Briefer History of Time (2005) and The Grand Design (2010). The narrative anchor of this memoir is an account of their collaborative process of writing the latter interwoven with details about Hawking’s life, how he learned to live with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and his ground-breaking work in cosmology. Fellow physicist Mlodinow has a scientist’s perspective on Hawking, eschewing often hyperbolic media accounts. He does an admirable job of explaining the cosmological concepts without overwhelming casual readers. Their working relationship quickly turned into friendship, and Mlodinow gleans many insights into the kind of man Hawking was—passionate, rebellious, funny, warm, unconventional, stubborn, sometimes peevish, often controversial, and unafraid. He was a complex person driven by a passion to understand, overcome the limitations of his disability, and make human connections. Mlodinow renders a satisfying and humane portrait.

Book Review: Galileo and the Science Deniers by Mario Livio

Cover of the book Galileo and the Science Deniers by Mario Livio
Galileo and the Science Deniers
by Mario Livio
Simon & Schuster, 2020

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

Rather than present a straight biography, Livio’s (Is God a Mathematician?, 2009) goal is to explore the parallels between Galileo’s fate and the science denialism happening today. He makes apt arguments and offers compelling reasons why science and religion shouldn’t be at odds. Livio is an astrophysicist and his perspective on Galileo’s importance as a professional scientist is particularly valuable. Galileo didn’t just make grand discoveries—he invented new experimental methodologies, established math as an essential tool for scientific work, and challenged Aristotelian primacy of thought experiments with verifiable observation. In short, he created the modern scientific method. Livio also explores Galileo’s work in the arts and humanities: he studied philosophy; he was an accomplished musician, poet, and visual artist; and he was active in the arts community. His arts background was essential to how he made many of his breakthrough scientific discoveries. Livio argues that the distinction we make between the humanities and the sciences is false and damaging, and that Galileo illuminates a better balance between the two. A refreshing perspective on Galileo’s legacy.

Book Review: They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers by Sarah Scoles

Cover of the book They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers by Sarah Scoles
They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers
by Sarah Scoles
Pegasus, 2020

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

In They Are Already Here, science writer Scoles (Making Contact, 2017) turns her attention not to UFOs but to the people obsessed with them: believers, skeptics, and open-minded explorers. Intrigued by the recent revelation that the U.S. government has been studying UFOs, she set out to understand why some people are willing to believe outlandish explanations for mysterious occurrences and why others are completely closed to the idea. She recounts her experiences exploring and interacting with various UFO communities and organizations. Readers meet people from across the spectrum of belief and hear their perspectives. Scoles also offers a concise history of UFO phenomena in the United States, and examines how some of the most compelling UFO myths were born. It’s a fascinating journey; the depth of her research is impressive and her curiosity is infectious. At times the author tries too hard to clarify her own position, which, though her honesty is appreciated, occasionally steals focus from the people she examines. Overall, it’s a fun and insightful book.

Book Review: Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe by Brian Greene

Cover of the book Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe by Brian Greene
Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe
by Brian Greene
Knopf, 2020

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

Why does the universe exist? How will it end? What does it all mean? Greene (The Fabric of the Cosmos, 2004), a leading cosmic thinker and popular science writer, attempts to tackle these questions with an eye to explaining our deep need to believe we can be part of something eternal that is focused on the central role of entropy and Darwinian evolution in the unfolding of the universe. He begins with the Big Bang and concludes with explorations of how the universe might end. He explores the development of planets and complex life, the birth of mind, language, and creativity, awareness of mortality, the rise of storytelling, religion, and our attempts to leave some kind of permanent testament to our existence. He serves broad, high level summaries of ideas from physics, biology, neuroscience, philosophy, the arts, storytelling, and anthropology. He provides enough background to follow the meat of the discussion but he doesn’t water it down for nonspecialists. There’s tremendous joy in witnessing a brilliant and curious mind wrestle with such profound issues. He takes readers on a remarkable journey.