This review was first published by Booklist on March 15, 2023.
What would it be like to stand on Mars or experience sunset on a world with multiple suns? To visit a stellar nursery or orbit a black hole? What would you see? How would it feel? Plait takes readers on a tour of the cosmos, from the moon to the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, and paints vivid descriptions of what these objects are like, using the best observations and theories we currently have. It’s an effective framing device to explore what we know about the strange and wonderful things we’ve discovered, from exoplanets to nebulae. His realistic depictions, grounded in human senses, awaken a feeling of wanderlust and make the esoteric feel real. What elevates this above similar books about our universe is Plait’s sense of wonder and joy. He clearly never lost his childhood glee for discovery, and it’s refreshing for a scientist to be so open about it. He shows that science requires creativity and imagination and rewards curiosity and the urge to explore. It’s a remarkable journey.
This review was first published by Booklist on March 1, 2023.
Physics is modern magic, and condensed matter physicists are the wizards of the modern world. Condensed matter physics is the study of how matter behaves in the real world, and how we can harness it to improve our daily lives. It’s what gave us steam engines, electric grids, and computers. It’s the single largest branch of physics, yet it’s one of the least discussed, with more glamorous theoretical fields commanding popular attention. Flicker seeks to reveal the wonder and fascination of this work. He walks readers through the history of how the field developed, introducing the major milestones and scientists along the way. He guides us through the different states of matter, thermodynamics, relativity, quantum mechanics, topology, and magnetism, to show us just how enthralling these can be. The joy he has for this work is infectious. Much of the content gets abstruse, but he avoids complex math, and by framing it as modern magic this becomes part of the charm. It’s OK if you don’t understand: it’s magic. You can still enjoy the show.
This review was first published by Booklist on January 6, 2023.
In 1978, NASA recruited Astronaut Group 8, the first group of astronaut candidates selected to serve on the space shuttle and the first opportunity open to nonmilitary personnel. This group included the first American women, first African Americans, first Asian American, first married couple, and (unbeknownst at the time) the first gay astronaut to fly into space. NASA recruited scientists, engineers, and medical professionals, not just pilots. Members of this remarkably diverse group—known as the “new guys”—served from the shuttle’s first flight to its final decommissioning. They launched technology (including the Hubble Space Telescope) that fundamentally altered our world and weathered disasters (Bagby covers the loss of the Challenger in significant detail), political maneuvering, and bad press. Their crowning achievement was construction of the International Space Station. Much has already been written about these men and women, their successes and tragedies, and Bagby doesn’t break new ground here. But she brings together a wealth of information and crafts it into a compelling, cohesive, and complete narrative. An excellent choice for anyone interested in the history of space exploration.
This review was first published by Booklist on January 1, 2023.
**STARRED REVIEW** The Things We Make is a heartfelt ode in praise of engineers. Hammack, a long-time engineering educator, argues that far from merely being “applied science,” engineering boasts a robust method all its own, meaningfully separate from science. He offers several compelling examples of how engineering has changed our world and pushes back against the harmful myth of the lone inventor, which too often excludes the work of marginalized individuals, and perpetuates popular misunderstandings of what engineering actually is. The book starts with a description of how, in the Middle Ages, illiterate masons who didn’t know any math managed to build Gothic cathedrals that have stood for centuries. Other examples range from the development of color photography to the creation of designer enzymes, from such marvels as the modern computer chip to the quotidian soda can. He really runs the gamut with his examples, but all of them show how engineering utilizes rules of thumb and compromise solutions to resolve real-world problems.The Engineering Method, as much as the Scientific Method, stands as one of humanity’s greatest achievements. A must-read for anyone interested in engineering or the history of technology and human achievement.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.