Book Review: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson


Author: Neil deGrasse Tyson
Title: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
Narrator: Neil deGrasse Tyson
Publication Info: W. W. Norton & Company (2017)
Other Books I’ve Read By the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

As the title says, Neil deGrasse Tyson breaks down big questions of the universe into a quick and comprehensible book. Topics include the Big Bang, dark matter and dark energy, and exoplanets.  For me this is a bit of a review of the awe-inspiring cosmology course I took in college.  Of course, I never fully understood it all back than so learning it again never hurts.  Tyson is probably the most well-known living public scientist, and his writing style (and narration on the audiobook) makes for an engaging book on complex topics.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

90 Movies in 90 Days: Good Night Oppy (2022)


I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: Good Night Oppy
Release Date: November 4, 2022
Director: Ryan White
Summary/Review:

This ambitious documentary tells the story of the twin  rovers – Spirit and Opportunity – landed on Mars in January 24 with the mission of exploring the planet for 90 sols (Mars days).  Remarkably, the persistent little robots went above and beyond with Spirit lasting over 6 years, and Opportunity ceasing transmission after 15 years! Narrated by Angela Bassett, the documentary features archival footage from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory operations facility and interviews with the scientists and engineers who made the mission possible. A running theme of movie is how the rover’s had an anthropomorphic appearance and the personal connection that the NASA crew formed with them.  Visual effects recreate what it may have looked like for the rovers on Mars. Industrial Light & Magic (founded by George Lucas) and Amblin Entertainment (founded by Steven Spielberg) were involved in the film’s production, so you can imagine the types of special effects used to illustrate this real-life adventure.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Cosmos by Carl Sagan


Author: Carl Sagan
Title: Cosmos
Publication Info: New York Avenel, , c1980
Summary/Review:

Carl Sagan wrote Cosmos to accompany the television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage that aired in 1980.  This was a groundbreaking program in popular science and as a small child I remember there being a bit of a Cosmos fever. I’ve never watched the series but I hope to track it down and watch it one of these days.

In Sagan’s approachable prose, he is able to concisely break down topic such as:

  • the history of the universe
  • the history of science through the people and groups who made great discoveries
  • the most recent discoveries (as of 1980) of the space program including the Mariner, Pioneer, and Voyager programs he worked on

But Sagan’s great gift is that he always brings it back to Earth.  Discovering extraterrestrial life is important because it will give us a greater understanding of ourselves. Communicating with extraterrestrials is important, but should we not also learn to communicate with terrestrial species like whales and apes? Learning that other habitable planets exist but knowing they’re light years away makes it important to care for the planet we have (Sagan even expresses concern of global warming).

I suppose this book is a bit dated and as popular science it’s a bit oversimplified.  But I found it an interesting summary of some things I knew and an illuminating explanation of some things I didn’t.

Favorite Passages:

“The study of a single instance of extraterrestial life, no matter how humble, will deprovincialize biology. For the first time, the biologists will know what other kinds of life are possible.  When we say the search for life elsewhere is important, we are not guaranteeing that it will be easy to find – only that it is very much worth seeking.” – p. 31

 

“I am a collection of water, calcium and organic molecules called Carl Sagan.  You are a collection of almost identical molecules with a different collective label. But is that all? Is there nothing in here but molecules? Some people find this idea somehow demeaning to human dignity.  For myself, I find it elevating that our universe permits the evolution of molecular machines as intricate and subtle as we.” – p. 105

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman 


Author: Rutger Bregman
Title: Humankind: A Hopeful History
Narrator: Thomas Judd
Publication Info: Little, Brown & Company (2020)
Summary/Review:

The thesis of Rutger Bregman’s book is that the vast majority of human beings the vast majority of the time have good intentions.  Not only that, but scientific research backs up this optimistic perception of human goodness.  Furthermore, trusting in the goodness of others is key to the health and success of individuals and societies.  It is the belief that humankind is inherently corrupt that is often manipulated to have people carry out evil. Accepting the “veneer theory” that human society is only a thin layer over the cruel and selfish human psyche is akin to the placebo effect, or in this case what Bregman calls the “nocebo” for its negative psychological effects.

Bregman breaks down what we “know” about human behavior by debunking a number of famed studies such as Stanley Milgram’s obedience tests and the Stanford Prison Experiment, as well as histories of the collapse of indigenous society on Easter Island and the popular story of neighbors indifference to the murder of Kitty Genovese.  After reading the truth behind these stories and how they were manipulated to make the worst possible reading, you might find yourself thinking humans are good but psychologists and journalists are evil.Bregman also contrasts the fictional Lord of the Flies with the real-life experience of Tongan boys who survived being stranded on a desert island for a year through cooperation.

After showing that many cases of humans descending to “savagery” actually had many instances of people wanting to help out, Bregman also explores experimental camps, schools and workplaces where children and adults are trusted to do the right thing with positive results.  Bregman builds on existing philosophy, often contrasting the views of humanity of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes.  He also draws on evolutionary biology that shows that cooperation was necessary for human survival and the desire to help is hardwired into humanity.

This is just the kind of book I needed to read right now and it’s something I think everyone ought to read.

Favorite Passages:

Tine De Moor calls for”institutional diversity” – “while markets work best in some cases and state control is better in others, underpinning it all there has to be a strong communal foundation of citizens who decide to work together.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending February 13


Sidedoor :: Reservation Math: Navigating Love in Native America

The story of “blood quantum,” a concept used to define Native American identity from it’s colonialist origins to the personal impact is has on indigenous peoples today.

Throughline :: ‘Black Moses’ Lives On: How Marcus Garvey’s Vision Still Resonates

The history of Marcus Garvey and his vision of pan-Africanism and the Black Star Line.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Sound 101

The science of sound with Bill Nye.

 

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Book Review: Gulp by Mary Roach


Author: Mary Roach
Title: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal 
Narrator: Emily Woo Zeller
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2013)
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Mary Roach, the popular science writer with the sense of humor of a 12-year-old, is in her element in this book that asks the questions we don’t dare to ask about the alimentary canal. After all the human body is nothing more than a tube from mouth to anus with limbs attached, is it not? So it is natural to want to learn about smelling, tasting, chewing, swallowing, digesting, and excreting … as well as a quite a few things that humans do with their alimentary canals that they weren’t intended for.

Here’s a list of some of the topics Roach examines from reading the scientific literature and with interviews with researchers:

  • Olive oil tasting
  • Pet food flavoring (and the humans who taste them)
  • Organ meat consumption
  • Fletcherizing
  • Saliva
  • Why we like chewing crunchy food
  • Stomach expansion
  • Competitive eating
  • “Hooping” or smuggling items in the rectum
  • Methane & hydrogen in flattus
  • Rectal feeding
  • Coprophagia
  • Ritual enemas
  • Megacolon and the death of Elvis
  • Fecal transplants

After reading that list, you are either fascinated or disgusted. Go with that feeling when determining whether this book is right for you.


Favorite Passages:

“You will occasionally not believe me, but my aim is not to disgust….I don’t want you to say ‘This is gross.’ I want you to say, ‘I thought this might be gross, but it’s really interesting.’ Okay, and maybe a little gross.”

The moral of the story is this: It takes an ill-advised mix of ignorance, arrogance, and profit motive to dismiss the wisdom of the human body in favor of some random notion you’ve hatched or heard and branded as true. By wisdom I mean the collective improvements of millions of years of evolution. The mind objects strongly to shit, but the body has no idea what we’re on about.

Recommended books:


Rating: ***1/2

Podcast of the Week Ending August 22


60 Second Science :: Cows With Eye Images Keep Predators in Arrears

Painting eye spots on the rear ends of cows apparently acts as a deterrent to predators.

Throughline :: Reframing History: The Commentator

A medieval Islamic philosopher named Averroes had a great influence on Western thought and the modern world that has been overlooked by history.


RUNNING TALLY OF PODCAST OF THE WEEK APPEARANCES

Book Review: Bonk by Mary Roach


Author: Mary Roach
Title: Bonk : the curious coupling of science and sex
Publication Info: New York : W.W. Norton, c2008.
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Mary Roach, the popular science writer who has the sense of humor of a 12-year-old, investigates medical research of human sexual intercourse.  There are some guffaws, and Roach even volunteers for some experiments with her husband, but this book is surprisingly a straight-forward account of historical research and current studies of sex. Roach draws on the writings of famous sex experts such as Alfred Kinsey and Masters & Johnson, and interviewing and observing today’s researchers. Along the way she details with sex machines and penis cameras, erectile dysfunction treatments, artificial insemination, and the mysteries of the female orgasm.  It’s an interesting account but it doesn’t feel like vital read.

Rating: ***

Podcast of the Week Ending May 16


Decoder Ring :: Gotta Get Down on Friday

Breaking down the cultural phenomenon of the viral YouTube video “Friday” by Rebecca Black, a song that is so bad because it’s almost good.

Planet Money :: Episode 1,000

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been listening to this NPR economics podcast since the LAST global crisis of the Great Recession.  The 1000th episode breaks down how a podcast episode is made.

Radiolab :: Octomom

A fascinating study of a deep-water octopus species where the mother sits to brood her eggs for several years, starving to death in the process.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Pew Pew

The secrets of sound design in making Star Wars films.

What Next :: Decoding the Flood of COVID Data

Tips on how to evaluate what you’re hearing about COVID-19 and how it applies to you and your family.  Visit the COVID Explained website for more.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Podcasts of the Week Ending May 9


What Next

How Extremists Capitalized on the Pandemic – White nationalists are strategically using this crisis to advance their hateful goals.

A Biden Accuser on the Latest Biden Allegation – Despite the Democratic Party’s claim to be pro-women, their presumptive nominee has a long history of sexual harassment allegations.  This is a big problem.

99% Invisible :: The Natural Experiment

Isolating during the pandemic sucks, but it’s provided scientists the conditions for scientific research not possible during normal levels of activity, such as: air pollution, boredom, vaccination, and redesigning cities for people not cars.

This Day in Esoteric Public History :: Coya Come Home

An historical event I’ve never heard of before involves Coya Knutson, the first woman elected to Congress from Minnesota (in 1955), and the letter allegedly written by her estranged husband telling her to come home.  Her election opponent used this scandal to win the next election.

Code Switch :: What Does ‘Hood Feminism’ Mean For A Pandemic?

Author Mikki Kendall talks about race, feminism and COVID-19 and the divide between mainstream, white feminism and the greater goals of women of color.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020