Book Review: What’s It Like in Space? by Ariel Waldman


Author: Ariel Waldman
TitleWhat’s It Like in Space?: Stories from Astronauts Who’ve Been There
Publication Info: Chronicle Books (2016)
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

One of my favorite science writers, Ariel Waldman, collects anecdotes and quotes from astronauts about their experience in space in a small, illustrated coffee table book. Did you know that one cannot burp in space?  And while farting is possible, it is not possible to propel oneself in microgravity using only flatulence.  There’s a lot of bits about “functions” such as eating, sleeping, and excreting in space.  But there are also more inspirational stories such as an astronaut not wanting to sleep so as to not miss a moment of the mission or the experience of watching the Earth rotate beneath one’s feet while on a spacewalk.  It’s a fun, charming, and colorful that’s a quick read, and especially enjoyable if you’ve ever wanted to go to space.

Recommended booksPacking for Mars by Mary Roach and An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Packing for Mars by Mary Roach


Author: Mary Roach
Title: Packing for Mars
Publication Info: New York : W.W. Norton, c2010.
ISBN: 9780393068474

Summary/Review:

With plans for long-term space exploration afoot, Mary Roach explores the many challenges of putting human beings in space.  This is less the physics of rocket propulsion and more the psychological and cultural  problems of human space exploration.  Roach is a good investigator in that she asks the questions we always wanted to ask and many more we never even thought to ask.  She’s also an amusing writer in that she seems to challenge the mindset of a 12-year old boy.  Issues explored in this book include the effects of  isolation and working in close quarters with others for long duration, the physical and psychological effects of weightlessness, illness and vomiting in space, personal hygiene, sex in space, evacuating from space disasters, and everyone’s need to eat and thus need to poop.  Roach draws upon astronaut memoirs, technical documents, and interviews with people around the world who are directly involved in the fascinating and often absurd work that goes into human space exploration.

Recommended books: The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, Moon Shot by Alan Shepard, A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin, & Lost Moon by Jeffrey Kluger,
Rating: ****

Christmas Eve


It’s Christmas Eve.  As you wrap (or unwrap) gifts, sip eggnog, and/or get ready for Midnight Mass, you’ll want to start off by clicking the youtube link below:

Then you’ll want to click this youtube link, and replay it in a loop for about 3-4 hours.

If you need more music, check out these podcasts.  I guarantee that there is good holiday themed stuff  here that you’ll never here on that Light Rock station that’s playing holiday music 24/7:

For a more sobering  Christmas Eve viewing experience, watch this vintage propaganda film “Christmas Under Fire” about Christmas in England during the Blitz:

Via Crooked Timber.

Finally, for even more uplifting memories, celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Apollo 8’s Journey to the Moon.

Happy Christmas to all!

Book Review: Where’s my jetpack? : a guide to the amazing science fiction future that never arrived by Daniel H. Wilson


We live in the 21st-Century, that magical century heralded in the past century as The Future, yet The Future has been somewhat disappointing. Where’s my jetpack? : a guide to the amazing science fiction future that never arrived (2007) by Daniel H. Wilson recounts all the great inventions promised to an eager public by science fiction, comic books, World’s Fairs, and documentaries that seemingly have never come to pass.  Wilson goes through several of these fantastic devices and describes what advances have actually been made and tells how several of them actually exist.  Albeit in less than fantastic guises or far to expensive/exclusive for the general populace.  Here are some of my favorites:

  • The jetpack, which works, just not for very long due to fuel limitations.
  • The zeppelin which once sailed elegantly through the sky until the Hindenberg disaster, but may be making a return.
  • Teleportation which is possible with particles if not with human beings.
  • Underwater hotels: one exists but it’s not very luxurious.  More luxurious hotels are in the works.
  • Anti-Sleeping pills are available under the brand name Provigil (I’m tempted to get a prescription).
  • The Space Elevator is theoretically possible and Wilson suggests we submit our plans to the Spaceward Foundation and win a prize (Hey, there’s a space elevator blog too!).
  • And a Moon Colony?  It’s in the works!

This is a fun little book with a good mix of science and humor that will appeal to anyone’s inner geek.

Author Wilson, Daniel H. (Daniel Howard), 1978-
Title Where’s my jetpack? : a guide to the amazing science fiction future that never arrived / Daniel H. Wilson ; illustrated by Richard Horne.
Publication Info. New York : Bloomsbury USA : Distributed to the trade by Holtzbrinck Publishers, c2007.
Edition 1st U.S. ed.
Description 192 p. : ill. ; 20 cm.

links of the day for 23 January 2008


  • Origami spaceplane to launch from space station (Pink Tentacle, 1/16/08) – from the cool but otherwise pointless file.
  • Kaplan’s Korner, or How Yo La Tengo got their name – my favorite band, my favorite team, a tribute to Ralph Kiner, and Ed Kranepool! Who could ask for more?
  • While you can (Hoarded Ordinaries, 1/23/08) – Lorianne gives some love to the big Shell sign on Magazine Street in Cambridge.
  • First black lesbian mayor in Cambridge (Feministing, 1/23/08) – speaking of Cambridge, the city elected the first black lesbian mayor in US history last week, Denis Simmons. I’m only in Cambridge like every day and this is the first I’ve heard the news, which shows you how clueless I am. On the other hand, it’s nice that we’ve reached a point in our culture where this isn’t seen as big news (or worse, a scandal).
  • 25 Yiddish Words You Should Know (List of the Day, 1/23/08) – it’s always good to know a bisel Yiddish.

MESSENGER’s Mission to Mercury


I’ve learned from the Bad Astronomy Blog that MESSENGER – NASA’s mission to Mercury – will make a flyby of the first planet from the sun today! This is cool. There seem to have been a lot of high profile space exploration to the outer planets, so it’s interesting to see them heading closer to the sun.

MESSENGER means MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, Geochemistry, and Ranging. The official MESSENGER website has all the details for the mission, including a countdown until the time for the closest approach of the flyby. There’s also a countdown for when MESSENGER goes into orbit around Mercury starting on March 18, 2011.

Mercury

Movie Review: The Right Stuff


Thanks to Craig for our new Netflix subscription, Susan and I were able to watch one of my favorite movies of all time, The Right Stuff (1983).  I watched this movie repeatedly on cable and VHS as a child and had much of the dialog memorized.  The excellent dialog plus the skillful acting and the wonderful blending of special effects with human interest make this movie for me.  Plus it’s about astronauts, so it’s got to be wicked cool.

This lengthy film can be broken down into three parts.

The first part shows the harbinger of the Space Age with Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) breaking the sound barrier.   This was my favorite part as a kid, mostly because Yeager is such an engaging character.  If you read up on what actually happened you’ll learn that like many parts of this movie the facts have been rather loosely dramatized but gets at the gist of things.  I’ve always been perturbed by the reporter saying “the Russians are our allies” even though US-Soviet relations had deteriorated quite a bit by 1947.  After Yeager’s historic flight, we see another flight where he once again sets the speed record to top a civilian pilot before the 50th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight.  Young cocky pilots descend on Edwards Air Force Base including Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), and Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin)  while their wives nervously discuss the risky lives of test pilots.

Then Sputnik orbits the Earth.   The frenzied Eisenhower administration wonders how the Soviets got ahead of the US and plans on manned missions to space.  In one of the funniest sequences in the movie, two government agents played by Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer show films of potential candidates for the astronaut corps, but when Ike insists on test pilots Goldblum and Shearer are dispatched on a recruting mission.  First they go to Edwards where they pick up Cooper, Grissom, and Slayton, to Yeager’s ridicule.  Then they watch clean Marine John Glenn (Ed Harris) on a tv game show.  Finally they board an aircraft carrier and meet Naval aviator Alan Shepherd (Scott Glenn).

The astronaut candidates go through a series of brutal and often bizarre tests in another of the really funny parts of the film.  I especially like the part where Shephard is given a talking to by an Hispanic orderly because of his Jose Jimenez impersonation (all while Shephard has an enema).  Once the seven candidates are selected they are introduced to the media with great hype.  It takes a while for these seven men to gel as a team, but they come together to defend their positions as pilots of spacecraft as opposed to being “astronaut-occupants” of a capsule.  In an interesting sequence the astronauts play the media off the engineers and insist on a redesign of the spacecraft to have a window, a hatch with exploding bolts and manual controls for reentry.  While the exploding hatch plays a big part in Grissom’s mission, it is interesting that the filmmakers chose to leave out that the manual controls proved vital for Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) to return safely to the Earth on his mission.

But Carpenter and Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen) are only minor characters in this film.  The filmmakers also never mention that Slayton was grounded due to a heart condition but became a respected member of NASA as head of astronaut selection.  And so the film only dramatizes four of the Mercury missions, which is good in the interests of time and storytelling works pretty well.  Each mission has a particular point of tension.  The humorous incident of Sheppard needing to urinate is followed by the harrowing case of Grissom needing to swim to safety after the hatch blows accidentally. Glenn’s historic orbital flight is given a long, heroic depiction underscored by concerns about a faulty heat shield.  The film ends with the launch of Cooper’s flight.  The movie keeps in mind the wives dealing with the stress and the overbearing press corp as well as astronauts on the ground monitoring the missions of their fellow astronauts.

Yeager’s presence is never overlooked in this film and his character acts as kind of Greek chorus to the Mercury program.  In the penultimate scene Yeager is shown testing (and crashing) an aerospace trainer aircraft in what proved to be his last mission as a test pilot.  These scenes are contrasted with the Mercury 7 astronauts being feted Texas-style at the opening of the new NASA space center in Houston.  The Right Stuff asks but never answers, who is the best pilot?  The unsung fliers of experimental  jets or men who sat atop explosive rockets in front of millions of viewers?

Book Review: Children of God by Mary Doria Russell


Children of God (1999) by Mary Doria Russell is the sequel to The Sparrow, but unfortunately in its great ambition fails to live up to its predecessor. Russell introduces a flurry of new characters and overlapping plotlines that make the novel more confusing than complex, and then tries to resolve them all in a way that feels contrived. The strength of The Sparrow is its characters but I don’t feel that the new characters are developed as well. Particularly three Jesuit priests who are Lakota Sioux, Afrikaner, and from Belfast just seem to conveniently tied in with the issues of genocide, partition, and apartheid that occur on the planet of Rakhat. That there is not one, but two idiot savants who mystically show the way to God just seems too much for me.

On the plus side, is still a fine yarn and a good read. There’s a lot of reflection on civilization, spiritual matters, and humor as well.  I particularly like the part where Emilio Sandoz mistakes the Pope for a research assistant.

Children of God picks up where The Sparrow left off. Emilo Sandoz having confronted his past and begun healing leaves the priesthood but agrees to work as a linguist/translator for the Jesuits. He meets and falls in love with Gina, a cousin-in-law of the Father-General, but before they can marry he’s shanghaied into going on a return mission by Gina’s gangster ex-husband Carlo. I found Carlo another poorly developed character and an unbelievable deus ex machina means of getting Emilio back to Rakhat.

Meanwhile on Rakhat, a revolution is taking place spearheaded by the stranded Earth woman Sofia Mendes and outlaw Jana’ata Supaari VaGayjur (we do get a good explanation of what Supaari’s motivations were for basically selling Sandoz in to sexual slavery in the first book). With their greater numbers the Runa are able to overthrow the Jana’ata and create an uncomfortable new society.

Alternating across the time divide with flashbacks and flash forwards it all comes to gather rather to neatly in the end.  Still worth reading if you liked the first book.

Book Review: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell


Jesuits … In … Spaaaaaaaaaaace!!! That’s the basic plot of the science fiction novel The Sparrow (1996) by Mary Doria Russell.

The novel proposes a future in which the exploration of new worlds, much like the age of discovery in the 1500’s & 1600’s, is led by a vanguard of missionaries. While this is a work of science fiction set in the future, it reads like a historical novel, perhaps because its story reads of historical experience such as that portrayed in The Mission.

The prologue of the novel sets the tone perfectly:

The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God

They meant no harm. – p. 3

The chapters alternate between those set after the mission and those during the preparation for and the time spent on Rakhat. In one set of chapters the experience of the only survivor of the mission, Father Emilio Sandoz, his hands maimed, his psyche destroyed, and his faith lost must face intense scrutiny from the media and his fellow Jesuits. These alternate with Sandoz and his friends and colleagues discovering signals from a distant planet of singers, and his efforts to form a team to travel to Rakhat to meet and live among these people. The joy of collegiality of the earlier chapters contrasts starkly with the hollow shell of a man that Sandoz is presented as upon his return to Earth. Yet as the book proceeds, the stories come together. As things go to hell in a handbasket on Rakhat, Sandoz is able to come to terms with the horrors he faced.

This novel works well due to its competently executed and complex characters. There’s Sandoz, from a background of poverty in Puerto Rico who grows up to become a priest and a talented linguist. Sofia, a determined, reserved woman of Sephardic heritage who serves as computer specialist and general contractor. Jimmy Quinn, the large, affable but shy astronomer who discovered the singers. Finally, Anne and George Edwards, a doctor and an engineer who though atheists are devoted friends of Emilio’s and share with him sardonic wit. Even the beings of Rakhat are given unique perspective and backgrounds, and presented realistically as sentient beings who happen to be predators and prey.

Favorite Passages

 

“The poor you will always have wit you,” Jesus said. A warning, Emilio wondered, or an indictment. – p. 53

Once, long ago, she’d allowed herself to think seriously about what human beings would do, confronted directly with a sign of God’s presence in their lives. The Bible, that repository of Western wisdom, was instructive either as myth or as history, she decided. God was at Sinai and within weeks, people were dancing in front of a golden calf. God walked in Jerusalem and days later, folks nailed Him up and then went back to work. Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering a cosmic multiple-choice question: If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs, or (c) recognize God? A vanishingly small number of people would recognize God, Anne had decided years before… – p. 100

“Sailing is the perfect antidote for age, Reyes. Everything you do on a sailboat is done slowly and thoughtfully. Most of the time, an old body is entirely capable of doing whatever needs to be done while you’re cruising. And if the sea is determined to teach you a lesson, well, a young back is no more capable than an old one of resisting an ocean, so experience counts more than ever.” – p. 203

What Facebook is Good For


Prompted by invites from friends and discussions of it’s usefulness in the library blogosphere I joined Facebook at the beginning of August (See previously: On Facebook Now). Due to my age, ignorance, or perhaps even my anti-social tendencies, I wasn’t sure of what exactly I use Facebook for, but I plowed ahead anyway.

Recently, Susan asked me “Have you figured out what Facebook is good for yet?” At the time I didn’t have a good answer. Visions of connecting with librarians around the world and thus using social networking to become the best librarian I can possibly be have not yet materialized. According to some Facebook is a waste of time that costs businesses millions, while others believe that Facebook may help change the world for the better. Pondering the question, I’ve come up with three things I’ve discovered that Facebook is good for.

  1. Connecting with old friends, colleagues and even a couple of strangers. I gave up on letter writing for the most part a few years ago because no one ever writes me back. Even email, which I find pretty easy, seems to be too time consuming for others. So it’s nice to have a place to check in with my buddies that I don’t see every day to just josh around and keep in touch. Otherwise I’d be stuck just seeing them at weddings and baby showers.
  2. Scrabulous. This is one of the many fun applications you can add to your Facebook profile. Most of them are fun once, but playing Scrabble with friends and strangers is addictive. On the most recent Uncontrolled Vocabulary podcast, Greg Schwartz admitted that Scrabulous is the only reason he still checks in on Facebook. That kind of makes me feel better about not networking with librarians in Peru and Botswana to save the world.
  3. Posted Items. This is my absolute favorite feature of Facebook. One of the things I like best about blogging is being able to refer back to interesting articles and blog posts I read, but not every interesting article is worth blogging about so I ended up with a surplus of draft posts in WordPress. I also would save articles from my feeds in Bloglines but that would get too cluttered. With Posted Items I can save articles, blog posts, web pages, photo albums, whatever and share them (albeit with the limited audience of my friends) automatically. There’s even a button you can add to the browser.

Here’s a selection of my favorite Posted Items on Facebook since early August:

  • August 1, 2007. New York Times. In Praise of Tap Water
    • The one thing about bottled water these days is that it is easier to come by since (clean, functional) drinking fountains seem to be less common.  Plus I’m always misplacing bottles so I have to buy bottled water and then refill it.  But honestly I’ve never bought into the bottled water being healthier concept.
  • August 2, 2007. Boston Globe. Sawed off and ugly, by Donovan Slack.
    • Seeing half a telephone pole hanging off another pole has mystified me for some time.  Now I know why.
  • August 15, 2007. WireTap Magazine. Future Civil Rights: Next Move is Ours, by Biko Baker.
    • I don’t like all of this article, but I like this: “We don’t need to believe in the leadership of one superhero; we need to believe in ourselves. No one else is going to step up and lead us but us. We are all Malcolm. We are all Martin. And until we really begin believing that, we will never be able to conquer the insurmountable odds that are up against us. I believe we can and we will. We are all makers of history; it’s time for us to start acting like it.”
  • August 30, 2007. Shaenon LiveJournal blog. The Trouble With Tribbles as Adapted by Edward Gorey.
    • Two of my favorite popular culture artifacts joined together.  And it’s hillarious.
  • September 8, 2007. Gift of Green. Top Ten Things About Massachusetts That Get a “Huh?” in Virginia.
    • This is interesting since I came to Massachusetts from Virginia albeit preceded by Connecticut.  Because of my New England childhood I’m well aware of regular coffee, radiators, the Blizzard of 78, and the adjectival use of wicked.  I never thought of raspberry lime rickeys or fluffernutters as particularly Massachusetts (the latter seems gooey and gross enough to be loved in the South).  I thought bubbler was used in the midwest and I first heard of jimmies in  Pennsylvania.  So really the three-deckers is the only thing in this list that was new to me when I came to MA.
  • September 18, 2007. Scientific American. 5 Essential Things To Do In Space, by George Musser.
    • I love space exploration.  It’s good to have a plant for its future.
  • September 18, 2007. Britannica Blog. Land, Ho! The Northwest Passage is Open For Business, by Gregory McNamee.
    • This is essentially a satirical article about global warming, but as a history major I love the concept that the Northwest Passage is now here, 400 years late.  There’s a Talk Like a Pirate Day reference as well.