Category Archives: Science

What I’m Reading Now: August 7, 2018

Paper or Plastic?

Once again this week we take a break from discussing a particular book to examine other literary topics of interest. This week: printed books vs. the electronic version.

Philip Leighton, a consultant on library design, said that “books are for reading and computers are for research.” Without going quite that far, I’ll say that if any long-suffering reader of this blog needs to be told which version I prefer, then you haven’t been paying attention. This isn’t really about which is best but what is particular to each and the joys they bring.

There is of course a great deal of difference between reading the printed word and reading text (like the words you’re reading right this red-hot second). The experience of holding a tactile object in your hand, with pages that must be turned, is very different from holding an electronic device with a screen that one scrolls through and plugs in when the battery runs down. Both of them offer words but in very different ways. And let the record show, I’m heartily in favor of both.

Breaking news: I love books. Real books. I love the smell and the feel of them. I have several thousand in my home, over a thousand more in my office at GHS, and several hundred in a mountain cabin. Some people see books as clutter, as something to be gotten rid of or to be periodically “pared down.” People who say things to me like, “you need to get rid of all these books” are subsequently banned from the premises, if not out of my life altogether. What utter rubbish. No, I don’t have room for them all, but if I did then I wouldn’t have enough. See how that works? Augustine Birrell put it best: “An ordinary man can surround himself with two thousand books and thence forward have at least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy.

Still, as incomprehensible as it might be to me, some people love e-readers like the Kindle precisely because it makes all those physical objects—and finding room for them—unnecessary. If you simultaneously love to read but don’t like walking into a room and seeing the majesty of rows of books displayed on a shelf (besides obviously being a candidate for psycho-analysis), then the e-reader is for you.

The e-reader brings its own joys. As I’ve written elsewhere, one of the beauties of the Kindle is the ease with which one can find the complete works of some great authors and their otherwise scarce books and purchase them for practically nothing.

My Kindle has the complete or collected works of the authors you’d expect to find like Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens, but also the complete works of writers whose work I’ve never come across in a bookstore, such as the masters of horror fiction like Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Arthur Machen; great crime masters such as Sax Rohmer (creator of Dr. Fu Manchu), Baroness Emma Orczy (The Scarlet Pimpernel), Austin Freeman (Dr. Thorndyke mysteries), Clayton Rawson (The Great Merlini series), along with the exploits of Pulp-era detectives Bulldog Drummond, Average Jones, and Craig Kennedy (“the scientific detective”); childhood favorites like Tom Corbett (Space Cadet) and the Rick Brant Adventures; timeless reads such as Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, Joseph Addison’s Spectator, as well as the complete works of nearly forgotten authors Edith Nesbit, Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Love Peacock, Tobias Smollett, Ann Radcliffe, Samuel Richardson, Kenneth Grahame, Horace Walpole, and many others. It’s all at my fingertips, cost virtually nothing, and takes up no space.

It goes without saying that I could never lug such a variety of genres around with me in such a compact and convenient way, even if I lived long enough to find these books in print. The e-reader is obviously perfect for the waiting room and the airport, while having the Kindle app on your phone is the perfect antidote to those interminable DMV visits or any unexpected long delay anywhere.

The only drawback is that you can’t impress anyone around you by reading War and Peace on your phone. Not to mention, if you’re reading anything with that many pages—trust me on this—you’re going to need to see yourself making real progress in a real book or you’ll feel like you’re trapped in digital hell.

The e-reader then is yet another wonderful tool for bringing more reading into our lives. This blog stands decidedly in favor of that. May it continue to thrive and offer readers the chance to discover or re-discover authors whose works have been sadly forgotten or those whose books grace the best-seller lists, whichever you prefer.

Book lovers used to despair that e-readers might one day replace the real thing. As I watch vinyl records make a strong comeback (while CDs and places to play them disappear), and the sale of e-books stagnate, I no longer worry. I’m confident that printed books aren’t going anywhere.

Where will the books I bought on my Kindle be in 30 years? I have no idea. But the real things will still be waiting on the shelves, companions of a lifetime whose friendship never grows old. Pete Hamill said “there are 10,000 books in my library, and it will keep growing until I die. This has exasperated my daughters, amused my friends, and baffled my accountant. If I had not picked up this habit in the library long ago, I would have more money in the bank today. I would not be richer.”

However we read, we can all agree with Matthew Price: “Books, in all their myriad forms, are necessary equipment for living.”

What I’m Reading Now: June 26, 2018

The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World, by Jenny Uglow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002, 588 pp.)

Social media and smart phones have made face-to-face interaction passé. It was not always so. Jenny Uglow reminds us that in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century, people formed clubs of all kinds and for every taste, in London coffeehouses and far beyond. There were clubs for singing, drinking, and for poets, clubs for pudding makers, politicians, even clubs for farting.

Here she focuses on the Lunar Society of Birmingham, an informal group of friends in the 1760s who began meeting in each other’s houses on the Monday nearest the full moon, hence the name. In the age before headlights and streetlamps, they relied upon the moon to light their way home after a night of good food and drink, and lively arguments and conversations.

This was the heart of the Age of Enlightenment, of Voltaire, Samuel Johnson, of Adam Smith, Rousseau, and Captain James Cook, before science was really a profession (the word “scientist” wasn’t even coined until the 1830s), when it was possible to be a polymath with interests in nearly every branch of the arts and sciences. They were curious about the world and the way it worked, and were not afraid to push the boundaries of knowledge into new, exciting, and controversial places. They were freethinkers and non-conformists who ushered in the Industrial Revolution and  transformed the world.

And what an extraordinary group they were: Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), doctor, poet, botanist, and evolution pioneer; James Watt, the famous Scots steam-engine designer; Josiah Wedgwood, revolutionary pottery designer whose china we still eat from; Joseph Priestley, the radical scientist-clergyman who isolates oxygen and discovers carbon dioxide and other gases; Matthew Boulton, who built the great Soho manufactory and financed Watt’s steam engine; the Scots chemist James Keir, clockmaker John Whitehurst, Dr. William Small (one of Thomas Jefferson’s most influential teachers), Dr. William Withering, who pioneered the use of digitalis in treating heart disease, and several others.

The Lunar Men “build factories, plan canals, make steam-engines thunder. They discover new gases, new minerals and new medicines and propose unsettling new ideas. They create objects of beauty and poetry of bizarre allure.” In two generations, from 1730 to 1800, “the country changed from a mainly agricultural nation into an emerging industrial force. By the time these friends died, iron and coal and cotton were king” and millions of lives were changed forever by the factory, the railway, and the rise of a global empire.

The author warns us that this books “smells of sweat and chemicals and oil, and resounds to the thud of pistons, the tick of clocks, the clinking of cash, the blasts of furnaces and the wheeze and snort of engines, but it also speaks of bodies, courtships, children, paintings, and poetry.” It’s a charming portrait of extraordinary individuals who are driven to unlock the secrets of the universe.

But what did all of their achievements and discoveries really bring? Aye, there’s the rub. Was it progress, or something else? Heaven on earth or hell itself? Factories overran farms, and machines turned humans into interchangeable parts. It was the dawn of the age of the consumer culture that brought luxury and shallow materialism, including, eventually, the smart phones that now make the kind of face-to-face social interactions like the Lunar Society a thing to be longed for. The science that made it all possible has its roots in their long-ago Monday night gatherings under the light of the full moon.

Despite all our technology, in many ways we still live as much in the dark as the Lunar Men did. But there is no denying that they were, as she says, “a constellation of extraordinary individuals” who “felt the greatness of the cosmos and its limitless possibilities, the beauty of the infinitely small and the grandeur of the vast.”

The best advice I can give is to echo book critic Michael Dirda: Here “is a book you can live in for a month or more, especially in these dark times. Start reading some evening when the moon is full.”

What I’m Reading Now: May 29, 2018

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World, by Steve Brusatte (William Morrow, 2018, 404 pp.)

I’ve never read a book about dinosaurs. Growing up, I was never very good at (or interested in) science, though like everyone else I went to see Jurassic Park on the big screen when it came out in 1993 and was of course inspired by their majesty and beauty. That movie, for all the flaws that experts picked out, inspired an entire generation of new paleontologists.

I also don’t usually buy books when I’m browsing at the “New Releases” table at the bookstore, but I recently picked up Steve Brusatte’s new book and I’m glad I did. It looked interesting, and I thought it might be a good way to learn about a subject I know next to nothing about.

Brusatte (pronounced brew-sot-e) is an American-born and -trained paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh and the “resident paleontologist” for the BBC’s “Walking with Dinosaurs.” He brings an infectious enthusiasm to his subject and he knows it well. He weaves into the hard science of paleontology tales of discovery that make for good reading, especially for those scientifically challenged learners like me.

First, the vastness of the chronological scale when it comes to dinosaurs is staggering. American historians study people and events from the last few hundred years. Even historians of antiquity focus on thousands of years. But the life of dinosaurs goes back over 225 million years, a temporal span that can be difficult to wrap one’s mind around.

Second, lest you think that scientists have discovered all there is to know about creatures that have been extinct for 66 million years, think again: paleontologists discover on average one new species of dinosaur every week. Not a new bone or fossil—a new species that we did not previously know about. According to Brusatte, we are living in the midst of a golden age of discovery right now; he has discovered fifteen new species himself though not yet 35.

Finally, it’s quite humbling for someone who has spent his entire career studying the history of humans—and very recent ones at that—to contemplate humanity’s link in the evolutionary chain of Earth’s 4.5 billion years. Humanity is a rather recent phenomenon, geologically speaking, and when you’re forced to step back and take the long view of millions of years—as this kind of book makes you do—you realize that we ourselves may vanish one day, as the dinosaurs did, through a natural catastrophe or one of our own making.

It’s hard to imagine that our entire species might eventually be reduced to fossils and bones, discoverable by some other species millions of years from now, but that is exactly what happened to the dinosaurs.

We can only hope that in that new world someone as talented as Steve Brusatte will be around to explain the meaning of whatever fragments of our own long-vanished world they manage to extract out of the dust.