Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review 90: The World Without Us

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Death is a bummer.

I mean, here's the thing - we all know we're going to die. It's part of the human condition, knowing that sooner or later the only existence that we've ever known is going to come to an end. And that'll be it - no more us. It's a creepy thought, to be honest, which is why most of us do our everlovin' best to ignore it. We all know that we're going to die, but we don't want to know it, so we ignore it. We eat our Super-Double-CheezyFries, go BASE jumping, vote Republican, willfully ignoring the inevitable truth that these things are going to end up killing us.

Even when we are confronted with our mortality, we still find ways to console ourselves. We look around at our families and our friends and say things like, "No one truly dies so long as they're remembered." And we accept that even if we aren't there, other people are. The things we've done in our lives, no matter how tiny, will echo around humanity as long as it lasts. If we are truly lucky, we will have contributed greatly to our species as a whole and gained a very special place in history.

But then we remember that even history is impermanent. The average species only gets to live about four million years, and we've already eaten up about a quarter of that. What's more, we seem to be doing our level best to come in below average. Science tells us one inescapable fact: nothing lasts forever. One day, maybe sooner, maybe later, the last of the humans will die. Perhaps we'll be replaced by another intelligence, one that can continue our work. Or perhaps we'll just leave everything behind. All that will be left will be artifacts, objects that tell the story of humanity.

And that cheers you up a bit. We're good at leaving marks, after all. We built a wall that's so big it's practically landscape. We split two continents apart in the name of commerce. We have girded our land masses in iron and asphalt, erected great cities of glass, concrete and steel. We have lowered mountains and raised seas, extracted the blood of the earth and bent the rivers to our will. Even if the human race vanished tomorrow, some far-future alien archaeologist would still be able to come here and know that a brilliant and puissant species once walked this world.

Yeah. About that....

This book was inspired by a very simple question: what would happen if all the humans just... disappeared? How it happened doesn't really matter. Maybe aliens, maybe Jesus, perhaps some strange, species-specific quantum Critical Existence Failure. Whatever the cause, the sun rises in the morning and humans just aren't there anymore. How would the world handle our disappearance? Would it even notice? What has humanity wrought that would last?

It's a simple question with an incredibly complex answer. In order to even begin to know what would happen upon our disappearance, we need to know how the world works. We need to look at the forces that drive evolution and species propagation. What is it that allows life to spread and to flourish, to adapt to changing circumstances and make the best of a hard situation? What do we know from our studies of the unimaginably distant past that will help us foretell the future?

In addition, we need to know what effect humans have already had on the world. We've all heard the horror stories about the species driven to extinction by carelessness or ignorance - the passenger pigeon, the moa, the dodo - but our effect has been so much greater. Weisman is willing to categorize humanity as a force of nature thanks to the effect that we've had. Our relentless conquest of the Earth has, in small ways and large, unavoidably set evolution on a path that would have been very different had we never arisen in the first place. In a way, our influence can never be truly erased, and will likely survive for as long as biology does.

Finally, we need to know about the things we're leaving behind. What is our world made of, and how well would it survive the rigors of time? The oceans of concrete that we've poured will freeze and thaw over and over again, and, aided by the surprising power of flowers and grass, will split, crack and crumble in time. Our massive steel skyscrapers will be undone by water and creeping vegetation. Our stonework will be worn down by wind and water, our satellites will fall, dams will burst and the wilderness will relentlessly take over the sacred places of the world. In the end, the only testament to our existence will be a handful of bronze statues and gold ornaments, and the impassive visages of the faces on Mt. Rushmore.

And even they will one day fall.

If you're one of those people who worries about the impact that humanity has had on the earth, this will be a heartening book. As the geologic record shows, there's pretty much nothing the universe can throw at this planet that can kill it. At least not so far. And the impact that humans are having isn't anywhere near the great extinctions of the past, in which great swaths of death cut through the biosphere in a matter of decades. Understand this: there is nothing that we can do to the earth that the earth cannot undo, given time.

And that is a comforting thought. We do sometimes get wrapped up in our own awesomeness and assume that our actions have infinite consequences when, in fact, they don't. We beat our breasts about the ozone hole and the Amazon, the Northwest African Cheetah and the Sharp Snouted Day Frog. We read about garbage gyres in the sea, and irradiated wastes on the land and despair over what we have done to this world.

The truth is that the world will move on after humans, and the future will hardly know that we were here.

That's where the book got depressing for me, though. You see, I can take or leave individuals. I think The People are, in general, dumber than a Texas schoolbook. But all in all, I like Humanity. In the two hundred thousand years or so that Homo sapiens has been wandering this world, we've done some really neat things. We've built globe-spanning civilizations, produced unparalleled art, music and architecture, and invented worlds of brilliant fiction. We've examined the universe at its largest and peered back in time to the moment it began. We have gazed into the heart of the atom to know how reality works at its smallest levels. We've danced and sang and lived. And even with the terrible things that we've done, both to each other and to our world, I still think we're a species worth knowing. We're a species that deserves better than oblivion.

But the universe doesn't care about what we deserve.

So if you take anything away from the book, let it be this - our existence here as a species is temporary. There's no reward for our goodness, nor punishment for our sins. But here and now, we are alive, and capable of amazing things. It is up to us to decide what those things will be, and how to spend the time remaining to us.

Let's make it wondrous.

"Below the surface, the oxidizing metal parts of chemical alley will provide a place for Galveston oysters to attach. Silt and oyster shells will slowly bury them, and will then be buried themselves. Within a few million years, enough layers will amass to compress shells into limestone, which will bear an odd, intermittent rusty streak with sparkling traces of nickel, molybdenum, niobium, and chromium. Millions of years after that, someone or something might have the knowledge and tools to recognize the signal of stainless steel. Nothing, however, will remain to suggest that its original form once stood tall over a place called Texas, and breathed fire into the sky."
- Alan Weisman, The World Without Us

Alan Weisman on Wikipedia
The World Without Us on Wikipedia
The World Without Us on
The World Without Us homepage

And if the sure and certain knowledge of your own eventual cessation has got you low, watch this. It might cheer you up a bit....

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Review 89: The Science of Superheroes AND The Science of Supervillains

The Science of Superheroes and The Science of Supervillains by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg

By all rights, I should have loved these books. I mean look at them! They combine two of my favorite things, as you loyal readers should know: science and superheroes.

I've been a big fan of science since I was a kid. I used to flip through Carl Sagan's Cosmos when I was young, just barely understanding the enormous ideas he was presenting in it. My father had the Time/Life Science Series (which I still have somewhere in a box back in my mother's house) and I spent days going through those, learning about the wheel, water, drugs, matter, time.... Science never seemed imposing or intimidating to me (at least until I started trying to get the math), but rather a celebration of the human intellect.

On the other side - super-heroes. I still remember buying a copy of Crisis on Infinite Earths #10, the one with the Spectre and the Anti-Monitor facing off at the very dawn of creation, with dozens of heroes and villains trapped in a whirling maelstrom. To this day, that entire series has great meaning for me - not just because it's an incredibly dense story or because it features some of my favorite characters of all time, but because it addresses greater questions of heroism, duty and sacrifice. And if those themes were left out of the more mundane run of monthly comics, well, that didn't matter. These bright and powerful people had captured my imagination and still hold it to this day.

And as much as I've always wanted to be a superhero, there have been plenty of times when I've wanted to join the other side as well.

I mean, how many times have you wanted to don some goggles and a lab coat, stand on your parapet (you do have a parapet, right?), backlit by lightning as you scream, "The FOOLS! They called me mad? I WILL SHOW YOU MADNESS! HA! HAHAHAHA!! HAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHA!!"

Or something like that.

Anyway, there's something to be said for the life of a supervillain, and if you're a really good one then you'll make it into the pages of history. Names such as Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom, Magneto and Sinestro - these are names that will live in the hearts of comic book fans forever. Indeed, it is said that the greatness of a hero depends on the greatness of his villain. Where would Superman be if he only had to foil a few muggings once in a while? Or Spider-Man if he were just tracking down garden-variety murderers? They might be heroes, but they certainly wouldn't be superheroes.

So, with that in mind, let me tell you that I was somewhat disappointed with these books.

I think part of the problem is the mission of the text: reconcile what we see in comic books with what we know of science. The trouble is very simply that we can't. Comic book super-heroes are, by their nature, not beholden to the laws of physics that we all know and obey, and the true mechanics of their powers are often unknown even to them. Has a Green Lantern ever actually asked what the power source is in the Great Battery on Oa? Does Superman know the biological process that goes on in his cells that turns sunlight into his amazing abilities? Can even the mighty mind of Reed Richards explain why his DNA and that of his colleagues was transformed, rather than ripped to shreds? Would Lex Luthor's climate-altering machines of his youth really be able to change the climate of an entire region? What is it about the Anti-Monitor's peculiar flavor of antimatter that allows it to overtake normal matter rather than destroy it? And how does the Vulture - an elderly man with wings strapped to his arms - not plummet to his death? Can comics examine these issues and still put out good stories?

Comics have tried to answer this question, actually. In the 1990s, as part of their Invasion! series, DC Comics introduced the concept of a Metagene, a particular mutation that was carried by a small percentage of the public. Under the right circumstances - such as being struck by electrified chemicals, being at ground zero of a nuclear explosion, or being immersed in a powerful chemical bath, the gene would activate and alter the person's entire genetic structure to allow it to survive. That alteration would produce powers such as super-speed, nuclear manipulation, or extreme elasticity. But even the meta-gene idea was a kind of nudge-nudge wink-wink from the writers, who were far more concerned with telling a good story or creating good characters than they were with sticking to good science.

Which brings us back to these books. Through the books, Gresh and Weinberg look at some of the most famous heroes and villains from DC and Marvel Comics and try to see how well their behaviors and their origin stories hold up under the weight of established scientific truth. The answer: not well at all.

The Atom, for example, has the problem of extreme density to deal with, as well as the fact that the white dwarf matter with which he activates his power should be impossible to lift. On the other end, Giant-Man shouldn't be able to move his own weight, thanks to the good old cube-square law. The Flash has a whole host of problems, starting with an anti-friction aura that curiously doesn't extend to the soles of his feet and finishing with a serious defiance of relativity. The Fantastic Four and Dr. Banner should have come out of their radioactive disasters with a severe case of death at the very least, and half of Peter Parker's powers actually have nothing whatsoever to do with spiders.

The basic message here is that the heroes and villains we know and love are, for the most part, scientifically impossible. But we knew that. Everybody who reads comics knows, in their hearts, that science is not in the driver's seat when it comes to super-heroes. As much fun as it would be to stand out in a thunderstorm yelling, "SHAZAM!" with a golf club in the air, I know that the only super-power I would gain would be the ability to occupy a hospital bed. If I was lucky.

Batman, on the other hand, is reasonably plausible, given the nigh-infinite resources of Bruce Wayne. The technology for most of his gadgets and gimmicks is extant and not too hard to either acquire or produce. Also, it wouldn't be impossible to re-write the Hulk's origin using an angry biochemist who has a particular talent for mixing up new and interesting steroid cocktails.

There are heroes - and villains - who show us a goal to reach, in a weird way. Doctor Doom, for example, uses a metal exoskeleton that confers upon him great strength and endurance. Would it be possible for us to build such a thing, only not looking several centuries out of date? As it turns out, yes we can. Or at least we will be able to soon. The science of body assistance has been making great progress recently, and it's only a matter of time before we are able to augment our own bodies from the outside and do amazing things.

Or look at Poison Ivy, one of Batman's recurring villains (and the only female in the villains book). She makes great use of plants that look like nothing Nature has ever produced. Could we, with biological engineering, do the same? It turns out we already are, just not as cool. Instead of giant venus flytraps that catch and eat human beings, we're engineering better strains of vegetables that will go towards feeding more people for less money. But if we really wanted to, we could have murderous plants in our future.

All of these bad guys offer us a chance to explore science, both fundamental and cutting-edge. The Lizard, a poor, beleaguered enemy of Spider-Man's who cannot control the beast within, may give us the clues to regenerating our own limbs. Magneto offers us an understanding of how powerful and pervasive electromagnetism really is. Dr. Octopus shows us the potential of prosthetics, and Mr. Mxyzptlk is a great way to start looking at not just the fifth dimension, but the very concepts of dimensions that are beyond the paltry ones that we inhabit.

These books make a reasonable attempt to inject the history and theory behind the science that our heroes defy, putting it into the realm of books that handle popular science. But as popular science books, they're rather disjointed and uneven, going into great detail in some sections but skimming over others. There's some serious axe-grinding, for example, in chapter 9 of the Heroes book: Good, Evil and Indifferent Mutants - the X-Men. Not only do they not address the scientific nature of the X-Men's powers (which they could have done with a simple page or two of "None of these are possible"), but they spend five or six pages detailing the historical and ongoing conflict between Creationism and Evolution. While it's an interesting topic, it's not germane to the X-Men and really doesn't belong in this book. Perhaps a discussion about successful adaptations in the human genome would have been better - what alterations have occurred in Homo sapiens that have made the species better? Or perhaps how our understanding of genetics is leading us to modify our own species faster than nature would have intended? There's a little of this, but it doesn't balance out the unnecessary evolution-creationism segment.

The biggest issue for the Gresh and Weinberg is that the writers of comics put scientific accuracy lower on their priority list than good storytelling and good characters. Yes, The Flash should never even be challenged by villains - at his speed, there's no one who should be able to even surprise him. But that makes for a damn boring comic book. And the same goes with Spider-Man. If Peter Parker really exhibited the traits of a spider, he would probably just build a web where he expected bad guys to be and spend the entire comic just waiting for them to stumble in. Then he would drop his trousers and spray them with webbing from a place the Comics Code won't let the artist draw.

More than once, they strayed from the science to criticize the villains' motives - why is Vandal Savage so hot to take over the world? Why not just invest his money, wait a few hundred years and live a life better than any human had before him? Or why would Lex Luthor do something so stupid as to drop a nuclear bomb from a helicopter? Helloooo? Ever hear of a little something we like to call "poison gas?"

While those may be excellent story points, the books are not called "The Plot Holes of Superheroes and Villains." They're about the science, and trying to gain the appreciation of comic book fans by pointing out why their favorite bad guys are idiots, well.... That's probably not the best way to handle it.

Other books about superheroes and science start off by accepting the reality of the comic book. James Kaklios' The Physics of Superheroes does exactly that - he grants the heroes a "miracle exception" and then moves on from there. His book is founded on the tacit understanding that comic book writers are more interested in the story than the science, but that if you look hard enough, you can find scientific lessons everywhere.

Science is important, but so is fiction. We willingly suspend our disbelief for super-heroes so that we can better enjoy their story. Science can tell us a lot, but it doesn't have much to say about loyalty, heroism, sacrifice and responsibility. It's hard for us to insert ourselves into science's stories - imagine being a hydrogen atom or a rock strata or a particularly interesting strain of e. coli. While science and super-heroes don't have to be incompatible, it's no great loss if they are. There's an interview at the end with a group of writers, all of whom very clearly state that story comes first. "The story always outweighs the science," says Len Wein, one of the industry's pre-eminent writers. Super-heroes aren't scientifically accurate, but they were never meant to be.

While I don't doubt that Gresh and Weinberg know their comics, I don't get the feeling that they really love comic books for what they are - fantasies with just enough science stuck on to make them seem plausible. Rather than looking for ways that comic books can open readers' eyes to science, they seem to be more interested in tearing down the comics themselves for trying - and failing - to use science in their stories. They're more focused on the flaws than the potential, and I found that tiring after a while. By trying to combine popular science with super-heroes, and by maintaining a dismissive attitude towards comics, Gresh and Weinberg have created books that have their moments, but don't really succeed being what they want to be.

"By now, if you've been reading this book chapter by chapter, your brain should be screaming in pain."
- Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg, The Science of Superheroes

"By now, anyone reading these books knows that we never ask a question without having an unpleasant answer ready."
- Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg, The Science of Supervillains

Lois Gresh on Wikipedia
Robert Weinberg on Wikipedia
The Science of Superheroes on
The Science of Supervillains on
Lois Gresh's webpage
Robert Weinberg's webpage

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Review 88: Surely You're Joking, Mister Feynman!

Surely You're Joking, Mister Feynman! by Richard P. Feynman

A while back, I read another book by Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, and I wasn't all that thrilled with it. It was kind of disappointing at the time. I knew that Feynman's fame came not only from his scientific brilliance, but from the fact that he was a genuinely interesting, funny and mischievous person. I had hoped that I could find some of that in the book, but to no avail. And so I gave it away so that someone else could get the pleasure from it that I could not.

Still, I was not completely turned off Feynman. There are videos of him around the internet that really show his vibrancy, his energy and the passion with which he approached the world, and I knew there would come a time when I would have to give him a second chance. Thus, this book.

Surely You're Joking, Mister Feynman! is the story - or rather a collection of stories - about what can happen to a person with immense confidence in his own abilities, an insatiable curiosity about the world, a willingness to make mistakes, all topped off with a generous helping of genius.

First, as Feynman calls them at the beginning of the book, some vitals.

Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, taught at Caltech, and won the Nobel Prize in physics for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics. He was also one hell of a bongo player, an accomplished artist, and a self-taught safecracker. He was a joker and a prankster and a ladies' man who could bluff his way into pretty much anything he wanted to do, and was often surprised that people believed his bravado. He had a passion for mysteries and puzzles and figuring out how things worked, from combination locks to the movements of electrons to why water curves the way it does when it comes out the tap, and he didn't give a good goddamn about what the rest of the world thought of him.

In other words, Richard Feynman was a pretty awesome guy.

This book is a collection of Feynman's stories, the kind that he might tell at a party or with a bunch of friends traveling. They're the variety of story that might begin with, "Did I ever tell you how I joined a samba band in Rio?" and just go on from there. He starts with his youth, how he was the kind of boy who just loved to tinker with things. He would take electronics apart and put them back together, and then go to junk shops to buy parts that he could build into better radios. He did experiments with ants to find out how they communicated, and dedicated himself so hard to solving puzzles that eventually all he needed was the first line, and he could immediately come back with, "He starts by chopping every other one in three parts."

He was one of those kids whose curiosity was boundless, and who never even imagined that there was anything "better" he could have been doing than exploring how the world worked. I couldn't shake the feeling that if young Feynman were around today, he'd be medicated to the eyeballs just to stop him being so "weird." But you know me. Cynic.

We follow him through his days at MIT, pulling pranks with friends and discovering those interesting weaknesses in human thought processes that allowed him to get away with murder when he was young. His habits of wondering how things work carried him through his participation in the Manhattan Project, his travels to countries like Brazil and Japan, and led him through a life that was never without fascinating and entertaining discoveries.

Long story short (too late), Feynman is - or at least should be - a model for young people today. While the book isn't pitched towards young people, there are several lessons in it that should be taught to every child.

The first is that the world is infinitely interesting. Any kid who whines that she is bored needs to be shown the million and one ways that you can combat boredom just within a ten-foot radius of where you're sitting. Look at something - anything and ask yourself, "I wonder how that works," and then go find out. The possibilities are endless, and the potential exists that you may discover a passion you never knew you had. Feynman didn't start out wondering how electrons work - he fixed his neighbors' radios just because he could. One thing led to another, and next thing you know - BAM! Nobel Prize.

The second point, and it is connected to the first, is to never say No. In his essay, "But Is It Art?" he talks about how he learned to draw. It started when an artist friend offered to teach Feynman how to draw if he would teach the artist about science. While Feynman believed that he would be an absolutely atrocious artist, he still agreed to the challenge, and he stuck with it. Eventually he became well-known as a decent artist, even managing to sell some of his works. Now obviously, there are limits and caveats to "never" - there are times when saying No is the right thing to do. But when you find an opportunity to expand your abilities, to learn new things and face new challenges, the automatic "No" may deprive you of a joy that you never knew you could experience.

Third, you must know who you are. One of the problems inherent in living in a society is that there's always someone trying to tell you who you are, or at least who you should be. Your parents, teachers, friends, all have an image of you in their heads, and are all trying to mold you into that image, consciously or unconsciously. Add to that the government, media, corporations, advertisements, shysters, preachers and other deliverers of hokum and propaganda who are also trying to tell you who you really are, despite having never met you and being pretty sure that you don't already know yourself. And many people, sadly, don't. But Feynman did. He knew who he was, and that was all he needed. He occasionally let people think differently about him, but the thread that runs through this book is a rock-solid self-awareness that allowed him the self-confidence to pick up showgirls or try to turn down a Nobel Prize.

The caveat to this, and a corollary to the second point, is that you can always discover new things about who you are. All through the book, we see Feynman faced with a new opportunity that he thinks he can't do because it's just Not Him. Drawing, playing music, learning languages - those skills didn't fit into the mental model of who he thought he was, a flaw that all of us possess. A lot of us, without even giving it a try, might immediately discard something by saying, "Well, that's just not me." Maybe it could be. It takes courage, and the willingness to fall flat on your face, but if you can discover a new talent or a new passion, isn't it worth it?

Finally, remember that everyone else around you is just as human as you are. Don't be impressed by titles and uniforms, fancy suits and impressive business cards. Don't assume that just because someone wears a soldier's uniform or a thousand dollar suit that they are somehow "better" than you. Feynman not only resisted authority in so many of these tales, he actively worked to subvert it. Whether it's trying to sneak codes past military censors or breaking into the safe that held all the secrets of the atomic bomb, he never let a title get in the way of learning or growing.

One of my favorite Feynman stories related to this last point isn't actually in this book, but I'll mention it anyway. After the Challenger disaster back in 1986, NASA was called on the carpet to explain to Congress why their shiny new space shuttle went Kaboom. The NASA managers went on and on about the O-rings, filling their talk with supercilious jargon and doublespeak, hoping that their haughty attitudes and impenetrable explanations of why the cold weather made the O-rings fail would be comprehensible enough to satisfy the committee, yet obtuse enough to avoid actually admitting that they had done anything wrong.

While they were doing this, Feynman put a piece of the O-ring material into a glass of ice water and let it sit there for a while. Then he took it out, stretched it, and showed that it had lost the pliability that it needed to do its job. With a simple demonstration, he not only showed the fault that led to the Challenger explosion, but at the same time put a bunch of self-aggrandizing stuffed shirts in their places.

I love that story.

Anyway, if you're looking for a Feynman book to read - and who isn't? - this is the one to start with. There's not much hard talk about science in it, just lots of stories about a really interesting guy. Even if it doesn't make you want to get into quantum electrodynamic theory, I hope it still makes you look at the world in a different way.

"You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It's their mistake, not my failing."
- Richard Feynman, Surely You're Joking, Mister Feynman!

Surely You're Joking, Mister Feynman! on Wikipedia
Richard Feynman on Wikipedia
Surely You're Joking, Mister Feynman! on

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Review 87: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

This book absolutely lives up to its title, except possibly the "short" part. The hardcover clocks in at 544 pages, including notes and index, which makes it quite luggable. I suppose, however, when compared to the geologic ages that preceded our brief existence on this earth, the book and the years it took to write it are indeed quite short. In those 544 pages, however, we explore everything, from the dawn of time up until the dawn of human history, from the infinitely tiny hearts of quarks to the infinitely huge scale of the universe. Biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, paleontology - whatever your science of choice is, it's in this book. And even if you're thinking, "Science really isn't my thing," I have good news for you - it will be when you're finished.

One of the things that makes Bryson an excellent writer is simply his ability to make you enjoy reading his work, no matter what the topic is. He's most well known for his travel books, such as Notes from a Big Country and A Walk in the Woods, as well as his books on the English language, such as Mother Tongue. When I first read him, he struck me as a more literate version of Dave Barry - a very intelligent guy with a fantastic sense of humor. No matter what he writes, you can't help but enjoy it.

This book, then, must have been a massive challenge for him. He admits right in the beginning that, before he started this book, he pretty much had no idea what he was going to find out. He wasn't a scientist or a naturalist, and had no idea how it was that we knew, for example, that the Earth had an iron core, or how we knew that the universe was expanding or why uranium was so easy to split up. How do we know that the continents drift across the face of the globe, or that we really are cousins to chimpanzees? He started from a state of ignorance, and spent three years removing himself from that state.

That, in and of itself, is admirable. There seems to be an unfortunate trend in thinking that science is too hard for the normal person to understand. In some cases people believe that if it is indeed too hard for the normal person to understand then, why, it must be impossible to understand. This is the "argument from ignorance" fallacy, and it's something that's easy to fall prey to. After all, no one likes to admit that they don't know things, and if your pride is bigger than your conscience it might be all too easy to assume that if you can't understand it then no one can. Thus the whole Intelligent Designer nonsense and the continuing battles.... in the TWENTY-FIRST GODSDAMNED CENTURY.... over whether or not evolution is the process by which we can explain the fantastic diversity of life on this planet.

Sorry about that. The neurochemical processes that allowed my distant ancestors to fight off predators (AKA the famous "fight or flight reflex") tends to manifest itself these days as blasphemy and shouting. I'll try and keep it down from now on.

If you're like me, and you've been a dabbler in science for a long time, you'll still learn something new. Not the least of what you will learn is what the Greatest Scientific Minds of our Time were like as people. Bryson does his best to bring out the humanity of people like Newton, Lowell, Einstein, Kelvin and everyone else. There's a whole lot of fighting, lying, deceiving and backstabbing that brought us to where we are today, and if they had taught me that in science class when I was a kid, I probably would have gotten better grades.

In fact, one of the most interesting things about this book is that it's not so much a book about science as it's a book about scientists. By looking at the people who figured out how the universe works, we learned about why science works the way it does - and sometimes doesn't - and get a real sense of how human understanding progresses. There are flashes of insight and stubborn refusals to see what is plainly true. There are lost geniuses and shameless opportunists, missed chances and serendipitous discoveries. Science, in short, is a human endeavor, with all the glamor and tarnish that comes with it. By emphasizing the humanity of the men and women who have driven science forward, Bryson is able to let us see our own place in the process.

What's more, Bryson takes great care to point out the areas where we have failed, or at least not yet succeeded. Cells, for example, are baffling organic machines that outperform human-made devices by an outlandish margin. We don't know as much as we think about pre-history - our fossil record is far more spotty than the Natural History Museum would have you believe, mainly because fossilization requires very specific conditions, not the least of which is a bit of good luck. There could be entire branches of the tree of life that we don't know because they had the misfortune to occupy an environment that didn't promote fossilization. We don't even know how many species of life are on Earth right now - or how many we've lost.

The history of humanity is twisted and confusing, with no clear answers as to where we came from, how we arose and how we spread across the globe. There are so many mysteries to be solved, and so few people available to solve them.

If you're not a science nerd, you'll still enjoy the book. Remember - up until he wrote it, Bryson was one of you. His style is very readable, and he guides you very deftly from one topic to the next, illustrating a very important point: all science is connected. There is no discrete boundary between, say, chemistry and biology (no matter what the chemists and biologists might tell you), just a fuzzy blur where we pass from one to the other. The greatest advances in our knowledge of how the universe works have come from the most unlikely places, and sometimes knowing why atoms behave the way they do can help understand why the universe behaves the way it does.

Yes, learning is hard. But when you're done, you are rewarded with a new sense of understanding and awe about how the universe works. And that wins over ignorance any day.

"We live on a planet that has a more or less infinite capacity to surprise. What reasoning person could possibly want it any other way?"
- Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Bill Bryson on Wikipedia
A Short History of Nearly Everything on Wikipedia
A Short History of Nearly Everything on
Bill Bryson's website

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Review 86: The Illustrated Man

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

As a newly-minted high school reading teacher, my introductory book to spoon-feed to the young'ns was Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. It was a really good one to start with, as it had a fairly simple and uncomplicated storyline, a small cast of characters, and fairly well-defined themes and literary techniques. Therefore, teaching it to students who weren't native speakers (but whose English was really good nonetheless) was a good experience.

I hadn't read a whole lot of Bradbury prior to that, and really fell in love with the book. F451 was a great read, and something I'll review here once I've let it settle down a bit in my head. After all, I've spent the last couple of months teasing every shred of meaning I could out of it, and that's not the kind of review I write here, now is it? Reading the book gave me a new interest in reading Bradbury, so I picked up a couple of short story collections and started to make my way through them. While I was talking to my department head about it, she recommended that I read The Illustrated Man, a copy of which she just so happened to have sitting around.

The Illustrated Man is a collection of eighteen short stories, more or less unrelated, but brought together under the larger, over-arching story of the Illustrated Man himself. Our narrator, you see, meets a large man on the road. The guy is covered with tattoos, of the highest quality. Their colors are vivid, their details are lifelike, and the man says that, at night, the tattoos come alive. They tell stories, if you watch them long enough. And if you watch them too long, you may see your own future as well....

Well, the narrator decides to watch as the Illustrated Man sleeps, and what he sees are the stories that are presented in this volume.

By and large, the stories are unconnected to each other, which means we can go from a strange future where one family's house takes care of all their material needs to a poor farmer who manages to avoid the end of the world by being in one of his own. Still, there are a few thematic threads that run through the book that are interesting to look at.

One of these themes is the way we relate to technology. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the first tale of the book, "The Veldt." In this story, we meet a family who are completely dependent on their house. It's a technological miracle, where everything is completely automatic. The thought of actually cooking a meal is tantamount to barbarism, and their idea of taking a vacation means just shutting down the more obsequious functions of the house. One of these is the children's nursery. Akin to the holodeck, this room can replicate any environment that the users want. The children's fascination with the savagery of the African savanna worries their parents, though, and the threat of having the room shut down eventually becomes more than the children - or the house - can tolerate.

In "The Concrete Mixer," a Martian invasion force finds themselves overcome by the technology of Earth. Not the military technology, mind you, but the mindless, brain-destroying technology of leisure. Faced with TV and radio, casinos and bars, drive-in movies and fast food, the Martians discover that Earth is far more dangerous than they had ever expected. In "Marionettes, Inc," Bradbury weaves a tale worthy of Philip K. Dick, telling about a very special service that will create an exact android duplicate of yourself. This robot will do all the tedious things in your life, such as go to work, do chores and tolerate your spouse. But what if the perfect robot duplicates are too perfect, and decide that they don't really want to do the drudgery anymore? In "The City," a self-aware metropolis wakes up after twenty thousand years with the arrival of human astronauts - and immediately begins planning its revenge on those who left it so long ago.

Another recurring theme in this collection is that of seeking happiness, through one means or another, and only occasionally finding it. In these stories, characters are looking for something that will make their lives worthwhile, or at the very least a little bit better. In "The Long Rain," a group of explorers on Venus want just one thing - to get out of the eternal, unceasing rain that pummels the planet. The Sun Domes are their only shelter, if they can find one before they die or go mad. In "No Particular Night or Morning," an astronaut searches for the only thing he can be absolutely sure of in this universe - nothingness.

In "The Man," a group of interstellar explorers are looking for a being, who may or may not be Jesus Christ, going from planet to planet and always finding themselves just a little bit too late. In "The Rocket," a poor junkyard owner wants more than anything to fulfill his dream of showing his children outer space, and manages to do it in a slightly roundabout way. And in "Rocket Man," a father tries to find what he really wants - to live among the stars or to stay with his family on Earth, and ultimately realizes that he wants - but cannot have - both.

The stories in here are all pretty good, and there were a few I want to touch on in more detail. The one that I took the most notes on was "The Other Foot," a tale of Mars and the shocking reversal of racial discrimination. In this story, Mars has been colonized by Black exiles from the United States, sent off-planet in an ultimate act of segregation. After decades of eking out an existence on that harsh planet, they learn that a rocket from Earth - probably containing a white astronaut - is on its way. The community reacts in a knee-jerk fashion, preparing a new apartheid on Mars - re-creating the worst of Jim Crow, only in reverse. When the rocket touches down and announces that nuclear war has destroyed everything the colonists had known and loved about Earth, and that white Americans had come to Mars to beg for the help of its citizens, the mob has a change of heart and decides to let bygones be bygones.

As much as I hate post-modernism, I couldn't shut off my critic's voice while reading this story. I wondered if a story about Black oppression written by a white author must automatically be racist in nature, and I wondered if Bradbury's suggestion that Black colonists on Mars would, as a first reaction, try to re-create the worst conditions they had endured on Earth might not be rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of Black culture. Then the Intellectual Machine That Eats Itself (i.e. Postmodernism) began to ask if perhaps these thoughts were rooted in my own unacknowledged racism, at which point I had to just finish the damn story and move on. It's a question that probably wasn't asked fifty years ago, though, which makes the story an interesting one to revisit in our slightly more enlightened age.

Another story that I really enjoyed was "The Exiles," which has also been titled "The Mad Wizards of Mars." In this tale, the great writes of fiction - and their works - are living (where else?) on Mars. There you can find Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce living with Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. They're on Mars because Earth has been systematically destroying their works, and thus depriving them of immortality. When a rocket arrives from Earth carrying the last load of books to be destroyed, the fictionauts launch a last-ditch attempt to save themselves. With Poe leading their armies, they pour all of their power into stopping the rocket. Shakespeare's witches fling curses at the astronauts, and Poe summons all the armies of fiction to defend their existence.

It's a story that you can tell Bradbury had a lot of fun writing, and is full of wonderful references to the authors he loves. Just the image of Edgar Allan Poe screaming defiance at the air is one that I will treasure every time I read the tale.

What's really wonderful about this collection is that it's aged well. Published in 1951, it does suffer from some of the mid-century sci-fi tropes of the day, and modern writers would never be allowed to get away with something like a rainy Venus or humanity calmly accepting the end of the world. But they're still great stories, and well worth the read. So go read 'em.

"I am a frightened and an angry man. I am a god, Mr. Dickens, even as you are a god, even as we all are gods, and our inventions - our people, if you wish - have not only been threatened, but banished and burned, torn up and censored, ruined and done away with. The worlds we created are falling into ruin. Even gods must fight!"
- Edgar Allan Poe, "The Exiles" (Ray Bradbury)

Ray Bradbury on Wikipedia
The Illustrated Man on Wikipedia
The Illustrated Man on
Ray Bradbury's website