Tag Archives: science

The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book written by an engineer for engineers. I’m not an engineer. But I can’t lie and say I didn’t enjoy reading this one. I needed a beach book for my week in Michigan, and when this book appeared on the shelf (as books are wont to do on my wife’s side of the bookcase), I grabbed it. I had seen one of my honors students (an engineer) reading it and had read this fantastic quip on XKCD. And then I saw the movie trailer (which looks AWESOME), so that helped me finally jump on the bandwagon. (And I know this is a departure from my resolution to read fiction by minority authors, but– BEACH.)

Be advised, this is a book by an engineer written for engineers. Did I already say that? It is compelling. The idea is simple and devastating: in the near and pretty believable future, manned missions to Mars are a reality and as gritty and physical and dangerous as an actual mission to Mars would be. On one of these missions, an astronaut gets left behind, assumed dead. It turns out he’s not, and he has to figure out how to survive on Mars, NASA has to figure out what happened and what they can do to fix it, and the crew of his ship have to figure out whether they follow NASA’s lead or mutiny and risk their own lives to save him.

Most of the story was told in the form of journal entries made by the marooned astronaut, Mark Watney, during his time on the surface. Here’s where the whole thing at times felt like a long, science fiction McGyver episode. Mark explains in detail how he’ll provide water and oxygen for himself, how he’ll grow food, and how he’ll get around on the surface. These are gripping details for a few chapters, but they can’t keep a reader’s interest– even one who appreciates the thought and detail the author put into keeping this grounded in reality– forever. Mark himself is a sort of Everyman, competent, foul-mouthed, and with a dry sense of humor. His ordinariness at times though, in spite his incredible technical competence, seems hollow. Not once, for instance, do we find Mark describing the view of Mars out his hab suite windows or reflecting on the nature of his dilemma with anything other than a superficial “do or die” mentality. But then again, what are the chances NASA would be sending a philosopher into space?

Luckily, Weir– himself a software engineer– realizes that stories don’t work without people and that it’s going to be difficult to build suspense about whether Mark lives or dies with him reporting in at the end of each day. So the narrative switches up a few times and we get a glimpse into the lives of the people back on Earth working to send supplies to keep Mark alive and ultimately his shipmates as they learn his fate and decide what they need to do to save him (as well as occasionally some God’s-eye-view narrative of the lives of inanimate equipment parts and geological features about to fail, which oddly enough functions quite well to build suspense).

This is where the actual drama comes in, and for me the most exciting parts of the novel were where the crew of the Hermes had to wrestle with what it might cost them to return to Mars to save Mark. And this– the dynamics between crew members on a months-long voyage and the cost of rescue– is what I hope the upcoming movie plays up. This was the pivot-point of the novel, and it was enough pull to get me as a reader over the hump and into the second part of the book, which chronicles Mark again and all the technical challenges of piloting a rover across a good portion of Mars to arrive at the appropriate rondevouz point and make an orbital-return component capable to escape velocity.

Lots of science here. In fact, Mark’s not really the hero of the story so much as science is. Science, Weir is saying, can pretty much solve anything if we’re plucky enough to keep trying and make the sacrifices required. (He also says something about it being the nature of humans to want to help each other, which is quoted pretty much verbatim in the movie trailer.) Besides the scientific triumphalism (which SPOILER dictates how the book will end– there’s never any real question of Mark’s survival), he deftly sidesteps any deeper questions, such as whether there’s an appropriate cost for saving a single human life or whether humans belong on places like Mars at all. No sir, this is a book about engineering. But I have to admit a book that raises philosophical questions without addressing can be fine in its own right. Sometimes it’s okay to simply present the problem in a clear-eyed fashion and leave it to the reader to puzzle through like Mark had to puzzle through the reality of Mars.

It is a fun, compelling, riveting book, but it ultimately felt unfulfilling for me because the pieces that made it tick– the people, and particularly the crew of the Hermes— never got closure. That is, we learn Mark’s fate but we don’t any view of his reunions with the people who saved his life. That would all be a compelling follow-up novel: call it The Earthling. It could show Mark’s life returned as the most famous human on the planet and him interacting with the people who contributed to his rescue as well as his return voyage to Earth with his crew (as well as the implied hook-up with Mindy, the NASA worker who contributed to his recovery and about whom I can only assume there’s an in-joke here regarding “Mork and Mindy” with Weir’s proclivity for 70s television). But the book is still tight and cogent leaving all that up in the air, especially as messy inter-personal stuff like that would take the focus off the science.

Double and Multiple Stars and How to Observe Them

Double and Multiple Stars: And How to Observe ThemDouble and Multiple Stars: And How to Observe Them by James Mullaney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The amateur astronomer has access at all times to the original objects of his study; the masterworks of the heavens belong to him as much as to the great observatories of the world. And there is no priviledge like that of being allowed to stand in the presence of the original.”
-Robert Burnham, Jr. (my emphasis)

One of my goals this summer has been to spend more time with the fleet of telescopes I have access to through my university. I teach about the night sky and I research scientists who spent their lives studying the night sky, but I find I’ve had very few opportunities myself to get to know the sky outside the simulated confines of the planetarium dome.

Double stars are an ideal target for starting out. Unlike nebula, galaxies, and other deep sky targets, double stars are bright and fairly easy to spot. They’re like tiny gems hidden up there in the sky. The sky is a map, and sometimes it’s hard to learn. It’s often difficult to tell whether the star you have in your sights is actually the star on your charts that you think you might be looking at. Yet if your resources tells you it’s supposed to be a tight, nearly equal double with a separation of six arcseconds, and if you see it staring back at you like a pair of distant celestial headlights, then you know you’ve found it. They’re targets that are immediately rewarding, bright enough to spot on moonlit nights or in light polluted skies, and varied enough to be interesting.

Take separation, for instance. My six-inch reflecting telescope hasn’t had any troubles on the evenings I’ve been observing splitting pairs down to a separation of about four arcseconds. Izar in Bootes, with a separation of just under three arcseconds, shows a hint of the bluish companion star elongated from the edge of the brighter orangish primary. Depending on the viewing conditions each night, my scope should theoretically be able to distinguish even closer pairs, but the challenge of realizing this is part of what makes these targets rewarding.

Then there’s color contrast. You view an image from the Hubble Space Telescope, and it seems like space is vibrant with color. Yet actually viewing a nebulae or galaxy with the eye in a telescope eyepiece reveals perhaps a hint of greenish glow at best. With double stars though, the color contrast in star pairs is often quite dramatic. Different people observe different colors, which are artifacts of both intrinsic color differences in the stars and contrast between them.

Finally there’s simply the conceptualization of what you’re actually looking at. Most very close doubles are binary stars, which means systems of two (or more) stars rotating around a common center of mass. These are the objects John Herschel and others were studying in the early 1800s in order to directly calculate stellar masses. (They’re still the only method we have for directly measuring the mass of stars.) These star pairs, I argue in my dissertation, were instrumental in changing the way people thought of the stars: seeing them as vast physical systems. They continue to inform our popular stellar conceptions; recall the iconic scene of the double sunset on Tatooine in Star Wars.

Fortunate for the enthusiast like me there are a host of guides and resources regarding showcase double stars to observe. The Cambridge Double Star Atlas is a great place to start, and banking on the usefulness of that resource I purchased this observing guide by one of the authors of that atlas: Double and Multiple Stars and How to Observe Them. This slim guide is an ideal introduction to the topic, exploring in an overview the practical aspects of observing these objects but also going into some detail on the real scientific contributions an amateur could pursue. Mullaney’s enthusiasm for the topic is contagious, from the introductory physical descriptions of double stars as astrophysical objects (reminescent of the language popularizers were using to describe them in the 19th century) to his own advice on keeping observing journals.

Though the prose is good, I had two big complaints with the work. The first is the quality of printing. It was clear as soon as I cracked the cover that this was a print-on-demand title by Springer, with the pages consisting of scans of a PDF or other electronic image. The text is not crisp or clear, and on many pages there is grey stippling in what should be the white space between letters and lines. It’s not bad enough to make the text illegible, but it is annoying. The second is that Mullaney says the work is really two resources in one: a background or overview on double stars and observing them, along with an observing guide of locations and descriptions for one hundred showcase double stars. Yet– though I haven’t compared it star to star– this list seems to duplicate the list provided in the Cambridge Double Star Atlas. So if you’re looking for a lot of new double stars to admire, you might be disappointed.

“What we need is a big telescope in every village and hamlet and some bloke there with that fire in his eyes who can show something of the glory the world sails in.”
-Graham Loftus (my emphasis)

Science and Eastern Orthodoxy

Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of GlobalizationScience and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization by Efthymios Nicolaidis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The complete history of science in the Christian East remains to be told. But it is certainly a narrative the broad strokes of which need to be outlined, if only because Orthodoxy remains a lacuna in most generalized histories of scientific thought. There are a lot of writings about Greek science, about its transmission, appropriation, and development in Arabic and Islamic contexts, and about its reintroduction to Western Europe. Yet about the Eastern Roman Empire, which endured more or less until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, very little has been said, even less in popular surveys for a non-specialized audience. (One popularization treating the topic, though not focusing specifically on science, is Colin Wells’ Sailing from Byzantium.)

The essential difference between science in the Greek East as opposed to the Latin West is that whereas Europe lost linguist links to the corpus of classical Greek texts, these works were never lost to the eastern, Greek portions of the Roman Empire. The interplay between this knowledge and the rapidly Christianized culture of Byzantium has often been portrayed negatively with the assumption that Greek learning was neglected because it was seen as inconsequential or hostile to Christian theology. Greek culture, so the narrative goes, was decadent, and the scientific knowledge soon flourishing in the Arabic world was stagnant or forgotten in the empire of Constantinople.

As with anything else in history, the closer one looks the more complicated the true picture becomes. Even the high-altitude overview provided by Nicolaidis’s Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization has plenty of room for the wide range of reactions and reassessments of science taking place during this period. Indeed, the relationship between the state, Christianity, and science is the true theme of Nicolaidis’s survey. In this he is consciously following the footsteps of Numbers and Lindberg, and in some respects this volume could even be considered a companion to the two volumes that Lindberg and Numbers have co-edited outlining the relationship between science and Christianity in the West. However, whereas those are collections of essays treating the topic from a broad range of chronological and thematic angles, Nicolaidis’s work is a chronological survey.

The extent of this survey is quite impressive. Nicolaidis begins with the hexaemerons– commentaries on the six days of creation– by the early Christian fathers Basil and Gregory. He hits the familiar points of Byzantine history: the impact of the iconoclastic controversy, hesychasm, and the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204. This final event, Nicolaidis argues, actually had a positive effect on Orthodox science, illustrating the possibility of radical social and cultural change and ushering in the first Byzantine humanist revival as rulers in the new capital of Nicea built a cosmopolitan group of administrators who valued classical learning. The narrative continues all the way into the modern period, chronicling the Orthodox Church’s largely conservative stance toward modern science (Darwinism usually equated with materialism), primarily because it and the modern ideas accompanying were seen as potential threats to the privileged status Christian enjoyed in the Ottoman empire.

In some respects though, this detailed account simply proves the initial assumption that there wasn’t such a thing as Byzantine or Orthodox science. Instead there was a tradition of commentary and preservation of the classical body of Greek learning, at times appreciated and shared and at times viewed with suspicion, depending on the vicissitudes of church and state policy. Nicolaidis’s account is full of Greek scholars from all periods, explaining who they are and what they taught and how in many cases they were essential for transferring texts and knowledge to the West. But true “scientists” or natural philosophers are distinctly lacking. This doesn’t mean that they are not necessarily there, and this account gives lots of potential leads to pursue in a body of work that is remains largely unexplored. Unlike a popular account of Chinese or Arabic science though, which would be rife with examples of breakthroughs or technological developments, the story of science and Eastern Orthodoxy is largely that of continuity, preservation, and tension (albeit not always a negative tension) with the Church.

As an overview, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy is an invaluable introduction to the topic of Greek learning in Byzantium, the Christian communities of the Ottoman Empire, and its successor Balkan states (with the focus on Greece) and the interaction between natural philosophy and Christian thought in these contexts. There are dozens of useful references and sources if one wants to dig deeper into any of the various topics, time periods, or individuals surveyed. For an English-language introduction to the history of science in the Christian East, this is the place to begin.

Seeing Trees

Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday TreesSeeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but not so interesting as looking.

What does it mean to see something, to learn to really look? I have colleagues who do this with stones, who can look at something that would be utterly overlooked by most people– a loose tumulus of rocks beside a road, say, or the exposed side of a hill– and name the minerals, put together the pieces of geological history on display, and tell the stories of the stones. Other people can do this with clouds, perhaps, or stars, with texts on a page or paintings or the way people speak or interact. Is this part of what education is, simply extending one’s knowledge so that new aspects of the world become interpretable? This is likely where the humility of education comes in: the realization that however much one knows or sees, it is only an incredibly small sliver of the overall picture, and sight can go so much deeper in so many different directions.

But there’s an art to simply looking and seeing as well, something that complements and yet remains distinct from simply having knowledge. Something that moves observation closer to aesthetics and philosophy than pure objectivity. The prose of Nancy Hugo and the photography of Robert Llewellyn combine in this book to do this with trees.

They succeed extraordinarily. This is quite simply a stunning book. It opens up a new world, but it does this for a world that we’ve lived alongside, without seeing, for our entire lives. Hugo and Llewellyn examine the properties of ten species of trees common to America: oak, maple, tulip popular, white pine, and others. Most people– myself included– know and love trees in a general way. But the images and text in this work reveal that even the most common trees are almost utterly unknown. On some level I’m sure I knew that any plant producing seeds must have flowers (or cones, on evergreens), but who has seen the flowers of a maple or an oak? But there they are, hidden in the upper branches or the unfolding leaves of spring, captured in this book and shown for the delicate and alien things they are, looking as though they belonged on the waving fronds of some undersea creatures rather than the limbs of trees along my street.

To read this book is to see trees for the first time. I am stunned and stirred awake. To see these forms that seem so staid and unmoving, the background to our daily lives and the shade to our fortunate streets, as dynamic, changing, sexual organisms. People who think Groot in the new Guardians of the Galaxy movie is cool have no idea how alive and alien these common trees really are, from the antenna-like flowers of the red maple to the dangling tendrils of the oak male catkins.

You think there are aspects of the world you have a pretty good handle on, things that you can identify and then safely ignore for most of your life. It’s terrifying and refreshing to realize how much life and newness there is in the world around you. And then you’re struck– how much else am I missing? Not simply in the living, green world around me or taking place under my nose in the garden, but what about in the faces of my family, or the unread texts on pages, or a thousand other everyday occurrences?

The greater part of the phenomena of Nature . . . are concealed from us all our lives. There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate, and not a grain more. . . . A man sees only what concerns him.

The Invention of Clouds

Invention of CloudsInvention of Clouds by Richard Hamblyn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I finished this book on an overcast evening. By the time I was done, the setting sun had broken through the clouds to reveal a strikingly three-dimensional panorama of torn vapor and gold. It was a cloudscape, the kind I try to capture in my stories “Unborn God” and “The Wizard’s House”—part of a series I’m calling Cartography of Clouds that will be published shortly in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It was also a fitting backdrop to the conclusion of this book on the history of attempts to name and categorize these most fleeting of natural phenomena.

The nineteenth century was a heyday of classification schemes in natural philosophy. If one could accurately name and organize objects, one could ensure that observations of them were uniform around the world. In astronomy this involved attempts to measure star positions as accurately as possible, but it also led to schemes for measuring double star positions and stellar brightness and developing a more rational way to divide up the heavens into constellations. (I discuss a lot of this in my dissertation, which I will be defending very shortly.)

In biology, a similar categorizing impetus gave rise to the Linnaean system of classifying organisms. Hamblyn’s The Invention of Clouds tells the story of doing the same thing for the changing skies. If weather observations were to develop into a uniform science of meteorology, there needed to be some way to accurately designate and compare cloud forms. But the clouds are by their very nature always changing and each one seems different. What sort of natural scheme of division could be devised for these objects?

The book focuses one individual, the Quaker merchant and natural philosopher Luke Howard, and how Howard devised, promoted, and propagated the cloud divisions (cumulus, stratus, cirrus, etc.) that have since passed into common and official usage. On one level, Hamblyn’s work is a fairly simple (though at times romanticized) tale: Howard developed his classification, presented it in a lecture, published it in a philosophical magazine, and ultimately found success. It is a straightforward story but one that illustrates what the scientific endeavor looked like in the early nineteenth century.

This is a popularization of the history of science. There’s no discussion of previous work done on Luke Howard (a figure I admit I had never heard of before this book) or discussion of the archives or source materials the author utilized. As a popularization though, it does a good job of using Howard’s life and work to illustrate how science worked during this period. The reader gets a sense of the popular interest in amateur science—in particular meteorology—and the world of scientific periodicals through which Howard rose to fame. More compellingly for me though was what it showed about the impetus for classification and categorizing during this period, the drive to obtain a uniformity of observations that could bring objectivity to nature.

Besides Howard’s cloud classification scheme, Hamblyn also touches on quantitative measurement for wind speed, though he does not discuss earlier attempts to gather worldwide temperature and barometric observations or the instrumentation that made this possible. These early attempts (partially coordinated by John Herschel during his time at the Cape of Good Hope) had much in common with contemporary attempts to gather global data on the Earth’s magnetic field and worldwide tidal levels. These were important aspects in the narrative toward uniformity and quantification that Hamblyn is constructing in this work, and I would have welcomed more discussion of how Howard’s own endeavors related to these activities of “big science”.

Hamblyn represents Luke Howard as a romantic hero of science, someone who brought scientific rigor the clouds without sacrificing their sublime aspects. This claim is buttressed by his discussion of the ways in which Howard’s work influenced the writings of such varied and prominent figures as Goethe in Germany and the English landscape painter John Constable. In parts of the work, however, this romanticization of Howard’s life and work is taken a bit far. In the sense of literary effect, this is not too much of a problem. It becomes more difficult, however, when Hamblyn takes liberties with his source materials to connect dots related to the influence or motivations of his characters. Phrases like “Howard surely thought” or “certainly felt” litter the narrative.

Whether you’re interested in the history of science or simply want to know more about how the clouds were brought within the remit of natural philosophy, this is an accessible and compelling work. If you’re hoping to learn more about the physical nature and structure of the clouds themselves though, this may not be the place to start. The focus is on Howard and the human aspect of science—showing how the scientific is often tied closely with the ascetic. It is a book about the naming of clouds, only secondarily about the physical understanding of clouds. As with so many things in science though, Hamblyn effectively shows how objects must be named before they can be understood.