Posts Tagged ‘Science’

Best New Books of 2014: Emil S’s Picks

December 2, 2014

When a book calls my name, I will not turn it down. Somehow, the books know how to find me.

No Place to Hide No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald
“Cincinnatus” was the alias Edward Snowden used when he contacted Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian and a former constitutional lawyer. Cincinnatus referred to a real life hero, a farmer who in ancient times defended Rome against foreign forces, and then voluntarily gave up absolute power and returned to life on the farm. Edward Snowden was a former National Security Agency contractor, and the revelations brought about by him altered the course of history. This book – a curious blend of real life thriller, lecture, moral-ethic discussion, and petition – shows how invasive U.S. surveillance capabilities have become, and what it means in a world in which people increasingly find and display their inner lives online.  See my full review.

War of the WorldsWar of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz
Whales and other marine mammals are under severe threat from a number of human activities, not the least mankind’s insistence on waging war and preparing for war. The navy use of sonar creates noise storms that again and again cause atypical mass strandings and deaths of whales. The U.S. government regulators have become captives “to the interests they’re supposed to police,” and it is up to individuals and private organizations to help protect life in the oceans. War of the Whales is the true story of how environmental law attorney Joel Reynolds (of NRDC), marine biologist Ken Balcomb, and many others did everything in their power in order to reduce deadly, man made noise pollution and save some of the magnificent creatures that humankind share this planet with.  See my full review.

Everything Leads to YouEverything Leads to You by Nina LaCour
Emi’s goal is to become a set designer in Hollywood, and as an intern on a movie set, she visits the estate sale of a legendary Hollywood actor. When Emi and her best friend Charlotte find a letter hidden in the jacket of an LP, the two of them – without knowing the content of the letter – begin searching for the intended recipient. The mysterious letter leads her to the alluring Ava, and life begins to take on film-like qualities.  See my full review.

Cycle of LiesCycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong by Juliet Macur
If the mountains of Le Tour de France are the dragons of that particular classic, then the riders are the knights. And when Lance Armstrong started slaying and devouring these opponents he seemed to be living a real life heroic poem of epic proportions. Armstrong had bravely defeated a monstrous cancer, made a mind-boggling comeback, and then developed into one of the most revered and remarkable athletes in the world. However, the tale took a nightmarish turn as evidence of highly advanced and organized doping mounted. Here is the story of Lance Armstrong’s rise and fall as understood by New York Times journalist Juliet MacurSee my full review.

Little FailureLittle Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart
American author Gary Shteyngart was born as Igor Shteyngart in Leningrad (now [again] St. Petersburg) in the Russian empire that went under the name of Soviet Union. When he was seven years old, Gary and his family moved to the United States as part of a Jews-for-grains swap between the two superpowers. The Shteyngarts ended up in Queens, New York, and life in the land of the free was not easy for a “Socialist” boy with a weird accent. This memoir investigates a troubled family’s adventures and misadventures in two cultures, and it is moving, poignant, and at times outrageously comical.  See my full review.

War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz

November 17, 2014

“What if the catalyst or the key to understanding creation lay somewhere in the immense mind of the whale? Suppose if God came back from wherever it is he’s been and asked us smilingly if we’d figured it out yet. Suppose he wanted to know if it had finally occurred to us to ask the whale. And then he sort of looked around and he said, ‘By the way, where are the whales?'”

As Cormac McCarthy points out, the whales have a great deal to teach Homo sapiens. The Bible describes poetically how “the great creatures of the sea” were created before humankind (Genesis 1:20-23), and science makes the same claim: while Homo sapiens has been around for perhaps 200,000 years, the whales have roamed the oceans for tens of millions of years. The wisdom bestowed upon the whales by time is thus immense and studies of whales and other creatures have helped improve the life of human beings. When we annihilate a species, we destroy future discoveries – keys to longer life spans, cures for diseases, spectacular engineering feats – and the destruction of a species is the destruction of a resource that cannot be quantified.

So, “‘where are the whales?'” Some of them are already gone forever, others are on the brink of extinction, and many are threatened. The ruthless whale hunting took an extreme toll on their numbers, but whaling is no longer the major threat to whales. Instead, other dangers have emerged. How the documented warming of the oceans will affect whale populations is yet unknown. What is beyond a doubt is that marine traffic is a serious and constant danger, as is the pollution of the oceans – not the least noise pollution.

For marine life drowns in man-made noise, and studies indicate that sonar used by navies to track submarines can result in mass strandings of whales. Sonar also drives whales away from areas that are important to their survival, and it has been documented that these mammals abandon feeding for extended periods when sonar is in use.

War of the Whales, a deeply moving true story by Joshua Horwitz, describes the whales’ historic and current circumstances and how environmental law attorney Joel Reynolds takes the U.S. Navy to court to expose the Navy sonar program and reduce ocean noise pollution. While Reynolds is involved in this enormous challenge, marine biologist Ken Balcomb witnesses an atypical mass stranding of whales. Balcomb investigates the disaster and his hard evidence leads him to join Reynolds: the stage is set for a clash between an intrusive man-made world and the need to protect life in the ocean.

As the case travels through the U.S. legal system, Reynolds knows that a conservation battle never truly can be won: “the environment is never saved. It always needs saving. So do the whales.”

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The Secret Life of Sleep by Kat Duff

July 23, 2014

The Secret Life of SleepEver have a difficult time falling asleep? Wake up in the night and fret over hours of lost rest? Millions and millions of Americans struggle with sleep issues every night, adding one of the most basic human functions to an ever-growing list of things that perpetuate anxiety in our frantic modern world. It’s no wonder that the sleep aid industry grows exponentially every year. But are we looking at sleep (and sleep problems) through the wrong lens? Kat Duff approaches the subject in a particularly interesting manner. Through an equal mixture of memoir, anecdotes, history, and scientific research, she explains the importance of sleep in our daily lives for both our physical well-being and our societal norms.

Our sleep patterns have changed quite drastically since the beginning of humanity, when our long ago ancestors slept in short shifts of light sleep, one long deep sleep, and intermittent periods of wakefulness. Even during Medieval times, people cherished this long tradition of midnight waking, using the time for quiet contemplation, visiting with family, or practicing various creative outlets. This sleep schedule changed the most dramatically only as recently as the Industrial Revolution, when sleep became condensed into one long stretch to increase productivity for Western workers. Before this time, no other animal –including humans- tried to regulate their sleep so meticulously, and we have had an immense amount of difficulty as a species in this practice.

Sleep issues are not limited to adult workers, however. Duff also addresses similar societal changes in how parents approach the act of sleeping in raising their children, how teenagers and college students binge-sleep on the weekends, and how all kinds of factors of sleeping habits during youth can result in different traits and manifestations in later life.

The next time you have difficulty falling asleep, consider picking up this book and take comfort in feeling that you are not alone. In addition to knowing a little more about the history, culture, and science of sleep, you might walk away with some insights into handling your own sleepless nights, both emotionally and physically.

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Intuition by Allegra Goodman

July 11, 2014

IntuitionI picked this novel up because I’d heard that it offered a realistic portrayal of scientific research. So often in popular entertainment we’re given an exaggerated vision of how science is actually done—there’s either the mad scientist unscrupulously tinkering with nature to satisfy a god complex, or the hero who saves the day with a “scientific” solution that amounts to waving a magic wand. Intuition examines the ways ambition, personality,  and politics can influence research, but avoids painting its characters, and the effects of human fallibility on science, with broad strokes.

Marion Mendelssohn and Sandy Glass run a cancer research lab at the fictional Philpott Institute. For years their contrasting personalities (Marion circumspect and precise, Sandy bombastic and charming) have harmonized in a close working relationship. When one of their postdocs, Cliff Bannaker, begins demonstrating dramatic success in his work administering experimental cancer treatments to mice, Sandy wants to announce and publish the results before they’ve been fully verified to attract publicity and badly needed funding for the lab. Marion’s reluctance to engage the media prematurely begins to create cracks in their partnership. Further controversy ensues when Cliff’s fellow postdoc (and ex), Robin Decker, begins to suspect his results were falsified. How can Robin—not to mention her colleagues—be certain that her suspicions are not colored by personal resentment? Is she willing to pursue those suspicions at the possible cost of her professional future and her friendships?

Scientific discovery and controversy are usually reported in the news with all the subtlety of a banner headline.  (In the novel, the announcement and disputation of Cliff’s results are sensationalized and distorted by the media and grandstanding politicians). In contrast, Intuition tells a story in which both research and human drama proceed as they often do in life: turning points are quiet, revelation is gradual. Yet this is a highly engaging novel. Each of Allegra Goodman’s characters is memorable and relatable despite their flaws, and her sharp observations of them make those small moments resonate with great emotional power. I definitely plan to check out more from this excellent author.

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Operation Paperclip by Annie Jacobsen

May 21, 2014

paperclipbookcover.phpFor anyone who is a history buff, this is one of the best books telling the story of the closing days of WWII. Annie Jacobsen’s research is phenomenal. Her book tells the story of the end of the war…. Germany knows it is going to lose……she doesn’t even know who the final conqueror will be…Russia or the United States…the US is coming from the West and Russia is barreling towards Germany from the East. To me it is the most detailed story of the war from midway in 1944 to past the their final surrender in April of ’45 and beyond !!

Although I was aware that certain top German scientists were shepherded to the United States to continue their research, I had no idea that the total numbered was in the thousands !! It didn’t seem to matter to certain US authorities that some of these men (plus a few women) were heinous criminals and deserved to be executed. All these ‘patriots’ knew was that they must bring this science to the United States.

Considering that the end of WWII occurred almost 70 years ago, it is truly amazing the story that Anne Jacobsen has put together for all of us. If one has any doubt about the truth that she unveils, a few minutes reading of citations and data from archives and from subsequent generations of these men will remove any doubt from your mind. The special program that let these men continue their research included the promise of future citizenship !! was called ” Operation Paperclip”. And even the name given to the operation has some meaning. The book is long , but once ‘hooked’ you will find it difficult to put down.

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Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach

May 6, 2014

marsbookcover.phpEver wondered what it would be like to live in outer space?  Or on another planet?  With boundless curiosity and a sense of humor, Mary Roach takes us into the esoteric world of scientists who ponder how our earth-evolved bodies and minds can survive in such a foreign environment.

One of the biggest problems is reduced gravity. This makes everyday routines into big problems. The titles of the chapters give you some idea–the one on bathing in space is called “Houston, We Have a Fungus.”  How do you clean yourself when the shower droplets do not run down, but just float away? How dirty can a person stand to be?  A Mars mission might take more than a year, and the physical (and mental) effects of that many dead skin cells are thoroughly explored by Roach.

The physical problems of life in space are numerous, but what of the mental challenges of people crowded together in a small space for months?  The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency tests the patience of their wannabe astronauts by requiring them to fold 1000 origami paper cranes over several days.  Apparently, what is considered to be the “right stuff” has changed! Nowadays, astronauts’ missions are planned down to the smallest detail, and the right stuff largely consists of being able to take orders and persevere in them.

Roach takes us through it all, from the crash tests on cadavers, to the studies of motion sickness, to the test subjects who volunteer to lie in bed for a year.  Nothing concerning space travel escapes her notice or her interest, and her audience cannot help being infected by her enthusiasm.  As one reviewer put it, “This is a book for people who have silently dreamed of being astronauts themselves.”  It clearly takes a lot of patience (and a sense of humor) to be a real one!


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Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know By Robert Peter Gale and Eric Lax

January 27, 2014

I have friend who is died of cancer. He was 46 years old, married and  the father of a teenage boy. A few years ago he was getting violently ill. His doctors told him the cancer had spread throughout his body, his stomach, his lungs, his throat. When I found out my friend was sick,  a mutual friend of ours set up a time that the three of us could just hang out and chat. He told me the radiation therapy made him feel bad for days and then he would feel better for a few days. This triggered a memory in my mind of something I had read recently about the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Apparently the radiation from the accident has spread from Japan to California and it is a deadly force that all life forms must reckon with. I wondered: “How could the same process that is extending, albeit briefly, my friends life also be a ghoulish unstoppable menace?”

Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know has, in very simple terms, helped me understand this conundrum. Turns out we are radioactive beings living on a radioactive planet in a radioactive galaxy. The authors clearly give you the facts and debunk myths about this often misunderstood energetic process. Radiation is in the most mundane of everyday encounters. Tanning salons produce an enormous amount of radiation, an amount that actually rivals the sun, which is essentially a giant ball of radiation. Dr. Gale’s poetic metaphor for cigarette smoking is: “intentionally inhaling a small nuclear weapon into your lungs.” Now that I know more about radiation and understand, in a small way, how it helped my friend, the arbitrary cruelty of fate seems somehow less so.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

Best New Books of 2013: Melissa O’s Picks

December 12, 2013

Here it is! My favorite blog post of the year. It is difficult to narrow down my favorite books of the year to only five, but here is a sample from all over the library. As you can see, I have wide ranging interests, so you never know what I might stumble across to share with you!

The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber
This book combines the suspense of a crime drama, the anxiety many of us feel about going into the hospital, and a serial killer into a frightening edge-of-your-seat tale! This is the true story of Charles Cullen, a registered nurse who was implicated in the deaths of as many as 300 patients during his career and was finally arrested in 2003. The most terrifying aspect of the story is how he managed to be so successful as a serial killer.  For more information read a review of this book or check out the author’s website.

Nobody by Jennifer Barnes
Have you ever felt invisible, overlooked, or unimportant? Of course, it is all in your head. But what if it wasn’t? What if you COULDN’T be noticed? Meet Claire, a Nobody who does not know she is one. Until the day someone tries to kill her.  But how can he notice her when no one else does? And why would anyone care enough to want to assassinate her? With a nice mix of Sci-Fi, action, and romance this is a fun read.

Suspect by Robert Crais
This is a must read for any mystery, action thriller, or dog lover! A new favorite, this book grabbed me from the first pages as it brings together two damaged souls: a cop and a former war dog. Both are recovering from devastating injuries. Both have lost their partner. Can Scott and Maggie help each other heal? And will they ever be able to protect and serve again? You cannot help but root for this duo as they fight to solve the mystery of Scott’s partner’s death.

The Elite by Kiera Cass
The second book in Cass’s dystopian series (after The Selection) immerses you in political intrigue, romance, and … reality TV? Torn between two loves, America Singer is vying for the hand of Prince Maxom even as she is drawn back to her first love. But this prince doesn’t woo his princess in the way you would expect. He selects his bride through a televised competition. Think “The Dating Game” meets “The Real Housewives!” A fun read and I am looking forward to the next installment.

Frozen In Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of WWII by Mitchell Zuckoff
Two stories are woven together in this suspenseful retelling of a tragic and heroic rescue effort from WWII.  The book begins with the November 5, 1942 crash of a US cargo plane in Greenland. The rescue effort saw another plane crash, and the vanishing of a Grumman Duck amphibious plane. The modern day quest for those lost men and the retelling of the months long rescue is a riveting tale. What made it more special is describing the book to my grandfather, an Army lieutenant throughout war, and having him recall hearing about these lost men over 70 years ago.

Best New Books in 2013: Travis H’s Picks

December 10, 2013

I’m the manager of the Zebulon Community Library and have a long tenure with the library system. I majored in English and have had my fill of “good books.” Since then, I have read mostly nonfiction, along with techno thrillers, South Florida based detective novels, and things I find funny.  Here are my selections for Best New Books of 2013:

Who Discovered America? The Untold History of the Peopling of the Americas by Gavin Menzies
True or not, Who Discovered America brings together a boatload of historical anomalies and explains them all with the help of the Chinese. DNA, Marco Polo, Melungeons, pyramids, Mayans, Egyptians, Minoans…it is all here in the book, and were they all here in the past?  I did not know that the Chinese were all over eastern North Carolina at one point.  Menzies thinks so. Alternative histories can be good fiction. Revisionist history can really disrupt things.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
I made the mistake of trying to read this book during my lunch hour. The book is pretty gross and hard to put down. Starting with the senses of smell and taste, Roach takes us on a journey down the throat and all the way through. Along the way, she illustrates the journey with hilarious digressions about morbid things. Finally, the truth comes out about why, and how, Elvis died in his bathroom.

New Earth by Ben Bova
Ben Bova writes “hard science” fiction, wherein scientific accuracy is more important than character and often even plot. I read this type of science fiction to get a glimpse of the future.  In New Earth, old Earth is dying from climate change. The discovery of an Earthlike planet prompts an expedition. The crew awakes close to their destination after being in suspension for eighty years. They learn that their efforts have been abandoned by those back on Earth.   It is no surprise that New Earth’s inhabitants are Earth-like humanoids. This, along with the fact that New Earth is so much like old Earth, the crew begins to become suspicious of just how this might be, especially when the find the inhabitants of this new world less than forthcoming.

The Last Outlaws: the Lives and Legends of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid by Thom Hatch
Who can’t think of George Roy Hill’s incredible movie pairing Newman and Redford whenever Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are mentioned? When I came across Hatch’s The Last Outlaws I decided to view the movie once more and then read the book, hopefully to put these criminals into perspective. Most interesting to me was reading about how the progression of America’s west into the modern age, along with “coordinated law enforcement efforts,” which motivated the two to leave America for South America. Also interesting was the history of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

Dark City: A Repairman Jack Novel by F. Paul Wilson
2013’s Repairman Jack novel is the second volume of a trilogy that is a prequel to Wilson’s completed Secret History of the World. Jack gets out of the cigarette smuggling business, and uses his profits to help various characters. He reflects on the murder he committed. He makes secure his residency in the New York City of the early 1990’s.

The Repairman Jack character captivated me as Wilson started to pump out these novels. Down to earth, gritty and likable, Jack is the perfect protagonist. Subtly however, Wilson started to mix in supernatural elements into the tales. Normally this would put me off but Jack pulls it off and once a year, for 16 years or so, he reappeared in yet another book, until Wilson was able to bring the story arc to a close.  Fans were aghast, lost without the prospect of another Repairman Jack novel. After millions of words though, Wilson gives us the Early Years Trilogy, of which Dark City is the second. These books show us how Jack became Jack. Read the novels in order; Cold City is the first in this series.

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

June 10, 2013

Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck is about events that mainly took place during the late Victorian era and during the reign of Edward VII.  It was a time of great progress, great superstition, and great wonders: spiritualism gained in popularity, magicians were celebrated entertainers, and scientists, researchers, and inventors could be major celebrities.  The German Max Planck originated the quantum theory, another German, Albert Einstein, launched the theory of relativity, and an Italian-Irish young man, Guglielmo Marconi, sent wireless signals across the Atlantic – something science at the time claimed to be impossible (due to the curved shape of the planet).

Science and magic were not always distinctly separated. Magic could contain scientific elements and science could seem magical. And while magicians might use scientific advancements to trick the crowds, the progress of science was so rapid that scientific claims sometimes were viewed as little more than magic tricks.  Some colleagues ridiculed Einstein for his theories and Marconi’s claims were often doubted.  The opposition remained fierce no matter what the young inventor did; no PR stunt or demonstration seemed to be able to do away with the negative criticism of the non-believers.

But opposition died down after his invention, the wireless Marconi system, in the most spectacular and public way had been part of a manhunt that reached from Europe to North America. The wanted man was a Dr. Crippen, a mild-mannered American gentleman living in London, who had (so it was believed anyway) committed the most grisly crime imaginable.

In Thunderstruck, the author tells the story of Marconi and Crippen, and how the two – so to speak – came to meet. Larson’s book can be described (and perhaps dismissed) as creative non-fiction as he actually manipulates the reader. Sometimes, for example, it seems as if he is writing about concurrent events when, in fact, they are separated by several years. But is the research solid? Yes, it is. And is it a good read? Oh, yes.

Find and reserve this book in the library. 

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