Friday, January 28, 2011

In space, only your crewmates can hear you fart.

Title: Packing for Mars - The Curious Science of Life in the Void (find in a library)
Author: Mary Roach
Bookmark: a stick with a lizard in it.

Somehow, I had never before heard of Mary Roach. I'm glad that oversight has finally been corrected. Roach is apparently well-known for writing eye-watering funny books about science, presented with stunning frankness and candor and (if this book is any indication) filled with first-hand research. Not that she actually went to Mars to prepare for the book, but she did ride the Vomit Comet, visit space agencies in three different countries, and travel to NASA's research station on Devon Island in Canada, which is so lifeless and cold that it's the next best thing to an actual moon landing.

Packing For Mars isn't about space travel--not really. It's about how humans can travel in space (and a couple dogs, and a few primates). Hardly any time is spent on rockets, booster engines, and possible future drive systems. This book is all about what space does to us. How our bodies are affected by weeks (and months) without gravity, bathing, fresh food, privacy, and free time (astronauts' schedules are rigorously structured), and how each of those difficulties have led to astonishing breakthroughs in almost every realm of science. To get at those answers, Roach has gone to some unusual lengths to find the truth about space travel, and anything fascinating or hilarious that she discovered but didn't fit in the main text is likely to have found a home in her copious footnotes. One of my favorite examples comes from the chapter on sex in space, which found Roach talking to marine biologists to find out how dolphins mate, watching porn to find an elusive scene of sex unencumbered by gravity, and poring through an impressive amount of archive material to discover the truth about an alleged masturbating astrochimp:
*Further evidence of the difficulties of reduced-gravity sex comes from the sea otter. To help hold the female in place, the male will typically pull the female's head back and grab onto her nose with his teeth. "Our vets have had to do rhinoplasties on some of the females," says Michelle Staedler, sea otter research coordinator at the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. (Sex can also be traumatic for the male otter, who endures aerial pecking attacks by seagulls mistaking his erect penis for a novel ocean delicacy.)
Roach focuses not on technology itself, but on how humans must interact with it to survive an environment we are not designed to survive. An entire chapter is devoted to the history and various advancements that allow astronauts to go to the bathroom without gravity (it's more difficult than you might think--without gravity pulling things down, our internal sensors can't tell when we're full. Astronauts have to set a schedule and stick to it, because they can't feel it when they have to go. Then there's the problem of getting detachment from both solid and liquids, both of which want to cling, and the danger of waste drifting out of a system that can't use gravity to contain it.). And that's good, because there are those that will ceaselessly point out that we can gather information from space more easily and with far less expense by sending robot probes instead of eating, breathing, sleeping, pooping, sweating, farting people who are fragile, susceptible to radiation and lack of gravity, water, and oxygen. People argue, stink, have individual wants and needs, and don't like eating the same colorless paste for days on end. And, as Roach points out in the final chapter, that is part of why people should go to space. Because we're people. We smell funny, we fart, we want variety in our food, we enjoy sex, we need to sleep almost a third of the time we're alive, but we dream, we innovate, we aspire, we wonder, and while we can represent some of the worst evils imaginable, we can also exhibit the greatest virtues imaginable. I've always been fascinated by space. I've always wanted to be an astronaut, and I've never needed anyone to convince me that we need to get up there. I cried when Challenger exploded, and kept a picture of Christa McAuliffe on my wall for years afterward. (Incidentally, the challenger disaster was 25 years ago today) Still, this book filled me with wide-eyed wonder, hope, and amazement just as often as it made me laugh hard enough to worry that the neighbors might be concerned.

In the spirit of Mary Roach's own footnotes, how great is it that a writer known for combining humor and science is named "Roach"?

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posted by reyn at 1:14 PM


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Young People These Days....

Title: The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future (find in a library)
Author: Mark Bauerlein

I should start this off by mentioning that I fall at the edge, but within, the generation that Bauerlein is railing against. I am still, just barely, under 30, and certainly was when the book was published in 2008.

Bauerlein outlines all sorts of depressing statistics about the generation under the age of 30, often called the Millennials. Their knowledge of civics is abysmal, their interest in science and engineering all but nonexistent, and their preference is for celebrity gossip over an appreciation of the arts. One of the many disturbing statistics he cited was:
According to the 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance (Centers for Disease Control), 37 percent of high school students watch three or more hours of television per day. For college students the numbers may be higher. In 2005, Nielsen Media Research reported that the average college student watches 3 hours, 41 minutes of television each day (p. 24).
And it's a safe bet that none of that TV time is devoted to anything remotely educational.

Bauerlein also discusses how dismissive this generation is of books. They see them as antiquated and have little to no interest in reading any. Even if they did attempt to read them, they'd have a hard time. Studies of user behavior on the internet demonstrate that users skim webpages in an F-shape pattern. They thoroughly read the first few sentences at most, skim, catch another half-line or so, skim and leave the page. With as much time as they spend on the internet, this method of reading extends to print as well.

However, the author doesn't rail against the Millennials alone. He also chastises the older generations for enabling this behavior. Working in higher education, I regularly see the dumbing down of education, the desire to cater to students, the repetition of "but they'll hate that class if we do that," and more. Sometimes what a student hates is what is best for him/her. An institution of higher education's job is to produce a more informed, well-rounded individual - not to cater to his/her every whim.

He ends with what basically boils down to a plea - "A healthy democracy needs a vigilant citizenry and a healthy citizenry needs a reservoir of knowledge" (p. 215). Bauerlein's worry is that if something isn't done, if this generation's lack of interest in anything beyond themselves and their peers doesn't change, "They may even be recalled as the generation that lost the great American heritage, forever" (p. 236).

Overall, an interesting and motivating read. I do feel his critique of this current generation is rather harsh at times, but not completely unfounded.

And now I'm off to read some heavy historical tome so that I can become a more informed, responsible citizen.

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posted by Kate at 6:09 PM


Thursday, January 20, 2011

An Epic Beginning

Title: The Eye of the World (find in a library)
Author: Robert Jordan

I have been talked into a second attempt at Robert Jordan's monstrous Wheel of Time series. Many years ago, I started reading it and got stuck halfway through book six. I found myself taking notes on the characters because there were so many and decided enough was enough. Plus, the series wasn't finished, and there was no end in sight.

But now the end is in sight. The fourteenth and final book will be published in March 2012. The series is being finished by Brandon Sanderson, whom I adore and who is very good at crunching out books on time. Robert Jordan passed away before he could complete it himself. However, he revealed the ending to a select few, who then chose Sanderson as the one to finish it. In all reality, I like Sanderson's writing better, so that's another motivator. I also really do want to know how the story ends. Plus, I told a friend that I might be willing to read the series again if there was a (support) group reading it at the same time, and he made that happen. So now I'm committed.

Book one - and frankly, probably the entire series - is so epic that I am having trouble figuring out how to summarize it.

The story opens in a town called Emond's field (well, after the prologue anyway) with the main character, Rand, accompanying his father from their outlying farm into the town proper with apple cider for an upcoming feast and celebration. Then, Rand sees a mysterious and terrifying stranger on horseback, but his father does not. Rand thinks he is crazy until he discovers that his two closest friends, Mat and Perrin, have also seen the this horseman.

Then Moiraine, an Aes Sedai (female who can wield The One Power - a magic-wielder, essentially) and Lan, her Warder come to town. Next Trollocs (nasty troll-like creatures) raid Rand's farm and the village, and it soon becomes clear to the Aes Sedai that they were searching for Rand, Mat, and Perrin. The three need to leave town or risk having their village destroyed. Egwene, Rand's flame, follows, looking for adventure.

The rest of the story is filled with colorful characters, tons of bad guys of many flavors, long journeys, an epic quest, and more. We learn that while females can wield The One Power, men cannot. The male version has been tainted by The Dark One, and any man who wields it ends up insane and extremely dangerous to those around him. We also learn that The Dark One has been imprisoned for a long time, but is slowly breaking free. And finally, there is a man, The Dragon Reborn, who is prophesied to be the only one who can really fight The Dark One. In this world, the ages cycle, and there have been many past Dragons, both false and real, who have attempted to fight The Dark One, but have not really succeeded. The number of false dragons is on the rise, and it seems likely that The Dragon Reborn will soon emerge.

I am eagerly looking forward to book 2, and hopeful that I can keep up the momentum. The reading schedule is a book a month, with one free month before the final book comes out.

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posted by Kate at 8:59 PM