Tag Archives: science

Periodic Tales, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

My grandfather was a chemist. He worked more with plastics and practicalities than with the specific, individual elements – certainly he worked more with the organic and elemental combinations than with the separation and discovery of new elements. But he helped instill in me an interest in what the world was made of. I loved chemistry in high school, and was good at it. (Physics was another matter – I am more interested in what things are made of then how they work, apparently.)

I am also interested in how things are organised and classified – what stories we tell about things to make sense of their place in the world. I love the periodic table, with its combination of organisation by size and by function. I am always amused by the different types of periodic tables that pop up – the periodic table of storytelling, or the periodic table of cupcakes.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that this was kind of a perfect book for me. It combined storytelling and chemistry. It explained some of the classifications of the elements, and the discovery of the elements, and the functions of the elements.  It discussed the cultural significance of gold versus silver, chrome versus platinum or titanium, iron and zinc. I learned more than I realised I didn’t know about ores and mining and geology.

It didn’t cover all of the elements, which was a bit disappointing. There wasn’t much inclusion of carbon, for example, or some of the other light elements (boron, lithium, etc.) There was a lot about the “rare earths”, which I didn’t know anything about, at all. But what it did include was, overall, fantastic. I doubt I’ll have retained all of it (I didn’t take notes or anything) but I think I’ve retained enough to at least have some pub quiz/trivia night answers handy.

The other thing that it didn’t include, which was incredibly frustrating at times, was a copy of the periodic table itself. This would have been so useful, especially when he was talking about some of the lesser-known elements (Germanium, for example), just to get a sense of where they were on the chart. It even would have been nice with the better-known elements, just as a reminder of things like their chemical symbol. (Especially since he mentions the chemical symbol of silver, for example.)  I read this book in places where I didn’t have easy internet access – I couldn’t just go and look up the periodic table – and I only have it memorized through neon on a good day.

But that’s a relatively petty frustration when it comes to such an interesting topic. It ultimately doesn’t matter that I didn’t have a table on which to base myself when he was detailing the discovery and different light colours of sodium and neon and argon, or the discovery of various radioactive elements, or his search for samples of the elements that he could put in his own physical periodic table.

It may not have made me want to run out and become a chemist, but it definitely made me more aware of the presence and use of specific elements in our daily world – and that is no bad thing.

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The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath, by Jane Robins

Okay, so I knew vaguely about the Brides in the Bath – I have been to Madame Tussaud’s several times now, and I think George Smith or whatever you want to call him has been featured in the Chamber of Horrors. But I didn’t know many of the details, and a lot of the late Victorian/Edwardian murder sensations blend together in my brain. The only thing I really remembered (probably spurred by the mnemonic there) was that this guy had married women and then drowned them.

What I didn’t know about the case was the bigamy aspect. (Question: is it still bigamy when it’s multiple wives who don’t know about each other? Because he had about three wives at any given time.) He married all of these women in succession, of course, but at the same time he had another wife that he would go back to in between, and a first wife who left him and fled to Canada – but as far as I could tell never actually got a divorce, although I could be wrong about that. Somehow that was almost more disturbing to me than the actual murders: the way he seduced these women and was so charismatic – and how close he came to getting away with it.

Obviously, with a title like that, the case is not the only aspect of this book. It’s also the story of Bernard Spilsbury, a “real-life Sherlock Holmes”, who is sometimes considered the father of modern forensics. It’s not really about his personal life, but it does establish the procedures and principles of autopsies and forensic deduction.

That makes it sound drier than it is. I found the book absolutely fascinating and engrossing. Not just the true-crime bits about the murders, but the information about the forensics of it as well. Possibly the coolest part – and the most convincing to me about the crime – was the “re-enactment” that Spilsbury and his colleagues did in order to establish the means. (Is “means” the word I’m looking for there?) Basically, they used some strong swimmers (women who could handle long stretches underwater), and tested different ways to submerge them. By sharply pulling up on the women’s legs – and keeping them up – they ended up almost killing one of their volunteers, and proving to their own satisfaction the way that the crimes could have been committed.

I couldn’t put this book down. It’s so smoothly and engagingly written that I just raced through it. I do enjoy historical true-crime type stuff, and I enjoyed this one even more than The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – in part because the crime was solved, so that aspect was much more satisfying in this book. Definitely another one that I’ll be pushing on people.

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Human Traces, by Sebastian Faulks

I think this is the first Sebastian Faulks book I’ve actually read. I’ve known about him, of course, and Birdsong has been (and still is) on my TBR list, but I think this is the first one that I’ve actually read. And it’s so worth it. The writing isn’t as poetically beautiful as, say, Vikram Seth’s, but the character depictions are quite realistic, and the ideas in it are stunning.

Human Traces is set at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the 20th century, and basically explores the subject and history of psychiatry through the lives (and work) of two friends. They agree to work together, and start their own sanatorium in the Alps, and their lives are intertwined even while their views on mental illness diverge greatly. Mental illness is still a great mystery in many respects today, so it was really interesting to see the modernity in the ideas that both Thomas and Jacques hold. Are mental illnesses the result of brain diseases? Unexplored traumas? Genetic abnormalities? I think today many people would say that it depends on the person and the illness (I know I would) and one major problem is knowing when to discriminate between them. (A problem   for Thomas and Jacques as well.)

The idea that I found most intriguing in this book was the idea that schizophrenia – hearing voices that tell you what to do – may be an evolutionary relic, connected with the development of language and writing. Thomas’s theory in the book is that ancient texts (the Bible and the Iliad are specifically mentioned) reflect reality when they describe the literal, physical or at least aural presence of the gods, but then as mankind developed writing and better forms of communication, the gods weren’t as necessary for communication and cultural organisation so the ability to hear them faded through the generations. I think this is an intriguing idea and wouldn’t mind exploring it more.

A corollary to that theory is the idea of consciousness as a sixth sense – the sense of personal, individual identity. The way I understood it was that Achilles in the Iliad, for example, didn’t really have a sense of himself as a Greek (or more generally, as a being independent from the will of the gods – that isn’t explicitly stated in the book, I don’t think, but I’m going with it for the benefit of the argument), and so could have a personal, physical/aural relationship with the gods. Odysseus in the Odyssey, on the other hand, could conceive of himself as an independent being, which is why Athena (for example) was mostly absent from his life and how he could practice deception (on both gods and men). There are massive issues with this argument, of course: the concept of “Greek” the way we understand it now didn’t really exist then, and the Iliad and the Odyssey are fairly contemporaneous, and Odysseus certainly had a personal/aural relationship with certain gods even if he did deceive them and others…. But I do like the idea at its core, even if the examples don’t quite hold up – that consciousness and the idea of individual identity is one of the things that marks us out as human.

I skimmed a couple of reviews of this book as I was reading, and one of the criticisms seems to be that it is more didactic than some of his others. Having not read any others, I can’t make a comparison, but a fair portion of this one is taken up with lectures about the various philosophical ideas involved in the burgeoning study of psychiatry and psychology. I enjoyed them, but I can see how they would seem overly formal to others.

The only quibble I had with the book is so minor that it’s not really worth mentioning (but as it’s my blog, I will mention it) – and it’s not that I think this detail is wrong as much as I’m wondering if it’s right. At a dinner party/musical evening, in a relatively remote town in Switzerland, in the early days of the 20th century (dates were never completely clear to me….maybe around 1905?) chamber music by Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler is played. I have no question that Beethoven and Brahms would be played, but would Mahler? How popular was he outside of the major metropolises during his lifetime? How popular was his chamber music? I honestly don’t know – I really only know Mahler’s symphonies (which certainly wouldn’t have been played at a musical evening in 1905 in Switzerland).


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The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes

The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes


I’ve finished it now, and my reaction is basically the same. It’s a good book, very engaging and mostly well-written. I just don’t think it’s the book that he thinks it is.  The subtitle is “How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science” but, at least to me, it was much more about the web of scientists and protégés that Joseph Banks developed. So much more time was spent developing the history of the Royal Society and discussing some of the feuds and connections that the argument about the Romantic Generation just sort of faded away. There are still mentions of Coleridge and Byron and the war(s) with the French, but those are not even remotely the focus of the book in the same way that Joseph Banks and his relationships with the scientists discussed are. Again, it’s not a bad book – in fact, it’s a very good book. It’s just not a book about the Romantic Generation, except coincidentally.

I say mostly well-written above. There are a few rogue commas, and a couple of odd phrasing and structure things. There are a couple of passages I want to point out: two odd ones, and one other.

First, a footnote talking about comets: “In modern times the passage of Hale-Bopp (1997) inspired a mass suicide by the Heaven’s Gate cult, though that was in California.” Um, exactly why does the location matter? Why does it matter enough to be put in an aside phrase? And why, exactly, does that phrase seem so dismissive? ‘Comets are interesting and mystical and have inspired odd behaviour. But only in the past, except in silly California.’ That’s how that sentence comes across to me: as though it’s somehow less relevant because it was in California.

Second, the first chapter about Humphrey Davy – and, actually, the second chapter about Humphrey Davy – is presented a bit oddly. I can’t remember exactly what confused me about the first chapter during the bulk of it, but the chapter ends with the sentence “At a glittering reception afterwards, Jane Apreece told Humphrey Davy that she loved fishing.” Um…..okay. I know he’s an angler and all, but quite a bit of the chapter has been about his (presumed) love affairs and the women chasing him, and …. it’s a really abrupt way to end a chapter, especially when Jane Apreece was only introduced in the preceding sentence. And then this isn’t resolved for another couple of chapters, past a chapter about the Vitality experiments and Frankenstein. Also, the second chapter about Humphrey Davy, chronologically after he and Jane Apreece have gotten married, keeps referring to future-to-them events (“Jane would remember it regretfully during a similar trip the next year” or things like that) with very little, if any, follow-up. Don’t tease us with emotional insight and then not actually provide any emotional insight!

Third, because it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, here is one of the sappiest love letters I’ve ever read. It’s from Humphrey Davy to his wife, when he’s on a fishing trip and she’s back in wherever they live: “I flirt with the water nymphs, but you are my constant goddess. I make you the personification of the spirit of the woods, and the waters, and the hills, and the clouds….this is the earliest form of religion. I breathe a sigh upon paper from the thought of being apart from you for only two days. My dear, dear Love creates a void which no interest or amusement can fill….The longer I live, the more I shall love you, my dearest Jane.”

Okay, it’s sweet. Sickeningly sweet. Happy Valentine’s Day.


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The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe

Ever since I read Moon Dust, I have been mildly obsessed with the space program. It’s not a new obsession; it’s one that lurks in the background of my mind and pops up every once in a while. I do wish that there were more of an active space exploration program, and that the space program as it is got more publicity (certainly when things go right, not just when things go wrong).

But, yes, ever since I read Moon Dust, I’ve had a renewed obsession. I watched through the entirety of From the Earth to the Moon (the story of Apollo 1 always makes me cry), rewatched Apollo 13 for the millionth time (stupid Ron Howard, sucking me in), had the Wikipedia pages on the astronauts up on a nearly permanent basis. And I acquired a copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Next step, assuming the obsession hasn’t burned itself out, is to try to find a copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s book about Apollo. (And watch the film of The Right Stuff, of course.  I may do a follow-up entry after watching it, to compare the book and the film. Oh, Ed Harris, I love your work.)

The other stimulus for The Right Stuff, for me, is the fact that it was written by Tom Wolfe. See, my senior seminar at university was on “New Journalism” – what is sometimes now called “creative” or “narrative” non-fiction.  (I won’t get into my full frustration with time-based appellations here. Let’s just summarize it by saying that in, say, fifty years, “new” forms of literature are going to have to be referred to as post-contemporary-post-post-modernist-new-literature or something ridiculous like that.) Anyway, “narrative non-fiction” is a movement that started in the 60s, as so many movements did, and changed the tone of non-fiction from very objective, impartial, and fact-based to subjective, personal, and fact-based. The writer, in creative non-fiction and new journalism, can be as much of a character as the people that he’s interviewed. At the very least, his (or her) personality and literary choices are acknowledged as a forming part of the book. Books – or articles, since a lot of the new journalism was found in feature magazines like Rolling Stone – are very personal, telling not only what happened, but what it was like. The tone is often very similar to sitting in a bar listening to someone tell about their experience.

Certainly The Right Stuff is. It’s full of facts, of course. There’s nothing in it that can’t be corroborated. There’s nothing in it that isn’t untrue. But there are any number of asides and perspectives that make it seem more subjective than you might expect from a non-fiction book.

Basically, The Right Stuff is about the beginnings of the astronaut program. I’m using that word deliberately, because in addition to the Mercury program (and all the hoopla around the Mercury Seven, the first astronauts) it’s also about the test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base, particularly Chuck Yeager and his group, and the unstated rivalry between the X-15 program (piloted planes that could potentially go beyond the boundary of space) and the Mercury program. It’s about the events, the politics behind them (in both a Washington and a non-Washington sense of “politics”), and the personalities involved.

The Right Stuff, as a phrase, is used informally throughout the book for that ineffable quality that pilots might have. One can lose the right stuff at any point (“it can burst at any seam”), and for any reason – some of which have to do with the person and some to do with external forces, especially doctors.

One of the things that I took away from this book – and, to some extent, Moon Dust – is how finite NASA’s goals were, and became. “Beat the Soviets.” “Put a man in space.” “Put a man on the moon.” Well, …. now what? It’s actually kind of sad – whenever they attempted to do something scientific or discover something in the Mercury program, it was thwarted for various reasons. Grissom’s capsule was lost. Carpenter was all but dismissed from the program. In Apollo, the “scientists” were looked down on, to some extent, by the pilots. And it’s sad, because the science of it, the discovery process, might not be as glamorous or as quick-rewarding, but that’s what keeps programs going.

The other thing that I found sad in this book was the dichotomy between the Mercury program and the X-15/X-20 program. It’s a great “what would have been”.  The X-programs were training and developing piloted aircraft to take off from the ground and enter space – kind of like the space shuttle eventually was, sort of. If they had been allowed to continue (they were killed to free up funding and resources for Apollo and other NASA programs), it is entirely possible that we would be closer to “space tourism” or at least more commercially viable space exploration today. We might not have put a man on the moon by the end of the 60s – and I do love Apollo – but we might be making more trips there today.

Of course, it’s impossible to say what might have been. But the overwhelming sense that I got from Tom Wolfe’s book was that NASA – and Washington – were playing the short game while the X-program was playing the long game. And too often we can’t even see the benefits of the long game for the risks, and the rewards of the short game.

This book is also a monument to how fickle and short-term public interest is. Not that the book itself has dated – it hasn’t, surprisingly. But Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier (Mach 1) and was as feted as Lindbergh. Within a few years, it was the turn of the Mercury Seven, and all the work that was being done at Edwards was ignored. Alan Shepard was the first American in space, and got a ticker-tape parade in New York and went to the White House. Gus Grissom was second, and got a handshake on the tarmac. John Glenn was the first American in orbit, and was the Golden Boy for a long time. Who can remember the others who also made orbital flights? (Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper. Deke Slayton was one of the Mercury Seven, but was grounded before he went into space.) And before Mercury was even over, attention had shifted to other aspects of the Cold War – in fact, people were declaring the Cold War over. NASA’s attention had shifted to Gemini and Apollo. The public’s attention had shifted away from NASA. And it certainly had shifted away from the test pilots outside of NASA. Chuck Yeager almost died trying to set a new flying record, and no one noticed.

It’s definitely a “new journalism” book. While Tom Wolfe is never explicitly present, the style is very much his, and you’re very much there. It’s “fly-on-the-wall” – you almost feel like you are there, watching John Glenn confront the other astronauts, or hiding in the houses with the wives and families trying to evade the press corps, or drag-racing along Cocoa Beach, or screaming up through the atmosphere in either a jet or the Mercury capsule. It’s not easy to read, exactly – the style takes some getting used to. Narrative non-fiction has become incorporated into most modern non-fiction today, but The Right Stuff is “new journalism” at its most raw (without being Hunter S. Thompson), so it can be a little bit disconcerting.

Next up on my agenda is the film – like I said at the top, I may do a follow-up post once I’ve watched that. (Probably within the week. Ah, the joys of being essentially unemployed.) And then perhaps I’ll be able to move on from this current NASA obsession, and on to other things….

P.S. I still want to read profiles, both mission profiles and post-Apollo profiles – of the CM pilots. Does such a book exist? Like Moon Dust, but for the astronauts who stayed in the CM….

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The Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Like Moon Dust, The Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks is a book where the author/narrator is a character. By the end of the book, you know Rebecca Skloot almost as well as you know Henrietta Lacks or her family. Most of the time this works really well – it is, after all a personal story. The only time I thought that it didn’t work as well was near the beginning, when Rebecca is detailing her erratic, apathetic education. I understand why her initial exposure to HeLa and Henrietta’s identity is important, but the rest of it seemed a bit unnecessary to me. I kept waiting for it to be significant, to be a point of commonality that Rebecca could use, but it never happened.

But that’s a minor quibble for a book that includes so much on so many topics. In addition to being a biography of Henrietta Lacks, it’s also the story of her family, Johns Hopkins, the medical researchers, and the cell line.  It also touches on racism, social inequality, ethics, and education and class.  I’m not going to say a lot about the various biographies that are incorporated into the book: they are, after all, the story. But I do want to touch briefly on the wider issues.

The racism issue is pretty simple: would Henrietta Lacks and her family have been treated differently if they were not black? The answer is, sadly, probably yes. I don’t think the outcome would have been different: Henrietta’s cells would still have been taken, etc., but I think the way they were taken and especially the way her family was treated would have been different. I wish I could be wrong about this; there is of course no way to know.

Tied in with that is the question of social class (which in the US is often tied to race as well as economics and education). I feel fairly certain that the Lacks family would not have been dismissed the way they were if they had been, or appeared, richer and/or more educated.

Which brings me to the next thing I noticed: the assumptions that come with education. It’s something that I am often very guilty of.  When you’re surrounded by something when you’ve spent years learning about something, you forget that not everyone has.  You assume that the basic ideas and vocabulary of your subject are common knowledge, and you forget that there was a time when you had to learn them too.

This is what happened with Henrietta Lacks’s family.  Most of the researchers who contacted the Lacks family (for DNA samples, for example) or whom the family contacted for information assumed a base level of understanding that the family didn’t have.  If that basic understanding of a field isn’t there, the rest is gibberish and there’s nowhere even to start asking questions.  It wasn’t until someone took the time to make sure that the family understood the basics that they could move on and process what had happened.

The last thing – and the most controversial thing – that’s brought up by this story is the ethics of tissue collection. What sort of rights does or should a person have over cells that are no longer a part of their body? What sort of information should someone be entitled to if, like Henrietta, their cells prove to be useful or unusual? What responsibility do researchers have to follow up with patients or their families? There are no good or easy answers that can balance the rights of researchers with the rights of patients.

The Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks is an incredibly well-researched book. There are points where, to me Rebecca’s story seemed a bit intrusive, but overall the stories it tells and the issues it raises help it live up to every glowing review.



Filed under Non-Fiction (History), Non-Fiction (Science)

Moon Dust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, by Andrew Smith

For my senior seminar at university, I took a class in New Journalism – the movement that started in the 1960s that led to more narrative non-fiction and the acknowledgement or realization that pure objectivity is impossible. In narrative non-fiction, the writer is often a character in the work. It’s still factual, but the research process, and the creative process, is as much a part of the story as the research findings. Moon Dust and the other book I’ve finished recently (The Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks, blog post to come), are very much a part of the narrative non-fiction category of writing. The story of the writer is explicitly a part of these books, even more so, if I recall, than the gonzo journalism of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Moon Dust interweaves the stories of the surviving Moonwalkers with Andrew Smith’s own memories and feelings about the Apollo program.  He never pretends that this is an objective work of biography or technical detail; it’s very much a personal project for him. There are biographical details of the astronauts, of course, and a bit of technical information and history about the space program, but it’s almost more a philosophical book. Smith realizes by the end that the greatest outcome of Apollo is the opportunity it gave us as a species to look back on Earth, to reassess our place in the universe and our place in the world. The main question of the book is “what next?” What do you do after you’ve walked on the moon? How do you follow that up? How do we follow it up as a species, as a culture? Smith talked to all, or nearly all, the surviving Moonwalkers and a couple of the Command Module pilots, to try to answer that question.

Twelve men walked on the moon; nine of them are still living. No one has left Earth orbit since 1972 with Apollo 17. Eventually – and sooner than we might want or expect – no one living will have walked on the moon. No one will know what it is like to look back at Earth and see it complete and whole, hanging in space. It is almost sad: my generation especially knows the successes of the space program only through history. We didn’t live through Apollo, so we don’t really know the excitement and adventure of the moon landings. We know the current space program more through its failures or its trivia. We don’t hear about the successes anymore – they’ve become normal or commonplace. We only hear about NASA when things go wrong – Challenger, or Columbia. Or the last flight of the space shuttle. We only hear news about people going to space when it’s unusual or seemingly ridiculous, like the “space tourists”.  Being an astronaut is no longer something that most people dream of and strive for; those who do often realize that they were born in the wrong time for it.

Like most people, I only vaguely know the names of the astronauts in the “middle” Apollo missions. I know the names of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, of course. There are a few others that I’d heard of because they feature in Apollo 13. But some of them I had to look up as I was reading. And they are the ones that are the most interesting in this book. Neil Armstrong is notoriously reticent, Buzz Aldrin has a reputation for being wacky (although that didn’t really come through in this presentation of him); Gene Cernan is parlaying his “last man on the moon” status into lobbyist pressure for a return. Those are things you might expect, I suppose. The ones I most enjoyed were the ones who’d adapted their experiences into other areas: Alan Bean, who’s now a painter; Edgar Mitchell, who seems to still be living out his emotional “epiphany” from his moonwalk.

The writing in this book is quite conversational, and quick because of that. I only marked a few passages, and those near the end, just because of the way I read it (patchily, during breaks at my current job); there weren’t any moments where the writing left me skeptical. I’d definitely classify it as a good book, in part because my reading list afterwards has grown.  I feel like I’ve gotten the end of the story – what happened next – but there are gaps. I really want to read The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe now (another classic of the narrative non-fiction/new journalism style), and I want to know more about the Command Module pilots. (I can only name two CM pilots – Michael Collins from 11, and Ken Mattingly from 16. And I only really know Ken Mattingly from Apollo 13 and because he came to speak at USD a couple years after the movie came out. He’s now one of my favourites, of course.) But now that I know what happened “next” – as much as anyone can, I think – I want to know more. What was it like being in the space program? What was it like not landing on the moon? What are the stories of the other missions? Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 have become fairly well-known, but what was it like for the other ones? What was it like at Mission Control? And that’s what a good non-fiction book should do: give you information but also expand your horizons. (and your reading list, apparently…..)


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Filed under Non-Fiction (History), Non-Fiction (Science)