Sunday, September 29, 2013

With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change by Fred Pearce

I read Pearce's When the Rivers Run Dry back in 2009 and named it one of the year's top ten out of the 101 books I read. That should have made this book an obvious purchase, but I did not buy it right away. Did I really want to read a book about global warming? I already know it's happening and it's probably our fault, so why get a book about it? That's largely why I didn't bother reading Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth when my wife bought it. Oddly enough, I went back and forth so many times on whether to get this book that I ended up buying it twice, paperback and hardcover, because I couldn't remember whether I'd bought it.

I decided to read the paperback because it includes a "new" preface, albeit now six years old. Pearce is a magazine reporter, and like When the Rivers Run Dry, this book sometimes reads more like a collection of articles than a cohesive narrative. I like this approach because it presents a broad survey of what's going on all over the world. The author takes us where the scientists are making observations, doing calculations, and creating models to predict the impact of countless factors on Earth's climate. Overall it is an incredibly complex system.

Pearce makes climate more intriguing than I ever expected, and I learned a heck of a lot from this book. Sometimes he writes with an urgent tone, but that's understandable because 1.) this is serious shit, and 2.) he's been writing about climate for decades, watching the situation become more dire—and our role in causing it more obvious—while many governments and industries do nothing to alter our course.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax" by Philip Plait

As I have mentioned before, astronomy was one of my first adult hobbies. Before I could drive, I was peering into a 3" telescope in our front yard. I was fairly well-versed in observational astronomy back then—especially for a preadolescent—though my grasp on cosmology was much weaker. Of course, that was 30 years ago and some things have changed. For example, astronomers have identified many more moons orbiting the outer planets since the days of the Voyager probes.* Regrettably I didn't maintain my interest; by the time Halley's Comet returned in 1986, probably for its only visit to the inner solar system in my lifetime, I couldn't be bothered to look for it.**

I learned of Plait from General Carlessness years ago and last year read his most recent book, Death from the Skies!, which I found fascinating in a terrifying sort of way. I bought Bad Astronomy before I read Death from the Skies!, but I was a little less interested in it. I remember enough about astronomy that I harbor few of these misconceptions. I think most are ridiculous, and my 13-year-old self probably would have agreed. Seeing stars in broad daylight from the bottom of a well?!?! So I feared that I would merely enjoy Plait's presentation and refutation of each myth without learning much.

I should have known better. I learned a lot from Plait, who definitely knows his stuff. Sometimes, such as regarding the cause of tides, I had a vague notion of how something worked and he explained it clearly with greater detail and consideration of additional factors. Other times, he included some historical background or other enriching information that was new to me. And of course it's fun to read. Plait knows how to speak science to the masses.

One of his rants is misguided, though. Plait rails against advertisers using the phrase "light-years ahead" as in "light-years ahead of the competition." His complaint is that light-year is a measure of distance and that admen are mistakenly using it as a measure of time in place of "years ahead". But I would counter that people say "miles ahead of the competition" so there is nothing wrong with substituting light-years as another unit of distance. Of course it's hyperbole, but it's not scientifically incorrect. He has much firmer footing pointing out other linguistic errors in that chapter, such as meteoric rise and quantum leap.

* Jupiter had 16 known moons in the early 1980s, but now there are 67! Saturn has gone from 17 to 62! Of course, none of those "new" moons are visible to an amateur astronomer anyway.

** I don't regret it enough to get back into it, though. Once I lose interest in something, it never comes back with anything approaching the previous intensity. World War II, Route 66, architecture, photography, county collecting, and historic preservation are further examples of this. I retain a lot of knowledge and enjoy occasionally revisiting those subjects/activities, but the passion is gone. Actually, my biggest regret about losing interest in astronomy when I did is that it happened before I could afford a bigger telescope like the ones my pre-employment self drooled over in Sky & Telescope. By the way, I still have that 3" telescope even though I haven't used it in two decades and perhaps never will again. But now we're discussing my hoarding problem.

Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall

I've always thought of sleep as a creepy state of being. You're largely unaware of the world around you, which makes you vulnerable. Your brain forms strange images, often so lifelike yet not real. And you spend one third of your life in this state. It gives me the willies.

Dreamland came out last year in hardcover. Though I wanted it immediately, I managed to wait for a paperback to turn up at Half Price Books.

I really like this book, but it isn't as long as it appears or should be. Sure it's 266 pages, but look at the typesetting—the space between lines is unusually large. The chapter about sleep apnea is informative but could be longer. I also expected to read more about REM sleep disorder, which Mike Birbiglia has written about (unscientifically).

Ultimately there are a lot of unanswered questions in sleep science. It is a fairly new area of study. REM (rapid eye movement) wasn't discovered until the 1950s, and the CPAP machine, now a common remedy for sleep apnea, wasn't devised until the late 1970s (using a vacuum cleaner motor!). All of this adds up to a short history with a lot of uncertainties, and that's probably why this book isn't longer.

Dreamland also cries out in need of an index—there are even twelve blank pages at the end of the book!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Guys Like Me Are Mad for Turtle Meat*

I saw this turtle Wednesday on the Paul Douglas Forest Preserve Trail. It's the biggest I've ever seen in the wild. Its shell was about a foot long. Elsewhere on the trail I saw two snakes of similar length (but slimmer).

Last week I saw a coyote standing in the middle of the Poplar Creek Trail. Unfortunately, I was unable to take a picture before it disappeared into the brush. But at least I'm fast enough to photograph a turtle!

That's a line from Leonard Cohen's "Jazz Police". I recently learned that others do not share my love for that song. But I'm not really mad for turtle meat, and I did not consume the turtle pictured here. Alas I did scare the guy, as he lowered his shell and went into hiding.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Armageddon Science: The Science of Mass Destruction by Brian Clegg

Armageddon is a word that gets people's attention. Just think of that dopey, awful song by Def Leppard. Are you gettin' it? Now that you have that crap stuck in your head, read on...

In this book, Clegg examines seven threats that could kill many or even all of us such as climate change, nuclear weapons, and nanobots. He provides background and history, describes the dangers, and assesses their likelihood. Far from being an alarmist, he dismisses most of them, at least for the near future.

Sometimes the author gets sidetracked on rants, such as his take-down of Dan Brown's Angels & Demons (another example is his rant against the UK's Soil Association for its ban on nanoparticles). It doesn't mean anything to me since I never read the book or saw the movie, and besides, the type of person who would believe the science in a Dan Brown book wouldn't read a book like this one (though that person might own a Def Leppard album or two).

Since entire books have been written about each of these topics, Armageddon Science isn't the deepest discussion of them. Still, it is an entertaining and informative read.

Copyediting note: Clegg misspells tokamak as "tokomak", and boy, do I feel like a smart science guy for catching that one (I read a book about fusion a couple years ago).

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Perfection Point: Sport Science Predicts the Fastest Man, the Highest Jump, and the Limits of Athletic Performance by John Brenkus

I thought this would be a nice transition book from last month's football theme to this month's science theme. It was, though football isn't mentioned in the book.* Sport Science is a show on ESPN that I don't watch because I don't have cable. I saw one episode online last year, which incidentally was about football. It featured quarterback Brandon Weeden throwing footballs at clay pigeons.

The Perfection Point is mostly about physics and physiology. Brenkus explains everything clearly enough for the layperson (i.e, me) to understand. He even passes the ultimate sportswriting test: I enjoyed his chapters about golf and basketball even though I hate those sports. I wish there was an index, though. Shouldn't an index be mandatory in a science book?

* That's okay; I already read an entire book about The Physics of Football.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

August Wrap-Up/September Theme

August was a pretty good month. I read eight books about football, and none were bad. On the other hand, nothing stood out as exceptional either. Regardless, I learned a lot about the sport and a couple of my favorite teams, plus I got psyched up for the 2013 NFL season.

Looking back at the summer, I have to admit that I've chosen some lightweight topics lately: humor, rock and roll, and football. I am going to change that in September. The theme will be science. I plan to concentrate on what I call "real" science (aka hard science), but I might read something from the social sciences, too.

Friday, September 06, 2013

The Code: Football's Unwritten Rules and Its Ignore-at-Your-Own-Risk Code of Honor by Ross Bernstein

Here is yet another lengthy subtitle. As if that's not enough, this book also includes two forewords and an afterword. It all adds up to a lot of text on the front cover. At least the designer used small letters.

I bought this book a year ago at After-words. I wasn't sure I wanted it; I must have been in an "I have to buy something" mood that night. Later I regretted the purchase and doubted that I would read it. But throughout August, whenever I was looking for the next football book to read, I would read a random page from The Code and want to read more.* I decided to wait a while because I had started the month with NFL Unplugged and there's some overlap in subject matter. It turned out to be a good way to finish football month.

I like The Code more than NFL Unplugged. It seems better organized, and Bernstein's writing is more engaging (I had to plod through parts of NFL Unplugged). For the most part, he lets the players and coaches (most if not all retired) speak for themselves, plugging their tales and comments into a narrative. I like it when an author stays out of the way of the story.

Copyediting note: At least twice, Bernstein used the word venerable when he clearly meant veritable. That's one I've never seen before.

* This is often how I decide which book to read next. Just flip to a page, read a little, and if it's interesting, read the whole book. Except I can be indecisive, in which case I pile up a few possibilities and read random pages from each until I decide on one. And no, I have never read two entire books that way trying to choose between them!

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Chicken Little Warned Me About This

Sometime in the last few days, 25 ceiling tiles fell down in our basement workout room. I'm guessing we were away or asleep when it happened because we didn't hear it. On the bright side, I gained an extra inch of clearance for overhead presses.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

The Underground Football Encyclopedia: Football Stuff You Never Needed to Know and Can Certainly Live Without by Robert Schnakenberg

Finally, an accurate football book title! This book focuses on the overlap between the NFL and popular culture. It includes entries for mascots, TV announcers, cheerleaders, end-zone dances, football movies, superfans*, players-turned-actors, music videos ("The Super Bowl Shuffle"!), nicknames, and more.

I learned a lot of interesting stuff. I didn't know Alex Karras' wife on Webster was also his wife in real life. I had never heard about John Riggins' drunken encounter with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Like the subtitle says, this isn't critical information, but it's a lot of fun. Schnakenberg writes with humor appropriate to the entries and includes sidebars like "Great Moments in Cheerleaders Scandal".

* Incidentally, the "superfans" entry refers to actual hardcore fans (many of whom also get their own entries) and not "Bill Swerski's Superfans" from Saturday Night Live in the 1990s. I'm not a football expert, but I think that is the author's most egregious exclusion from this book.