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REVIEW: Pop Goes the (Best) Science

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KEND

For those who are maybe somewhat new to our podcast, here’s a little necessary context: Tony and I met while working our respective ways through our Masters of Fine Arts (MFAs) in Creative Writing, and we bonded over science fiction and hot tea. Our various obsessions have continued, and if I’ve learned anything about myself and Tony over the years, it’s that everything is rocket fuel. Maybe Elon Musk would disagree with me on that, but I’m always here for unnecessary fights over semantics.

Long story short: When I’m stuck, or burned out, or otherwise struggling to find the heart of the story I’m working on, I still turn to nonfiction. Much of it is thinly veiled research, and much of it is still steeped in pontifications and the smug undertones of the establishment—an establishment I’m still attempting to emerge from, as a smug pontificator myself—but these three books, I’m happy to report, represent something else. Here are three fresh takes on the sciences—and the histories behind those sciences. They might, taken together, represent a sea change in science communication, and a swing of the literary pendulum toward a pop science that unifies, a pop science that blends all the best that my father's favorite stiff biographies and that Tom Wolfe's rambunctious portraits and that Neil deGrasse Tyson's masterfully surreal science tweets and that Bill Nye has to offer. Which is to say, I've never suffered those fools who thought pop science texts were somehow lowbrow, but if I had, even they would have been knocked flat by the sheer excellence of pop science in 2018.

Here are my reviews.

*****

Let's begin, as does the incomparable N.K. Jemisin, with the end of the world. Even if we prove more forward-thinking than the dinosaurs (which in all seriousness remains up for debate) we are doomed, and I'm not talking about old age or even the eventual heat death of the universe. That's what we're all taught in school, isn't it? The natural progression of our eventual demise goes something like this: nuclear war (imminent) and we're toast, then the sun will bloom into a red giant (5 billion years from now) and we're extra toasty, then the slow leeching of all life and heat from the universe (at least 10^100 years) will result in an end that's more of a whimper than a bang. Unless the other guys are right, that is, and we're headed for a Big Bounce, Big Crunch, or Big Rip. I'll opt for any end-of-the-universe scenario which doesn't sound like a Wall Street exposé. Elon Musk's desire is predicated on the assumption that if we skip a couple of rocks across the solar system, spread our seed widely enough, we can survive a comet or asteroid or two. And perhaps we can, although I for one think Musk is incredibly optimistic about everything, including our longevity on a planet with no molten core, no tectonic activity, no magnetism, and therefore none of the protections against atmospheric strippage and harmful radiation which we enjoy today.

So if we're not ultimately fated to die from nuclear self-immolation or environmental devastation or the sun swelling up like my ego on Twitter or the universe fading into perpetual "meh," what then is this doom I mentioned?

The switching of the Earth's magnetic poles, of course! It's already begun. It never really ended after the last time, even. And in Alanna Mitchell's The Spinning Magnet, we are gifted—yes, gifted—with a bundle or rich insights into the deeply sexy soul of electromagnetism. What, you don't believe me? You don't find electromagnetism compelling and life-alteringly interesting? C'mon now.

All right, so perhaps this is one of science's less likely candidates for a Time cover of the year or the swimsuit edition of ... you know, I haven't actually owned a swimsuit in years. What magazine does a swimsuit edition? All I know is that it keeps being stolen from the library, and we've given up trying to replace our missing magazines. More on point, electromagnetism is so poorly understood by the average layperson (me) that it wasn't even on my personal radar until Tony mentioned this book might be worth reading.

Consider me a convert, a new acolyte of electromagnetism. This is a subject which simply screamed for an adept hand to bring it to light in a way that rendered it compelling rather than confusing and interesting rather than unassailable. That Mitchell was able to take her source material and tease an approachable narrative out of the murkiest of the four fundamental forces in the universe is impressive. That she came at the story from a journalistic background is equally impressive; this is nothing like a short thinkpiece. It's serious about its science, just as its serious about the people who brought the science into being. There's some swash and some buckle to the characters sashaying around in the more biographical chapters, and there are the requisite grim predictions about our ultimate fate as a species in light of the speedy changes to our planet's magnetic orientation. If we don't wipe ourselves out in the next hundred years, we may just survive long enough to watch that fate unfold—in silence, with nary a ripple through our senses. Oh, sure, the birds may lose their ability to navigate. Plenty of other creatures, too. Maybe our human brains will be affected by the confusion of magnetic field lines soon to converge on us. But we're more likely to die from exposure to hard radiation than anything. Those Van Allen Belts, those soft and fluffy doughnut diagrams of our planet's neat little field lines buffering us against the damaging solar wind, they keep us alive in a number of helpful ways. Once the switch in poles is complete, of course, we'll get the belts back. Probably. But in the meantime—and nobody knows how much of a meantime there might be—those field lines will be in utter confusion, those doughnuts crushed under the unrelenting solar heel. We'll be exposed, our soft tissues honeycombed by hard radiation. The kind that punches holes through our own planet's mantle, whenever it slips past the good old VAB.

We'll face one of the same risks inherent to colonizing Mars, in other words, but on our home planet where we can't simply bury all of our industry and our agriculture and our daily doings under six feet of regolith and call it good.

There's nothing like a good nonfictional book about the end of the world to impress upon you the flawed nature of our greatest aspirations, is there? Thanks to Alanna Mitchell, I'm officially into maps of magnetic anomalies. I'm also a vastly more knowledgeable person about electromagnetism, which seems like a good result to me.

PAIRS WELL WITH:
Longitude by Dava Sobel
For All the Tea in China by Sarah Rose

*****

Dinosaurs. Love them or hate them (but mostly love them), they're everywhere thanks to the latest resurge of cinematic dinothusiasm, which is to say, we're getting another Jurassic World film this summer and every eight-year-old boy in rural Montana is very excited. In other, lesser-known facts, every eight-year-old girl is also excited, as is every kid of every gender and every age, all the way up to those kids who happen to inhabit larger, slightly more cumbersome bodies. Cumbersome because it's not so easy to climb trees and launch oneself down at unsuspecting passerby when you're more than four feet all. Ah, those halcyon days of old, when my friend Diana and I used to entertain the entire university cafeteria with our "Velociraptor Ferris Wheel" impressions. When Alyssa and I used to hide under the bridge between the university pool and the science hall and pretend to be either trolls or Sarcosuchuses. It was a very small bridge, and it was extremely difficult to get underneath. I think we deserve points for effort.*

I guess what I'm saying is, I was just a wee bit into dinosaurs as a college student, having come late to the dinothusiasm thanks to, well, the fact that I was raised by evangelical Christian missionaries and informed by a school curriculum which taught that the Earth was created in six days, is only six thousand years old (tops), and was either a) seeded with dinosaur fossils by God as a test of our faith or b) sprinkled with fossils because everybody died in the Big Flood of the Noah's Ark story, dummies. 

Yeah, I figured out what science was a little later than most people. Luckily, I've had friends along the way to nurture my science-crazed, late-night brain-on-fire processing sessions. And I've also had the luck of stumbling across a number of books which ignited and broadened my love for our feathered friends of the Jurassic and Cretaceous. James Gurney** got in the door early, even before I staggered into the Michael Crichton parade. Greg Bear's Dinosaur Summer recently swanned across my shelf, as did Jack Horner's How to Build a Dinosaur***. But far and away the best book about dinosaurs that I've read in recent years is Steve Brusatte's The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs.  

Here's a book which is both highly entertaining and deeply devoted to the science. It's simultaneously the most readable book about dinosaurs I've ever picked up, and the most self-aware; Brusatte paints himself as just one minor figure among a grand cast of researchers, scientists, and other teams dedicated to uncovering the links between then and now. Far from the lone, heroic gentleman-naturalist braving the wilds to bring back Knowledge for the common people, Brusatte renders that whole community accessible to his readers.

Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer ("Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog")

Brusatte even makes it clear, in unobtrusive but important ways, that paleontology as a field is riddled with complications. For example, while most of the old guard and indeed many of the new guard are men of a certain class and extraction, Brusatte highlights the work of diverse individuals in the field, many of them up-and-comers actively remaking paleontology into a discipline which has room for women and people of color. It's telling that the book's concluding line, if you count the afterward, is "Watch out for her." Or maybe I'm just a fan of authors who unintentionally summon Ellie Sattler.

(Gifs courtesy of Alligator-Sunglasses.com)

Ah, but I would be doing a disservice to Brusatte if I did not spend a few minutes arguing that, content aside, this is a really fantastic book. It's compact (for a work that considers the entire Mesozoic, plus some important bits of the Paleozoic, too). It is tightly structured, with chapters leading through rising and falling action. It contains some really magnificent sentences, sentences which frame Brusatte's keen insights into human (and prehistoric animal) nature. As an expert in the applications of Big Data to the field of paleontology, it's clear he's quite brilliant, but on the page at least he comes off as accessible. Driven, with more than a dollop of humility. A collaborator, gatherer of anecdotes, and engine of science communication.

If you haven't noticed by now, I really liked this book. 

Oh, and remember: Birds are dinosaurs. Plan accordingly.

PAIRS WELL WITH:
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith
Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding by Scott Weidensaul

*****

Rounding out the pack is Michio Kaku's book of the monolithic title, The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond. I actually read this book first, but I haven't quite gotten around to making up my mind about its place in the larger canon of nonfiction, simply because it covers so much ground. And space. And time. It includes a description of String Theory, for goodness' sake, and I've never figured out how I feel about that, either. 

Kaku is, for those who are not familiar, somewhat of a titan in the twin worlds of science communication and science education. He may not be as visible to the average casual nerd right now as Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose face and choicest quotes have been co-opted by all sorts of Etsy crafters, but Kaku is a figure to be reckoned with nonetheless. His day job has him working at the City College of New York as a Professor of Theoretical Physics. This book gathers together and summarizes many of his thoughts on popular subjects in science at the present moment, including the colonization of Mars, the realities of human spaceflight, and the ongoing search for ways to extend the human lifespan.

I always find it so interesting to track the deeper assumptions and worldviews of the scientists who write these grand and sweeping scientific sagas, and there are inklings of something lurking beneath Kaku's streamlined prose that I think (self-described) "old hippie gardener-philosopher" friend Julie would recognize and connect with. Kaku is certainly in awe of this big and wild universe of ours, and more than a little in love with the people who populate our little corner of it, despite everything. There's something so firmly and resolutely optimistic about his language, his perspectives, and even the subjects he chooses to focus on that I have no other option except to conclude that Michio Kaku is a much kinder, more open-hearted person than I am. 

Still, I had fun with his book.

A warning: This book is not a comprehensive look at ... well, anything. It is, however, an amalgamation of summaries of various histories and research and systems of thought. This works very well if you're just reading a chapter or two over the lunch hour, as I did. It's not as smooth or as tight of a structure as I would perhaps have liked, but it was straightforward and free of nasty surprises. And of course, it's always nice to hear things said simply and directly by someone with the expertise to deliver them with authority.

PAIRS WELL WITH:
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli
Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

*****

What lessons then, in summary? Few enough, other than that my shelves groan under the weight of so many excellent books, and my brain is fuzzy with ideas for future stories as a result. I for one hope that nonfiction—especially nonfiction that deals with the sciences—never reaches a point where its salient characteristics and trends can all be summed up in a neat and tidy paragraph. If there's one thing that all three of these authors share in common, it's a careful crafting of voice. Mitchell's voice shares its tenor with those voices of a vast wave of journalists who are finding ways to acknowledge their presences within their stories (think Rebecca Skloot and Dan Egan). Kaku gives us an insider's peek in both dusty and cutting-edge corners of science, speaking as an expert. And Brusatte, another insider, invites his readers to walk through history alongside him and his friends in dusty cut-offs. I'd grab a beer (or chisel out a bone, or test out out a new compass, or tour a cryogenic facility) with any one of them, if only I thought they might slow down long enough from unspooling this world's many mysteries.

 

NOTES:

* It's been a few years since I've been back to Arkansas, but in the intervening years my college has had the audacity to transform my townhouse's basement into a swanky coffee shop. In May of 2010, I remember wiping brown recluse bodies out of my sock drawer the morning of my graduation, and picking insulation out of my hair during the graduation party which we held in that very basement. I used to catch as many live spiders as I could in plasticware and send them to my RA through campus mail. It seems like a perversion of nature that such weird little memories of mine now have no anchor other than this review. Ha! I was there! In that basement! Before it was cool! My roommate in junior year came back from Guatemala and filled up the basement fridge with roasted peanut and rice dishes. We found them that final weekend. Maybe those memories are best left buried.

** Gurney's Dinotopia: A World Apart From Time and The World Beneath occupy pride of place on my living room bookshelves. Sure, they're all kinds of wrong on all kinds of levels, their depictions of dinos may have aged poorly, and so on and so forth, but they're also gorgeous and luxurious and the perfect encapsulation of the ideal coffee table book. That is, I drink a lot of coffee while I'm reading them, and they're packed with illustrations reminiscent of those glorious old natural history journals which first got me into illustration and eventually got me through a minor in illustration, despite everything which ought to have indicated that it was a very, very bad idea.

*** I recently learned that my coworker's former boss's good friend (try falling down THAT rabbit hole all the way) was or is the registrar at the Museum of the Rockies, Jack Horner's baby and home to some of the finest dinosaur fossils ever collected. Now my brainpan is jammed with third-or-fourth-hand stories which would make the sternest daguerreotype blush. I make the Museum of the Rockies and its attendant planetarium a regular pit stop whenever I'm headed through Bozeman (so about two or three times a year), and I've never met the fellow. But then, I'm just one of the faceless masses eager to preen in the shadows of Triceratops. I'm happy enough to read How to Build a Dinosaur for what it is, and to eternally confuse the paleontologist Jack Horner with the composer James Horner, who seems somehow much less problematic, despite his momentary weakness in scoring Avatar.

 

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