I’ve always felt like bookshelves say something about their owners. The various English teachers for whom I’ve babysat always had bookshelves filled with classics; friends who are “closeted history buffs” almost always have a shelf or two devoted to historical fiction and historical non-fiction; many of my scienc-y friends have (no longer) surprising quantities of fantasy on their shelves.
I distinctly remember visiting a family friend about a week after they’d moved. Very little was unpacked – a few boxes of clothes, about half the kitchen, a box labeled “bathroom” half empty in the hall. The bookshelves were empty save three books – one she was clearly reading, one that was obviously his, and What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Now it doesn’t take much of a genius to figure that one out, but they were nonetheless surprised when they told me a few months later and I said “I know.” Even an almost-empty bookshelf says something about its owner.
But I’ve felt for the past few years that my bookshelf didn’t say much about me. I fly across the country and essentially displace myself and my life four or more times every year, and I have for the last four years. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret my choice to live on the East coast, but it does make having a personal library a bit more difficult. All through college, I’ve felt like my bookshelf was nothing more than evidence of that semester’s (or that year’s) courses. More than half of my shelf was usually textbook, or books required for classes. Sure, there have always been a few books that were there for fun, but they never meant much – they were there for convenience, or because I happened to be reading one the last time I got on a plane.
Today, my book collection is, naturally, limited since I’ll be in this location for exactly six weeks and one day. And yet, when I look at it, I can’t help but think it does say something about me.
I’ve got two nuclear textbooks. (One chemistry, one physics) I’ve got a lab notebook and a chart of the nuclides handbook and the June edition of National Geographic. I’ve got a math book (Emmy Noether’s Wonderful Theorem) and two policy books – Arguments that Count (about missile defense systems) and The Politics of Nuclear Energy (I think you can figure that one out…) To round it out, there are two books for fun – the beautiful and thought-invoking Invisible Cities and the somewhat horrifying House of Leaves.
I glanced at my bookshelf this morning, looking for my notebook, and something hit me. It was as if I was looking at someone else’s bookshelf. I read the person to whom it belonged as easily as I read the pregnant-but-not-sharing-yet-couple’s bookshelf years ago. This person was obviously passionate about nuclear science and nuclear energy, with a bit of time – but maybe not as much as they’d like – to read something else as well.
I glanced at my bookshelf and I realized who I am. Until this morning, I thought of nuclear energy as maybe just another phase. Like all my other passions, I’ve spent the last six months or so expecting to grow out of it. But the reality is that the more I learn and the more I study, the more questions I have and the more desperately I want their answers. The more I hear about where the reality of nuclear energy is, the more I want to fix the problems, and the more I worry that I’m a naive twenty-two year old with impractical hopes, the more I realize that my hopes aren’t that far off from the experts’.
I glanced at my bookshelf and I think I’ve found my future.
It’s been a long five days. I went backpacking with my not-so-little-anymore brother, made him hike 25+ miles in 2.5 days and I think he might want to kill me now. Pictures to come when my dad gets around to sending them to me.
Following those three days, I packed my life up (again) and flew across the country (again) to what my housemate/best friend/also-just-acquired-an-official-government-badge-Amelia calls “nuclear camp.” Aka six weeks, twelve undergrads, five professors, one national laboratory, and a lot of equations. Thus far, we’ve been given a nuclear chemistry textbook written by a Nobel Prize-winning chemist (he discovered ten elements, but that’s not what the Nobel was for), biked around Brookhaven National Lab’s campus, found the pool, and covered in under three hours what my Physics professor took a month and two homework assignments to teach last fall. (The semi-empirical mass formula, if anyone’s curious.)
The people here are really great, and it has been fun to nerd out about chemistry. Eleven of the twelve are majoring in Chemistry (Guess who’s the odd man out? You’re right! Me!) and every single one of us has a periodic table poster. Two brought theirs with them, three people have already worn chemistry-based shirts, everyone laughed about my Avogadro’s Number shirt, and one girl has a blanket with the periodic table on it. We all have similar tastes in books – sci-fi is an unsurprisingly popular genre, but so are the classics and eclectic books like When It’s a Jar and House of Leaves. A good number of us like watching sports, so I’ll have plenty of people to watch soccer with over the next 6 weeks, and we’ve all got distinctly different backgrounds, so we’ll have lots of cool discussions about all sorts of things over the next six weeks. It’s not unlike freshman year orientation all over again.
I passed my Rad Worker I test, which means I now know the difference between Radiation and High Radiation Areas (between 5 and 100 mrem/hr and >100 mrem/hr of radiation exposure) and I’m allowed to enter both types of area unescorted. Who knows how long the training lasts, but for now at least my friends can say they’re CPR-certified and I can say I’m certified by the US government to handle radioactive materials. Tomorrow we have a Benchtop Dispersibles class, which means… well… none of us know what that means. Check in again in fifteen hours; we’ll have updates.
In other news, we get to meet five different nuclear and radiochemistry professors from around the country, will be touring a nuclear power plant in a couple weeks, and generally expect to stuff our brains with lots of science. Then I’ll be back in Boston for a month before I start my very last semester (my very last class, really) of undergrad. Then I might post pictures from graduation here on this blog. But probably not, let’s be real.
As a student of the sciences, I think it is high time I thank the people who have saved me over and over again over the years. And no, I’m not talking about my parents. (Although they did provide me with a brain capable of comprehending…so thanks to you too, I guess.)
No, I’m talking about all those authors who write science books for non-scientists. This is a genre of books I’ve always loved. I loved the science for kids books and, as I grew up, I’ve loved books that explain something (anything, really!) to me. But this week, I need to express a particular appreciation for Richard Martin, author of Super Fuel.
Eventually, I’ll finish the book, and you’ll get a TBTW about it, I promise! But for now, I just need to say:
If you got past Science 101 in college, then you know that science textbooks go very quickly (read: instantaneously) from 1) a superficial overview of a number of topics that include gross generalizations and simplifications in order to expose the student to a broad swath of the subject to 2) a very specific consideration of a topic that assumes complex understanding of about a million classes you never took.
For example, in chemistry, quantum mechanics assumes you already understand all of kinematics, and kinematics assumes you get quantum mechanics (does anyone really get quantum mechanics?) Or in physics, where the advanced lab course requires the topics taught in optics, and optics requires the lab technique taught in the advanced lab course. Regardless of the science you’re studying, there will come a time when the textbook assumes intimate knowledge of topics you’ve never heard of (and the Wikipedia page is similarly bad) and you will want to cry because nothing you’re supposed to be learning makes sense.
Enter science for non-scientists. Specifically, books that have to do with topics you’re intimately interested in.
Because every so often, your Fundamentals of Nuclear Reactor Physics textbook’s pages upon pages of equations do an exemplary job at explaining something like nuclear flux without any actual words, so the wikipedia page (which is all words, and no equations) makes just as much sense. But then the kind science writer explains “in technical terms the ‘neutron flux’ – the density of neutrons zipping around” (pg 68) and all those equations instantly make sense. In just two pages, the entire chapter that made very little, if any, sense at all, suddenly makes sense now. Not because the author incredibly compacted 40 pages of equations into two pages of text, but because he provided the words and the analogies that made the complex ideas “click.”
So thanks, Mr. Martin. I look forward to the next 150 pages of your book.
(And yes, when I got fed up with my nuclear physics, I went running to nuclear physics to escape. Don’t judge.)
It’s been a while since I even thought about actually typing up a book review, mostly because I’ve been too busy reading. I just finished Winter Break, during which I read 3,300 pages (13 books) and I’ve already nearly finished another. Nonetheless, family asked over break why I’m not more consistent with my books (by family, I mean brother…) and so we’ll see what we can do.
I considered writing a bunch of reviews of books I’ve already finished, and then just publishing them one by one, but that feels like cheating to me. The whole idea of TBTW was to write about the books as I read them, and I’d like to stick to that. But I also respect the need for reviews, so here are some mini-reviews for the books I read over break. I’m officially accepting requests; I’ll write one or two TBTW’s by the end of January based on requests from you, fabulous readers, of which book(s) you’d like to know more about.
The Winter Break List:
The 17 Equations that Changed the World, Ian Stewart: This was a book I finished over break and then promptly gave to my dad for Christmas. Interesting discussion that ranges from geometry to computer science and everywhere in between. Definitely recommend for anyone who likes math/science or who is vaguely interested in how it relates to our world. You don’t need a subject background, but it helps. (I liked the chem and physics chapters significantly more that the comp sci chapters, for example.)
The Martian, Andy Weir: Unless you’re an English teacher or less than 13 years old, yes! yes! yes! Accept the initial premise that there are humans on Mars, and this instantly becomes a wonderful book with incredibly accurate science about how he survives on the red planet. Not recommended for children because of intense language.
10:04, Ben Lerner: Meh. Interesting structure – the book starts in the middle of the protagonist’s life and ends in the middle of his life and nothing much of interest happens, much like my life, your life, and pretty much anyone’s life. Two stars.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Dylan Thomas: Given to me by my neighbor, this is an old children’s story. It’s sweet, enjoyable, but already out of season until next December, I suppose.
The Madame Curie Complex, Julie des Jardins: I got this book when the author came to speak at Tufts; she has an incredible knowledge of the history of women in science, and that certainly shows in this book. A series of mini-biographies of women who have been essentially written out of history, it starts with an explanation of how history has blown Madame Curie into epic, and unobtainable proportions, before revealing the negative impacts of that female-scientist mythology on later scientists, including the Harvard Observatory women and Jane Goodall.
Maidenhair, Mikhail Shishkin: Hailed as the next Dostoevsky, Shishkin certainly has a tight writing style. This book, his debut, follows four unnamed characters through multiple time periods in modern European history. Throughout the last third of the novel, the beginning comes back, and it makes you want to immediately go back to page one and look for the connections. Definitely a book that requires serious analysis, but also a book that I’d probably enjoy seriously analyzing.
Countdown to Zero Day, Kim Zetter: This is the non-fictional, and yet incredibly suspenseful, account of the US government’s Stuxnet attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Tracking both the history and the aftereffects, Zetter effectively weaves explanation, intrigue, a bit of fear, and some discovery into a well-written jaunt through the first cyber-attack (that we know of).
Devil in the White City, Erik Larson: Not a new book, but new to me, this may have been my favorite of all the books I read over break. It is set during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and tracks both the head architect and a serial killer living next door to the fair itself. I learned all sorts of new facts. (Did you know this was where the first ever Ferris wheel was built, which was designed by Mr. Ferris, and widely considered impossibly dangerous until nobody died?) It was also suspenseful, interesting, and accurate. Definitely a book to recommend.
The Strange Library, Haruki Murakami: This book confuses me. First, it was published in Japanese something like a decade ago, and then the translation was hailed as an “explanation” of Murakami’s interwoven worlds. This is patently false, although it probably sold a lot of books. This one is short (approx. 60 pages) and filled with illustrations, which makes it feel like a children’s book. The simplicity of plot and lack of many of Murakami’s common features (including a distinct lack of sex) also supports that assertion. It was good, though.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami: This is the most recent of Murakami’s works, and you can tell – his language remains mature and in line with his other later works. Nonetheless, the plot seems simple and the language loose, as if a publisher was forcing the author himself or perhaps the translator to bring the book to market quickly, probably in time for the holiday season. A good book, but not his best.
The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion: One of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time, and a great way to start off my 2015, but also surprisingly potent, a bit emotional, and probably a good book for anyone to read. A professor with Asperger’s sets out to find a wife, and discovers Rosie. This novel chronicles his ups and downs, his challenges, and his ability to conform to society. I’d definitely recommend this one.
The Power of Noticing, Max Bazerman: Boring! Unless you enjoy reading pretentious Harvard professors telling you the same thing over and over again for a couple hundred pages, this is probably not the book for you. Here, I’ll give you the gist: Question everything, especially your own assumptions, and always assume you don’t have all the information you need. Then question that. There, have a good day!
Fever, Mary Beth Keane: For anyone who read and liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this is a good book. The story of Typhoid Mary, it is historical fiction (not journalistic history) told very well. Perhaps, between this book and Devil in the White City, I’m starting to fall for the historical fiction genre. Once again, I learned a lot about Mary that I didn’t know before, and I have a slightly different view not of her, but of the NYC police that failed to deal with her amicably. Recommend.
I’ve been working on this book for almost a month now (three weeks, actually), and I’ve finally given up. Thrown in the towel. Bid it adieu. I hate giving up on a book, because I feel like I’m letting someone down – myself? the author? the characters? my middle school lit teacher? Who knows. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t stopped reading a book partway through for months, years, maybe even forever. But this book is 437 pages long, and I am officially done at page 215. Page 215. I didn’t even make it halfway.
But the half I did read, I didn’t enjoy. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, and you can’t judge a book by its title either. The reality is that this adage goes both ways. Sometimes boring titles and boring covers hide fascinating books within, and sometimes intriguing titles with interesting covers are actually incredibly boring.
That isn’t exactly what happens in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. The book isn’t boring. In fact, it is actually quite interesting. But the main character, Eggers himself (this is a memoir), is an angry young adult, filled with frustration and desires and confusion about the future. In many ways, it should be relatable to any young adult, anyone who had their parents stolen from them at a young age, anyone who dealt with not knowing what their future holds, anyone with a sibling, especially a younger brother. So pretty much anyone, including myself. After all, I am a young adult – almost exactly the age of the narrator. I have a younger brother, I have no idea what my future holds.
It started out with such promise. The introduction advises you to not read the preface, for there is “no overwhelming need,” as “it exists mostly for the author.” The preface itself is full of sarcasm, but in a manageable amount. It was written as a preface to this addition, written years after Eggers wrote the memoir itself, and written as the sassy Dave Eggers of today, not as the sassy 20-something year-old Dave Eggers. Perhaps, if the entire book was written this way, I would have loved it, and read it within a few days. Because the preface, about 20 pages long, kept me sitting at the breakfast counter with a half eaten piece of toast in front of me.
I enjoyed the first 100 pages or so, when there was a plot of sorts and our narrator’s frustrations with his father, his mother, their deaths, and his siblings were understandable. When it made sense, when he was taking the time he needed to figure stuff out. And yet, in much the same way I absolutely hated Holden Caulfield’s angst, I cannot stand Eggers’ continuous hatred of the world, his shallowness, or even his inability to clean up the dinner plates. He wants to set a better example for his younger brother Toph than his alcoholic father did, and that shouldn’t be hard. But I can’t help but feeling he is failing in that; instead he is a stereotypical immature 20-something year old man.
Even so, I can’t help but be impressed by the writing in this novel. I can see why it became a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Eggers, who wrote so incredibly in Zeitoun and What is the What? does it again. He embodies the voice of his narrator so well that it is easy to forget that he is capable of writing in other styles. I can’t fault him for that. In fact, the fact that I am so incredibly turned off to the book by the style of prose, and its incredible accuracy, is the only thing that kept me going through the book for 215 pages. I was impressed, and continually hoping that perhaps the logic would return, and he’d man up – so to speak – and move on. Find a job, finish his education, get his little brother to school on time for once. And maybe that happens in the second half of the book, but I’m not sticking around to find out.
If you liked Catcher in the Rye, you’re already one step closer to enjoying Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But to me, it was nothing special, and super frustrating.
In other news, I hit the library yesterday, and am already 110 pages into the next book, so keep an eye out for more book-related posts coming soon to a blog near you.
Day 2 at Forum has come and gone and, with it, my first week. Unfortunately, I only get to intern at Forum two days a week. (I’m still going to try to convince them I’m useful enough and interested enough to work more than two days a week, but I’m also absolutely taking the two days I currently have and getting as much as I possibly can out of them for now.)
I met another intern – Leslie – who happens to live about 5 miles away from me, so we’re already planning on carpooling every Tuesday from here on out. Once I arrived at 8, we printed out the focus and host sheets, got everything ready for the morning’s show, and had it all set up by 8:20. Yes, we referenced the guidelines for interns and asked each other questions, but with the exception of one question to our friendly outgoing intern, we managed to get it all done ourselves.
I was responsible for the 9 am hour, which was about the new EPA regulations on carbon dioxide emissions in existing power plants. That was exciting, because I worked a lot on preparing for it yesterday with Tina, so I enjoyed being responsible for the in-studio guest, for bringing the comments into the studio, and for bringing Dan the coffee he left on his desk. Interns will be interns, I suppose…
Obviously, this is not actually representative of what I do. In reality, Leslie and I spent pretty much the entire hour from 9 to 10 reading emails/web posts/facebook posts/tweets about as fast as we could, printing them out, and organizing them to bring them into the studio to Dan and then to Michael, just like yesterday.
I then spent almost two hours (from 10 to after 12, with a break in the middle) typing the titles and authors of the recommended books from today’s 10 am program into a very large spreadsheet, and then finding URLs for each one. But all the work seems like it was worth it; my hard work is now available on our Summer Reading List page...
We interns then got to sit in on the post-show meeting, which lasted about 15 minutes. The producers spoke with Michael about what went well, which hour was better (and thus will be repeated from 10-11 pm), and what would make a good hour better in the future. I was able to give a suggestion or two of my own, which the producers seemed to like, so I hope that’s good!
After taking a lunch, I worked on some research for Thursday’s show, helped organize the research someone else already did for tomorrow’s 10 am hour with SF poet laureate Alejandro Murguia. Then – because a day isn’t complete for me unless it is FILLED with books – I went through the advance copies of books Dan has received from publishers to see if there were any possibilities for Forum shows. I found a few, wrote up some ideas, and hopefully will get to start real research on them next week sometime. I’m also hoping I’ll be able to convince them to let me bring a book home on Monday to return on Tuesday; if I read them, I might be able to write some upcoming book reviews for books that have only just been published!
Technically, I’m interning at Forum this summer as a “class,” since I’m required to get credit for it. It doesn’t matter much, except that I have certain assignments I need to do. Next week, I’ll be asking some questions of the producers regarding goals and objectives from both my and their points of view, to make sure we’re all on the same page. Future assignments include interviewing important people at the organization – stay tuned, since I’ll be aiming to at least interview Michael Krasny, and maybe some other big NPR/KQED names. And maybe some smaller ones, too.
For now, though, I’m just happy that I had an almost-real conversation with him today (about the intended audience of two kids books mentioned on the show today) and I shook his hand and actually introduced myself. We’re going places, kids!
Aaaaannndd… more books. This represents about 1/3 to 1/2 of the books around Michael Krasny’s desk, and maybe 1/10 (1/15? Estimating is hard when books are horizontal, vertical, on shelves, in boxes, in piles, on the floor, literally everywhere…) of the books that can be found in the Forum workspace. No word yet on how many of them are actually read, but I did get told that Michael reads every book he talks about with the author on air. (So a lot.)