Book Review: Caesar’s Last Breath

Caesar’s Last Breath
Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us
Sam Kean
Little, Brown, and Company
(c) 2017 by the author

In the kingdom of non-fiction books, there’s a land that can be described as “commodity biographies”. Here, the authors take an item or substance of great familiarity, and write about how it has influenced and has been influenced by human history. (e.g Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky). Given air’s ubiquity, it’s kind of hard to write a biography for it. Kean’s book can be better described as a collection of independent essays that together tell a history of Earth’s atmosphere and our understanding of it.

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Book Review: Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times

Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times
by H.W. Brands
Doubleday
(c) 2005 by the author

The current president likes to compare himself to Andrew Jackson, choosing Jackson’s portrait to hang in the Oval Office. Jackson is going to be removed from the $20 bill, to be replaced by Harriet Tubman. All the hubbub over Jackson has many people in a lather about him; essentially he’s seen as the Anti-Christ for his slave ownership and the “Trail of Tears”.

I thought it might be a good idea, then, to read a biography of our seventh President, and learn something of what all the fuss is about.

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BOOK REVIEW: Time Travel

Time Travel
James Gleick
Pantheon Books
Copyright 2016 by the author

If you were looking for someone who could explain all the ins and outs and forwards and sideways of time travel, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better writer than James Gleick. He’s previously tackled topics like chaos theory and the life and work of Richard Feynman. So a history of the idea of time travel seems like a natural subject for him to present to the average intelligent reader.

Gleick starts by taking us back in time to when H.G. Wells was penning “The Time Machine”. He discusses early drafts of the novel, and mentions some of the problems that reviewers noted – what happens if solid objects are in the space the Traveler is passing through, for one, and how do you account for the fact that the earth is both rotating and moving through space (the latter is one that time travelers always seem to forget).

From there, he moves forward in time through physicists treating time mathematically as a dimension, philosophers grappling with the concept of time, and even lexicographers trying to simply come up with a definition of the term that doesn’t wind up spinning in circles: “Time is what clocks measure”; “A clock is a device for measuring the passage of time.”[1]

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Movie Review: Battle Beyond the Stars (US, 1980)

Let’s get the big thing out of the way.

BBtS is “The Magnificent Seven IN SPACE!” Or, since TM7 was actually Seven Samurai done as a western, you could say BBtS is “Seven Samurai IN SPACE!!!”

Produced by Roger Corman and his New World Pictures, it’s a typical example of his later work. Take a simple or hackneyed story, but give it as much “bang for the buck” as you can. Typically this involved reusing shots and sets, but it could also mean finding and nurturing young talent or getting established talent who could be had on the cheap.

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Book Review: Infected

Infected: A Novel
Scott Sigler
Crown Publishers
(c) 2008 by the author

There’s this syndrome out there called “Morgellon’s Disease”. Its symptoms, such as they are, are primarily an unexplained rash accompanied by the usual aches, pains, and tiredness. Occasionally, sufferers have found odd fibers coming out of the affected area. Others have reported the sensation of something crawling around under their skin.

No research to date has come up with a cause (aside from “I told you to stop scratching that, you’ve only made it worse”). The mystery fibers turn out to be bits of cotton, most likely from clothing. That hasn’t stopped people from blaming everything from nanotech to aliens to a government conspiracy.

Sigler’s novel, adapted from a popular series of podcasts, asks and answers the question: “What if Morgellon’s Disease was real?”

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MOVIE REVIEW: Krull (1983)

Ah, the early 80s…. In the cinemas, the hot trend was “sword and sorcery” movies. Swashbuckling heroes, damsels in distress, special effects making magic and monsters….. The stuff of legends, brought to life. They were coming out on a virtually monthly basis. To rise above the crowd, you needed something special.

A combined British and American production team thought about it and said, “Let’s add a little science fiction into the mix! And then throw a heck of a lot of money at it!” The result is our subject du jour.

The sci-fi elements in Krull are there at the start. As ponderous narration informs us, the asteroid we are seeing is actually a spaceship, and it’s setting out to conquer hapless worlds. Its next target is the planet Krull, a rather peaceful place consisting of various modest kingdoms. The conquest is well underway as the plot begins.

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BOOK REVIEW: Heaven’s Ditch

Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal
Jack Kelly
St Martin’s Press, NY
Copyright 2016 by the author

It was the nation’s first big infrastructure project. A canal connecting Lake Erie (and thereby the Great Lakes and the Northwest Territory) to the Hudson River (and thereby New York City and the Atlantic Ocean). A project vital to the growth and development of the United States, it also brought a palpable sense of excitement to upper New York…. an excitement that would have significant effects not only on individuals, but on the nation as a whole.

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Book Review: Dark Matter

Dark Matter
by Blake Crouch
Crown Publishers
(c) 2016 by the author

Since at least as far back as Murray Leinster’s “Sidewise in Time” (1934), science fiction writers have been penning tales of traveling through the “multiverse” of alternate histories. So despite what some of the reviewers might be saying, there’s nothing really novel about Crouch’s novel in that regard. But what is new is that instead of positing another world where the Confederacy won the War Between the States or the Nazis won WWII, Crouch makes it personal.

Everyone has made important decisions in their lives. What college to attend, what job to take, to break up or not to break up with a lover…. Crouch pens a fast-paced action-adventure story based around the individual “alternaties” that spring from the many choices we make.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940)

Science and scientists rarely get proper treatment by Hollywood. If they aren’t the stereotypical Mad Scientist creating wacky gadgets or Tampering In God’s Domain, they’re the Absent-Minded Professor who is socially awkward and treated as Comic Relief. Or the Screen Scientist is just in the plot to provide exposition so the other characters (and the audience) can know what’s going on.

Most likely, this lack of respect is simply because if they showed a real scientist, they’d look just like someone in any other field of employment (and behave similarly, no doubt). And if they showed real science, not only would most of the audience not understand it, the “process” of Science is long, tedious, and filled with failure. Not something that makes for a good movie.

Is it any wonder, then, that the best movies about science and scientists tend to be biographies? Continue reading