Tag Archives: Astronomy

Contact

As I’ve said before, I’m always on the hunt for a good science fiction book to fill that strange void that’s been left by my favorite movies and shows. And so, when I saw Contact by Carl Sagan when browsing one of my 10 for $1 book sales (I’ll miss those), I went ahead and grabbed it.

Contact follows the life of Ellie Arroway, a radio astronomer who spends her life looking for some sign that there is life beyond earth. When her radio telescopes finally pick up a transmission coming from the star Vega, she, along with her whole team, are launched into action to decipher the message. Once deciphered, they discover the blueprints to some sort of machine, which they build without knowing what it will do. Ellie is selected as one of the five scientists to crew the machine, for whatever kind of journey it takes. What she finds is that she must now balance science and faith in ways she’s never had to before.

I had such high hopes for this book, but I’ve gotta admit that it fell pretty flat. The book took so long to get going. Though moments of action are sprinkled throughout the book, the majority of it felt like filler, and not even particularly good filler. And I didn’t really care for the science vs. religion theme, even though I know it’s realistic. I will say, it didn’t end up being as prevalent throughout the book as I expected from the beginning.

Perhaps it’s that it has been so long since the book was written that it’s just not revolutionary or fantastic enough, in terms of science fiction. Or maybe I’m just picky even though I don’t quite know what I’m after. All I know is, the book was slow and didn’t grab me the way I expected it to. And as an avid reader of astronomy/astrophysics books (when I get my hands on them), I know it’s not because of the heavy science contained within the book.

What I can say is that Sagan’s writing is clean and comprehensive. I’d be really interested in reading some of his scientific writings. And perhaps if he wrote another novel, I’d find it much more engaging.

Letters from an Astrophysicist

Do you ever wonder what kinds of letters a famous person gets? Do you ever wonder what kinds of responses they give?

Neil DeGrasse Tyson provides a little snapshot into the celebrity mail world in his latest book, Letters from an Astrophysicist.

The book is broken up by themes, covering topics ranging from UFOs to parenting, faith and belief to life and death, and hate mail. It also includes some more editorial pieces by Tyson reflecting on events such as earning his PhD and witnessing 9/11. The book contains a selection of letters received (for some longer letters, a synopsis is provided instead of the full text) along with Tyson’s response.

In addition to a snapshot at the kinds of questions people ask him, it also provides a snapshot into who he is. Tyson’s responses are honest, if a little sassy at times, and challenge the writers to think critically. Though he shares his opinions and knowledge, he does not tell people what to think or believe.

Writing this kind of book, I think, can be a vulnerable move. People can easily read through the letters and responses and find something to attack–Tyson’s lack of religion, his blunt responses to some questions, his skepticism. But sharing unedited responses to honest questions by fans (or at least only mildly edited; if you were really trying to present yourself as something other than you are, you could certainly change a few things) brings a degree of humanity to someone who could easily seem to be simply an unattainable celebrity figure.

Full of wit and enough sass to make me smile, I enjoyed reading this sampling of Tyson’s mail. And some of the questions and answers were thought provoking.

Apollo 8

I’m on a hardcore space kick, and my latest read (ok, last couple, with more to come) fed right into that.

In natural progression, I went from the the Mercury missions to Apollo (I skipped Gemini, I’ll have to go back sometime), specifically Apollo 8.

Jeffrey Kluger jumps into space history with American Astronauts training for missions to the moon, trying to make good on the late President Kennedy’s promise to land a man on the moon by 1970. But with a craft that is riddled with issues, and tragedy striking, it seems impossible.

But just when things seem hopeless, NASA’s brightest give voice to an unthinkable but perfect idea: push forward a lunar mission. So, what was supposed to be a routine launch and testing some maneuvers that lunar missions would need for the return trip, became a lunar mission. And not just to the moon, Apollo 8 was going all out, shooting for 10 orbits before reigniting the engine to come home.

Nearly everything about Apollo 8 was untested. While NASA had done the math, there were no guarantees that things would go well. But the men assigned the mission–astronauts, scientists, and controllers– and their wives, set aside fears and the bounds of logic and pursued history.

Kluger’s account of the Apollo 8 mission and the years leading up to it is an easy, interesting read, filled with research and personal interviews. It’s an exciting story that requires no extra dramatization, and Kluger does a good job of allowing the story to unfold and do itself justice.

Whether you’re a space junkie, and adventure junkie, or history junkie, Apollo 8 is worth the read.

The Right Stuff

I first hear about Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff when I read Scott Kelly’s biography, Endurance. Kelly had said it was what inspired him to become an astronaut, so I was interested in reading it.

In a laid back style, Wolfe looks back on the beginnings of the space program and NASA and it’s first astronauts.

Before the space race, the highest achievement for men wanting to prove their mettle, their cool, and their possession of “the right stuff” was to work their way up to test pilot. When the opportunity for space flight came up, there was a choice to make: keep climbing up through the rest pilot ranks, or stake a career on a new venture. Many people saw space flight as little more than science experiments, considering the Mercury flights were not controlled by their “pilots.”

In the end, as we all know, the astronauts came out on top, not only in public opinion, but also finally in winning pilot controls for their space craft.

Wolfe’s style of writing is conversational and a little sarcastic. It reads just like how someone would tell it to you, down to the snippy little asides and comments. It’s an open, inside look at the early years of the space program, and how it went from thought to reality.

While not quite what I was expecting when I started in (I expected a little more of a biography, not a sassy history), I enjoyed it immensely, and I can fully understand how it would inspire someone to pursue a career as an astronaut. All in all, it was a fun read, and a good place to start if you’re interested in the history of NASA and the space program.

The Martian

The Martian has been on my reading list for quite a while, especially after having seen the movie. All I can say is, the book was even better.

The Martian is the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut who ends up stranded alone on Mars when the rest of the crew is forced to do an emergency mission abort. Believing him dead, the crew is forced to leave him behind.

Naturally, Watney turns out to be not dead, and thus ensues his story of survival. Watney has to fight against the elements of Mars, as well as make modifications to everything he has in order to make it last until help arrives. Back on Earth, when NASA quickly discovers Watney survived, everyone is pulling together to try to bring him home.

Before I knew a whole lot about the book, aside the premise, I was a little uncertain how interesting it could be. It’s the story of one guy all by himself. But author Andy Weir uses a log entry format to tell Watney’s story in first person, without making it boring or seem like he’s talking to himself.

I also loved that, despite being stranded, Watney is still pretty snarky. I relate to that on a very deep level.

While the movie was slow in parts, the book flies by. Weir does an excellent job of knowing when to give details, and when to allow “I drove 90 kilometers today” to cut it.

The Martian is an excellent book for when you want something sci-fi, but you want it to feel realistic. For some people, Mars is still the space goal, and this book could turn out to be historical fiction ahead of its time.

Either way, it’s still just a good read. The only thing missing was my favorite quote from the movie, which, despite not being canon, was utterly in keeping with Mark Watney’s character. He would totally have said, “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.”

The Return

When I saw that Buzz Aldrin had written (or co-written, at least John Barnes authored the book also) a sci-fi book, I couldn’t pass it up.

The Return was written and set in the 2000s. It follows the lives of four people who are inextricably linked. Kids together, Scott, Nick, Thalia and Eddie called themselves the Mars Four and dreamed of going there after growing up in the ’60s. In their adult lives, each one has been individually working toward commercial space travel.

When a routine mission goes fatally wrong, it’s just the beginning of a chain of events that make it seem like someone wants to keep the everyday folks out of space. A bomb set off in the upper atmosphere, putting the crew of the International Space Station in deadly danger, and now only the Mars Four and their individual expertise can save the crew.

The Return is all adventure and action, with a dash of nostalgia. And as it’s written by someone who’s been there, it actually does not read like sci-fi, but more like a fiction book. This isn’t Star Trek or Star Wars, this book reads like something that could happen today, with no magic high-tech gadgets required.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and not just because I love just about anything associated with space. It was fun, the characters felt real and relatable. It had action and intrigue. It was about everything you’d want in a book. Plus, when they did talk about science, it was explained clearly, no fancy jargon and complicated terms, just plain English.

The Return is, however, one of those books that just might turn you into a believer again. Surely the technology is out there, both for commercial space travel and, eventually, for Mars. Some people already firmly believe in that future and are working toward it. After reading this book, you might find a bit of that passion has rubbed off on you too. And even if you’re not signing up for a Mars mission, you might find that you hope we have enough people around who will.

Hidden Figures

I saw the preview for Hidden Figures shortly after I’d seen the book at work. Right away, I knew I wanted to read it. Astronomy and all its facets has always fascinated me, and I knew Hidden Figures would too.

Having read the book after seeing previews for the film (haven’t yet seen it, though), the book certainly wasn’t quite what I had expected.

The book chronicles the lives of several women–black women–who began working for NASA (or rather its precursor, NACA) in the thick of World War II, and paved the way for not only the astronauts to enter space, but for equality and integration to spread throughout the organization.

The book focuses mainly on four women and how they fought for advancement, seeking titles of mathematicians and engineers instead of being stuck being computers.

After having seen the preview for the film, I was honestly expecting something more biographical of the women–and more interaction between their stores.  Hidden Figures read more like a brief history of how black women worked their way into traditionally white, male jobs. And while it was still interesting and a good read, I found myself having to readjust my expectations in order to finish the book.

My one issue with it was that it just wasn’t long enough. As author Margot Lee Shetterly herself said, she had to cut some parts out. And as I read the book, I wanted more. It seemed like this book could easily have been 400 or 500 pages, including more biographical detail and going deeper into the interactions between the women. But, perhaps that is what the film will accomplish.

Overall, the book was an enjoyable read, satiating my appetite for learning, even as it whetted it more. I’ll have to revisit my to-read list, I know I’ve got a few more science-related books on there.