Tag Archives: science

The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)


I’ve been reading some advance copies of books digitally lately, and let me just say, I was not made for digital reading. It’s hard. That said, I was interested in reading Katie Mack’s The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking). I think this was not a great book to read digitally.

Mack provides readers with a quick introduction to cosmology before looking at some of the ways the universe could end, including being crunched like a soda can, reaching unbearable temperatures, and being ripped apart. While the end of the universe is by no means imminent, I can understand why it’s interesting to explore the possibilities.

Part of what was challenging about this book was that I was reading it in conjunction with another book. How do people do that? That makes it difficult to keep up with the science I’m reading, when I’m just reading it sporadically. But overall, it was an interesting read full of hypotheticals that make me curious to know more.

Since I’ve been trying to revamp my blog I have a question to pose to you, my readers. Would you like me to institute a simple rating system of “buy, borrow, or skip” in terms of my recommendations? Comment and let me know!

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.

Phenomenal Physics

Do you ever get the urge to just pick up a book looking to learn about something, an impromptu, unofficial class on a given subject? No, just me? If I could be a professional student, I think I would.

I bought Isaac McPhee’s Phenomenal Physics last year on a whim (and a science book buying binge, but that’s a different topic). I wanted to learn more about physics, because I really didn’t know anything.

McPhee starts with the basic question, what is physics? Once he’s explained that physics is pretty much the study of everything (the simplest description might be something like, the study of how our universe works), he then takes readers through a crash course of physics, starting with ancients like Aristotle and Archimedes, and working his way through the eras of physics, up to modern day physics. McPhee includes brief profiles on some of physics’ scientific stars, as well as breakdowns of specific theories and ideas.

For the most part, I found McPhee’s breakdown easy to follow and understand. It wasn’t until we started to get into the quantum realm and quantum mechanics that I started to think I’d really need a degree to understand even the basics. Which is OK, because at the moment I’m not planning on making a career change into physics.

McPhee’s book by no means makes you an expert (and if you thought you could become one with only one book, and a 140-page book at that, you’re in for a surprise), but I think it does a good job of giving an overview of the topic and answering some general questions adults, or even kids, might have about our universe and why certain things happen. If you’re looking for a little something to whet your appetite for physics, McPhee’s book might be just the ticket.

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.


While it may not be obvious from my reviews, I’ve lately been enjoying dipping my toes into different kinds of science books (ok, maybe more enjoying the thought of it). Between nonfiction and fiction, I’ve been touching in several branches. The latest was a combination of several in Michael Crichton’s Micro.

Lured to Hawaii with the promise of jobs and secret technology, seven graduate students find themselves in the middle of intrigue and business politics, while fighting for their very lives. Armed with only their wits and the knowledge of their respective fields, the students realize just how big the world is.

Notwithstanding that my book was missing 10 pages near the end, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Only the first I’ve ready by Crichton, it seemed in keeping with his style, based on the Jurassic Park moves, full of action. To be honest, as I read, I kept thinking the story was going to take a different turn. Instead, it kept heading toward the logical conclusion, but I didn’t mind. Crichton, it seems, is an excellent author when you want an action-packed story that’s just a little different than the rest of the stuff on the shelves.


Seriously, sometimes I think I majored in the wrong thing. From a young age, I remember always thinking it would be cool to be an astronaut. For now, though, I’ll just live vicariously through their biographies.

I was excited to see an advanced copy of Scott Kelly’s biography, Endurance A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery. It took me only a couple days to read through it.

Like many astronauts, Kelly got his start as a military test pilot, though the road to test pilot was anything but easy. Kelly had a rough time focusing in school, which meant his grades were anything but stellar. Kelly reflects on how Tom Wolfe’s book, The Right Stuff, was crucial in inspiring him to put his mind to the task of doing well in school so he could reach his ultimate goal of becoming an astronaut.

Once part of NASA, Kelly’s main desire was to fly shuttle missions as the pilot or the commander. Once he’d had a taste of long duration space missions, however, he realized they weren’t so bad either. Kelly’s career culmination was a year-long mission on the International Space Station during 2015-2016. The mission’s main objective was to see how the human body reacts to such a long time in space. Kelly was also able to contribute uniquely to the study because his identical twin brother, also an astronaut, stayed behind on Earth, which meant NASA could compare and contrast data.

The story is told alternately between chapters talking about Kelly’s past–everything from childhood to college to early days at NASA–and chapters talking about Kelly’s year-long mission on the ISS. While it’s a little different technique, instead of starting at the beginning and working to the end, I think it works in Kelly’s case because many people reading his biography will remember the mission, and be anxious to get those behind the scenes glimpses. I think the mixture will inspire people who might otherwise skip to the end to read the whole book.

Kelly is able to write about real danger and emergencies, and write about real tragedies, in a way that captures, I think, the attitude behind so many astronauts, that despite the dangers, the payoff is worth it.

All in all, it was an excellent read. Not too technical and not over-dramatized, Endurance reads like a sit down chat where Kelly tells you his life story, and you’re anxious to catch every word. When this book hits stores in mid-October, whether you love biographies, science, space, or just real-life adventure, this is one book you should make sure not to miss.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

While Neil DeGrasse Tyson may have written this book for people in a hurry, it’s not meant to be read in a hurry. In fact, I read it twice in a row, because I thought I read it too fast the first time to get a good grasp.

That said, this book doesn’t disappoint as a quick introduction into the field of astrophysics. You won’t be able to go out and get a job as an astrophysicist after reading it, but you will know some of the history and the science behind it.

Tyson writes in a fun and easy to understand way, making science seem much less intimidating that it’s otherwise presented. And, authors always earn brownie points from me when they throw in appropriate but snarky comments, so the book is extra good because of those.

Tyson presents basically a consice history of the field of astrophysics, using the framework to explain how science has reached its conclusions for various things, such as the Big Bang, dark matter and dark energy. He also explains how these things interact with gravity to influence stars, planets, galaxies, and possibly even our universe itself. In this book you’ll also find plenty of particles, elements, various kinds of light waves and some references to aliens (but nothing outlandish, this isn’t science fiction).

I’ll admit, a few times as I was reading, I came across passages that I felt could have used some better transitions And information that, though interesting, didn’t quite seem to belong where it was, but sometimes that is personal preference.

On the whole, Tyson’s book, I believe, does what he wanted it to, per his introduction: give you a basic understanding of the field, and leave you hungry for more.

So whether you’re in school, out of school, busy or bored, if you’ve ever looked up at the sky and wondered, this book is for you.

John Glenn: A Memoir

I’ll admit, I was interested in this book, not because I knew who John Glenn was, but because I’d looked it up for a customer at work and saw that it was a biography on an astronaut. Sometimes I think that if I could go back, knowing what I know about myself now, I probably would have pursued a career in science, and maybe even my dreams of being an astronaut. But, on to the book review.

The book is an autobiography that explores John Glenn’s life from childhood during the Great Depression, to his joining the military and becoming a fighter pilot during World War II, all the way through his two trips to space–the last when he was 77 years old (maybe it’s not too late for me!).

Glenn writes in a very plain way, unassuming. You get the feeling he is just telling his story, not trying to brag about anything he’s done or reap glory for being an American icon and hero. It feels very much like sitting down and listening to your grandfather regale you with stories from his life. Sometimes you can almost here the laugh that goes along with a funny anecdote.

Glenn’s biography is encouraging and inspiring too, a representation of chasing dreams and making a difference through hard and dedicated work. Not to mention just cool to see how much history this guy lived through.

Overall, it was a fun and pretty fast read, considering it’s more than 500 pages. If you like history, science, airplanes or politics, it’s the read for you.

Elon Musk

A few weeks ago (OK, maybe a month) I stared watching Mars on the National Geographic channel. I have only watched the first episode, but it was enough to get me interested in the person of Elon Musk.

I knew the name, knew he was linked with Tessa and SpaceX, but I was curious to know more.

In her book called “Elon Musk” journalist Ashlee Vance provides a detailed look at Musk’s life. He fee up in South Africa and always dreamed of making it to America. Once he did, he found himself constantly partaking in a variety of start-up companies.

In addition to SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity, Musk was involved in Zip2, a kind of MapQuest meets Yelp, as well as PayPal.

It is quite interesting to read and get a peek inside the man who has his finger in so many different but related fields of engineering and technology. You get a feel from Vance’s writing that Musk has two speeds: stop and go, and he doesn’t usually stop, even when every rational indication is saying to.

It’s also easy to read about him and big into his big dreams. Somehow, after reading Musk’s history, a colony on Mars doesn’t feel like a sci-fi story anymore.

In her reporting and writing, Vance speaks to a variety of people, and gives voice to all their opinions, good or bad. She does not paint a picture of Musk one way or the other, she shares her observations and the comments of Musk and others.

Overall, reading the book, one gets a sense of thorough research and evenness. And though Musk deals in very technical fields, the book is not bogged down by either jargon nor lengthy explanations.

For anyone interested in Musk or any of his companies, I think it’s an interesting read. It’s almost a case study of how hard work and dedication can allow for the seeming impossible to become a reality.