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Yesterday's review. My wrists are officially On Notice as this is not behavior a person should have to tolerate.

This is a collection of cool stories about elements. Kean has gone through the periodic table and fished out a lot of interesting anecdotes about the discoveries, uses, appearances, names, practical joke possibilities, and so on of every element currently on the table (and some hypothesized but not, as yet, produced).

Unfortunately, and it pains me to have to say this about a work so intimately concerned with one of the great feats of human data arrangement, this book is not very well organized. He's going through column by column, except when he isn't, and the chapters are thematic, except that I guess each is also supposed to focus on the group of elements listed at its head, some of which do not seem very thematic and consequently turn up a lot in chapters that aren't the ones they're listed in. He has neglected to notice that in a book intended for a popular audience it might be a good idea to spell out the names of the less common elements in those chapter-head listings in addition to using their two-letter abbreviations, especially since they aren't spelled out in the reference periodic table at the back either. And, since this is thematic/by element/whatever this is, various scientists and historical events pop in and out in an extraordinarily arbitrary fashion. I am not saying this is a badly written book, but it needed a more precise deep structure, because currently it is much more confusing than it really ought to be. If you have not heard of a particular scientist, for example, you are going to spend a lot of time staring at names wondering whether that was the same guy who was mentioned in passing in chapter five or whether they are merely similar and what century we are even discussing.

That said, these are some pretty awesome anecdotes. The title is referring to a lab practical joke, in which one casts teaspoons out of gallium, which melts at 84F and looks, you know, metallic, so then one hands around the spoons and watches them dissolve in everyone's tea. The book is full of little tidbits like the reason that the Washington Monument is topped with aluminum-- before the modern refining process, it was markedly more precious than gold. That sort of thing.

However, the book also suffers from what I would call a confusion of emphasis. I am, for instance, the sort of person who would like to know what happens if anyone accidentally drinks any of the gallium tea (is it toxic or what?), and who thought this up in the first place, and so on, in-text rather than with a source referred to in the notes (to be fair, the notes are thorough). Something of a lack of follow-through there.

And the coolest thing in the entire book gets about two and a half pages, a seriously kick-ass essay about the weirdest battle in WWI, which took place in a molybdenum mine in Colorado before the U.S. entered the war. The Germans had discovered that the extremely large guns which fired shells for miles would last longer if their steel was alloyed with molybdenum, a substance considered generally worthless before this discovery. The largest available supply of molybdenum had been refined by the Colorado mine's owner, using a process he invented himself, because he felt like it and was vaguely convinced he could find a use for it someday.

The principal thing I have to say about what happened next is: where's my action movie? Claim jumpers! People being thrown off cliffs into snowdrifts and surviving by sheer luck! A German company renaming itself American Steel for purposes of chicanery! Hand-to-hand fighting in mines, ignored by the law because the law thought the substance being fought over was basically a rock! Rock smuggling of unprecedented proportions!

Did I mention this was like two pages? If I had been intending to write a book, and I came across this material, I would have written a book about this. Instead, this book contains rather more than I consider necessary of the usual things about how Mendeleev was a genius bastard and Rutherford was basically God and also the Manhattan Project, which are stories I have encountered repeatedly elsewhere whereas I do not every day see WWI molybdenum claim-jumpers.

So I cannot disrecommend this book, because there is a lot of cool stuff in it, it is competent on a sentence level and within each anecdote, it is well-sourced, and it is mostly entertaining despite the confusions. It's just frustrating, and it could have been a great deal more than it turned out to be.


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Via [personal profile] rachelmanija, to whom I am grateful as after having read her previous books I had stopped paying attention to Mary Roach. She's one of those writers where we just don't have the same sense of humor and I find the general tone not really working for me in a way that's hard to pin down.

Which is still kind of true of this book, but the subject matter is sufficiently awesome that I don't really care. This is a well-written overview of a bunch of facets of space flight and various space programs that don't get talked about much in the museums, with a lot of interviews and a lot of effort on Roach's part to debunk common myths and unearth actual facts where possible.

In other words, this is the book where the author has done the legwork to find out whether it is possible for a member of the public to find out whether anybody's had sex in space yet. Answer: no, all is conjecture, and Roach carefully debunks a couple of the more commonly discussed anecdotes.

It's also a book about hygiene and the history of space food and the physiological basis of motion sickness and the psychological questions involved in astronaut selection and the physics involved in trying to come up with ways for a person to bail out of a crashing spacecraft. Some of it is about impressively varied ways you can die, and a great deal of it is about bodily fluids, and it's all fascinating. (I liked the bit where she said that when most people meet Jim Lovell, they say 'what an ordeal', meaning Apollo 13, and when she met Jim Lovell, she said 'what an ordeal', meaning Gemini 7, as that involved nobody on the mission changing clothes or bathing for two weeks.)

Because Roach is a bestselling author-type, she manages to interview not only many, many people at NASA but also people affiliated with the Japanese and Russian space programs, which is enjoyable, and she got very good access to various simulators, training programs, the parabolic moments-of-zero-G flights, and so on. She notes very clearly where she was blocked, where records seem not to exist, and where weirder things happened (about one archive she tried to access, she mentions that the first task for anyone ever appointed curator of it will be to figure out how to get inside it, as the key has evidently been missing for a couple of decades). And the overall question she's asking is a good one: she's built up all this information about the state of the art and how things work now and how they used to work in order to inquire what would have to change for a Mars shot and whether we seem to be actually aiming for one. The book cannot of course answer these questions, but gives some overview of the ideas floating around about how it might work-- I'm sure they couldn't get it past public relations, but a one-way shot might actually be fairly practical, where you send a couple of people and keep sending them supplies until either a way back is developed, or not.

But most of all, this book is full of stories, some of them very impressive. I was fairly gobsmacked by the one from an American astronaut who rode down from the International Space Station with some Russians; they crashed somewhat on landing somewhere in backcountry, not disastrously but a fairly impressive mess, and were standing around trying to figure out what they could salvage when they were found by local Kazakh tribespeople. So there are human beings in the world who have actually had the conversation that begins 'we come from up there (*points up*), don't touch that bit of the ship it could kill you, who is the local government...' That happened to somebody. This makes me feel so much better about the world in general, I can't even tell you.

So if you have a low tolerance for bodily fluids, this is very much not your book, and maybe not if you spend a lot of time considering new and original ways things could kill you and worrying about them. Otherwise, this is very, very good and you should read it. It is a take on its subject I had not seen before.
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A book concerning the philosophy of industrial design.

Petroski's thesis is that the phrase 'form follows function' is an attractive alliterative buzzword but nothing more, and that in fact form follows failure mode-- that you can accurately explain how any design came into being by stating the problems with the previous iteration, and then looking at how the new version is trying to solve them. And of course designs keep changing because there is no such thing as a perfect balance between the things that would be necessary to solve every possible problem with the object. When faced with something that you would like to design to be easy to use, cheap to make, attractive, environmentally sound, endlessly reusable, and adjustable to anyone's needs, you are going to end up compromising somewhere, and then somebody else will make a version that compromises differently.

His means of proving his thesis is kind of enjoyable, in that he has exhaustively researched the history of a multiplicity of common household objects, such as the paperclip, the Post-It note, and the beverage can, and documents through each of the histories the way in which the current form of the object took shape by solving problems with the previous versions, and the way in which the very first version of each object filled a gap or solved a problem in day-to-day life.

However, honestly the problem with this book is that it is too sensible. In my opinion he had adequately proven his thesis by the end of chapter three, which meant that the rest of the book was taken up with a lot of restating the thesis over and over (which is extremely dull), history of more objects (not dull but not enough of it), and occasional vague stabs in the direction of elaboration on his original idea. In the bit on the history of silverware, for instance, he writes about the Victorian table services which had extremely, impressively specialized items in great quantity (pickle fork, chocolate muddler, tomato server, grape shears) and discusses the reasons that a vast number of items might be invented to meet a large number of perceived issues, and the reasons that later usage settles for a smaller number of items on the grounds that the problems aren't that major and the smaller set mostly takes care of them (though not perfectly). But silverware is the only thing where he traces this iterative path. Here, I did not think he'd adequately dealt with his elaboration (do all items go through this pattern of profligacy and shrinkage? which ones? why?) and would have welcomed more examples-- and the other elaborations on his basic topic have the same problem, because there aren't many of them compared to how often he restates his central thesis, but each only gets one example.

In short, I can prove Petroski's thesis by the way I think about his book: my problems with it would in fact lead me to giving it an entirely different shape, with which I am sure somebody else would have issues, and then they might want to have it in another shape entirely, and eventually we might arrive at a useful standard book that I don't have to go off in the middle of and desperately read some webcomics to keep myself from falling asleep. That book is not, in fact, this one, despite the fact that it is immaculately researched and as far as I can tell absolutely correct in every particular. Kind of amazing how that works, really. Right does not always equal riveting.
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Via [personal profile] adrian_turtle.

This is an interesting book both for itself and as a historical document.

Stoll worked as an astronomer at Berkeley for a while in the middle eighties, and then his grant funding ran out and he found himself working as a computer programmer at Berkeley instead (this would be 1986). A trivial computer accounting discrepancy discovered his second day on the job-- seventy-five cents worth of billable computing time-- led him into a year-long hacker chase that involved more talks with people from government agencies than anyone from Berkeley is ever comfortable with, ten-hour days making phone calls, nights sleeping under his desk with a pager on his belt to alert him to the hacker's activity, and a homebuilt keystroke logger that printed out everything the hacker typed. The guy turned out to be in Germany, and to be selling information to the KGB, but Stoll would have done the same amount of legwork for a high school student in Des Moines; the chase became an obsession, and then the ethical concepts of network security and the trust that users ought to be able to place in a system kicked in, and he found he couldn't stop.

What I mean about this book as a historical document is not just that when Stoll traces his hacker to Germany the first question anyone asks him about it is 'East or West?', but that he keeps running into a total lack of government policy for how to deal with the situation. It is utterly fascinating for me, sitting here in the age of Wikileaks and /b/, to realize that there was a time when you could go to the FBI with hard evidence of somebody walking through multiple military computers at will doing searches which obviously indicate attempts at sensitive data, and the FBI response would be 'prove to us that we should care'. The relatively recent past is still another country. This book is a compelling reminder that if your brain moves on internet time, in which yesterday was three news cycles ago, you are probably forgetting that things were really, really different not so very long ago, and are going to be unrecognizable again pretty soon.

It's also a fast, fun read. Stoll's prose is best described as workmanlike, but it isn't terrible, and the down-the-rabbit-hole factor of an astronomer from Berkeley finding himself lecturing to members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and giving interviews to the New York Times is entertaining. Stoll explains the computer details pretty clearly, which is good not only because it gets technical but because nowadays chunks of it are obsolete and therefore even less accessible.

I think my major problem with the book is his reluctance to admit how much he loves hacker-chasing. He keeps talking about how much he wants to get back to astronomy, and about how much his pager disturbs his domestic tranquility, and how many people other than himself would be more qualified to do this, but you can tell he's having the time of his life. It bleeds through in every paragraph, and I just wish he'd say it outright, as it feels a little disingenuous. I can understand a lack of willingness to publicly enthuse over a life of sleeping on university floors and continuously being on the phone with people four time zones away; it's just, he was entirely self-motivated (no one was encouraging him to do this, and in fact multiple people on multiple occasions told him to stop because it wasn't worth it), and ethical considerations were only part of the motivation. A lot of it was the thrill of pure research and the pleasure of the hunt, and those are perfectly valid pleasures. I don't understand why he keeps insisting throughout the book that his calling is astronomy, especially since he keeps characterizing that as pretty boring. Ah well. Maybe he's gotten over it in the years since.
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A reminder: still doing reviews out of order, still somewhat behind, still reading a book every day. I hope to be caught up tomorrow or the day after.

I had been tangentially aware of the astronomer Mike Brown, and that he discovers objects in the Kuiper Belt, because of [personal profile] sovay winning the contest he held to name the moon of the dwarf planet Orcus; she named it Vanth.

I also vaguely remember the press surrounding the time when there were briefly maybe ten planets, and then maybe nine, and then Pluto was demoted and we wound up with eight. I had not remembered that that was sparked by Mike Brown's discovery of a larger object than Pluto beyond Pluto's orbit-- the not-actually-tenth planet.

Now he's written this fascinating, charming, and funny memoir about that period, and I can't recommend it too highly. This book really has everything; it's a neat portrait of how a working astronomer goes about things (the ins and outs of telescopes, telescope time, travel to odd bits of the world to use telescopes, computer programming, a lot of staring at sky photos), but also covers interactions with the press, his marriage and the birth of his daughter (which, surprisingly for this sort of memoir, are covered in a way which weaves neatly in and out of the astronomy and adds to it rather than detracting), and a truly amazing incident involving some Spanish astronomers, an internet chat group, and data theft, which I will not attempt to describe. His explanations of the issues surrounding the definition of the word 'planet' are clear and well-argued, as are his summaries of the ways things could have gone and the way they did go.

And throughout it all, he comes across as a good man and a good scientist, a person who is doing what he loves, and loves what he is doing, and who has the kind of infectious delight in his work that must make him an interesting professor.

This book is so lovely that I forgive, although I could not help but notice, a minor error early on in his description of the Norse mythology behind the names of the days of the week. Thor is not, and never has been, the king of the gods.

Apart from that, this is one of the best things I've read in a very long time, and I profoundly hope he writes more books; this is the sort of writing on science that will be a treasure for many years to come, and is definitely the thing you want to hand people when they ask why we used to have nine planets and nowadays have eight.
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I've run into Ursula Le Guin's poetry here and there, as one does, but I found that [personal profile] sovay had an actual volume of it, so I read it while visiting her. Incredible Good Fortune is Le Guin's poems between 2000 and 2005; a lot of them are formalist exercises done for her poetry-writing group. The way I can best describe Le Guin's poetry is as calmly enjoyable: it will never be great, this is not her primary metier and she does not have that genius in her, but it will also never be bad, because she is simply too good at words for that. She writes a poetry of simple moments, small precisions, attempts to catch something for you and hold it there a moment irregardless of whether it may be something that some other poet has already caught, and sometimes it is and why should that matter? Pleasant to read, always, and it's also fun to watch her trying out these forms like finger exercises, to notice her play with the old lovely shapes. One does not often see a published poet admit to trying out a form for the form's sake, although every poet I know who uses classical forms at all has done it; it's just mostly either those go in a drawer somewhere, or the content fills them sufficiently that the poet can say with certainty that this poem is more than its form. But occasionally I like reading just a sonnet, you know, a sonnet because the poet wanted to write a sonnet and did not really care what the sonnet was going to be about, and I don't see why one should always put those off in a drawer. It's a perfectly valid creative impulse. You can see Le Guin enjoying it. So, minor work here, if taken as the work of a great writer, but if you like watching the mind of a poet work, or if you like watching specifically Le Guin's mind work (and well you might), this book is more transparent than many, free with itself, and friendly.

And then the next night on [personal profile] sovay's coffee table was a children's book about comets, Seymour Simon's The Long Journey From Space. It turned out to be an old book, as it talks about how Halley's Comet is going to come back in a few years in 1986. But the thing is, it told me things about comets that I did not, in fact, know, and that are actually still true, which is why I read it in the first place, because I was flipping through it and I noticed something I didn't know-- namely that comets can have more than one tail. I am sure this is elementary to some of you but no one had mentioned it to me. Apparently there was a sixteenth-century comet that was both visible by daylight and had seven tails. I am rather surprised Europe did not actually burn down in the expectation of apocalypse. At any rate, this was a solid description of what was then known about the motion, composition, discovery, history, etc. of comets, most of which should still be valid. And it was very well illustrated with period woodcuts of various famous comets and good astronomical photos showing the things discussed very clearly. So if you read only one obsolete children's astronomy book this year, this is a good choice. It did not, certainly, feel a waste of my time.

The Peter Sís I read the next day, however, did, even though it did not take very much time to waste. Sís is one of the great illustrators working in children's books today. His art is intricate and ornate and unlike anything else. And the subject matter of the book should have been fine-- A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North is about Jan Welzl, a Czechoslovakian folk hero who one day in about 1893 possibly took all his worldly goods and a sled and crossed into the Canadian tundra via Siberia, there to live with the local Inuit and eventually dictate a best-selling memoir about his thirty years way up north. I say possibly because there has been some debate over the years as to whether Karel Capek actually wrote the book, although it seems to have settled on the side of not and of Welzl really having done this (although you can still find people who insist he never left Czechoslovakia). This is a very good subject for a book. I would rather like to read one sometime. All of the real information I just mentioned is given by Sís on the front cover flap and he devotes the entirety of his actual page count to pictures of the tundra. Which, I mean. In some art styles pictures of the tundra can be very striking, but Sís is an impressionist who doesn't use much in the way of details drawn from nature (he prefers human artifacts) and consequently the pictures are more minimalist than I feel is warranted. Small human dots on large backgrounds sort of thing. And you get some idea that Welzl was conflicted about the incursions of other Europeans into Inuit territory and tried to translate for the group he lived with, but it took reading the back flap of the book to learn that he tried to start an Inuit-language trading company with the men of his adopted tribe, which was a massive commercial failure due to the fact that nobody involved spoke English and they were trying to trade with the U.S.. Seriously I should not learn more information from the flaps than from the book itself. The story of Jan Welzl is full of interesting complexities, high adventure, questions of identity and the nature of authorship, and the ways that people build folk mythologies. If anyone knows a better book about it, I would appreciate you letting me know.


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