Posted tagged ‘good books’

For A Good Time In Cambridge (This Thursday)

October 6, 2015

Yo! Local Juicers — if you’ve reserved Thursday evening for watching paint dry, I have an alternative.

I’m going to be moderating a really excellent iteration of the MIT Communications Forum — this time co-sponsored by our city-wide celebration Hub Week.

I’ll be very lightly riding herd on Annalee Newitz and Charles C. Mann as they wonder about how (and whether) study of the past can help us prepare for the future — with the possibility of apocalypse included.


Both are wonderful writers and thinkers.  Annalee was the founding editor of io9, and is now Gizmodo’s Grand Poobah.  She’s written Scatter, Adapt and Remember:  How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, which was, inter alia, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. She’s at work now on a history of the city (and its possible future) — and more besides.

Charles  has been producing erudite and elegant science writing for yonks*. He’s perhaps best known for 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus which won the the National Academies of Sciences Keck award as best popular science book of the year.  He followed that up with 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Createdand is at work now on The Wizard and the Prophet, which he describes as a book about the future which makes no predictions. (Yogi would approve.)

Time:  5-7 p.m., Thursday, October 8.

Place:  MIT Building 3, room 270.  Interactive map here.

PS:  If you’re into some long distance planning, I’ve got a couple of events coming up in support of my long-teased new book, The Hunt for Vulcan: and how Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe.  The book is timed to the centennial of Einstein’s discovery of the General Theory of Relativity, which he completed in November, 1915, and it gets to that striking moment through a marvelous oddity of a story from 19th century solar-system astronomy, the repeated discovery of a planet that should have existed, but didn’t.  The appearance and then vanishing of the planet Vulcan is not just a curiosity, (or so it seems to me), as its history reveals a great deal about what it takes for science really to change under the pressure of inconvenient fact.

Anyway — the book comes out on Tuesday, November 3, and we are in the midst of planning a launch event at the MIT Museum.  That will most likely run from 6-7:30, with details to come soon.

Then, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, November 12, I’ll be doing a reading and signing at my local:  Brookline Booksmith.  Stop by if you’re in the neighborhood.

*Yonks being a unit of measure of time roughly equal to more than you thought.

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563

Horn Tooting: Library Journal/Newton and the Counterfeiter Edition

November 20, 2009

I’ve been waaay remiss in self aggrandizement/book hawking on this blog lately, so it is my pleasure to report that Library Journal put Newton and the Counterfeiter on its Best Books 2009 list.

Money quote from the accompanying article:

“What I looked for in my best books picks was unique voices,” [Library Journal Fiction Editor] Wilda Willy explained, …She also wanted original ideas, a fresh take on a well-worn subject (“yes, we all know about Isaac Newton, the genius scientist, But did you know he was also a genius detective?”), and beautiful writing.

This is, I devoutly hope, the first swallow in a Newton spring of renewed attention, but Library Journal has a special place in my heart — first to review (and star) the book, and now this.  I esteem their editors’ taste and thank them for their kindness.

Oh…and if you had a thought to actually go out and follow the LJ commendation, you can find Newton and the Counterfeiter quite easily: Amazon,PowellsBarnes and Noble,Indiebound and  across the pond at,WaterstonesBlackwellsBorders,John Smith & Son

One last thought:  publishing a book is a strange business, emotionally a bit whacked.  You write the damn thing over some number of years, mostly all by yourself…and then you send it out into the world.  Unless you have the good fortune to hit it really big, showing up on all the chat shows and clipping reviews by the ream, it mostly goes … not quite silently into the void…but quietly.  It’s hard to know, even with a solid sale, whether people got what you wrote, whether they actually value it.

It’s like sowing seeds out the window of a moving car; you almost can’t know whether anything sprouts.  And then, something like this drops in on the wings of a Google alert.  And you know something did.  It’s sweet.

Image:  Vincent van Gogh, “The Sower,” 1889.


Newton and the Counterfeiter News: A whole hour of me talking about the book for your pleasure

November 6, 2009

Here, via MIT World, is the video of my talk in the MIT Writer’s Series to explain the who, what, why of that book I’ve mentioned here once or twice, Newton and the Counterfeiter.  (Amazon,PowellsBarnes and Noble,Indiebound and  across the pond at,WaterstonesBlackwellsBorders,John Smith & Son) Bonus video: a wonderfully generous and over the top introduction by my colleague, Junot Diaz — short story artist and novelist beyond compare, Pulitzerite and all that, and a kind man.

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In Defense of Reading: Jim Lefferts Guest Posting On Books That Will Reward Your Gaze

October 25, 2009

Jim Leffert, a fellow member of perhaps the most broad-spectrum Jewish congregation in existence, Harvard Hillel’s Worship and Study Minyan, reads more than almost anyone I can think of, and writes about his voracious and small “c” catholic habit for the benefit of that congregation and on GoodReads.  His latest is below.  Winter’s coming…stock up on books.  (And no, I didn’t post this because of the mention in passing of my latest book below, but mention it he does, for which my thanks.)

If I were to weigh in, I’d add that I fully share Jim’s enthusiasm for Stone’s Trial of Socrates — perhaps more than fully, given that I didn’t feel the book slowed down at all; I found it gripping throughout.  I haven’t read the new Ian Pears, but I think I was somewhat less caught up in his Instance of the Fingerpost than Jim was.  Reading his comments below, though, makes me think I should take a second look.  And my thanks to Jim for alerting me to the Sister Pelagia stories.  I’d never heard of them, but they sound like the kind of haute beach reading I truly love.

Anyway — the point of this all is to celebrate the book any which way we can, so read, then read.

The Trial of Socrates

By I.F. Stone

So you think that Socrates is deservedly one of civilization’s culture heroes for his pioneering use of the dialectic method in philosophy and for being a martyr for philosophic inquiry when he ran afoul of the Athens city fathers, who sentenced him to death by swallowing hemlock? I.F. Stone doesn’t think so, and in this book he lays out evidence to explain why the democratic government of Athens tried and executed him. Stone may not excuse the decision to execute Socrates but he makes a case for why it happened.

Analyzing a variety of ancient sources, he demonstrates that Socrates had great contempt for Athens’ democratic form of government and continually ridiculed it to his young tutees; energetically advocated an “enlightened” rule by autocratic dictators; did little or nothing to speak out against or stand up against the dictatorial regimes that periodically took over Athens; and points out that his tutees, who were all from the aristocratic class, included two of the main dictators.

Stone also argues that had Socrates wished to, he could have persuaded the jury to give him a lesser punishment. Instead, because Socrates wanted to die, he baited the jury and goaded them into imposing this unusually severe sentence. Stone comes out swinging on the first page of this book and never lets up. He fires away: Socrates loved to poke holes in others’ reasoning to make them look stupid but did not offer a viable alternative to others’ thinking; furthermore, he didn’t take his wife and children’s well-being into consideration when he goaded his captors into making him kick the bucket. The book moves a little slowly in some places, but all in all, it offers an enlightening analysis of Greek philosophy, politics, literature, political history, and legal practices as he explicates the most memorable legal case of the 5th century B.C.E.

Molly and Me

By Gertrude Berg

Aviva Kempner’s fine documentary about Gertrude Berg, titled “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg”, led me to check out Berg’s 1961 memoir. According to Kempner, Berg was an important culture hero who translated the immigrant Jewish experience into a prime time nationwide radio and later television show that lasted a quarter of a century. A creative force acknowledged as the inventor of the sitcom, Berg conceived the characters, hired the actors, and wrote every episode.

Molly and Me is a charming, entertaining, and at times poignant portrait of Berg’s immigrant family’s struggles and strivings (sort of an “All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown”), her experiences growing up at her family’s Catskills hotel, and her entry into and life in show business. Unfortunately, about 60 pages before the end, the book runs out of steam. By now, she is a famous and accomplished performer and the only suspense she offers is how much will she worry and sweat and, by her own account, torment the people around her as opening night approaches, before finding out that she is again triumphant.

It turns out that the real reason that the book sags is that Berg omits the heartbreaking story of how the blacklist claimed her co-star, Philip Loeb and led eventually to the demise of her show, despite Berg’s efforts to protect him and keep the show going. For this story, you’ll have to go to Kempner’s fine film, to Glenn Smith’s biography of Berg, or to the thinly fictionalized account offered in the film The Front, in which Loeb’s best friend Zero Mostel portrays a character based on him.

Stone’s Fall

By Iain Pears

With The Instance of the Fingerpost, Pears created a new kind of masterwork—a historical novel constructed intricately to work like clockwork, which glides sequentially from one subjective narrator to another, so that each section unveils new explanations that upend the previous narrator’s picture of the characters’ motivations and actions . In addition, this remarkable novel draws the reader deep into 17th century England’s skullduggery and political and geopolitical machinations.  A subsequent novel, The Dream of Scipio, presented three stories, spanning 15 centuries. Continuously inter-cutting from one story to another, that book intertwined the three human dramas as it brought to life the political and ideological backdrop of each story and era.

Pears’ latest novel, Stone’s Fall, is as ambitious as An Instance of the Fingerpost. Three sequential sections, each with a different narrator, piece together a story that continues from 1867 until 1910 (the sections are in reverse chronological order). The mystery to be explored (as introduced years later in the early 1950’s) is why British titan of industry John Stone plummeted from the window of his town home in 1909. Was it an accident? Suicide? Was he pushed? Stone’s alluring and mysterious widow hires a crime reporter from a London newspaper not to solve this mystery, but rather to tie up a serious loose end that is critical for unblocking the disposition of Stone’s estate. The reporter is seriously mesmerized by the widow (leading me to wonder at times if the book was going to turn out to be a remake of The French Lieutenant’s Woman), but the twists and turns of their relationship merely set off the labyrinthine plot.

As if A Tale of Two Cities was insufficient, Pears gives us three—London, Paris, and Venice–plus side visits to the provinces. The book is a rich brew that includes not only the characters’ personal dramas, but also crises in the British and European financial system (in this respect, the book is a sequel to Tom Levenson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter), industrial and technological history of the late 19th and early 20th century military industrial complex (a la Richard Powers), geopolitical machinations, scandal, skullduggery, and many other ingredients that convey a sense of time and place. At times, the characters go into overdrive in order to an ending that left me disappointed, but Stone’s Fall is an absorbing and rewarding read nonetheless.

Sister Pelagia and the Red Cockeral

By Boris Akunin

Translated by Andrew Bromfield

Boris Akunin (the pseudonym of Georgian writer Grigory Chkhartishvili) has written 11 detective novels, taking place in the 19th century, which feature Russian secret agent and detective Erast Fandourin. Five of these novels have appeared in English. The present book is the third volume in a more recent series that takes place in the waning years of the Russian Empire—around 1910—and that feature an inquisitive and adventurous nun, Sister Pelagia, as the hero.

Having missed the first two installments, I am unaware of the extraordinary and tragic events that led young Polina Andreevna to take up the habit and retire to a convent in rural Zavolzhsk by the Volga River, where she serves as headmistress for the local school. In this book, however, Sister Pelagia soon leaves the monastery and travels far afield, as she seeks to solve the murder of a man believed to be Manuila, a charismatic Russian preacher and founder of a sect of Russians who want to live like Jews and travel to the Holy Land. Manuila is despised both by xenophobic and anti-Semitic elements

in Russia and by the established Jewish religious community, but the reasons for his attempted assassination are unclear. When the murdered man turns out to be a sect member who was posing as Manuila for security reasons, Sister Pelagia resolves to find the real Manuila in order to protect him from harm and to resolve the mystery of who is after him. SisterPelagia is also vexed by a vision that she has involving a cave and a red cockerel.

Sister Pelagia’s ally in her detective efforts is Matvei Bentsionovich Berdichevsky, a public prosecutor who is himself an assimilated Jew who has converted to Russian Orthodoxy. Berdichevsky’s zeal to get to the bottom of this mystery is amplified by his infatuation with Sister Pelagia. As Berdichevsky pursues his leads deep into the heart of reactionary governmental and quasi-governmental circles, we encounter the political convulsions and intrigues of the time, and particularly the anti-Semitic hostility that boiled over periodically into pogroms and later, into the infamous Beiliss blood libel trial (as detailed in Maurice Samuel’s fine book, Blood Accusation). While Berdichevsky investigates in Zhitomir and St. Petersburg, Sister Pelagia, forced to flee Russia, travels to the Holy Land, where she encounters a group of Zionist Halutzim, a Palestinian Arab guide, a group of homosexuals who are re-establishing Sodom with the help of an American millionaire, and the assassin, who is determined to eliminate her and Manuila.

I was impressed by Akunin’s extensive use of material from Jewish sources throughout the story. The twists and turns of the tale are truly impressive, and one may find humor, pathos, rationalistic ratiocination, political intrigue, and spiritual mysteries nicely brought together.

Jim Leffert is a psychologist who practices in Cambridge and Framingham, Massachusetts.

Image:  Lilly Martin Spencer, “Reading the Legend” 1852

On Darwinism as a Term of Abuse

December 11, 2008

A while back, I posted a short piece criticizing the Rt. Rev. and the Rt. Hon. Lord Habgood, P. C., former Archibishop of York (number 2 in the Anglican hierarchy) and Ph.D physiologist, for his use of the terms “Darwinism” and “scientific orthodoxy” in a review of a history of creationism.  In that post I wrote,

Just to reduce this to the absurdity it is: does anyone out there think “Newtonianism” is a good term to describe the branch of knowledge that enables us, inter alia to calculate the trajectory of a comet?

Well, someone does.  Leslie Darrow, proprietor of the Mid-Anglican blog had this to say about what seemed to me to be about as banal an observation as I could imagine:

I don’t know why not. Calculating the trajectory of a comet doesn’t need anything more sophisticated than Newtonian mechanics.

I replied that I was afraid Darrow was being either silly or obtuse, for reasons that I think are obvious.  No one refers to the ideas in The Principia as the corpus of Newtonism.  Mechanics, maybe, or in the case of problems involving Newtonian gravity, celestial mechanics, but not Newtonism, or Isaackery or anything of the sort.  No one.

Similarly, no one refers to this or this or this as successful applications of the methods of Darwinism.  They are all, of course, results achieved under the umbrella category of evolutionary biology, using methods from specialized biological disciplines ranging from field ecology to molecular genetics — the latter a practice for which Darwin lacked even the vocabulary to imagine

That all seems pretty standard issue stuff  — and even if you don’t want to go all philosophical on me, it comes back to the practice, the use of terms in science.  Do we refer to the study of molecular genetics as Watson-and-Crickism?

We do not.

Unfortunately, Darrow proceeded to dig herself in deeper.


Why You Should Read Eric Roston: Sarah Palin Edition.

September 25, 2008

I know we are all supposed to be burying gold in the corners of our gardens, but I’m still dealing with the grotesque implications of Sarah Palin’s apotheosis. Last night’s Katie Couric train wreck (Q:  So, Governor:  what has Maverick McCain ever done to regulate the financial markets?  A:  Katie — let me get back to you on that…) gives a hint of what we might all be in for should November 5 turn out to be an official Very Bad Day

Her rise from Alaska GOP hackdom to all the lengthening tally of the fictions that comprise the GOP presentation of its Evita – has allowed some of what makes her the worst running mate choice in history to fade into the background a bit.

That would be the substance (shurely shome mishtake? — Ed.) of what Palin actually thinks about the world in which we live.  Most important, at least from this blog’s perspective, look at the degree to which Palin’s rise to prominence ratifies the anti-science turn in the GOP from which it – and if McCain does win this election, the country too – may not recover.

Palin’s anti-science bent has been best documented through three of her positions.  Her unsurprising support for  abstinence education as the proper form of sex education for American teenagers, despite for all the evidence, some close to home, of the inadequacy of that approach, is the tell that reminds us how much damage a disdain for data and the test of reality can do.

Palin’s personal commitment to creationism is similarly not a shock, for the same reason, given her extreme religous practice (though to be fair, she has not made the teaching of creationism in school a priority in either Wasilla or Alaska at large).  It is also, for many in the science blogosphere (and the rest of the science-positive community), a sufficient lapse to make it unnecessary to look for further evidence of the danger she might pose were she to achieve power.

But in fact, at least as I see it, it is her blithe dismissal of human-induced global warming that should scare us the most.

(She has, as documented here, recanted, a bit.  In assessing her sincerity I will pass over in silence that which cannot be spoken, at least in language appropriate for a family blog.)

That is: it is pretty obvious why Palin might deny human agency here.  She is the governor of an oil and gas rich state, and she is a member of the drill-now party; both of those affiliations require placing a low weight on global warming concerns, which she duly assigns.  That’s fine, as far as it goes: she’s entitled to argue her corner, and if the other side can’t come up with more compelling arguments, shame on us, not her.

But the point is not that she says global warming doesn’t matter, or that there is nothing that can be done about it — those are genuinely arguable issues.  She’s saying that humans are completely uninvolved, that as a matter of empirical fact, the notion of human agancy to combat global warming is based on the flawed premise that the combustion of fossil fuels has something to do with climate change.

Not even the most determined of the intellectually prepared opponents of climate-change infused public policy — my own MIT colleague and global warming activist bete noire Dick Lindzen, for example – holds that view.

It is untenable.  It makes no sense.

Channeling my favorite commentator on the absurdity of life:

It is an ex-argument.

Which brings me to the point of this post, which is to commend Eric Roston’s book The Carbon Age as an antidote to the weary headache that comes from listening to absurdities proffered by the dangerously inane.

I’m not going to offer a full review here – that’s been done with gusto, as for example, here.

What I am going to say is that it is the first work on carbon and climate I have read (and I’ve read plenty, and written, long ago, one of my own) that is so neatly constructed in such a way as to combine the natural history, the science, and the tool-making ape’s transformations of carbon come together in a way that makes it possible to get in the gut why knowing all this stuff matters.

That is: Roston should be understood to have written carbon’s biography, it’s history, it’s behavior, and the implications of both when they encounter the recent and unanticipated fact of humankind’s technological evolution.

It’s a good read, a very good one — and even better, once you’re done, you will have a deep grasp of why it is both fun and essential to get to know the underlying science behind top line talking points.

And in the current context, you can’t read this book and come out thinking of Sarah Palin and the Republican Party that has embraced her anything other than either congenital or self made fools:  the kind of people who screw their eyes shut and hold their hands over their ears whilst shouting “I’M NOT LISTENING! I’M NOT LISTENING!”

As a lagniappe — the M. Python sketch referenced above can be viewed after the jump:


Sunday science book corner…

July 20, 2008

Sort of outsourced to Boyce Rensberger.

As I see this blog, it’s about science as it intersects with public life with a strong strand of history running through it, and occasional commentaries on the writing of science for the public as a sort of meta-coverage. Of late, politics more or less connected to science stories have dominated — and that’s likely to go on, given the season. But I don’t want to lose sight of the other stuff, so this week I plan to write at least a few notices of recent popular science books worth noting. Here, I thought I’d offer a Sunday kind of retrospective on some of the old good stuff worth remembering. Hence, my turn to Boyce, my already-missed MIT colleague.

Boyce, for those of you who don”t have the privilege of his acquaintance, is the just-retired director of the Knight Science Journalism fellows program at MIT.

(For those of you who don’t know about this program and are mid-career science writers, check it out. It offers one year at MIT, a decent stipend, and no requirements other than the twice weekly seminars during which leading researchers in the area come and talk to y’all for a couple of hours. In other words, it’s a really, really good gig.)

Boyce has also taken on most of the available roles known to science writing: daily newspaper reporter and editor; magazine writer and editor; kids science tv writer; book author — all before he became one of the leading educators of science writers through his work at the Knight Program.  (For a quick intro to what matters to him, read this.)

Along the way he came up with this: a list of the books that, in his humble opinion, every science writer should read.

I never take such lists all that seriously, and I would surely make a somewhat different selection if I were ever tempted to canonize. But leaving aside such quibbles, it is true that at least all the books on the list that I have read (most, but not all) have done me good.

All of this is preamble to the suggestion that occurred to me when I made a recent return to Boyce’s list:

A really good read would put together Schroedinger’s What is Life with Watson’s The Double Helix. I’m not sure if the impact of Schroedinger’s brief book is remembered all that much these days, but it was hugely influential — Francis Crick, for one, credited his turn to biology to an encounter with it, and its worth reading because it demonstrated the power of disciplined thinking to define a problem. Schroedinger was, of course, a physicist who got interested in biology late in life; he focused on the question of inheritance with variation, as the chief outstanding issue biology had to solve next. Most impressive, with almost no data, he managed to anticipate several of the major developments in biology to come over the next couple of decades.

The most important of which, of course, was Watson and Crick’s identification of the structure of DNA molecule. Watson’s book doesn’t need any introduction — and, with my family connection to Rosalind Franklin, I can’t say I think Watson’s account of her can be taken as anything but his own more or less fictional creation.

But the juxtaposition of the Schroedinger and Watson account is great fun, and illustrative of two poles of science writing. Schroedinger’s is formal, analytical — and invitation to take part in the intellectual life of science. Watson, though he would probably hate to hear this description, takes a truly humanist approach to presenting the inner life of science to a lay audience. He spends an enormous amount of time on what it feels like to do science; while you certainly learn the basic story of DNA and the significance of its structure, his account of the making of modern biology is all about the people, most of all, of course, the man Peter Medawar called “Lucky Jim.”

Put ’em back to back, and see what you think.

Image: Andreas Praefcke, “Basement shelves, Firestone Library, Princeton,” 2007. Source Wikimedia Commons