Book Review: The Point of Poetry, Joe Nutt

Book Review: The Point of Poetry, Joe Nutt

The Point of Poetry by [Nutt, Joe]

Poetry Resource: The Point of Poetry, Joe Nutt

The subtitle of this book is telling: “How Poetry Can Teach Us about the Things in Life which Really Matter.” Joe Nutt’s book The Point of Poetry is not necessarily meant to be a textbook, but if it were, it is the textbook we all wish we had back when poetry was being taught–or so often assaulted or inflicted–back in high school or college.

 

Joe Nutt has taught poetry, and I hope he makes a second career teaching teachers how to teach poetry. He is not afraid to poke fun at poets and poetry. He says about William Blake’s “The Tyger,” “To a child just about coping with the difference between advice and advise or even have and of, spelling Tyger with a ‘y’ is just confirmation that any poet’s main mission is to sow confusion and doubt.” I wish more of my poetry classes, books, and teachers had expressed that kind of self awareness.

 

Poetry should always be taken seriously–seriously enough that we should be able to laugh at it and with it. Nutt does just that. He can laugh at the thought of “tyger” being spelled with a “y,” and in the same chapter express the wonder captured by the author of the poem. Nutt may not share Blake’s faith or mysticism, but he does share Blake’s awe of the power of the large striped cat and his wonder at the forces–natural or divine–that brought both that creature and its prey into being. No matter how one spells the beastie’s name.

 

Ultimately it is that power behind the poems that Nutt loves, and he shares his love for this power in chapter after chapter of analysis of famous and not-so-famous poems. Nutt never takes himself too seriously. He never takes poets too seriously either. If “the Bard” cannot survive a few well-aimed barbs, he is not who we think he is. But Nutt takes poetry very seriously. The power of the words is in the power of the ideas they express: love, eternity, faith, endurance, the very ordinariness of life. When a poem succeeds in taking these grand themes of life and compressing them into a few words that encapsulate those ideas, it is a magical and sensual thing worth celebrating and sharing.

 

The book does what it seeks to do very well. It is fair to point out what it does not do. It is not intended to introduce a lot of modern or new poets. Most (not all) of the writers are fairly described as dead white English guys. There are a few dead white English gals as well. Rita Dove is a notable exception, and there are others, but it is predominately English poets, and a lot of the familiar names from the canon. No book can do everything, but I would love to see a follow-up book that addresses newer poetry from poets who are more representative of other races and cultures. If you are looking for a  book that addresses the subject of poetry and provides insight into the poems featured, though, this book does that extraordinarily well.

 

April in America is National Poetry Month, and I cannot think of a better way to introduce that month than with this book. If you don’t “get” the point of poetry, read this book. If you do get the point of poetry, you will also thoroughly enjoy this book.

 

The format of the book lends itself to taking it a chapter at a time. If you wanted to skip around to see what he says about a favorite (or least favorite) poem, this is a good book for that. Reading the entire book will likely introduce you to poems and poets you’ve never known before, but even if they are all familiar Nutt’s insights will help you read them with fresh eyes. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves poetry–and to anyone who hates poetry! Read a couple of chapters at random, and I dare anyone who has not seen the beauty of poetry before to tell me they still hate it. I am sure some still would, but anyone with a brain and a heart will see the power and beauty and humor that Nutt finds in The Point of Poetry.

Joe Nutt, Author
Joe Nutt, Author

I do want to thank Joe Nutt, his publisher, and Anne Cater for an advanced copy of The Point of Poetry. I am privileged to be part of the blog tour for the launch of the book, and the only request I was given for receiving the ARC was an honest review. Since I honestly loved the book, this was a treat and a pleasure for me.

2019 Blog Tour Poetry Poster
Check out our fellow bloggers on this tour.

 

The Point of Poetry by [Nutt, Joe]

Book Review: The Point of Poetry, Joe Nutt

Book Review: How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, Ryan North

Book Review: How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, Ryan North

Nonfiction: How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, Ryan North

According to the foreword of this book, Ryan North did not write it. He found it, encased in preCambrian rock. He merely transcribed it. It looks to be a companion journal to the FC3000™ Time Machine, in the unlikely (and certainly not legally liable) circumstance of its failure, stranding the renter sometime in the deep past. Unfortunately, How to Invent Everything does not actually tell you how to invent the time machine itself–presumably for patent reasons. It does, however, provide a tongue-in-cheek guide to creating civilization from scratch whenever you find yourself. (It does help, though, to have other humans available when trying to create a society.)

 

North’s tone is breezy and conversational. How to Invent Everything is heavily footnoted and endnoted. The footnotes are often quite humorous, and are worth reading. The endnotes provide actual research and additional resources (which are not really useful if you are stuck in a time period before they were written, but they are provided just in case). Don’t let the tone of the book fool you: this is a well-documented and well-researched book that breaks down the pieces of civilization and modernity and gives at least a basic framework for replacing them.

 

The longest chapter by far, essentially a book within the book, is chapter 10: Common Human Complaints that Can Be Solved by Technology. (Reviewer’s interpretation: humans complain a lot which is why the chapter is so long.) In this chapter North gives basic details on inventing a number of technologies that would be extremely useful: water purification, plows, prophylactics, batteries, airplanes, and many, many more. Other chapters give insights into useful plants and animals, farming, basic nutrition, developing language, first aid, music, and art. The chapter on music even contains some public domain music that you can “invent” yourself and take credit for, including that timeless classic that plays during Tetris.

 

The appendices include a number of things that would be very handy for any civilization just starting out–though as he points out, many of these things actually did not develop until hundreds or thousands of years after they could have been discovered or developed. These include the periodic table, useful chemicals and how to make them, trigonometric tables, helpful numbers (e.g. pi), and the pitches of musical notes. The technology tree is fascinating–I never would have suspected that the invention of paper led directly to the stethoscope (he covers this in the book as well).

 

All in all, this is an amusing and quirky look at how the modern world came to be. He constantly pokes fun at the vagaries of invention: buttons, for example, were around for hundreds of years as decorative items before anyone thought of using them as fasteners. Some things were invented or discovered, then lost, then reinvented or rediscovered centuries later. Forceps, used to help reposition babies for birth, were kept secret for 150 years by a family of doctors who wanted to corner the market on them!

 

Somehow, despite everything, we’ve managed to get to this point in technology and communication–and apparently at some future point we will have access to a time machine and arguably could do the whole thing over again and hopefully better. If so, Ryan North’s “find” will be of immeasurable value. Until then, it is a fun and fascinating look at the building blocks of civilization.

 

If, all of a sudden, book reviews on Scintilla end and your milk is “marvinized” instead of “pasteurized,” you’ll know that I brought this book along with me using the FC3000™ Time Machine, and I used it. I hope you also enjoy “Marvin’s” Eine Kleine Nachtmusic. It should be a classic!

Book Review: How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, Ryan North

Book Review: Heart Berries, Terese Marie Mailhot

Book Review: Heart BerriesTerese Marie Mailhot

Memoir: Heart BerriesTerese Marie Mailhot

Terese Marie Mailhot is many things. A writer. A member of a First Nation who grew up on a reservation. A survivor of sexual abuse. A single parent. A foster child. Someone who has lived with mental illness, including hospitalization, pharmacological treatments, and therapy. MFA graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts. All of these things and more are told in sometimes harsh, grim, painful, honest, and raw detail in her memoir Heart Berries. This is not a memoir of triumph and conquest, “How I Overcame My Issues (And You Can, Too!).” This is a memoir of survival, a story of endurance, bereft of hope beyond making it through today.

 

Much of the book is written as a series of letters to “Casey.” Casey is revealed through these letters to be her lover, boyfriend, and father of her third child. During the course of these letters we learn about the author’s childhood, including reflections on being Indian, revelations of sexual abuse by her father, and later fleeing into a teenage marriage that produced two children and a world of heartache. The letters start when she is in the hospital for mental illness, struggling with the nature of her relationship to Casey, to the son who still lives with her, to the son who lives with his father, to her own parents, and to the world as a Native American woman.

 

As Tolstoy said in Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I think he may be selling both types of families short, but there is a measure of truth in the observation. Mailhot’s unhappiness stems from so many sources. Like many of us broken people, there is a degree of longing to be fixed: through medicine, through therapy, through relationships, through motherhood, through forgiveness. She recognizes, though, that some things cannot be fixed. You cannot fix sexual abuse. You cannot fix betrayal. You cannot fix failures with future successes. Time inexorably continues, and there’s no reversing course to undo the violence done to us or done by us.

 

What can be done, and what Mailhot seems to be doing, is choose to proceed. You cannot fix abuse. You can decide not to be defined by it. You cannot fix betrayal. You can decide whether or not to stay. You can decide whether or not to move forward. You cannot fix failure. You can decide to succeed in your academic pursuits, to publish groundbreaking work, to insist that your voice is worth hearing and speak your truth–however painful–into a world that too often ignores female and Native voices.

 

Heart Berries is not a book to read for comfort or solutions. There are none to be found here. This is a book, though, for honesty, for endurance, for anyone who has suffered. You’re not alone, your pain is real. Heart Berries does not offer a cheap grace or an easy victory. Instead it screams into the void, “I’m here and I matter!” The power of her voice eloquently testifies that Terese Marie Mailhot indeed is here, and matters.

Book Review: Heart BerriesTerese Marie Mailhot

Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction, Britt Wray

Book Review: Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction, Britt Wray

Rise of the Necrofauna

Science: Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction, Britt Wray

Several months prior to starting Scintilla.Info, I encountered a brilliant book exploring the possibilities of restoring extinct species. When my wife proposed and began Scintilla, I immediately knew that I wanted to share this book with other readers. It has taken me a few months to get back to it, but having reread Rise of the Necrofauna I am impressed again at the depth and insight Britt Wray brings to the subject.

 

There may be two immediate reactions to the thought of restoring extinct species. The first one is, “We’ve seen this movie five times now, and it always ends badly.” Jurassic Park and its sequels is the stuff of science fiction and does not reflect the actual scientific progress undergirding the possibility of restoring more recently extinct species, but the cautionary lessons in the movies may give some people pause at the entire idea. The other immediate reaction is, “Cool! I want my own pet wooly mammoth!” Which opens up the entire question of ethics and responsibility to the process.

 

Wray’s book is quite thorough. She examines the science, and indeed the technology is getting closer to creating something that is potentially like de-extinction. Wray makes the point repeatedly that regardless of the name we may give it, we can never simply recreate extinct species. The wooly mammoth is a good example of this. Partial DNA has been recovered from frozen carcasses found in the arctic. That DNA has been degraded and corrupted, though, so any replicated DNA would necessarily require augmentation and hybridization with existing animals, most likely Indian elephants. Passenger pigeon DNA could be similarly recreated using living pigeons. But in both cases scientists are not restoring the extinct species. They are (potentially) creating new species that are very similar to the old species but not identical.

 

The other aspect to this is that a species is more than simply its DNA. Elephants are highly intelligent, with culture and behaviors passed from mother to child. Would an elephant mother reject a mammoth calf? Could a sub-tropical elephant teach a mammoth calf the behaviors needed to survive in the forests of Canada or Siberia? If not, who would?

 

Passenger pigeons used to flock in the millions, even the billions, across North America. WIthin a few years, the population collapsed and the species disappeared. There is some evidence that the passenger pigeons required a huge population to flourish, and once the population fell below that critical mass (due largely to overhunting) then the remaining birds could not longer function effectively to feed, breed, migrate, or even survive. Restoring a passenger pigeon doppelganger cannot be done in the millions; any new version of the bird would have to be able to survive with a much smaller population. Recreations might look like passenger pigeons, but they cannot fundamentally act like passenger pigeons or they would be susceptible to the same population collapse that destroyed their predecessors.

 

Numerous ethical, legal, and logistical questions would accompany any restoration. Laws differ from country to country; an animal protected as endangered in one country might be considered an illegal GMO creation in a neighboring country. What happens if that animal crosses the border? Animals shape their environment. Once they go extinct, the ecosystem adapts to the new reality. Can the new environment support the old organism? When people are involved, other questions arise. If wooly mammoths were reintroduced, for example, who would pay when they knocked over a fence? Or a truck?

 

Wray seems to have a generally skeptical view of the likelihood of de-extinction. She has serious reservations about the wisdom and morality of the effort. But she also has some very positive suggestions on ways that the technologies can be used to help save animals that are on the brink of extinction, possibly by adding diversity to small populations using DNA from preserved samples of stored carcasses, or by adding disease resistant genes to vulnerable populations. And she allows that in an age of anthropogenic mass extinction, a strong case can be made that humans have a moral obligation to try to undo some of the harm we have done.

 

Rise of the Necrofauna is not the impending arrival of Jurassic Park. Britt Wray makes it clear that there are significant limitations to what science can do, and maybe what it should do. But it might not be all bad to see thylacines roaming Tasmania again, or possibly a return of great auks to the North Atlantic.

Rise of the Necrofauna

Book Review: Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction, Britt Wray

Book Review: Invisible,  Stephen L. Carter

Book Review: Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,  Stephen L. Carter

Invisible, Stephen L. Carter

Nonfiction History/Biography: Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,  Stephen L. Carter

Stephen L. Carter is a novelist and a law professor at Yale. That is quite impressive all by itself. But he comes from a family with multiple luminaries, perhaps none that shone brighter than his grandmother, Eunice Hunton Carter. In his biography of his grandmother, Invisible, Carter tells the story of a woman who should never be forgotten.

 

Eunice Hunton was born to remarkable parents. Her father was revered for his work with the YMCA, loved so deeply that upon his passing young men across the country lit candles and met together to mourn his loss. Her mother traveled through Klan areas in the south to organize black women. It is little wonder that Eunice grew up with a strong sense of purpose and confidence.

 

She grew up in a time, though, when opportunities for African Americans were scarce and for women were even scarcer. Still, she earned her law degree and began working for Thomas Dewey in the NYC District Attorney’s office during the 1930s. Dewey had 20 assistants working with him to take down infamous mob leader “Lucky Luciano.” Nineteen of them were white males. The other was Eunice Hunton Carter.

 

Luciano was the chief mob boss in NYC after the murder of Dutch Schultz, a murder that quite probably was ordered by Luciano himself. Almost any organized crime in the city tied back to him one way or another. Eunice Carter realized that this included prostitution. Years before, prostitution was not organized. Then, some people began “booking” the prostitutes. This helped keep the “girls” out of jail by moving them around from place to place, and because these “bookers” were responsible for more women they could spend more to buy lawyers and pay bribes to police and judges. Eunice had become aware of this growing trend during her work with the Women’s Court prior to joining the DA’s office, and she requested permission from Dewey to look further into it to determine whether the Combination (as the prostitution conspiracy ring was known) reached all the way to Luciano. Dewey was skeptical and reluctant at first, but Carter was persistent. He finally agreed, and Carter began to make the case. At first she was alone in her work. She soon found enough evidence that a second attorney joined her. Eventually, almost the entire team was working the Combination angle, and eventually Luciano was brought up on prostitution related charges. He was found guilty.

 

The most powerful mobster in America was brought to trial and convicted because of the persistence and acute legal mind of one person. An African-American woman. In the 1930s.

 

Carter continued working in the DA’s office for many more years, and also became active in Republican politics. She campaigned vigorously for her mentor, Dewey, in his rise within New York and the US political scene. She held multiple leadership positions in both US and international groups advocating for expanded rights for women and for people of color. She was friends with leaders in politics, entertainment, sports, and advocacy, especially those in the “darker” America (Stephen Carter’s term). She was also a leader of Harlem’s “sassiety,” wealthy (and according to the author, snobbish) African American women who were among the elite of New York’s black cultural and business life.

 

Carter’s biography is powerful, affectionate, but also open-eyed. He does not shy away from his grandmother’s faults. She apparently was an indifferent mother, she could be insensitive to others, her marriage suffered, she held grudges, and she was extremely driven. These very human failings, though, do not obscure the fact that she did extraordinary things during a time when blacks, and especially black women, were dismissed, demeaned, ignored, and forgotten.

 

Carter is also clear about why she was forgotten by history. There are obvious answers: she was a black woman whose heyday came in the 1930s and 1940s. Black women today still struggle to get appropriate recognition for their accomplishments, especially when those accomplishments come in areas considered the purview of white men, such as law. But there were less obvious reasons as well, which Carter gives appropriate consideration to. Eunice Hunton Carter’s brother, Alphaeus, was a known communist. It is highly possible that his communist sympathies derailed his sister’s ambitions for political advancement or a judgeship. (He was arrested and served some time in jail, and eventually fled the US and lived the rest of his life in Africa.) Eunice’s personality also led to her falling out with some other leaders, whether because of competing ambitions or simply arrogance, and those interpersonal conflicts kept her from achieving some leadership positions she had sought.

 

None of that changes what she did accomplish. She set herself against the most powerful mobster in America. And she won. Eunice Hunton Carter deserves to be remembered, and hopefully this biography by her grandson, novelist and law professor Stephen L. Carter, means that she will no longer be Invisible.

Invisible, Stephen L. Carter

Book Review: Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,  Stephen L. Carter

Book Review: Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural College, Roger L. Williams

Book Review: Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural College, Roger L. Williams

Evan Pugh's Penn State

Nonfiction:Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural College, Roger L. Williams

 

Evan Pugh never went to college as an undergraduate, but earned a doctorate in chemistry. He never served in political office, but was a force behind the passing of the land-grant bill creating national public funding for universities across America. And although he died prematurely at the age of 36, he is remembered as one of the leading scientists of his generation. Roger L. Williams’s biography of him, Evan Pugh’s Penn State, tells the story of a remarkable life and his dedication to creating a remarkable university.

 

Pugh grew up in Pennsylvania and remained a loyal son of the state his entire life. As a young adult he founded a boys’ school in his home. Feeling the need to advance his own education, he went to Germany (although he did not know German when he left!) and studied at several institutions there, eventually earning his Ph.D. He continued on to France and then to England, where experiments he did resulted in a paper that largely created the chemical fertilizer industry and transformed agriculture worldwide.

 

While in Europe he was invited to become the first president of the Farmers’ High School in then rural Centre County, PA. He returned in 1859 to take up this post. He also taught several subjects (including chemistry) and even assisted in the construction of the main campus building and the president’s house. Along the way, he developed a plan for agriculturally focused universities that became the blueprint for land-grant institutions around the country. His scientific work was so well regarded that he was twice asked to take a position with the department of agriculture as their lead chemist. He rejected the offer to stay with Farmers’ High School–soon renamed Agricultural College of Pennsylvania, and later becoming Penn State University.

 

In 1863, Pugh was injured severely in a buggy accident. His fiancee was also injured. They recovered well enough to be married, but the effects of his injury never fully left. Weakened by his injury and stressed by fights over funding with the Pennsylvania legislature, Pugh died from typhoid in 1864. The college he led so boldly for its first years struggled in his absence until George Atherton became president 18 years later. Atherton is often called Penn State’s second founder.

 

Although I am not a Penn State graduate, I have lived in State College for 15 years. My wife and one of my sons both attended the university. It is a special place, and I have enjoyed living in the university’s neighborhood. Despite my long familiarity with the university, I never knew the story of her founder and first president.

 

Roger Williams has written an engaging and illuminating portrait of Evan Pugh. Special emphasis is given to his scientific work in Europe and to his visionary writings about the role of agricultural education in the United States. Williams is clearly a fan of his subject, and his affection shows through the book. Occasionally the professor slips through in the writing. I doubt I’ve ever seen the word “peregrination” used twice in a single book before this one! But overall the book is interesting, easy to read, and tells the story of a long-forgotten American scientific and educational leader.

 

It’s easy to play the “what if” game when someone dies at a young age. Evan Pugh was only 36 years old when he died. But imagining what he might have been can detract from what he actually did accomplish. In his brief life, Pugh transformed agriculture and founded a university that has become one of the top 100 universities in the world! I commend Roger Williams for writing a worthy book on such an interesting figure. Anyone interested in agriculture, higher education, science history or American history will appreciate adding this book to her collection.

 

Evan Pugh's Penn State

Book Review: Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural CollegeRoger L. Williams

Book Review: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Book Review: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

 

 The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Nonfiction: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Before I get into The Art of Logic in an Illogical Worlditself, I have to admit I am a fan of Eugenia Cheng. I do not know the first thing about the “School of the Art Institute of Chicago,” beyond its title and a quick visit to its website. It is a higher educational institution that emphasizes studies in the arts: visual and creative arts, teaching, writing, architecture, and many others. It does not offer degrees (that I can see) in mathematics, biology, physics, or other STEM types of programs. Yet, Dr. Cheng is the “Scientist in Residence” at this school. First, good for the school! And second, just how cool do you have to be to get a gig like that? Don’t misunderstand me: Eugenia Cheng is very good at what she does. Writer, concert pianist, Cambridge educated mathematician, she is elite in multiple fields. Part of her life mission is to combat math phobia. My guess is that teaching in a school of art allows her access to the front lines of math phobia, and the opportunity to influence the world with her infectious passion for her subject in very new and different ways. Which brings us back to her latest book, The Art of Logic in an Illogical World.

 

Her first popular math book, How to Bake Pi, used cooking as both metaphor and analog for teaching math principles. This book is a little different. Here, she applies mathematical principles to logic. The two are actually quite intertwined. Logic and mathematics share common goals, they often use similar vocabularies, and although they appear to have differing applications, both actually seek to make the world more understandable and to give people a common frame of reference.

 

I enjoyed How to Bake Pi. I loved The Art of Logic. Cheng is a very good writer. She uses humor, clever analogies, real-life examples, and not too much complex math to help people (hopefully) become more logical. She points out how logical failures can lead to human conflict, and she devotes chapters to dealing with specific failures in logic. She forced me to reexamine some aspects of my own thinking, pointing out areas where I allowed myself to build a straw man or failed to see false analogies. (Fortunately there were not a lot of these, which may either mean I am relatively logical or that I am quite blind to my own flaws. I do rather hope it is the former!)

 

Cheng also offers some worthwhile cautions in the bid to be logical. One I will reword to say that logic does not necessarily empower one to win a Twitter war. Logic is not always compatible with brevity. One example she spends time on is the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.” Nice, brief, and sadly easy to manipulate negatively. Some argue that “All Lives Matter” is in some way a negation of the idea, or perhaps an improvement on it. Cheng points out that “Black Lives Matter” is really multiple ideas: 1) Black lives matter AS MUCH AS all other lives, 2) Black lives are not treated by society (in a variety of ways) as though they matter as much as all other lives, particularly the lives of those who are white, and 3) This second fact is a bad thing and we should do something to fix it. When understood in this fullness, “Black Lives Matter” is really trying to express the truth that “All Lives Matter.” They are not in opposition, or at least they should not be. If ALL lives matter, then BLACK lives matter, and in a world where too often black lives are ended prematurely, that matters. But the above paragraph, which condenses her much lengthier treatment of the topic, cannot fit into a social media posting. Logic does not necessarily fit into a tweet.

 

Which is a shame, because after reading The Art of Logic in an Illogical World I have some really great logical arguments for some annoying twitterers. Unfortunately, they just won’t fit!

 

Another caution she gives is to avoid separating logic from emotion. They may be different, but they are not incompatible. When it comes to persuasion, the two are both legs on the same stool. Few people are persuaded by only logic or only emotion (or only evidence, which is a third leg of that stool). Most of us require some combination before we are willing to change our minds. If I wish to convince someone that immigration is good for society, I will probably have to use a mixture of evidence (statistics show that immigrants add to the economy and commit fewer crimes), logic (current US birthrates are not sufficient to power the economy in the future), and some emotional appeal that connects to the person I am arguing with.

 

Of course, it may not matter. All of us have certain axioms, accepted truths, that form a bedrock for our decisions and opinions. If our axioms are in conflict, we may never be able to agree. But understanding that they are different is itself a step toward understanding each other. We may never agree on certain things, but sometimes knowing why we will never agree has its own value.

 

The Art of Logic in an Illogical World should be required reading for anyone who values thinking. (That is an opinion, but I would argue it is a logical one!) It is well written and thought out, and in a world where logic is in woefully short supply it is a delightful attempt to balance the scales.

The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Book Review: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Book Review: Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, Adam Frank

Book Review: Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, Adam Frank

 

Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, Adam Frank

Nonfiction: Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, Adam Frank

 

Light of the Stars could possibly be described as “speculative science.” I don’t know whether that’s a legitimate literary category, but it should be. Adam Frank’s book is nonfiction, a popular science book that puts discoveries in astrophysics, geology, paleontology, climatology, and many other hard sciences into accessible language. But it also examines the possibilities of extraterrestrial intelligence, exploring the odds of other technologically advanced civilizations having existed in the universe. As Frank himself acknowledges, although the math may be sound, right now there is no proof one way or the other. But, he may be right in asserting that thousands of other technological societies must have existed, given the number of exoplanets already discovered and given the resilience of life on our own planet.

 

Frank’s Light of the Stars is quite wide ranging. He looks at the origin of life on earth. Recent discoveries indicate that the building blocks of life are quite common in the universe. Analysis of space dust shows that many of the same elements found on earth are found in similar percentages beyond our planet. The composition of our planet is far from unique. No other planet quite like earth has been discovered, but neither does it appear that earth is an outlier in the planetary family.

 

One aspect that does make earth unusual is the prevalence of oxygen. Most planets do not have as much oxygen as our planet does. This is specifically the result of life on earth. That is not to say that any form of life would by definition oxygenate a planet, but the high percentage of the gas in our atmosphere tells the story of life here. It is an interesting story, one which shows a curious give and take between planet and inhabitants. Early life developed the ability to transform sunlight and carbon dioxide into energy, with oxygen as a by-product. As oxygen levels rose in the atmosphere, the atmosphere became toxic to the very life that created it. A new form of life then developed, one that could breathe oxygen and release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. The result was a balance in the atmosphere that supported breathable air, and helped regulate temperatures as well. When natural geological processes release more carbon dioxide into the air, life responds by proliferating species that neutralize that carbon dioxide. When too much oxygen threatens to turn the planet into a fiery tinderbox, species which use oxygen flourish until the levels have abated.

 

This process, though, is neither a thoughtfully designed process nor an immediately reactive one. Over eons there is extraordinary stability which benefits life. Over the lifespan of any given species, though, there is plenty of fluctuation that can result in extinction. The very species that transformed the atmosphere into an oxygen-rich mixture were ultimately poisoned by their own success. Life survived, adapted, even benefited from this transformation. But the species that led the charge were undone by it. This is a not so subtle warning to us humans who through global warming are doing the same thing. Our technology is changing the climate in ways both predictable and unpredictable. Earth and life have survived previous warm periods, arguably flourishing with abundance and variety. However, our species was not around during those warm periods–and there is no absolute guarantee we will survive the warming period we have ourselves initiated.

 

It is a valid question, though, to ask whether ANY technologically advanced species will alter its planet almost by definition. Technology has defined our species for less than 200 years. During that time we have faced world destruction through both nuclear devastation and climate change. We are not finished with either threat, and it is entirely possible to guess that our technology could create new and different challenges to our own species even if we successfully survive the current challenges. Is it possible that the very creation of technology, like the transformation of the atmosphere through the introduction of biologically generated oxygen, may prove inimical to its creators? If so, then the likelihood of encountering other intelligent species becomes diminishingly small, if for no other reason than our own window of discovery is doomed to be limited.

 

Unfortunately, unless you accept the recent Harvard paper on the possible nature of interstellar object ʻOumuamua (the paper suggests the object may be a “solar sail”), there is simply no proof right now of any extraterrestrial technology. The absence of proof is not the proof of absence. But despite my strong hope that Frank is correct, I worry that we may not survive our own worst impulses long enough to reach out to the stars.

 

Do not allow my pessimism to turn you away from an interesting, intelligent, and engaging book. Light of the Stars is a thoughtful and fascinating look at possibilities. It is cautionary, but also hopeful. After all, if indeed there have been thousands or even tens of thousands of technological species in our universe, surely some of them survived their own destructive impulses. Whether we ever meet them or not, the possibility that there is a path through the changes we are wreaking on our planet is a promising thought.

Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, Adam Frank

Book Review: Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the EarthAdam Frank

Book Review: How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics, Eugenia Cheng

Book Review: How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of MathematicsEugenia Cheng

How To Bake a Pi cover

Nonfiction: How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of MathematicsEugenia Cheng

I like to challenge myself in my reading. How to Bake Pi definitely challenges me. Eugenia Cheng is a woman of extraordinary talents. Scientist in Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, honorary fellow of pure mathematics at the University of Sheffield in England, pianist, and according to this book, baker.

 

Each chapter begins with a recipe, which Cheng uses to illustrate some principle of math (or “maths,” since she is English). Some of the recipes are shockingly easy–dump ingredients into a rice cooker and let it sit on “warm” for several hours. Others are quite involved. The recipes, though, are not the main part of the book. They are introductions to demonstrate the lessons Cheng wishes to teach about the math principles.

 

Cheng’s writing is funny, approachable, and accessible. She is wholly committed to her theme: Math is easy. Or, more accurately, math is a way to make complex things easier. It uses logic and proofs to demonstrate how and why things work the way they do. Kitchen recipes follow patterns. Some of them are step by step. Take 2 ingredients, mix them, add additional ingredients, mix them in with the first two, apply heat, eat yummy result. Others are more abstract. Some require specialized knowledge or unusual ingredients or specific tools. Cheng uses these qualities of recipes to show similar qualities in math.

 

I will confess, I am no mathematician. Nor am I a good cook. (Our recipe and review pages are done by my wife, who is an outstanding cook. I do help her test the recipes, though!) A lot of the book went past me. But it did so while leaving some strong impressions. First, I really wish my math teachers had used food as a teaching tool! Second, I really wish I had never “learned” that math was hard. I can’t say that Cheng has persuaded me that math is easy, but she has persuaded me that my painful memories of early morning trigonometry failures are not the whole story of math. All in all, How to Bake Pi is a fun and enlightening book that is able to reframe math for the numerically challenged. And give you some new ideas on preparing food as well.

How To Bake a Pi cover

Book Review: How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of MathematicsEugenia Cheng

Book Review: The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy, Paige Williams

Book Review: The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate TrophyPaige Williams

Nonfiction: The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate TrophyPaige Williams

Eric Prokopi loves fossils. Even as a child he was taken with hunting fossils. After graduating from college, he created a business buying and selling fossils. He became extremely skilled in collecting, preserving, and mounting them. His work was displayed in museums around the world, collected by movie stars and other wealthy fans, and auctioned off for thousands of dollars. Perhaps his finest work was the mounting of a skeleton of T. bataar, a Tyrannosaurus relative that stood 8 feet tall and 24 feet long. When the gavel fell at the end of its auction, over $1 million had been offered. Rather than enriching Eric Prokopi, though, the gavel marked the beginning of the end of his career. T. bataar’s skeleton had been smuggled illegally out of Mongolia, and the Mongolians wanted her back.

 

Paige Williams is an outstanding journalist, but her work writing The Dinosaur Artist reads more like a thriller novel. Her prose is outstanding, her research is amazing, and the story is compelling and incredible. Eric Prokopi and his entire family gave her full access to their lives: interviews, documents, emails, introductions to friends and colleagues. They did so with no idea what she would write. She could have written a book condemning Prokopi as a smuggler and a thief. Certainly the material was there for that. He was accused and convicted of those crimes and sentenced to jail. His family fell apart, his business went bankrupt, and many of his friends abandoned him. He was even made the villain of a children’s book in Mongolia which told the story of the stolen dinosaur and her wonderful return home.

 

What Williams writes instead is a clear-eyed look at the entire fossil industry, telling the story of previous men whose rivalries caused the “bone wars” of the 1800s, of a paleontologist whose adventures may have inspired the character of Indiana Jones, of a woman who was so good that her pieces were mounted in the finest museums but whose upbringing was so common that she herself was not permitted in some of those same museums, and of a boy who grew up loving fossils–and who was willing to break laws and bypass customs as an adult to get them. She does not excuse or defend Eric Prokopi. What she does is put his crime into context, showing how he allowed hubris and greed and poor judgment to guide his actions, but also how he was swept up in international politics and bad timing. Prokopi broke the law. He was not the first (nor is he the last). Many others were (and are) doing the same things. Sometimes it is less about the crime committed than about the timing, the publicity, and the politics. In this case, it was about all of that.

 

The Dinosaur Artist is a true story. It is well researched, beautifully written, and hard to put down. Anyone interested in a very different sort of true crime story, in paleontology, or in modern Asian politics will find it fascinating.

Book Review: The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate TrophyPaige Williams