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

Book Review: The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young, Somini Sengupta

Book Review: The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s YoungSomini Sengupta

Book Review: The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s YoungSomini Sengupta

The End of Karma is an extraordinary look at India, written by someone who has known India from both inside and outside its borders. Somini Sengupta reports for the New York Times. Born in India, she grew up in California but returned yearly with her parents to visit family. As an adult she became the NY Times bureau chief for New Delhi, living there for several years. She is a daughter of India, the mother to a daughter of India, and yet also brings an American perspective to her stories. She is, in her words, N.R.I.–Non Resident Indian. This is a term used by Indians themselves for the vast diaspora from their country, people who now make their homes in lands far away and yet find the pull of this ancient culture still tugging at their hearts.

 

Sengupta tells the stories of several young Indians raised during a time when India stepped out onto the world stage unlike any previous time. In many ways, the last (roughly) three decades have been a time of incredible advancement in the country. Poverty is down. The economy has boomed. Construction has exploded. Life expectancies have nearly doubled. Education is widespread. Childhood vaccination has become widespread, and disease is commensurately lower. Hunger is much rarer. India soon will be the most populous country on earth, and with this enormous population and dynamic economy has come new stature in international politics.

 

The stories of young adults coming of age during this time tell of the hopes and aspirations of this generation. They are better educated, richer, and have higher expectations from life than their parents. But the old India has not fully released its grip on their lives. Marriages are still largely arranged. Female feticide, though illegal, is not uncommon, leading to a huge disparity in the male/female ratio. Girls are on average less educated than boys and have fewer prospects. Infant mortality is down, poverty and hunger are reduced, vaccinations are up, but India still has more people living on less than $2/day than any other country in the world. The caste system has been legally abolished, but it still plays a significant role in daily life. Indians can see a day coming when the caste system is a memory, when arranged marriages are historical oddities, but that day is not here yet and there are many who do not want to see that day arrive.

 

The women in Sengupta’s stories fascinate me. One of them, Mani, aspired to escape her impoverished rural village. She set herself a goal to move up in the world, and she achieved that goal. What is hard for this western reader to appreciate is that her “moving up” was not a rags to riches story–it’s a rags to better rags story. She worked for years as a nanny/housekeeper for a middle class family, cleaning their apartment, doing their laundry, cooking their meals, watching their children. This family was more inclusive than most–they did not always insist that she eat separately, use her own dishes, never sit on their furniture, and otherwise maintain the physical separation between themselves and their unclean lower-caste servant. They even gave Mani a day off each week so she could attend church. Mani made enough money to send home and give her siblings a chance at better lives, enough money to help her mother build a better house, enough money to make a real difference in the lives of her family. And the family she worked for helped her in other ways: when Mani’s cousin was kidnapped and sent into forced labor as a housekeeper in another city, Mani’s employer actually helped find her and paid some of the bribes to free her. Mani’s situation is not a story where she was manipulated by an evil employer. On the contrary, she was extraordinarily fortunate to be hired by the people she worked for.

 

But the entire situation spoke to me about both the similarities and the differences between us. Mani had a dream and she pursued it. Her dream came true! She found employment in the city, away from the desperate situation at home. She made enough money to change the future for her entire family. She was even able to rescue a cousin who had been kidnapped! What could be more American than that?  Yet, that dream had her living in a small room of a small apartment, with little or no property of her own, working all day six days a week, in a position with no prospects for advancement and no expectations of that. And Mani knew that she was one of the more fortunate people in her position!

 

Sengupta, though, is careful to show that in many ways India is not so different from America. Few Americans have live-in servants. But many of us hire maids or gardeners whom we do not allow to live with us and we show no concern about their personal living conditions. Many of us hire people to cook and deliver our food, with no thought as to their medical benefits. And how many Americans would personally step in to help the kidnapped niece of our Lyft driver? Americans rely heavily on low-paid workers to take care of a multitude of tasks. We’ve just separated ourselves from their lives.

 

India is a huge country, with a huge population. It has made incredible progress, and there is every reason to believe that progress will continue. But it continues to face huge challenges. Mani’s story, along with the others in the book, powerfully shows how far they have come in such a short time. But the stories also show what challenges remain. Whether those challenges come from an increasingly restive Facebook generation insistent on having their free speech respected, from an impoverished rural region which can now see online how the “other half” lives, from women who will no longer stand for being objects of abuse, or from religious minorities or from long disrespected castes, how the country reacts to those challenges will shape how the next set of stories are told.

 

Somini Sengupta did not set out to write the definitive story of modern India. With over 1 billion people, there are far too many stories to tell than any book could hold. But the stories she tells show us an India in transition, an India finding its way in a changing world, an India that is held in tension between a very modern high-tech society that they are helping to shape and a very ancient culture they are fighting to preserve. The resolutions they find will not only shape their future. The future of India is in many ways the future of the world.

Book Review: The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s YoungSomini Sengupta

Book Review: Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith

Book Review: Life on MarsTracy K. Smith

Poetry: Life on MarsTracy K. Smith

A few years ago I found a courage I did not know I had. I began questioning things I had always assumed were true. I began exploring my assumptions, opening my mind to new approaches and no longer accepting things at face value. It was frightening, even terrifying, and I came out the other side of it a very different person in some ways.

 

In other ways, though, I remained unchanged. I decided that I had been right about some things and wrong about others. More committed to my wife, more in love with my children, and more true to myself, I found that asking the questions gave me greater confidence in the answers. I did not find all of the answers. Some I never will. But I found that I respected the person asking the questions much more than the person who refused to face the possibility that he had been wrong.

 

Poetry asks these brutal, core, fundamental questions in ways that other literature seldom does. That is not to say it never does: a great novel or even a short story can also ask questions. But usually stories try to give answers. Poetry asks questions. Who or what is God? Is there a God/god? What is death? What comes next? Sometimes poems will suggest answers. More often, though, they allow the reader to experience the quest of the questions. Come with me. Look with me. Ask with me. Be exposed with me. Let’s dare to examine what matters together.

 

There are not many who ask these questions more beautifully than Tracy K. Smith. Her collection of poems Life on Mars asks many of these questions. Some of the poems were written after the death of her father–one is specifically dedicated to him. They ask cosmic questions. Sometimes the topics are literally about the cosmos: dark matter, space, life on other planets. Sometimes the topics are inspired by a curiosity for both science and song–David Bowie makes an appearance in the poems. Sometimes they are about more spiritual matters: God, the afterlife, the spirit. Often, these disparate topics are woven together beautifully and skillfully, bringing both smiles and tears, gasps of recognition and gasps of shock.

 

Smith compares the connections between people to dark matter: invisible, immeasurable, yet a force that cannot be denied. No one really understands either. They are observable only in the sense that we see their effects. She compares God to the weather in space–is God the force we experience or the power behind that force? Smith concludes that poem with “we go chasing/After all we’re certain to lose, so alive–/Faces radiant with panic.” That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Annie Dillard: “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.” Somehow, I think that Smith and Dillard are traveling along similar paths, asking questions of the divine that we should all be asking–questions that we should all be afraid both of asking and of having answered.

 

Smith’s poem dedicated to her father is wrenching in its poignancy. Wrenching in a very different way, another painful poem is written as a series of letters from murder victims to their murderers. She also writes in reference to Abu Ghraib. Smith is willing to look deeply at the pain that we carry as individuals, as a culture, as a people, and cut into that pain in hopes of excising some of the rotting flesh that causes it. Whether that pain is simply the pain of loss of a loved one, the pain of a culture that accepts murder as a series of acceptable losses, or a culture that excuses torture when it’s done by “us,” Smith writes about it unflinchingly. Although loss will always be part of the human condition, I can only hope she has fewer opportunities to write about the darker aspects of America in the future. Sadly, I don’t think she will.

 

Life on Mars is beautiful, moving, and compelling. A master work that won the Pulitzer Prize when it was published, Smith has captured the pulse of what makes us human, and captured the longing we have for something greater.

Book Review: Life on MarsTracy K. Smith

Book Review: Praise, Robert Hass

Book Review: PraiseRobert Hass

Poetry: PraiseRobert Hass

If you’ll join me in the “wayback” machine, we can travel way back to 1979. Bell bottoms and wide collars. Disco was not yet dead, but was clearly dying. The UN declared it to be the International Year of the Child. Phnom Penh fell and the Pol Pot regime was deposed. So was the Shah of Iran and the President of Nicaragua. The Camp David Accords were signed, and the Iran hostage crisis began. And Robert Hass published a short book of poetry: Praise.

 

I will freely admit my ignorance when it comes to poetry. Robert Hass is hardly an unknown. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995-1997. He has won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He remains one of the preeminent voices in American literature, yet I was completely unfamiliar with him until hearing him speak with current Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, in September, 2018.

 

I was absolutely entranced. I went because of Dr. Smith. She was amazing. Her stories, her poetry, her passion…she was everything I had hoped for. I am so glad I got to hear her speak, and I hope I will get to hear her again someday. But on the stage with her was Robert Hass. Tall, white-haired, a smile constantly playing on his lips, his eyes kind. And his poetry. I knew nothing about him, had never read a thing of his, and I was blown away. He was completely unexpected (admittedly because of my own shortcomings). I determined that I needed to read more from both of these wonderful voices. I am glad I did.

 

Praise is earthy and ethereal. Hass sees the real world, warts and snot and sex and dirt and all. He weaves that real world into his poems. He plays with his words, wanting to show the world as it is. Lusty and sweaty and passionate and somehow very California and entirely universal in a magical way that is hard to explain unless you’ve lived both in California and not in California. Then, in the next breath, the next stanza, the next word, he is quoting obscure literary characters or referencing books you know you should have read or dropping in words and phrases from other languages that make me just nod and say, “Obviously,” when I have no idea what he just did to me. Earthy and ethereal. Profane and divine. Hass dances back and forth with grace and delight and brings us along to enjoy the music which he allows us to hear.

 

In 1979, I thought poetry was stuffy and had to rhyme. I later came to love and appreciate Frost and Wordsworth and Dickinson and Donne and many others, but I did not know about Hass back then. Nor did I encounter him in my later academic years. I wonder whether my view of poetry might have been different had I read him 40 years ago. Who can say–maybe I was not ready for poetry to be something that didn’t rhyme and had no predictable metre and was about life and sex and being. I am certainly glad to have it now.

Book Review: PraiseRobert Hass

Book Review: Unnatural Selection, Katrina van Grouw

Book Review: Unnatural Selection, Katrina van Grouw

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Nonfiction Science: Unnatural Selection, Katrina van Grouw

 

Unnatural Selection is a beautiful book. Oversized, coffee-table style, Unnatural Selection’s first impression grabs you. Katrina van Grouw has illustrated the text with her own line drawings, and she is an impressive artist. Her degree is in art, she has experience as a curator in the ornithology department of the Royal Museum in London, and she is married to an expert in (among other things) breeding pigeons. (She jokes that sharing information like that on a first date may not be the most romantic gesture a man might use…but since it worked, perhaps breeding fancy pigeons is an underappreciated way to a person’s heart.) Therefore her text is sound and scientific, and her art is informed by both passion and expertise.

 

Unnatural Selection is almost a book about evolution. Almost. It is a book about selective breeding, human guided breeding of animals to obtain desired characteristics and to minimize unwanted traits. Natural selection, part of the process that shapes evolution, does not “care” whether an animal is pretty or friendly or any one of a number of other traits that human breeders might look for. Therefore, although the results are the same in terms of animals being changed over generations, the changes among domesticated animals tend to happen more quickly and do not necessarily carry any survival advantage to the animal, at least not one outside of captivity.

 

In fact, many of the changes would certainly lead to death in the wild. White plumage may be appreciated by bird fanciers, but it would also be appreciated by predators outside of snow country. When I kneel down and tell my little smush-faced dog, “You used to be a wolf,” she does not actually appear very wolf-like. (She does try to lick my face, though, maybe in a vicious carnivorous attempt to soften it prior to eating?) Pigeons that can’t fly, cattle with double-muscled bodies (great for meat, poor for mobility), and many other domesticated species show the results of being bred to our desires and not to the demands of “survival of the fittest.”

 

Selective breeding, though, relies on the same genetic basis that governs evolution in the wild. Dominant and recessive genes show themselves according to the same laws whether an animal is born in the jungle or in the barn. The difference is instead of a predator looking for a weak animal to eat, a breeder or farmer is looking for specific traits to perpetuate. Although we may not like to think about this aspect of animal husbandry in our era where meat comes from supermarkets, the culling of animals that do not show those desired traits is just as efficient as predation in guiding the direction of a species.

 

Van Grouw is a terrific writer with great passion and insight into her subject. Her drawings add beauty to the text and show the reader actual examples of the structures she is writing about. Whether the drawing is of a rare pigeon, a series of dog skulls, a detailed comparison of feathers, or a transitional drawing of a single animal showing hindquarters covered with skin, midsection with musculature, and the skeletal shoulders and skull, van Grouw’s drawings are exquisite and tell the story as eloquently as do her words. Her text is factual and informative, but also delightful and affectionate. I love how she simply refers to her spouse as “Husband.” She does not shy away from the realities of animal breeding: successful breeders cull. But she also fairly points out that the results are not inherently cruel or unfair, any more than disease or predation are cruel or unfair. The “goal” of life is to continue, and domestication is a form of symbiosis that has allowed dogs and chickens and cows and many other species to thrive around the world as they accompany humans.

 

Unnatural Selection is a book that delights on multiple levels. It is well written, expertly researched, and beautifully illustrated. Any student of science, including younger readers, will appreciate it.

 

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Book Review: Unnatural Selection, Katrina van Grouw

 

Book Review: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth, Chris Stringer

Book Review: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on EarthChris Stringer

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Nonfiction Science: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on EarthChris Stringer

 

Chris Stringer’s book Lone Survivors (outside the USA this book is titled The Origin of Our Species) takes a long look at the theories behind human origins. One thing I learned from this book is how unusual a species humans are. Despite the obvious differences in skin color, hair texture and color, facial shape and contours, etc., human DNA is shockingly consistent. There are more differences between groups of chimpanzees in Africa than there are between any two humans. Another difference is that there are no other living human species. Neanderthals and Denisovans and other members of genus homo have been extinct for millennia. There are multiple species of gorilla, chimpanzee, and virtually any other type of organism you could name, but only one species of human. Speaking scientifically, this is highly unusual, and well worth evaluation.

 

Stringer was one of the first scientists to strongly espouse the ROA theory of human origins. ROA stands for Recently Out of Africa, and alludes to homo sapiens having their beginnings in Africa then spreading around the world from there. Other homo species appear to have developed from a common ancestor in other parts of the world. Neanderthals may have been the most successful other types of humans, both in terms of population size and area, but the fossil record is a challenge for definitive conclusions in this regard. Nor is it certain why the Neanderthals and other human species died out. It is possible they were killed by advancing bands of homo sapiens. Fossil evidence does suggest some died through violence, possibly even cannibalism, and that violence may have come from contemporary modern humans. But it is also possible they were victims of climate change, dietary challenges, or disease. What is now almost indisputable is that sometimes the two groups of humans were not fighters but instead were lovers. Enough Neanderthal (and Denisovan) DNA has been recovered from fossils to determine that modern humans are partially descended from hybrid ancestors. We are not Neanderthal or Denisovan, but some of our genes definitely are.

 

Lone Survivors often raises more questions than it answers. How did modern humans become so smart? There are proposed possible answers: social living, genetic mutation, dietary changes among them. No one really knows the answer, though. Why did homo sapiens survive when other human species did not? Varied diet, warlike behavior, social cooperation, adaptability, high intelligence? Perhaps, but again, no single answer or group of answers seems to be persuasive. This is not a weakness of the book, though. Stringer is willing to hear out opinions that contradict his own. He gives them fair treatment in the book, and is willing to point out the weaknesses in his own opinions on these and other questions. The reader is left wanting more answers, just as Stringer and other paleoanthropologists are left wanting those same answers. We will all have to wait together while more evidence is compiled and more discoveries are made.

 

Like many newer science books, Lone Survivors also tells us about some of the scientists involved in this research. Stringer talks about his days as a graduate student traveling through Europe and studying skulls firsthand. He lived out of his vehicle for many months, and later ruefully confesses that modern DNA techniques proved that he left his own DNA on many of these fossils. Another scientist is a member of a band. These personal anecdotes may or may not enhance the research being done, but they help humanize the researchers and add interest to topics that can occasionally challenge with dry jargon and statistical data overload.

 

Lone Survivors is a thorough, deep book. Written for a general audience, it is not written down to its readers. The author assumes a willingness to challenge assumptions and a desire to learn new information, so he doesn’t shy away from technical data. This means the book is not for every reader, but it definitely is for anyone interested in the scientific questions surrounding human origins and the disappearance of our closest biological relatives.

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Book Review: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on EarthChris Stringer