The Goldilocks Enigma, Paul Davies
I’m not sure that this book is entirely successful in answering, or even trying to address, the question posed on the cover — why is the universe just right for life? It talks a lot about how the universe may have formed, and what the laws of the universe are, and it seems like it does a lot of describing rather than explaining. Now, of course, that’s because we don’t really have an answer, but it does seem a little misleading.
Davies looks at a lot of different theories here, some of them more scientific than others — he includes the philosophical side of things too, including the religious point of view. He’s fairly even handed about this, so it’s hard to tell exactly where he’d put his money most of the time (except that he’s generally sceptical of the religion explanation, because it’s a non-explanation: it just shunts the question up a level). Most of the explanations are clear, though string theory remains utterly baffling to me (or at least, the rationale behind it does).
Oddly enough, I’m left feeling that The Goldilocks Enigma is much more positive about the idea that other intelligent life is out there than The Eerie Silence. I haven’t looked at publication order or anything, but it was a little strange, reading them one after the other.
Regardless, this was written before the Large Hadron Collider swung into action, so no doubt it’s out of date in some ways. Still a good background in the various theories, particularly the more philosophical ones like the anthropic principles that aren’t likely to change. (To his credit, I now understand the anthropic principle a lot better than I did after GCSE/A Level Religious Studies. Sorry, Mr B.)
The Eerie Silence, Paul Davies
Paul Davies does a really good job here of illustrating the issues of SETI’s lack of success, and Fermi’s Paradox. He goes into the science and philosophy of it in depth, explaining all the terms and generally making it crystal clear. What amazes me is that he’s still somewhat optimistic about finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, given all the things he says in this book — I’m now almost completely sure that even if intelligent life has arisen elsewhere (and that’s still a big if) that we’ll have trouble finding it because of the issue of the sheer amount of time and space involved.
Not that I don’t think the search is worth doing. Even if we’ll never manage to communicate with intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, we might find signs of it, and understand more about how life begins. There’s so much we can learn along the way, and maybe the idea that we may not be unique will keep us a little bit more humble.
You Are Here, Chris Hadfield
You Are Here is a gorgeous book, a collection of photographs taken by Chris Hadfield during his time on the ISS. He shows us Earth in all its variety: the densely inhabited cities lighting up the night, the marks we’ve left on the landscape, and then also the stretches of empty desert, the glorious geologic features of mountains and volcanoes, the places where meteorites have impacted. It’s much better than looking at the photos on a computer, as he says in the introduction: it seems so much sharper and clearer, the colours truer.
There’s not much by way of editorial content here — some explanations of what you’re looking at, short inset paragraphs with Hadfield’s comments, but mostly the photographs speak for themselves.
What Matters in Jane Austen?, John Mullan
I’m not a big fan of Jane — through I’ve come round somewhat on the subject since I couldn’t resist the urge to fling Pride and Prejudice out of a window — so you might think I was the wrong audience for this book anyway. But I am a big fan of close reading, and I find value in digging into what’s important in an author’s works in a way that I think the author of this would agree with, and I enjoy history, literary history, and all kinds of random facts. So I was hoping that though I’m no obsessive Austen fan, I’d still find this book of interest.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be quite sure where it’s aimed at. As a non-fan, I don’t know the books well enough for all the little details he references without fully contextualising to be exactly revelatory to me; as an MA in literature, I thought it was still a pretty simplistic level of analysis — is anyone really surprised that yes, Austen was saying that Lydia Bennet had sex outside of marriage? — and as a general reader, I didn’t find the stuff that interesting on its own merits either. It startles me more that apparently there was a fuss kicked up about ~Was Jane Austen Gay?~ because of her intimacy with her sister than that sisterly conversation or the lack thereof is centrally important in her work.
Overall, whatever the target audience was meant to be, I’m not it.
This week, I have been super restrained. No, I really mean it!
I didn’t even request Brood — I’m not sure why Bookbridr sent me it, because it sounds like it might be a bit too gory for me. Maybe I clicked something by accident? But I’m glad to have an ARC of The Wicked + The Divine; I actually have a pre-order for the TPB anyway, but now I get to read it sooner.
I’m guessing I’m going to see a lot of Foxglove Summer around in the next couple weeks; it just came out on Thursday. I’m excited! And Do No Harm was something I spotted in the bookshop and ended up getting with what I had left of a book token: it’s all about brain surgery, which both icks me out and fascinates me. I can’t see myself as a brain surgeon, but neurology is fascinating…
Captain Marvel #9! I’m not caught up at the moment, but hey, it’s nice to support the Carol Corps.
What’s everyone else been getting?
Drunk Tank Pink, Adam Alter
Drunk Tank Pink is one of those pop psychology books that’s fairly slight, doesn’t provide citations in-text, and presents a lot of experimental and theoretical thought as if it’s a fact. Taking it for what it is, it’s an enjoyable little survey of interesting facts, written well enough to keep the interest, and not getting into technical details which might bog down and confuse the interested but uninformed reader.
For me, since I’ve read a fair amount of pop psychology already, some of it rather higher standard, this had some anecdotes I hadn’t heard, but mostly referenced research I already knew about, or had read about in a lot greater depth. (For example, for discussions on colour, skip this and go for Through the Language Glass, by Guy Deutscher, which has a much more thorough approach to the issues of language, labels and how we perceive colour.)
All in all, it was okay, but probably (for me) not worth the admission fee.
The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane
The Old Ways was, for me, a bit like reading Richard Fortey’s work. Non-fiction that I’m not necessarily very interested in, but which is beautifully written, lyrical, literate. It wasn’t boring at all — meditative, perhaps. Sometimes Macfarlane’s a little too airy and mystical for me, too caught up in his imagination, but sometimes he comes round to something like Fortey, like the book I read recently on meditation, like Francis Pryor’s book about Seahenge and the ritual landscape.
I’m not particularly a walker myself, not now. As a kid I walked quite a lot with my grandfather, who would never have been nearly as poetic about walking as Macfarlane. It’s walking in the mountains in Wales that speaks to me, the hot still space at a ford where you could turn down toward home or go on toward a blackberry field, flies swarming on the evidence that a horse had come through earlier that day. Not a trek across chalk or snow or fen land: not this quasi-mystical experience of the landscape-as-self, just a walk on a warm day with blackberries in the middle and a scolding for getting so dusty/muddy at the end. If we went further afield, a hand-drawn map with “Grandma fell here” or some such comment to immortalise the trip.
Still, I can appreciate the sentiment behind this, and the lyrical writing. It just gets a bit too caught up in itself for me.
Death, Disability and the Superhero, José Alaniz
I haven’t completely finished reading this, as I’m not familiar with all the superheroes, etc, mentioned, and I kind of want to look at the source before I really engage with this. It’s not really something for a casual fan of comics — or rather, even a major fan of comics just for a bit of fun and goofiness. It actually looks deeply at some of the tropes and potential underlying meanings: in other words, it treats comics seriously as literature. Some people won’t like that just on principle: to me, it’s good. The stuff lurking behind what we read for fun is just as important to recognise and critique — maybe more so — than “serious” literature that’s written to have layers and layers of meaning.
José Alaniz has written a very thorough work here. I really don’t know enough to critique it, but I enjoyed reading it even where I thought I might disagree if I knew the material better (or had been reading it with more of a critical eye). It was really nice to engage with something intellectual like this that took a genre I’m coming to love seriously.
Words in Time and Place, David Crystal
Received to review via Netgalley
I’m surprised at other people actually reading this cover to cover in only a couple of sittings: for me it was much more the type of book that you dip in and out of. A curiosity, but not something deeply riveting. Trivia, I suppose. I did find Crystal’s introduction to the whole book and to each chapter interesting, but the lists and lists of words are rather hard to just sit and read, for me — it’d be like reading a dictionary or thesaurus for fun; it can be interesting to look up particular things, but I don’t know anyone (as far as I’m aware!) who’ll sit and read straight through.
For me, it was particularly interesting because it puts some Old/Middle English expressions in a better context than the simple translating dictionaries ever did, and makes some surprising links between the years and other languages. Though I think if he’d gone to Anglo-Saxon poetry, he’d have found some more fun ones for his section on death: I’m fond of ‘sweordum answefede’ (put to sleep by swords), which caused some consternation in class when we were trying to translate it.
Seahenge, Francis Pryor
Archaeology is not some exact science, with answers to give to every question if we only look hard enough. It’s partly our own fault: we’re overpopulating the Earth, and in the meantime we’re destroying great swathes of the archaeological record. We only have fragments of the past, some larger than others — Seahenge being one of the latter, far ahead of potsherds but perhaps more mysterious — and while archaeology has some light to shed, I find it best to accept up front that no one can offer a complete answer, and that if anyone claims to be certain, they’re speaking beyond the evidence in almost every case.
Francis Pryor’s book handles this pretty well, in my books, though I have no doubt there’s people out there who wish he’d stop equivocating. Much of this book involves setting this in context, linking modern and ancient lives and landscapes, and then using what evidence that offers to spin theories — theories that could be upset by the next find out of the ground, in some obscure peaty corner or air-tight chamber stumbled upon by chance.
Bearing all that in mind, I found this book fascinating. I have no personal expertise to say yay or nay to any of this — my own research interests lie in a later period, with the dawning of literature, which is in conversation with archaeology more than you’d think — so I took Pryor’s words more or less at face value. Some of his ideas seemed too sketchy, too much based on a gut reaction, but even so his description of the excavations, his impressions of them, the way they came together to synthesise an understanding of the anicent landscape… it’s all fascinating, and I would happily read more.
If you’re looking to learn specifically and solely about the place we’ve dubbed Seahenge (which was not actually built on the beach, and wasn’t in such close proximity to the sea) then only a couple of chapters of this book are of direct interest. But why you would want to look at something like this in isolation when it’s clearly part of a larger story and can only be understood in those terms, I don’t know.
One thing you may feel is that Francis Pryor has too much to say about himself and his team, particularly his wife. I enjoyed it, given that his thought processes were influenced by everything around him. A bare-bones description of the sites and the endless work of extraction and preservation would seem terribly boring to me.