Tag Archives: science

“Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir

Proyecto Hail Mary [Project Hail Mary]

I loved The Martian and skipped Artemis (which seems to be available only in electronic format), so I was optimistic about enjoying Project Hail Mary. And, yes, I liked it! 

SPOILER ALERT! If you’re sensitive about plot and plan to read the book, stop here. 

The assumptions made in Project Hail Mary are even more extreme (silly) than those on which The Martian was based, but Weir writes a very engaging adventure story. I particularly like the description of his protagonist Ryland Grace learning to speak the language of the space alien he nicknames Rocky. Rocky’s language is musical. 

Once one can speak to an alien, cultural issues arise. Weir takes on two big ones, food and sleep. Humans socialize over food. Not so the alien in this story! Humans can sleep alone, but Rocky considers that frightening. Initally, Grace is confused by Rocky’s offer to “observe” his sleep. It turns out the aliens can’t be roused while sleeping, and may need help.

In what ways does Project Hail Mary (published in 2021) reflect our contemporary experience of Covid? Both our human protagonist and his alien buddy are ALONE in space. Each has lost his crewmates. Each is from a planet suffering an existential threat. Their life support requirements are radically different, but they find ways to be “together”.

After finishing Project Hail Mary, I went back to the beginning to see how it “felt” from that perspective. Fifteen minutes later, I realized I had been, briefly, completely unaware of my surroundings. Weir can really get me engaged!


“A Bone from a Dry Sea” by Peter Dickenson

A Bone from a Dry Sea

Okay, call me absent minded! I overlooked the fact that this is my second Young Adult book by Peter Dickenson. See review dated April 23, 2021. It shares the slightly didactic character that shows up in much YA literature (imho). 

I had to force my way through most of this book. There are two plots, both involving young females. An English teenager goes on a paleontology expedition with her father and finds a (potentially important) bone. The other plot tells us how the bone ended up where it was later found. 

Issues of racism and sexism arise, but are not handled in depth. The scientists in this book are portrayed as unpleasant, quarrelsome egotists. I feel that this stereotypical representation feeds the anti-science attitudes that are making our lives so difficult now. If scientists are a bunch of jerks, it’s easier to reject their recommendations measures like vaccination. I’m not saying scientists are all “nice”, but gratuitous fictional portrayals of scientific infighting aren’t helpful.

There’s a real and intellectually interesting controversy behind this book, the question of whether human evolution included an aquatic stage. Why Dickenson chose this as the basis for a YA novel baffles me. But, as I’ve said before, I usually don’t like “fictionalized” versions of real and important people and events. That a bias of mine.

The best part of this book was a BIG plot twist near the end. I totally didn’t see it coming, and I found it completely believable. Yes, life does throw the occasional major league curve ball. (Nobody got killed.) The book ends without telling us how the “victim” will choose to put his life back together. 

This book should be examined in courses on Science and Society.

If you want a non-fiction look a major scientific squabble, read Noble Savages by Napoleon Chagnon, cultural anthropologist. I remembered Chagnon as I read Dickenson’s imagined description of the lives of early pre-humans. Chagnon made enough behavioral observations to speculate about questions like how many people can live in a “tribe” before it ends up splitting into two tribes, a possibility Dickinson hints at in A Bone from a Dry Sea. 

Another non-fiction account of science and scientific controversy is The Double Helix by James Watson, about the structure of DNA. Later editions include his apology for his dismissive, sexist comments about distinguished chemist Rosalind Franklin. 

I wish the fun and excitement of science showed more clearly in Dickenson’s books. Field scientists have crazy adventures! 

“Eva” by Peter Dickinson


This book was loaned to me by a friend, who asked for my opinion of it. Sometimes this means my “scientific” opinion, since I am a scientist. I earned a Master of Science in Chemistry in 1973.

My academic degree is no particular help in evaluating this book, but I have relevant informal experience. I’m married to an ecologist well versed in evolution, who taught an undergraduate course called “Animal and Human”. That course focused on the research of Jane Goodall and other primatologists. Our home bookshelf includes works by Goodall, Frans de Waal and others. I particularly like de Waal’s Good Natured – the origins of right and wrong in humans and other animals.

Back to the book… Eva is a 13 year old girl who suffers devastating physical injuries in an auto accident. Her (less damaged) brain is transplanted into the body of a young female chimpanzee. (No, I don’t think will happen in my lifetime, despite rapid advances in neuroscience.) Against all odds, Eva survives, the first (and only) member of a new life form. Everything about Eva is novel and much is unexpected – to her, her family and the doctors and scientists who made her treatment possible.

Eva turns out to be more chimpanzee than human. She feels more at home in a chimpanzee colony called “the pool” than with her parents or school friends. Their habitat destroyed by human overpopulation, all surviving chimps live in “the pool”, a zoo-like urban setting where chimps face one of three fates. Some are sold to corporations or universities for research. Others are kept in a zoo, for the (paying) public to see and appreciate them. The luckiest ones live mostly undisturbed in a private compound, observed (remotely) by scientists who want to understand their biology and behavior. Even that is not a “good” or “natural” life for a chimpanzee, and they have lost skills, including the ability to forage for food. Eva, the daughter of one of the scientists, played with chimps as a child and felt positive towards them. This helps her survive the shock of “waking up” in a chimpanzee body.

Eva wants a more natural setting for herself and the other chimps, and, against the odds and at great risk, she gets it. A chimp colony is established (in Madagascar). Eva attempts re-teach chimps “wild” life skills and to import a few human behaviors into the colony (tying knots, for example). She breeds only with chimps she considers intelligent and socially cooperative. She dies (of old age) hoping “her” chimp descendants will thrive in the future at a time when humans seem doomed. 

My opinion? Highly entertaining. Dystopian fiction, however, is not a genre I like. It can be cynical and broadly antisocial (imho). Is Eva anti-science? Borderline. If you’re looking for “bad” scientists, you can find them. I don’t consider this a trivial issue. Not while climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers show up in my own community. If we reject science across the board, we humans are doomed, and may destroy other species as well.

This book was published in 1989.  Peter Dickinson died in 2015. It is categorized as Young Adult fiction. Dickinson doesn’t talk down to his readers. If anything marks it as YA oriented, it’s the emphasis on plot (over character, setting or reflection) and the brisk pace. One category of YA is “dystopian YA fiction”. Eva might qualify. The future world depicted is overcrowded, polluted and gloomy.

If someone wants to critique the portrayal of chimps in Eva, I suggest they check the publication dates of the books mentioned above to see what information was available to Dickenson when he wrote Eva. I think, overall, that he did a good job. 

Jane Goodall wrote Reason for Hope in 1999. She is now 87 years old. You can check her out at www.news.janegoodall.org. She still has hope.  

“Aurora” by Kim Stanley Robinson

K S Robinson writes a great survival/adventure story. I couldn’t stop reading. Aurora is a real page turner. But Aurora isn’t on my list of favorite science fiction/fantasy. Why?

The plot is weak. SO many good ideas from the first section of the book just evaporate. Gone – when their further development would have been so interesting. Who were the five ghosts, and how do we account for them on a space ship? How many travelers went “feral”? What could be done about the difficulty of deciding who could have a baby, and when?

On the other hand, “Aurora” contained some wonderfully mind blowing plot twists. One involved the “structured forgetting” of an event that had the potential to destroy a small group (2000 people) that could only survive through intense, consistent cooperation. I’m always interested in schism and schismatics, and the meaning of “the rule of law”. When a sophisticated computer develops self awareness and identity, and then announces its role as “sheriff”, I’m intrigued.

I was, early on, a little offended by the computer-develops-personality theme, regarding it as being stolen from 2001 A Space Odyssey. But did Arthur C Clarke really invent that? Who did? In Aurora, it works well, and I enjoyed it. Interestingly, the emerging computer/person was first called Pauline, but later merely addressed as “Ship”, not even consistently capitalized. “Ship” seems to have taken a step back from human relationships when it’s first “friend” died.

Like HAL (in 2001), “Ship” had to intervene to save the project (interplanetary travel), taking steps as radical an interfering with the 3D printers used to produce objects required for survival and lowering oxygen levels to suppress violence. “Ship” prevented disorder from growing into warfare, if the term can be used within a group of only 2000 people. “Ship” also took over entirely, easing its passengers into hibernation when food supplies failed, and carefully reawakening them later.

The characters are not as well developed as in the author’s highly amusing New York 2140. Freya, the closest to a protagonist aside from Ship, baffles me. She becomes a leader unintentionally, and a symbol of the prolonged mental and physical suffering of all the space travelers. Finally making it back to earth, she speaks out on behalf of “involuntary space travelers” like herself, people born into their difficult if not fatal roles due to decisions made by their ancestors. How is this different from being the child of an immigrant? Perhaps it is an issue of scale. An immigrant (theoretically) gains a “whole new world”. A person born on a multigenerational space flight faces a very, very restricted existence.

Robinson is a prolific author, with 19 books and many short stories published. I will sample further before I decide how I think his works will stand the test of time, whether any of them can be classified as “literature”.

“New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson

You have to admire an author who stands an academic/cultural trope on its head. We’ve all heard of The Tragedy of the Commons, right? Heavy. Very heavy. Robinson brings us…the COMEDY of the Commons! I love it. Among other fancies, he produces a new Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn duo, Stefan and Roberto, a pair of “water rats” who live by luck and their wits in a stolen Zodiac in the drowned city of Lower Manhattan.

This book reminds me of The Martian by Andy Weir. In The Martian, one man fights a planet for survival. In New York 2140 Robinson creates a crowd of lovable eccentrics and follows their struggles on the hard-to-recognize landscape of New York after sea level rise.

Robinson treats himself to a “chorus”, the presence of a non-participant (identified as “citizen” or “the city smartass”) who comments on the setting (the New York bight) and sometimes addresses the reader, as in the following rant:

“Because life is robust,

Because life is bigger than equations, stronger than money, stronger than guns and poison and bad zoning policy, stronger than capitalism,

Because Mother Nature bats last, and Mother Ocean is strong, and we live inside our mothers forever, and Life is tenacious and you can never kill it, you can never buy it,

So Life is going to dive down into your dark pools, Life is going to explode the enclosures and bring back the commons,

O you dark pools of money and law and quanitudinal(sic) stupidity, you over simple algorithms of greed, you desperate simpletons hoping for a story you can understand,

Hoping for safety, hoping for cessation of uncertainty, hoping for ownership of volatility, O you poor fearful jerks,

Life! Life! Life! Life is going to kick your ass!”

Robinson is channeling Walt Whitman here. (Whether I believe this or not is a question for another day.)

The basic scenario of New York 2140 is that sea level rise, happening in two “pulses” rather than slowly, has transpired and a great deal of land has been abandoned. But New York City is just too valuable, so it evolves into three zones – dry land in northern Manhattan, an “intertidal” zone and a marginally occupied, heavily damaged Lower Manhattan. The book takes place in the intertidal zone, which is starting to “gentrify”.

Robinson quotes a number of sources throughout the book, mostly at chapter headings. Robert Moses, for example, who ruthlessly imposed his vision on the New York infrastructure. Additionally, H L Mencken, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, and assorted scientists and commentators. Some are worth checking out.

Robinson makes a “character” out of an existing building, the Met Life Tower on Madison Avenue. It is portrayed as having “personality”. In 2140, it is occupied by a housing cooperative. New York is very crowded, so successful professionals pay dearly for even a tiny bit of space, like a bunk in a dormitory.

Characters in New York 2140 make occasional reference to Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the 21st Century has been attracting attention recently. Piketty is a French academic who has studied the history of the distribution of wealth. Both Piketty and K S Robinson are asking how capitalism can be structured to benefit the citizens of a democratic nation. Believe it or not, there’s a copy of Piketty’s book in my livingroom. I plan to read at least some of it. Stay tuned!

I dashed excitedly through New York 2140 in a few days, and I’ve written this without consulting reviews. After I do that, I may learn that, one way or another, I’ve entirely missed the point.


Afterthought on “The Cure for Catastrophe” by Robert Muir-Wood.

(See my earlier blog entry on November 20.)

This book afforded me the unusual pleasure of finding a friend within the pages! Well, not exactly – I found a surname: Redfield. Who did I know by that name? Dr. Elizabeth (Libby) Redfield Marsh, mentor, good friend and fellow Penn State graduate! In 1975, she made a phone call that changed my life. She was teaching at a small public college in New Jersey. Would I consider interviewing for a job? Mutual connections at Penn State had given her my name. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

I knew that Libby had grown up spending her summers at Woods Hole on Cape Cod, surrounded by scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Might she be related to William Redfield, mentioned in Muir-Wood’s book as a self trained “amateur” scientist of tremendous acumen, one of the first observers to recognize that hurricanes have a circular structure and move along somewhat predictable paths? Yes! William Redfield (a storekeeper from Middletown, CT) went on to become the first president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, founded in 1848 and now the world’s largest general scientific society.

Between the time of William Redfield and Elizabeth Redfield Marsh, the Redfield family produced a number of distinguished scientists. Her father, Arthur Redfield, was a meteorologist. Libby’s chosen academic field was geography, and she wrote about rural planning. The family tradition continues. One of her sons teaches geography and environmental studies at a private college in Pennsylvania. Another is a physician.

Here are some reasons why this personal anecdote seems important NOW:

  • Science as a basis for public policy is being denigrated by climate deniers, the anti-vaccine lobby and other groups. This disturbs me greatly. If not science, then what will be the basis for our decisions? I don’t dispute the role of values and intuition, but IF there is scientific data available on an issue, it should be carefully considered. We ignore it at our peril.
  • I love science as an expression of the human spirit. It lifts me up.
  • I value “citizen science”. Enthusiastic “amateurs” make important contributions in fields like entomology, ornithology and digitization. (Take my word on that last one.) I subscribe to the notion that children are all born scientists. The Redfield family was unusually successful at keeping scientific passions alive.

So here’s to the memory of Libby Marsh (1923? – 2009) and her scientific ancestors, amateur and academic! May their efforts be remembered and appreciated.

“The Signature of All Things: A Novel” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Yes, this is the book that threatened me with “literary flu” (see December 17 blog post.) I bravely fought off my burning desire to read instead of going to work. I even managed to make this wonderful, absorbing book last six days!

This book is the story of a American life, from birth in 1800 to very old age.

Some pluses… It’s about a woman’s life. Much of it takes place near Philadelphia. Although none of the characters is actually a Quaker, Quakerism is given its due as an aspect of Philadelphia society. Abolitionism also plays a part.

But fundamentally, this is a book about the study of nature, especially plants. Alma Whittaker was the daughter of a man who grew plants, sold plants and supported the study of plants, with the emphasis on their medicinal qualities. He became fabulously rich in the process. Alma grew up surrounded by scientists (they called themselves natural philosophers) and businessmen of all sorts. Female role models were in short supply, but Alma, perhaps because she had no brothers, was encouraged to be intellectually bold.

Elizabeth Gilbert creates a memorable protagonist in Alma Whittaker and then surrounds her with intense, surprising characters. There’s Prudence, who turns up one dark night and is adopted as Alma’s sister. She sheds her background of poverty and ignorance and grows up to be a dedicated abolitionist. There’s a man named Tomorrow Morning, who loses his entire family, selects a new father and builds a new, rich life. Gilbert even manages to make a dog named Roger into a memorable character. (I don’t usually pay much attention to dogs, in life or in fiction.) Not every character is benign. The peripheral Mr. Yancey is mysterious and very dangerous.

Another “plus” from my point of view is that several characters in this book are Dutch and some of the story takes place in Netherlands, a country I for which I have a decided soft spot.

This book celebrates the beauty of nature and the JOY of studying nature. Neither is sufficiently appreciated here and now. Other types of intellectual activity are also lifted up – the study of languages, for example. Our heroine speaks four languages, plus Greek which she regards as a special treat. She undertakes to learn an Asian language under challenging circumstances.

One criterion of an excellent book is that it encourages you to read more, and not just work by the same author. This book led me to think about reading Darwin, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man in particular. I tend to think of myself as well informed on the subject of evolution. I hang around with biologists and experts in related sciences, but no, I have not read Darwin, though his books and many commentaries thereon are around the house. I envision reading Darwin as a project that might take years! I wonder if that’s true.

I have intentionally written this post without looking at the reviews of others, or even checking on Ms. Gilbert’s other published works. A few years ago, I read her two non-fiction books, Eat, Pray, Love and Committed. The first was good enough, the second (to use a culinary turn of phrase) disagreed with me. I never expected The Signature of All Things to be so very marvelous.