A delightful, illuminating grab bag of space-flight curiosities.

PACKING FOR MARS

THE CURIOUS SCIENCE OF LIFE IN THE VOID

Popular-science writer Roach (Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, 2008, etc.) entertainingly addresses numerous questions about life in outer space.

The author is less interested in the thrills and agonies of space travel than “the stuff in between—the small comedies and everyday victories.” In lucid writing well-tuned to humor and absurdity, Roach tackles such topics as bowel movements in zero gravity. In fact, all the things that can and routinely do go wrong are vile—inhaling fecal dust that coats the mouth with E. coli, for instance—and few have taken the act of vomiting quite to the riotous heights as Roach. Plenty of astronauts succumbed to motion sickness in her presence, but it’s a problem often ignored by reports because motion sickness is seen as a weakness, and any perceived weakness could get an astronaut bumped from a mission. The author visits with astronauts to hear about what it is like to share a confined space with another person for many days on end—“irrational antagonisms” are mentioned, as are fist fights, another little something not mentioned in press briefings—and to look at the cross-cultural issues that arose when Russians, Canadians and Americans shared a space station. Roach is equally adept at demystifying thorny scientific material, such as the nature of gravity and its role in our lives—especially how the lack of it thins bones, atrophies muscles, does odd things with blood vessels and the heart and is particularly uncooperative when it comes to sex: “thrusting just pushes the object of one’s affections away.” There is much good fun with—and a respectful measure of awe at—the often crazy ingenuity brought to the mundane matters of surviving in a place not meant for humans.

A delightful, illuminating grab bag of space-flight curiosities.

Pub Date: Aug. 2, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-393-06847-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2010

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As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.

THE ORDER OF TIME

Undeterred by a subject difficult to pin down, Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, 2017, etc.) explains his thoughts on time.

Other scientists have written primers on the concept of time for a general audience, but Rovelli, who also wrote the bestseller Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, adds his personal musings, which are astute and rewarding but do not make for an easy read. “We conventionally think of time,” he writes, “as something simple and fundamental that flows uniformly, independently from everything else, uniformly from the past to the future, measured by clocks and watches. In the course of time, the events of the universe succeed each other in an orderly way: pasts, presents, futures. The past is fixed, the future open….And yet all of this has turned out to be false.” Rovelli returns again and again to the ideas of three legendary men. Aristotle wrote that things change continually. What we call “time” is the measurement of that change. If nothing changed, time would not exist. Newton disagreed. While admitting the existence of a time that measures events, he insisted that there is an absolute “true time” that passes relentlessly. If the universe froze, time would roll on. To laymen, this may seem like common sense, but most philosophers are not convinced. Einstein asserted that both are right. Aristotle correctly explained that time flows in relation to something else. Educated laymen know that clocks register different times when they move or experience gravity. Newton’s absolute exists, but as a special case in Einstein’s curved space-time. According to Rovelli, our notion of time dissolves as our knowledge grows; complex features swell and then retreat and perhaps vanish entirely. Furthermore, equations describing many fundamental physical phenomena don’t require time.

As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.

Pub Date: May 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1610-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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