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Ambassadors From Earth: Pioneering Explorations With Unmanned Spacecraft

Ambassadors From EarthOrder this bookStory: The history of outer solar system exploration is covered in depth, from the earliest notional studies of robotic exploration beyond Mars to the missions that actually made it off the drawing board and into space – Pioneers 10 and 11, Voyagers 1 and 2, and their progeny such as Galileo and Cassini.

Review: This is the book I’ve been looking for and waiting for. There are books aplenty – both lovely and lacking – on the Voyager missions to the outer planets, but while JPL’s machine marvels continue functioning to this day, outlasting interplanetary missions launched both before and since 1977, they were not the first. This book covers the ambitious Pioneer missions to Jupiter and Saturn that preceeded (and, in many ways, paved the way for) the Voyagers, and revealed that there was much to be gained by going and – at least for a while – staying at Jupiter and Saturn. Continue reading

Warnings: The True Story Of How Science Tamed The Weather

WarningsOrder this bookStory: Mike Smith, former TV meteorologist and founder of Weatherdata, Inc., recounts the formative events that inspired him to study weather – particularly severe weather – and take it up as a career. His involvement in forecasting such severe weather events as Hurricane Katrina and the devastating 2007 Greensburg, Kansas tornado (which destroyed that entire town), is covered in detail.

Review: A fascinating read for at least half of its page count, “Warnings” promises to be a history of forecasting severe weather in the United States. The first half of the book delivers on that admirably, taking us from the era when tornadoes just seemed to sneak up on (and kill) an unaware populace to modern times, when the debate usually isn’t “was there a warning?”, but rather “how much lead time did the warning give?”. From the fabled first (and quite unauthorized) tornado warning issued at, and for, Tinker Air Force Bace in Oklahoma City, the development of severe weather forecasting and warning is traced through the use of modified navigational radars from ships to the development of Doppler radar and computer modeling (and the very hands-on human data gathering that has to happen for the computer modeling to be even remotely useful or accurate). Continue reading

Sojourner

Book titleOrder this bookStory: Subtitled “An Insider’s View of the Mars Pathfinder Mission,” this book recounts the history of the original Mars rover mission that inspired millions in 1997, from its genesis as a retrofitting of long-outdated unused moon rover hardware to the little rover’s landing and exploration of the Martian landscape. Despite being written by Andrew Mishkin, the Senior Systems Engineer for the Sojourner rover for JPL, the book is culled from extensive interviews with his teammates and co-workers.

Review: An eye-opening book, “Sojourner” is an incredible tale of a little unmanned mission that could – despite obstacles on two planets. The forbidden environment of Mars is enough of a hazard to survive, to say nothing of the months of deep space journey before Soujourner and its Mars Pathfinder mothership arrived at the red planet. Just as many obstacles threatened to keep Sojourner’s wheels on Earth, from technical difficulties to petty bureaucracies. Continue reading

Boarding The Enterprise

Boarding The EnterpriseOrder this bookStory: A lively mixture of SF writers (many of them with connections to the original Star Trek) and other essayists look back to the dawn of Star Trek, dissecting the original show to ponder its meaning, and stepping back to analyze the meaning that the Trek phenomenon has taken on over time. Contributors include David Gerrold (who also co-edited), D.C. Fontana, Norman Spinrad, Howard Weinstein, Eric Greene, Michael Burstein, Robert Metzger, and several others.

Review: I’ve been an admirer of BenBella’s Smart Pop books for some time now, enjoying the variety of ways of looking at their subjects that the standard-issue scattershot of writers brought to the table for each book. Sure, there are the occasional bone-dry essays, and there have been a few occasions in the past where attempts at humorous essays flatlined like badly-written internet humor. Generally, though, I look forward to the more-or-less factual essays, examining their subjects from an angle that I might not have previously considered. And if there’s an occasional essay from someone who’s worked on the show, that’s icing on the cake that elevates it slightly above the other “Unauthorized! And Uncensored!” books about various pop culture phenomena that are already on the market. When you look at the short list of honest-to-God Star Trek luminaries lining this book’s table of contents and credits, it’s clear that “Boarding The Enterprise” has hit something of a home run. Continue reading

Entanglement: The Greatest Mystery In Physics

EntanglementOrder this bookStory: Begin physics lesson: Entanglement is the property of quantum physics which allows for instantaneous movement – regardless of the speed of light. In short, two particles can be generated by a common process (like a photon hitting an excited atom). The properties of these two particles are tied together. When generated, they fly off in opposite directions. If we capture one of the particles and measure its properties, we can say with absolute certainty what the properties of the other particle are. We never have to touch it or see it. What’s better, if we change some property of our particle, we change those properties on the other particle instantly. We can, in theory, change a particle in the Gamma quadrant by tweaking its entangled partner as it passes Earth. End of physics lesson.

Review: In the world of “accessible” science books there are authors and there are Authors. Aczel definitely falls into the latter category. His style shines with the passion he feels for his subjects. When his subject is the precursor to real teleportation, the result is a great read.

Aczel knows how confusing this all is for physicists, so he makes every allowance for us mere mortals. He takes a chronological approach to the story of entanglement, and repeats concepts, definitions, and principles when possible to help the reader grasp the story. And this is a story. Beginning with Thomas Young’s proof that light is a wave in the early 1800s, Aczel takes entanglement from a glint in the eye of a young physicist, through decades of research, to experiments which actually manipulate matter instantly across miles. Continue reading

Beyond Evolution

Beyond EvolutionOrder this bookStory: Dr. Fox sounds the alarm bell for the proliferation of genetically engineered plants, animals and foods, warning that these man-made creations are bypassing normal channels of FDA approval and are being unleashed into the ecosystem – and our own bodies.

Review: Talk about a book inspiring some mixed emotions. It’s very interesting, though out of necessity it spends a lot of time educating readers in the scientific lingo, as well as the abbreviations and acronyms thereof. But the book boils down to this: a powerful assembly of giant food processing, pharmaceutical and genetic engineering corporations, wielding massive influence with lawmakers and federal agencies, have already placed consumers, small farmers and numerous indigenous cultures in a stranglehold. What’s at stake? Unforseen long-term consequences – diseases, ecological contamination, and the destruction of ecologically necessary regions to make way for industrializd farming. Fox also raises a very real question involving the suffering animals engineered to grow grotesquely overmuscled to produce more meat. This is an interesting aspect of the debate, because on the one hand, the animals are going to be slaughtered and eaten anyway – but should steps be taken to minimize their suffering until that time? Continue reading

The Salmon Of Doubt

The Salmon Of DoubtOrder this bookStory: The writings of the late Douglas Adams (of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy fame) are gathered into four categories. “Life” collects essays by (and interviews with) Adams on the subject of his life, career, and reactions to seemingly everyday happenings; “The Universe” widens the scope to include Adams’ love affair with technology, computers, science and conservation; “Everything” covers everything else (including the author’s fascination with religion and evolution), and “The Salmon Of Doubt” collects the best drafts of the Dirk Gently novel Adams left unfinished at the time of his death.

Review: I think it goes without saying that Douglas Adams left us far, far too soon. I’ve been taking a crash course in bittersweet reminders lately as I’ve alternated between this book and the 3-CD Douglas Adams At The BBC set, which also chronicles his many interviews and early radio work. It’s brought back forcefully my feeling that Adams will go down not just as one of the 20th century’s most influential writers, but in time will be recognized as one of its foremost speculative thinkers as well. Continue reading

Last Chance To See

Last Chance To SeeOrder this bookStory: In 1988, Douglas Adams joined naturalist Mark Carwardine on a series of expeditions to personally see some of the world’s most critically endangered animals in their natural habitats. On some occasions this entailed putting up with the neighbors with whom those animals share their habitats, and those neighbors are among the world’s most dangerous animals. Adams relates the experiences of not only seeing these rare forms of life on the edge of extinction, but of the less-glamorous process of finding them, and the even-less-glamorous bureaucratic mazes that had to be navigated in order to begin that process.

Review: I hadn’t read this book until a few weeks before the fifth anniversary of Douglas Adams’ death, and it’s a great pity, for this may well be one of the best entries in the tragically brief body of Adams’ written work. It’s written in his trademark style, if a good deal more earnestly because rather than chronicling fantastical happens that have never actually happened, Adams is here chronicling fantastic happenings that happen to have happened to him personally. The sense of wonder at seeing some of the world’s rarest creatures is palpable, as is a growing sense of uneasiness about how humanity is impacting their shrinking environments. Continue reading

The Planets

The PlanetsOrder this bookStory: The Planets is, quite simply, one of my all-time favorite books, a mind-boggling and impossible-to-pigeonhole anthology of scientific essays and short stories from some of the best science fiction authors on the planet. The Planets is a brilliant combination of facts, speculation, and artwork, each section of the book focusing on one of the planets in our solar system, as well as the asteroids, comets, and Earth’s moon, and how humankind could change it – or how it could change us.

Review: Though it’s most likely out of print now, this book is one of my most prized literary possessions. Smartly-written factual essays combined with mold-breaking science fiction short stories made for a book whose contents have challenged and awed me since my early teens. (Somehow, the follow-up book, The Stars, edited in much the same staggered science/science fiction format, didn’t thrill me as much.) Continue reading

Journey Beyond Selene

Journey Beyond SeleneOrder this bookStory: The story of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is told in much the same style as the author’s account of the exploits of the Apollo 13 crew in Lost Moon, but occasionally the casual observer might be lost in the midst of some of the tech talk. While Lost Moon had a very human element in the crew and the ground controllers, Journey Beyond Selene is more of a romance novel for engineers. The human story is on Earth, as the engineers deal with the menaces of launch vehicles, NASA bureaucrats, a press corps more obsessed with manned flights, and an apathetic Congress…not to mention the fact that, quite simply, not all of their marvelous hardware worked.

Review: This recently published opus from the co-author of Jim Lovell’s “Lost Moon” tells the often-overlooked story of the frequently unsung pioneers of America’s program of unmanned space exploration. Continue reading