Category Archives: Books

Alexander Hamilton, American by Richard Brookhiser

fe06a2d4dca55648482cbdfdb0ecf9ed-w204@1xWith the current election season in full swing, there is a lot of talk about the Founders and the Constitution. I’ve had my own fascination with this period. When I was a kid, Thomas Jefferson was my boyhood hero. I thought he was the epitome of what people could strive for, an excellent scientist who made profound contributions to the founding of our nation and to the ideals of human liberties more generally. Because of my boyhood fascination with Jefferson, I’ve made it a point to read as much as I can about that period in our history.

Richard Brookhiser’s Alexander Hamilton, American, focuses on one of the lesser-known figures in our founding. Of course Hamilton features on the $10 bill, but he was one of the few people adorning our money that wasn’t a president (Benjamin Franklin being the other). Hamilton owes his prominence on our money to his role as the first Secretary of the Treasury, in George Washington’s administration. Before that, however, he was a commander in Washington’s army and an ardent defender of the Constitution as it was being ratified by the various states — he was the most prolific of the three authors of The Federalist Papers.

Brookhiser’s account of the life and contributions of Hamilton to our nation is both concise and well-delivered. He provides a good sense of the man, both in his personal and public lives. Hamilton was an accomplished lawyer, and this colored how he presented himself and how he argued, for example, for the Constitution. These days, we hold the Constitution almost in reverence, but back then, it was a document that was not necessarily going to be approved by the majority of the states. Hamilton did a lot in making sure it was.

As Secretary of the Treasury, he was instrumental in providing the new nation a secure financial foothold. While his proposals were controversial at the time, especially opposed by the so-called Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Essentially, the debate was the same as it is today: what is the role of the federal versus state governments in the governing of the nation.

Of the Founders, Hamilton had perhaps the most unique perspective. Rather than being the son of landed gentry in Virginia or other established families in the Americas, he was born in the West Indies and his parents died early in his life. He eventually made his way to what would become the United States to attend school. He was very much a self-made man, but at the same time, he recognized that his rise was often the consequence of luck, of being noticed by the right person to facilitate, for example, his move to the colonies. He believed in his skills and the need for hard work, but he also realized that he could easily have stayed as a poor man in the West Indies if not for some fortunate circumstances.

Just as with the Constitution itself, we have a tendency to romanticize the Founders. We almost think of them as infallible. However, one thing that becomes immanently clear upon reading about the lives of figures such as Hamilton and Jefferson is just how human they were. We often complain about the sad state of affairs of politics in our own times, but it isn’t so obvious that they were much better back then. The leaders of the newly-minted political parties — the Federalists and the Republicans — were constantly attacking one another, revealing dirty laundry, and insulting one another in the press. They wrote letters to other important people disparaging one another. Jefferson, in some sense, was one of the worst. It seems that Hamilton never got overly personal in his attacks, attacking ideas more than specific people, but he ultimately lost his life in a duel due to, in part, his machinations behind the scenes to ensure that Aaron Burr did not win the presidency. They were very political beasts back then, as they still are today.

Hamilton’s contributions to the formation of our nation cannot be understated. He established institutions that provided for the stability and ultimately prosperity of our nation. He also defended the basic ideals upon which our nation was founded with a vigor and depth that continue to inspire. Brookhiser’s biography is certainly worth a read both for the perspective on Hamilton but also the time of the Revolution and the Founding more generally.

The Martian by Andy Weir

9780804139021As a kid, I was drawn a lot more to fantasy than to science fiction, mostly because, in science fiction, you have to suspend your disbelief regarding things that are rooted in science, while in fantasy, that foundation is explicitly thrown out at the beginning. That is, in fantasy, with its magic, dragons, elves, and demons, there was no pretense that the world could exist or was based on some realistic description of nature. Rather, that idea was tossed away and a new world with new rules was built. Science fiction, on the other hand, was meant to be an extension or extrapolation of our scientific understanding of the world and thus, in my mind, required a greater deal of substance to justify the more outlandish places that extrapolation took the author.

That said, there is a genre of science fiction, called hard science fiction, that Wikipedia characterizes as having a much stronger emphasis on scientific accuracy. The Martian, by Andy Weir, is an excellent example of this genre.

I haven’t seen the movie, though I imagine many others have. I actually read the book back in the spring, before the movie came out. The plot details the exploits of an astronaut who finds himself abandoned on Mars. For those who haven’t read the book nor seen the movie, I won’t spoil the plot any further.

What I will say is that the plot takes scientific accuracy to an extreme, with the protagonist doing everything he can with the equipment he has to stay alive. Weir has been praised for the accuracy of his science by many professional scientists. Of course, there are a few quibbles here and there, but overall, the book strives for, and achieves, a very high degree of scientific authenticity. It is maybe not a surprise to learn that Weir grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

For a book that centers, for the most part, on one man lost on effectively a very remote and very plain island, the plot is fast paced and intriguing. On many occasions, one can’t help but wonder how the hero will solve the next problem he encounters.

If I have one major quibble, it isn’t with the science itself (though I’m certainly not qualified to judge most of it in any technical depth), but rather that one person could be such an expert in so many disciplines. That is a conceit that a novel like this much have, but it is the one place where maybe a suspension of disbelief is really necessary to enjoy the story.

Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon

41P0iwFCz0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sometimes science advances because of the constant but relatively small contributions of many scientists focused on a field. However, revolutionary advances are often the child of special individuals who see the world in a different way than their contemporaries. Such is the case for electromagnetism and the two people who took it out of the shadows and laid a solid foundation for how electricity and magnetism work. These two scientists were Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, two of the preeminent scientists of their day. And their story is wonderfully captured by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon in Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field.

Faraday-Millikan-Gale-1913Faraday came from a poor family and was not formally schooled in science. However, his insights and dedication to empirical experimentation provided the foundation for our modern society, discovering not only how the electromagnetic field behaved (even proposing the field in the first place) but using that insight to invent the dynamo and the electric motor. All without any resort to a mathematical description of these effects.

James_Clerk_MaxwellMaxwell, on the other hand, came from a family that could provide for a solid education. Even so, Maxwell stood apart from his peers. Inspired by Faraday’s writings, Maxwell provided the mathematical foundation to Faraday’s observations that led to our ability to really exploit Faraday’s discoveries and subsequently to a myriad of technologies we take for granted today.

This book not only recounts the development of the theories of electromagnetism, from the state of the field when Faraday began his experiments to the researchers who followed in Faraday and Maxwell’s steps, but also is a fascinating expose on how science is done and what motivates science. I was fascinated to learn that Faraday had no particular application in mind when he performed his experiments. Even when he invented the dynamo and electric motor, he couldn’t conceive of an application. The electromagnetic field that Maxwell codified in his famous equations, likewise, did not appear to have any immediate application. It wasn’t until later that other researchers exploited these discoveries, inventing the radio, and using the electric motor and dynamo to create our cities that are powered by electricity. This story highlights the extreme benefit to society of science for science’s sake. Not all science has a clear application and often it is that science that seems most esoteric that transforms our lives the most.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone that has any interest in science or science history. This story captures the wonder that motivates so many people to pursue science in the first place and places the scientific endeavor in the broader context of its role in human development and society as a whole. Simply, this is one of the best books I’ve read and I think every budding scientist would do well to read it.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

the-golem-and-the-jinniA jinni and a golem meet in New York… almost sounds like the set up for a bad joke. But, Helene Wecker’s novel The Golem and the Jinni is certainly no joke. It is an exciting story about two mythological creatures who happen to find themselves in the same part of New York City during the late 1800s. These two creatures have very different dispositions: the jinni is a fiery hothead while the golem struggles to keep her emotions buried deep within.

Neither creature is fully in control of their fate. Golems, by nature, are created to serve a master while the jinni, as is often the case, has been imprisoned against his will to serve others. By using these two creatures and how they interact both with one another and with the humans around them, Wecker touches on themes of free will and purpose in life that, because of the combined historical/fantastical setting, occurs organically. The story focuses on the fate of these two magical creatures and the people they interact with, but the messages of the novel are much deeper than a fantasy story implies.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

dog-stars.hellerAt first, The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, is a difficult read. Heller eschews traditional sentence and paragraph structure. Instead of complete sentences, often the narrator of the novel “talks” in incomplete phrases, partial thoughts, and stream of conscious ramblings. Dialog is not distinguished from the narrator’s own internal voice. However, once you get by this odd composition, behind it is a story that is both touching and harrowing and certainly worth the effort.

The Dog Stars takes place in Colorado, in an America, a world, that has been decimated by a plague of unknown origin (though at one point, Livermore is blamed…). Whatever the origin, the current reality is that very few people are left and those that are either roam the countryside looking for supplies to scavenge and loot or have holed up in various compounds that they then defend against the roaming tribes. It is in exactly this situation that the protagonist, Hig, finds himself in. Hig and another man, Bangley, have taken residence in a neighborhood near an airport — Hig is a pilot — which, thanks to Bangley’s meticulous planning and military mindset, they have successfully defended against numerous attacks. However, having a creepy gun obsessed guy as his only “friend” starts to wear on Hig. Hig is lonely. Hig misses his wife. Hig wants more than to fight off a never ending hoard of invaders.

The novel follows Hig’s journey, both internal and external, of self-discovery, of finding what exactly he wants out of life in this new world. Along the way, we learn what it takes to survive in such a place, where all infrastructure is gone, people survive on their wits, and no one trusts anyone. How does Hig find purpose in a world where everything has been destroyed? Isn’t there more to life than simply defending his house, his dog, and his plane? Hig’s journey takes us along a path where he learns what it means to be human again in a world that humanity seems to have abandoned.

If you can make it through the odd compositional structure, the novel weaves a rich tapestry and has enough twists and turns to keep you turning the page. However, it certainly isn’t for everyone, as the structure may be too strange to digest for some. But, if you get by that, the novel rewards you with a story that certainly is heartfelt and gratifying.