Category Archives: Books

The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Started reading: ~08/01/01
Finished reading: ~09/01/01
Notes written: 10/26/01

I write these notes more than a month after I finished reading the book. I felt it was a very good book, maybe preaching to the choir in my case, but still making a very good case for the need for skepticism, of a need to think rationally about the things that we encounter every day. Sagan recounts many instances of people being fooled by hoaxes, both obvious and not so obvious, of believing them even after the hoax is revealed. People so desperately want to believe something, anything. They don’t look at things rationally, they don’t try to analyze them. They take things at face value, never trying to understand things more deeply than at the level that they are first told.

Sagan makes strong arguements for the need to strengthen scientific education, not only here, but in all parts of the world. People, especially now, now that our world is dominated by the products of science, need to understand that science more. To be able to intelligently interact with their world, they need to understand it better.

Sagan also points out the similarties between the current “fad” of alien sightings and abduction stories and the apparitions of the Virgin in the middle ages. Of how neither have any hard evidence for their occurence, but still are believed at face value. He describes how current knowledge of the workings of the brain do seem to lead credance to the idea of mass delusions. He looks at the witch trials of previous centuries to show how the majority of people can be brought to believe something that is not true, even something that the educated people of the time try to tell them is false.

Sagan does a great job of telling us why we need to learn science, why we need to think skeptically and critically. He also is sympathetic with people and their desire to believe these things. He would be the happiest man in the world if aliens did exist and visit us, but he sees no evidence of such happenings. He knows that people need to believe, need to escape from their world, either because it is mundane, or depressing, or too horrible to deal with. In some ways, it is an interesting comparison with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. There, comic books exist as a doorway to escape. Sagan knows that people need to escape, but he also feels that we need to be careful, that we can’t confuse reality – that which we can test, for which we have evidence – with fantasy. Joe, in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, sees the ability to escape as necessary, as the only thing that has helped him to deal with the events in his life. Sagan, I think, doesn’t feel this is bad, just that people need to be able to tell the fantasies of their escape from the reality around them. And, the key way to be able to do this is to know more about science, as a window to understanding reality, as a tool for doing so.

I agree completely with everything Sagan says. I may not be quite as wanting to find aliens or these things, but I am wanting the fantastic to be real. I would like to see ghosts and have these other shades of existence be real. But, as Sagan, I don’t see any evidence for these things. I think that we all need to be a bit more of a scientist, that we need to be able to tell reality from fantasy just a bit more than most of us are able to. I think that many of us are easily swayed and confused by stories of the fantastic, that we so desperately want to believe in something that lets us escape our mundane lives, our lives too horrible to deal with, that we latch on to anything that comes along. We are, in some real sense, sheep, that would rather be told what to believe than to try to investigate the world and learn how it is for ourselves. This isn’t true just of the nature of reality, but also in every realm of human existence. We are told by our governments what to believe about the enemy, we don’t think for ourselves. Blind patriotism plays the same role here as blind faith in religion. We don’t think for ourselves, we just believe the status quo given to us by those in power. Sagan wants us all to be a bit more scientific so we can also deal with these kinds of fantasies as well.

The Amazing Aventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Started reading: ~09/01/01
Finished reading: 10/26/01
Notes written: 10/26/01

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Warning! Spoilers follow!

The story in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is about two cousins – Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier – both of whom are Jewish. Sammy was born and raised in NY, Joe in Prague. The book starts off in World War II, and Joe has escaped from a Prague that is about to come under the control of Hitler. He is the only one of his family who escapes. The rest of his family is first interned and then each dies, first his father, then his brother (in an attempt to sail across the Atlantic to freedom) and his mother and grandfather as well. Joe escapes by travelling in a box with the Golem of Prague. He makes his way to NY, where he meets his cousin Sammy.

Sammy is a comic book fan and Joe is an artist, so they create a comic book character, the Escapist. They sell it to Sammy’s boss and it becomes hugely successful. During the time of working on the Escapist, Sammy meets Tracy Bacon, who plays the Escapist on the radio, and Joe meets Rosa Saks. They both fall in love. Sammy eventually develops a relationship with Tracy and they are later busted in a party of several homosexual couples, after which Sammy is forced to service an FBI agent in order to avoid being charged. At the same time, Rosa has become pregnant with Joe’s child. Joe learns that his brother, Tommy, has died on the boat that was supposed to bring him to America and he joins the navy to help fight the Germans, leaving Rosa alone and not telling anyone that he has gone. Sammy wants to avoid a life of being a homosexual, he doesn’t want the stigma. Rosa thinks of having an abortion, but they decide that the best thing is to get married and raise Joe’s child together. They name him Tommy, after Joe’s brother.

Meanwhile, Joe is in Antartica, where he has many travails (his entire company dies, except for one, he nearly goes mad, he finally finds a German base and he and the other man go to kill the lone German there. Joe gets there, after his companion has died, and he accidentally kills the German.) Eventually, Joe is found and he makes it back to NY, but doesn’t reveal himself to his family, not until Tommy sees him once and Joe recognizes him. Joe reveals himself to Tommy and they become friends. Eventually, Tommy gets Joe to reveal himself to the rest of the family, where his feelings for Rosa surface again.

The final main event of the story is Sammy’s testimony before a Senate committee dealing with the delinquent effects of comics on kids. Sammy’s past creations, often boy side-kicks to male heroes, is brought to light, and the inference that he has done so because of his own homosexuality is made. Sammy decides that he is now finally free of his secret, of his life of lies, and he goes to LA.

The book is very complex, with many levels and many investigations of Sammy, Rosa and Joe and their feelings and how they deal with their situations. I don’t think I’ve digested the book on all levels and I’m sure that I would have to reread it several times to get everything in there. There is much about the building of Golems, of superheroes, of escaping from reality. Joe escaped from war, from death, but lost his entire family in the process. Sammy escaped from a life of what he felt would be shame, but had to live a lie in order to do so. Joe then escaped from his second family, ran from them, because he couldn’t bear being with them. Joe both couldn’t give up hope that his first family might return, but couldn’t believe that they would.

The role of comics is central to the story, in that they symbolize the need for escape from reality that most of us have. Sammy’s life was not as bad as Joe’s during the war, but his life before was worse. He didn’t have a father that was there for him, he didn’t have a complete home. He didn’t have the opportunities to learn and to explore that Joe did: music, magic, escapism. He didn’t have the full family life that Joe did. Sammy was also lame, and he needed to escape from his life, more than Joe did. Joe needed to fight back, but Sammy needed to escape, needed to escape almost all aspects of his life, even later on, when he was an adult. He felt he had to escape his natural feelings, his homosexuality, because it was not viewed well by the public. He had to hide everything, and sacraficed his only chance for love to do so.

All of the characters are strong and well developed. I connected with all of them. The book had a little of everything, even a little bit of sex. The story felt like we were growing with these characters, learning with them, there with them as they experienced life. It felt like maybe I was learning something about life as they did. That I experienced things that I would never have experienced myself. Sammy’s homosexuality felt like a natural thing for him. You could tell that he was scared and nervous about exploring this side of himself. He never fully let himself experience it, never fully let himself love Tracy. And, he regretted it forever.

I think that this book will be the kind that I get more out of with each successive rereading. I feel that, right now, I haven’t gotten much more than just the plot and the things that Chabon directly tells us. There is a lot more levels, I think, that I’m not fully digesting, not fully realizing. Chabon does try to tell us directly the main points of his message, by having the characters realize certain things for themselves.

It is interesting that Sammy’s homosexuality is revealed because of his habit of teaming heroes with boy side kicks, but, as he points out, the heroes are playing more of a father role than a corrupting role, much as he is to Tommy. Tommy is his ward, just as Robin is to Batman and so forth. Sammy never felt more than as a father to Tommy, and it is interesting that the same kind of relationship in his comic book characters is what brings his homosexuality to light.

I will definitely have to reread this book and think about it more to try to get more understanding of the book. I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon

Read: April 28, 2007

One of my favorite authors as a kid was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though I have to admit, I only read his Sherlock Holmes work (which might have come as a bit of a disappointment to Doyle, as he wanted to be known for something besides Holmes). So, when I first learned of Michael Chabon’s novel featuring Sherlock Holmes, The Final Solution, I was definitely intrigued.

The story is short: it took me only maybe 2 to 3 hours to read it. While it is well written, it uses grammatical constructions that were, at least for me, sometimes hard to get around. But, in the end, it was a very pleasant story that I greatly enjoyed. The mystery, while not overly complex, is enough to keep the book moving.

The real story, though, is not about the mystery that the old man finds himself drawn into. Rather, it is about the old man himself in his later years, when his body has failed him and his mind is beginning to as well. This is his last case and, while not as taxing as many he found himself dealing with as a younger man, considering his physical condition, it is about all he can handle. As such, it isn’t a traditional Sherlock Holmes story in that sense. It isn’t a Sherlock Holmes mystery, but rather a story about Sherlock Holmes the man. And, as such, I rather enjoyed it. But, as a Sherlock Holmes mystery, it wasn’t quite what I had hoped.

The mystery involves a murder and a missing parrot. It is the old man’s task to find the parrot and, in doing so, the murderer. The biggest disappointment for me is that the solution of the mystery doesn’t really involve any great insight into the case by the old man, the kind of piercing insight that is the hallmark of Sherlock Holmes. It is rather the help of a little boy that leads to the solution. The one time when the old man offers some great insight into the case (dealing with the motivations of one of the suspects), it comes entirely out of the blue. There is no reason for him to know what he does. He attributes it to his bees. But, unless he has a network of “spies” in the town, which is unlikely given his living arrangement, I don’t see how he would have that insight, unless it was a blind guess. And the Holmes I remember didn’t do blind guesswork.

So, as a Holmes mystery, I was disappointed in the story. But, as a story about Holmes in his final years, it was very enjoyable. Seeing the old man’s reactions to his difficulty to move around was very interesting. And his fear, not of death, but of an ignoble death — of dying with his face in his porridge — seemed to me to be in character.

One thing that struck me as odd and out of place. One chapter is from the point of view of the parrot. I found this particularly odd in a Holmes story, as nothing of the sort ever occurs in Doyle’s tales. I’m also always perplexed by these sorts of approaches since it seems we have no idea how a parrot looks at the world. How can anyone know how to write anything from a parrot’s point of view.

Finally, we never learn the true value of the parrot. There is obviously great interest in him, but we never learn why. A number of reasons are put forth, but no definitive one is stated. I’m sure this is intentional, but I would have liked to know something about what the meaning of the bird’s ramblings really was.

Overall, I really enjoyed this novel, just not so much as a Holmes story. For someone expecting a mystery in the Doyle style, this isn’t that story. But, as a story about the man himself, it is very good and I highly recommend it.

Nobody Gets the Girl

Nobody Gets the Girl Nobody Gets the Girl by James Maxey

Read: January 2007

I’m a big comics fan.  Not the biggest, I’m sure, but I enjoy comic books.  And I mostly read superhero comics, my favorites being X-Men, Fables, The Ultimates, Powers and Supreme Power.  There are a number of novelizations of comics or comic-based movies, none of which I’ve read.  However, there are also a couple of stand-alone novels based upon the comic book conventions that I’ve found and really liked.  The first was Superfolks by Robert Mayer.  It was really good.  It was about a superhero that is going through a midlife crisis.

The second is Nobody Gets the Girl by James Maxey.  In some ways, this is a very conventional superhero story, including an origin story for the hero, the typical battles, and the weird pseudoscientific explanations for things.  But, it gets a lot darker than most superhero tales.  There are probably no real “good guys” and the bad guys, of course, don’t see themselves that way.  In their own mind, they are freedom fighters, fighting against the supreme “good guy”, who wants to create a utopia at the cost of personal freedom.

The hero, Richard Rogers, is a regular guy who is going through a bit of a crisis.  But, he wakes up one day and his whole existence is gone.  The world he knew, the people he knew — including his wife — no longer exist.  Or, better said, they exist, but have no knowledge that Richard ever existed.  Soon, he learns the reason for his predicament, which has to do with a scientist traveling in time and preventing Richard’s conception.  He joins the scientist’s super-team, comprised of his two daughters, and tries to help the scientist — nicknamed Dr. Know by his daughter — implement his utopia while protecting him from his arch-enemy.

The story is well written, fast paced, and while using some of the unrealistic pseudoscience that comics always use to explain things, the world that Maxey sets up to explain the existence of super powers and such is novel.  It relies a bit too much on quantum physics, which all of these things seem to these days, but it does so in a unique way.

Furthermore, Maxey places his story in the “real” world, with the political problems that we face in our own world.  When super-powered terrorists attack cities, many, many, many people die, as you would expect if such things could really happen. It’s not like the Marvel or DC battles in which cities are destroyed, but it seems that no one really dies.  In that sense, the story is a bit more realistic (in the vein, in some ways, of The Authority).  The characters are compelling and interesting.  Their powers are also interesting and well utilized; one daughter has Magneto-like powers but uses them in a completely novel way compared to Magneto.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes the comic book/superhero genre.  It is an intelligent take on the genre, with enough unique twists and turns to keep the reader engaged.  And it is a relatively quick read too.  Not like a comic book, but still pretty fast.

Great Physicists

Over Thanksgiving vacation, I finished reading Great Physicists bt William H. Cropper. In this book, Cropper introduces us to 30 of the greatest physicists of all time, starting with Galileo and ending with Stephen Hawking. Even though many of these physicists made seminal contributions to multiple fields of physics, Cropper groups the scientists into nine sections, defined by sub-fields of physics. This presentation also lets him present the scientists in a rough chronological order that mirrors the development of physics. These sections include mechanics, statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, and nuclear physics, among others.Each chapter introduces one scientist, describes their early history, goes into their contributions to physics, and ends with the tale of each scientist’s later years. Cropper’s description of the contributions of these scientists does not skimp on the math. While complex integrals are not presented, the seminal equations along with their meaning are described. Their importance for physics are also discussed.I found this book to be marvelously interesting. Cropper does a great job with each scientist, not only describing the importance of his or her work, but putting it in the context of the development of physics as well as the state of the world during that scientist’s life. He describes how these scientists interacted, including the feuds amongst them. He also goes into the unique challenges each scientist encountered in growing up, trying to do their work, and in their later years.

I learned a great deal in reading this book. First, I was a bit dismayed by how much of my physics I have lost since school. While in the middle of graduate school I may have been more familiar with the science presented in this book, now, as I don’t use most of it on a daily basis, I am not as crisp with most of it as I would like. For that alone, this book is a nice primer or refresher of the basics of physics, covering all of the key fields.

As interesting are the lives of these men and women. Most of them were very unique personalities and most also went through a great deal in their pursuit of science. Many were very dedicated, almost obsessed, people. Many had some kind of mental issue, often in the form of depression. I was particularly captivated by the lives of Gibbs and Boltzmann, two of the most interesting but more unknown of the figures presented in this book.

I was struck, in reading this book, by how little most of us know of these great figures who have transformed our lives more than probably any other set of people. Not only did the people presented here radically transform our view of the world, from the development of Newtonian physics and the view of the world as a sophisticated clock to quantum mechanics and its revelation of the world as indeterminate and “fuzzy”, but their work led to the incredible technological advances science has afforded us. In my view, these people deserve greater recognition by society. They should be our celebrities, our rock stars.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is considering any kind of life in science, especially students in the midst of studying science. The amazing work of the people Cropper presents is an inspiration. The achievements of these physicists are also daunting as they seem so incredible, especially considering the state of science at the time they were made and the world conditions they were made in. The science that these people developed was amazing, and is difficult to understand even with the advantage of the further development and testing we now enjoy.

More treatments such as this book would be welcome for other fields. The format was great, with each chapter not overly long, but giving enough detail to give a basic understanding of each scientist. I would be interested in such an approach for historical figures, including say explorers of the US west or pirates, or mathematicians, etc.