Inquiring Minds

whatifAccording to tradition, curiosity is a bad thing. If you’re a cat, curiosity kills and if you’re Pandora your curiosity releases all the evils of humanity. A tad harsh if you ask me. Luckily curiosity has a lot of defenders, especially among those that are scientifically minded. It makes sense since questioning and experimentation are at the heart of the scientific method. As Mr. Einstein said: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

The best thing about curiosity is that it can take you to some really weird places. I’ve always liked those incredibly odd hypothetical questions curious people ask that seem to come out of left field. There is a problem if you like these types of questions though. Rarely does anyone take them seriously enough to try to answer them. Imagine my delight then, when I saw this title while perusing the new nonfiction books here at the library: What if?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe. Time to investigate.

Randall Munroe is the author of a popular webcomic, xkcd, and a former NASA roboticist. The fans of his webcomic are an inquisitive bunch that enjoy sending him all sorts of hypothetical questions that range from the intriguing to the downright scary. Monroe receives so many of these questions that he has set up a separate blog, what if?, to answer many of them and share them with the world. This book is a collection of some of the best of these questions and answers as well as lots of material not on the blog itself.

So how odd are the questions? Here are a few examples to give you an idea:

What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?

If you suddenly began rising steadily at 1 foot per second, how exactly would you die? Would you freeze or suffocate first? Or something else?

How much Force power can Yoda output?

Which U.S. state is actually flown over the most?

And my personal favorite:

What is the farthest one human being has ever been from every other living person? Were they lonely?

Each question is answered by Munroe using all the powers of reason, science, creativity and lots and lots of humor. As you might guess, the author sprinkles each answer with hilarious, and often informative, illustrations of the concepts he is trying to get across. Whatever you do, don’t skip reading the footnotes. They are the opposite of the usually arcane explanations found in academic journals and Munroe’s dry wit really shines through. His footnote for the sentence “The periodic table of the elements has seven rows” reads:

An eighth row may be added by the time you read this. And if you’re reading this in the year 2038, the periodic table has ten rows but all mention or discussion of it is banned by the robot overlords.

The thing that surprised me the most about this book was that in addition to it being quirky and really funny, I found myself learning a lot. While the questions are definitely outlandish, the concepts used to answer them are grounded in many diverse fields such as physics, mathematics, geology, astronomy and many others I usually find difficult to absorb. It’s amazing what you can learn about fluid dynamics when the author is trying to explain what would happen if a rainstorm dropped all of its precipitation in one giant raindrop.

So ignore all those archaic dire predictions and let your curiosity run rampant while reading What If? Inquiring minds want to know.

The Best Laid Plans

As you may recall, gentle reader, in June I devised a list of interesting non-fiction titles to guide my summer reading.  Well the good news is that I have been reading non-fiction. The bad news is that none of the titles I’ve chosen so far have been selected from that list. I had hoped to whittle away at my reading list, but sadly I’ve just added to it. Still, in the grand scheme of things, there are worse problems to have than a long list of interesting books to read.  Speaking of the grand scheme of things, the titles I have been reading this summer have had a philosophical bent for some reason. Perhaps sunshine makes a person question their place in the universe. Or it could be sunstroke. In any case, here are few more titles you might want to consider for your summer non-fiction reading.

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm
dyingeverydayWhile this work is definitely chock full of intriguing Roman Imperial history, the book’s central aim is trying to answer a seemingly intractable question: Just what kind of person was Seneca? On the one hand, thanks to many of his surviving philosophical works, we know that he was a dyed in the wool Stoic preaching the rigorous virtues of poverty, morality and the equality of all before fate. On the other we have his career as a shrewd politician and tutor to the young Emperor Nero; Seneca amassed a huge amount of wealth while delicately maneuvering through the deadly and incredibly amoral minefield of the imperial court. The author is a master at examining a tenant of stoicism that Seneca espoused and then contrasting it with the rather seedy political world he found himself in. Romm makes a convincing argument concerning Seneca’s moral character, but ultimately leaves it up to the reader to decide.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
theswerveThis one is a librarian’s, or book lover’s, dream. In the winter of 1417 the Italian humanist and former Papal secretary Poggio Braccilini was searching for forgotten manuscripts, a popular pastime in that era, in the monasteries of Southern Germany.  What he discovered was a fragile copy of an ancient poem titled On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura). This text, written by Lucretius and promoting the ideas of the philosopher Epicurus, was praised for the beauty of its language, but the ideas it conveyed were definitely not kosher for the time. A few examples: early atomic theory (discovered centuries before the scientific method was invented), the idea of an indifferent universe, and, worst of all, the concept that seeking pleasure was actually a good thing. Greenblatt’s book is not only an examination of the history of these ideas and their influence on our culture, but also the fascinating story of Poggio Braccilini and his time.

The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman
accidentaluniverseAll the essays in this short work are concerned with the impact of recent scientific discoveries on our view of the universe and our place in it. The author is both a theoretical physicist and a novelist which I found to be a great help when it came to his descriptions of some of the more complicated scientific concepts such as dark matter and the multiverse which he deftly puts in layman’s terms.  The essays are not simply explanations of scientific concepts. Instead, Lightman tries to integrate the scientific ideas with concepts from history, literature, and his own personal experiences.  This creates a balanced approach that is greatly appreciated when it comes to hot button topics like the often uneasy relationship between belief and the scientific method. This book is not a series of rants from a particular perspective, but rather a balanced and humane attempt to genuinely explore the ideas scientific discoveries are bringing to the fore.

A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning by Robert Zaretsky
alifeworthlivingWhile you may associate Albert Camus with past memories of disgruntled youths wearing all black and mumbling the first line from The Stranger (Mother died today. Or was it yesterday; I can’t be sure.) this blend of biography and criticism would argue that there is much more to the man and his ideas for living.  Zaretsky structures the biographical details around a series of concepts that Camus grappled with and that make up the chapter headings: Absurdity, Silence, Measure, Fidelity, Revolt.  What emerges is a set of ideas for understanding the world that are constantly open to exploration and interpretation, far from the static label (existentialism) often ascribed to them. While struggle is definitely a component, Camus finds that there is actually cause for hope and, gasp, happiness in this life:

It was the middle of winter, I finally realized that, within me, summer was inextinguishable.

So, a few suggestions for a little light non-fiction reading this summer. Perhaps I need to get out of the sun.

Astronomy Day


Have you ever wanted to look through a telescope? Then come and help us celebrate Astronomy Day! We will be hosting the Everett Astronomy Club on Saturday May 10, 2014 in the Main Library Children’s Activity Room. The Everett Astronomy Club will have telescopes set up that you can look through, as well as video and computer displays and amateur astronomers to answer your questions.

At the event, you can learn about light pollution, observing techniques, stars, galaxies, planets and meteorites. Weather permitting, they are going to try to set up a telescope outside for solar observing. We have lots of books about astronomy if you are interested in learning more either before or after the program!

astronomy books

The group will also have their telescopes set up at Harborview Park on Friday May 9th and Saturday May 10th from 6:00 PM until midnight (weather permitting) and you can gaze at the stars there as well.


Did You Know? (Rabies Edition)

You almost certainly can’t get rabies from a squirrel?

squirrelsanswerguideSquirrels can get rabies but there has never been a documented case of squirrel to human transmission.

I found this information on page 130 in the book Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide. I also never realized that prairie dogs are squirrels or that there are so many varieties of squirrels. You can see many of the varieties pictured in this book, or take a look at Squirrels of the West by Tamara Hartson. For younger kids, Squirrels: Welcome to the World of Animals by Diane Swanson will give them an inside the nest view of the daily lives of these cute little critters!

Rodents such as squirrels, rats, mice and prairie dogs have a genetic abnormality that  generally keeps them from getting rabies. In addition, squirrels usually aren’t around the other types of animals that carry rabies so their risk of exposure is very low.

genesanddnaAs scientists learn more and more about genetics and disease, they are understanding more about the role certain specific genes play in our health and familial hereditary. There are now many diseases that they can detect in your DNA. Genes & DNA by Richard Walker is a children’s book that is very well written and explains the basics of DNA, RNA, the double helix, and genes. It also gives examples that easily explain twins, disease, cloning and more.

rabidIt seems odd to think of a disease as deadly as rabies as being fascinating, but Rabid by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy (which gives the history of rabies and the attempts by different societies to treat and prevent this catastrophic illness through the ages) was very enlightening. The factual accounts make it that much more interesting.

There are several famous fictional stories of rabies as well. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neile Hurston and Old Yeller by Fred Gipson will touch your heartstrings, while Cujo by Stephen King is suspenseful and will keep you on the edge of your seat!

vaccineFortunately rabies is very preventable now because of the vaccines that our pets can be given, and the advanced treatments that someone can be given if suspected of being infected. Vaccine: the Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver by Arthur Allen is informative; it talks about the creation and uses of different vaccines throughout history, while telling us about the controversies and politics of immunizations at the same time .


The Quest

With the holiday season already far in the rear-view mirror, and the joys of summer still months off, I’m deep into winter escapist reading. This season I seem to be drawn to books about people on quests. Whether it’s for healing or wild edibles, each writer I’ve engaged with has taken me along on a fascinating journey of discovery. Here are three titles that will set your mind wandering:

The Mushroom Hunters cover imageThe Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of Secrets, Eccentrics, and the American Dream  (Langdon Cook)This title is a great fit for foodies, hikers, lovers of the Pacific Northwest, and those who appreciate investigative journalism that takes you deep inside the story. I enjoyed traveling off the beaten path, literally and sometimes legally, with Cook and his group of wild food foraging contacts. This is a good book to pick up if you’re the type of consumer who is interested in where your food comes from and why it costs what it does. I found it remarkable that items that you can find at any upscale market reach the selling table as a result of so many moving (and potentially unreliable) parts.

Fairyland cover imageFairyland: A Memoir of My Father  (Alysia Abbott). In some cases, quests can be taken without traveling at all. In Fairyland, author Alysia Abbott journeys back into her unorthodox childhood using her father’s prodigious journal archive. Abbott’s path twists and turns through the complexities of being raised by an openly gay single father at a time when the nation was only first awakening to the gay rights movement. Along the way the author pulls no punches describing her father as loving though aloof and herself as too self-involved to be able to see that he needed her as much as she needed him. Despite these and other hurdles, this small family managed to create a home in improbable places. While readers are often left with a sense of regret for opportunities lost, the overall tone of the memoir is one of grace and acceptance.

Wild cover imageWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Cheryl Strayed). Part of my own personal quest this January is to finish this book; I’m currently in the middle of it. Like Alysia Abbott, Cheryl Strayed had an unusual upbringing. After her abusive father exited the picture, her mother barely scraped by raising her small family. When she eventually remarried, the family moved to the wilds of northern Minnesota where they built their own tar-paper cabin and lived off the land. Though this lifestyle may sound difficult, the family was happy. Strayed goes on to marry shortly after high school and seems to have things on track until her mother suddenly dies of lung cancer. Unable to cope with her loss, Strayed spirals out of control and moves out on her own. In order to regain focus after her divorce, she picks up a guide to the Pacific Crest Trail and decides to set off on her own. One part travelogue for the curious traveler, and one part memoir for those working through their own loss, this book has a lot to offer to the questing reader.

Command and Control

commandandcontrolIs it possible to be nostalgic about the threat of global thermonuclear war? I found myself asking that rather odd question recently as I read Command and Control by Eric Schlosser. From the cover art to the alphabet soup of cold war acronyms (NORAD, SIOP, SAC, and who could forget MAD) I found Schlosser’s tome triggering memories that were an odd mix of fondness coupled with dread: classmates and adults freaking out over the TV movie The Day After, Sting’s concern about the Russians fondness for their children, basking in the electronic glow of irradiated cities while playing Missile Command at the video arcade.

As I kept reading, however, my feelings of nostalgia soon gave way to an amazement at how little I knew about the most destructive weapons ever created and the protocols, or lack thereof, in place to ensure that they only go off when they are supposed to. While Command and Control definitely contains a lot of fascinating Cold War history and strategy, its main focus is on how the U.S. government has attempted to safely maintain the many nuclear weapons on our soil and throughout the world since their creation in 1945. When you consider that just one ‘accident’ could wipe out a city, it gives you pause. Let’s just say that the facts are not conducive to worry-free days and restful sleep.

To increase the tension, Schlosser intertwines his general history of the safety of nuclear weapons with the story of a specific incident: the ominous sounding ‘Damascus Accident.’  On September 18th, 1980, during a routine maintenance check of a Titan II missile silo in rural Arkansas, a seemingly mundane thing happened: a socket from a socket wrench came loose. Unfortunately this socket careened off the missile and created a hole that began spewing out rocket fuel. The thought of the unfortunate maintenance worker who dropped the socket says it all: ‘Oh man, this is not good.’ The author then provides a minute by minute tension-filled account of events that is layered throughout the book. It is a clever writing device that not only keeps you reading, but puts a human face to the policy makers’ use of terms such as ‘acceptable risk.’

100sunsAnother hallmark of this work is the author’s balanced approach to the topic. It would have been easy, given the subject matter, to depict many of the historical characters as two-dimensional heroes or villains. Instead the author presents fully fleshed out individuals with complex motivations. Good examples of this are the many scientists and administrators who developed the atomic bomb during World War II.  As a scientific achievement, the creation of the atom bomb was truly amazing and Schlosser doesn’t shy away from that fact. You begin to see the project through the scientists’ eyes as they puzzle and experiment to bring a seemingly impossible thing, the splitting of the atom, to life. Conversely, you also share their horror when they realize the sheer destructive power of their achievement and what it means for the world.

Ultimately, this book is an exploration of a series of questions that should be easy to answer: What is the strategic purpose of possessing nuclear weapons? Are the ones we posses safe? Where are they located? Who actually controls them and what are their targets? Before reading this fascinating work, I would have assumed it was my ignorance and default generational apathy that led me to be clueless. Now I find it hard to disagree with the conclusion of the author that:

Secrecy is essential to the command and control of nuclear weapons. Their technology is the opposite of open-source software. The latest warhead designs can’t be freely shared on the Internet, improved through anonymous collaboration, and productively used without legal constraints. In the years since Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, the design specifications of American nuclear weapons have been “born secret.” They are not classified by government officials; they’re classified as soon as they exist. And intense secrecy has long surrounded the proposed uses and deployments of nuclear weapons. It is intended to keep valuable information away from America’s enemies. But an absence of public scrutiny has often made nuclear weapons more dangerous and more likely to cause a disaster.

Pleasant dreams.

Did You Know? (Migration Edition)

That Anna’s hummingbirds don’t migrate?


I found this information on page 12 of the book Hummingbirds: A Celebration of Nature’s Most Dazzling Creatures by Ben Sonder, where he writes about them being permanent residents of the Pacific Coast and southern Arizona. The Costa’s hummingbird of southern California and Arizona stay year round in their habitats as well. This book has a couple of great pictures of baby hummingbirds in the nest as well. I didn’t realize that they have such little beaks when they hatch, and are almost full size at about 3 weeks!

howtoattracthummingbirdsSo, since they are here year round, you are going to want to leave your hummingbird feeders out during the winter time. I have two sets that I can swap out as they freeze. The best recipe for homemade syrup is 1 cup sugar to 4 cups water. You don’t want to add more sugar than that as it makes them thirsty, and could possibly lead to liver damage. How to Attract Hummingbirds and Butterflies by John V. Dennis tells all about designing and maintaining a butterfly/hummingbird garden, with an extensive list of beneficial plants to use, as well as a gallery of hummingbirds and butterflies for easy recognition.

animalmigrationMany birds travel thousands of miles during their migrations. Boy, would my wings be tired! They tend to remember and stop at the same places year after year to feed and rest. Some birds travel hundreds of miles over water during their migrations, which they must do non-stop as there is nowhere for them to rest along the way. Atlas of Bird Migration edited by Jonathan Elphick and Animal Migration: Remarkable Journeys in the Wild by Ben Hoare show the migration routes and distances of many species of birds and other animals.

thejourneyMany mammals migrate too, but none so far as the gray whale. They travel 6,000 miles from the Arctic sea, before they become ice filled, to the warmer waters of California and Mexico where they give birth. They generally won’t eat much for 8 months, until they return to the Arctic. Cynthia Rylant’s The Journey: Stories of Migration is a very informative children’s book with nice artwork explaining the why’s and where’s of the migration of whales, butterflies, caribou, locusts, terns and silver eels.

destinationamericaWhen people “migrate” from colder areas to warmer areas during the winter we call them  snow birds, but when they come from one country to another, we call it immigration instead of migration. Destination America by Chuck Wills talks about people from all corners of the globe, and tells us why they immigrated to the United States, how they did it, and what they did once they were in America. I found this book fascinating and enjoyed looking at all the old photographs in it.