Tuesday, January 1, 2019

My Top Books of 2018

2018 was a bad year for blogging, but another good year for reading. Like last year I managed to read 60 books, though not quite as many pages as I hit in 2017.

I use Goodreads to keep track of what I've read, so if you are interested here's the full list of what I read in 2018. My "best books of the year" are drawn from titles that I read that also came out this year. I read a lot of science fiction and science books, so my list comes from a pretty narrow spectrum of books.

In the realm of science books my top two were We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe by cartoonist Jorge Cham and physicist Daniel Whiteson. It's a very friendly look at the big mysteries of modern science and I enjoyed the heck out of it.  Even better though is Alan Stern and David Grinspoon's Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto. It is the inspiring story of how the New Horizons mission was created, funded, cancelled, re-born and eventually sent for its 2015 flyby of Pluto, giving us our only look at the most famous of dwarf planets.

By the way, New Horizons just completed a successful flyby of another and more distant object, but as of this writing the data is only now being returned to Earth.

I also very much enjoyed Adam Frank's Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth.

Another non-fiction book that I very much enjoyed was Michael Benson's Space Odyssey, which looks at the making of the classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey

There were so many good science fiction books out in 2018. John Scalzi gave us two (Head On and The Consuming Fire). Becky Chambers Record of a Spaceborn Few was very enjoyable, but my favorites were How to Stop Time by Matt Haig and Mary Robinette Kowal's two Lady Astronaut books: The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky.

How to Stop Time is wonderful, quotable and profound, while MRK's two Lady Astronaut books are adventurous, tragic, inspiring and important. They tackle head on issues of inclusion, race and discrimination. I highly recommend them.

2019 should be another good year for reading. I got a nice pile of books for Christmas that is getting me off to a good start.

Monday, January 1, 2018

My Top Books of 2017

2017 wasn't much of a good year for blogging, but I did read a lot of books--60, which is the most I have ever read as an adult. My trend has been going upward as I read 46 books in 2016, 24 the year before and just 18 in 2014.

I use Goodreads to keep track of what I've read and to collect the titles of the books that I want to read. For anyone who might care, here is the full list of what I read this year.

As I look to my "best books of the year" I'm going to include titles from 2016 as well. My reading tastes tend to focus primarily on science fiction, science (including history of science), and a bit of history and politics too.

In Science Fiction, Artemis by Andy Weir and The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi were both good and fun books, but I especially liked All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai and Death's End (the third and final book in the series begun with The Three Body Problem) by Liu Cixin. Liu Cixin always takes me to unexpected places. Also of note (but published in 2014, so it's a bit "old" to be considered here) was Becky Chambers The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet which I really loved. It's sequel was good too, but not as awesome.
In the realm of non-fiction I read two astronaut biographies: Mike Massimino's Spaceman and Leland Melvin's Chasing Space. I enjoyed both of them, but I much preferred Spaceman, though Leland Melvin's book is a good read.

I really enjoyed Al Franken's Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, but I suspect the recent sexual harassment charges made against him are going to kill both the paperback edition of the book and his political career. 

Other good science titles (some of which are a bit historical) are Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures which was made into a wonderful motion picture. The film got essentially every historical fact wrong, but appropriately gets the message right. Paul Bogard's The Ground Beneath Us looks at just what it says-the ground, focusing on our essentially ignored relationship with it. It is a book that should be getting more attention than I think it has gotten as it highlights some of the big environmental problems that are coming (nope, it's not just global warming).

I read six books on topics related to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and probably to the best of them was a biography: Sarah Scoles's Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
I also enjoyed The Pope of Physics, a look a the life of physicist Enrico Fermi by Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin, but Bonnie Burratti's Worlds Fantastic, Worlds Familiar was another standout as it shows off many interesting planets and moons of our solar system, while also giving a personal look at how science is done as these places are explored.

I like to end these posts with a look at my to-be-read pile of books. Here's my pile from a year ago:
I read all of the books on the pile except for The Big Book of Science Fiction.  That one continues to task me, but I did read a few of the stories in it. Perhaps I'll get it done in 2018. Aside from The Big Book of Science Fiction, here's my to-be-read pile as it stands now:
I'm currently reading Friends Divided at left. The pile is pretty evenly split with four science fiction novels and five non-fiction science books. With these to start with 2018 should be a good year for reading.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Booms II

This week we celebrated Earth Science Day at Palomar College and I again helped out with the simulated volcanic explosion demos. Here's are the slow-motion videos that I shot of our three volcanic explosions.

Yeah, I rotated my phone during the explosion. Sorry about that.

 Explosion # 2. Check out the deformation in the trash barrel as it blows.

The third one I shot vertically, in an attempt to capture the ping-pong ball action.

Here's my post showing similar explosions from last year. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

27 1/2 Songs For Your Solar Eclipse Playlist

The August 21st solar eclipse will soon be here and I am preparing for it in a variety of ways. My camera and eye protection (including solar binoculars) are all ready and I'm just finishing up on one final thing, my somewhat eccentric music playlist to get ready for the eclipse.

Since it has been far too long since I've made a blog post, I thought I'd post it here, along with a few comments for each song.

1) We start off with Heaven and Hell by Vangelis. This was the theme music for Carl Sagan's classic TV series Cosmos. It always makes me think of voyaging through space and time.

2) Solar eclipses are all about an alignment of the Sun and Moon and clear weather is essential to see and enjoy the experience. On the day of the eclipse I'll be getting an early start and Bruce Springsteen's Waitin' on a Sunny Day is a good title for what I'm hoping to have.

3) I follow that up with Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles:

4) While the eclipse is a pretty unique event, I'm keeping the Sun and clear skies theme going, so I follow it up with Another Day of Sun from the La La Land soundtrack:

5) That brings me back to The Beatles and Good Day Sunshine, as the song captures exactly the kind of emotions I hope to have during the eclipse:

6) One more from The Beatles, I'll Follow the Sun:

7) Here's the first of two Carly Simon songs (I'll bet you can guess the other one), Touched by the Sun:

8) Sticking with some more pre-eclipse references to the Sun, next up is Elton John's Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me:

9) Eclipses are not just about the Sun. The Moon ultimately plays a central role in blocking the Sun's rays, an event the has for centuries been steeped in fear and superstition. In spite of its reference to "nasty weather," Bad Moon Rising by Credence Clearwater Revival makes my list:

10) Jonothon Coulton's Always the Moon is a beautiful creation myth song about love and the Moon:

11) Keeping the 'Moon' theme going, the next piece is an instrumental one, William Ackerman's Conferring With the Moon:

12) Solar eclipses can only occur when the Moon is in its "new" phase. This year's solar eclipse happens on a Monday, so Duran Duran's New Moon on Monday is a natural choice:

13) Another 'new moon' song, New Blue Moon by the Traveling Wilburys:

14) Moving toward the actual eclipse,and the music to celebrate it, we come to the grandmother of eclipse songs, Carly Simon's You're So Vain:

15) It gets dark during a total solar eclipse and in the past many people wondered if the Sun really was going away, so Neil Diamond's The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore is an appropriate choice:

16) Bill Withers wonderful Ain't No Sunshine keeps that idea going:

17) I follow that up with Invisible Sun by The Police:

18) Invisible Sun is a dark song, but total solar eclipses should be celebrated, so I begin the celebration with Moondance by Van Morrison:

19) and follow that up with another song by Bruce Springsteen, Dancing in the Dark:

20) There wont be any light from the Moon during the eclipse, but this still works for me, Dancing in the Moonlight by King Harvest:


21) That's followed up by a song that's actually about stargazing, Tom Petty's The Dark of the Sun:

22) I'm not sure if this is a great fit or not, but next up is Black Hole Sun by Soundgarden:

23) Love it or hate it, Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart has to be played at least one for the solar eclipse, doesn't it?

23 1/2) Actually, I prefer this version of Total Eclipse of the Heart, as it is actually about eclipses (and since it is the same song, it's the 1/2 song in the title of this post):

24) Another almost required choice, Pink Floyd's Eclipse from their Dark Side of the Moon album:

25) Okay, this is what used to be called a "deep cut." The Moon's A Window to Heaven from the soundtrack to Star Trek V. Yes, really.

26) If all goes well with your eclipse viewing at the end of the event you'll be overjoyed. I am hoping that Katrina & The Waves' Walking on Sunshine accurately describes how I'll be feeling at the end of the solar eclipse:

27) After the solar eclipse is over the Moon will leave it's new phase and soon return as a thin sliver in the evening skies, so I'll end this with KT Tunstall's Crescent Moon:

There are lots of other songs about the Sun and Moon that I could have included and maybe I missed some obvious choices, but

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Star Trek: And the Children Shall Lead

It has been quite a while since I've done any blogging, but today I am back to look at another episode of classic Star Trek:
And The Children Shall Lead is not a good episode of Trek. It's the kind of episode that gives season three of TOS Trek a bad name. It's bad enough that I watched it two months ago and am only now able to bring myself to write about it. Really (okay, I've been busy too).
If you loved the kids in the first season episode Miri (I didn't), then you were probably thinking Trek was overdue for another kid-heavy episode. So here it is.

In this one we get kids playing Ring Around the Rosie, Kirk & the kids eating ice cream, and more! It begins with the Enterprise, responding to a distress call from the planet Triacus, finds that all of the adults in the "scientific colonoy" there are dead, but their children are strangely unaffected. They show no remorse or even awareness of their parents' deaths. McCoy is worried that the children could receive permanent psychological damage if the situation isn't handled well.
The children are brought aboard the Enterprise where we soon learn that they are under the influence of the "friendly angel," who instructs them to seize control of the starship and send it on to Marcus 12 where they will make more friends.
They take over, exerting their control over the Enterprise crew by shaking their fists. Maybe they do that because the friendly angel can't - he's got no arms!

It takes Kirk and Spock a while to figure out what is going on. Spock, as usual, has done his homework explaining:
According to the legend, Triacus was the seat of a band of marauders who made constant war throughout the system of Epsilon Indi. After many centuries, the destroyers were themselves destroyed by those they had preyed upon... like so many legends, this one too has a frightening ending. It warns that the evil is awaiting a catalyst to set it again into motion and send it marauding across the galaxy.
Hmmm... maybe that's happening here.

Under the influence of the children the Enterprise breaks orbit before Kirk even realizes it, which was very unfortunate for these two Red Shirts. Instead of being beamed down to the planet they were beamed into empty space. Doesn't anyone scan the beam-down site first?
After Kirk figures out what is going on, he tries to get Sulu to change course, but the helmsman thinks he's navigating the Enterprise through a bunch of giant space swords: "Captain, stay away from the controls! If you touch them, we'll be destroyed."

Kirk soon finds that virtually the entire crew, except for Spock, has turned against him.

Curiously, Spock then begins to refer to the being controlling the children not as an alien or an entity, but as evil. That's unusual for Spock, but then this isn't a well written episode.
Kirk wonders why Gorgan has no arms.
Finally, Kirk has had enough and wants his ship back so he asks Spock to "playback the chant the children sang to summon up the Gorgan." I'm not sure where or when they recorded the children doing this, why they didn't step in when they did, or when they knew that Goran was the name of the being, but whatever.

After some tough talk from the Gorgan they display a recording showing the children playing with their parents and then shots of their parents dead on Triacus
It ends with Kirk calling Gorgan out and saying to the children "Look at him. Without you children, he's nothing. The evil remains within him... Look how ugly he really is. Look at him and don't be afraid." Yes, because ugliness must be evil and .... actually I don't really understand the ending at all. It all just sort of happens and doesn't make any sense. The kids cry, Gorgan leaves and all is well again if you ignore the fact that the kids helped to murder their parents.
Anyway, McCoy is happy because the kids are crying and can now be helped. By the end of the episode the audience is crying too because they had to sit through it all, but then this is third season Trek, so get used to it.

Composer George Duning wrote the music for the episode. He previously wrote music for Metamorphosis and Return to Tomorrow. His music for this episode works, but unlike a lot of Trek music it isn't something that I enjoy listening to.

The next episode for me is the classic that people love to bash as possibly the worst ever episode of Star Trek: Spock's Brain

Friday, December 30, 2016

My Top Books of 2016

2016 gave me more time to read than I have had in quite a while. I managed to read 46 books, which far exceeded the 24 books I read in 2015 and the 18 I read in 2014.

As I've done in the past, here are my thoughts on some of what I read this year, focusing mostly on books published in the last few years.

I teach astronomy, so it is no surprise that I like books about astronomy and space exploration.  I read a lot of them this year. Back in March I blogged about two of them: Infinity Beckoned by Jay Gallentine and The New Cosmos by David Eicher, but I also very much enjoyed Thomas Levenson's The Hunt for Vulcan, Marcia Bartusiak's Black Hole* and Tyler Nordgren's Sun, Moon, Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses, from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets.
On the space exploration front there's Into the Black, Roland White's wonderful history of the Space Shuttle program's origins and first two flights. Also, while Hidden Figures is getting a lot of attention right now (they've made a movie of it), Nathalia Holt's Rise of the Rocket Girls also tells the story of human woman 'computers'. Rocket Girls is an enjoyable and informative history of the women computers at JPL, while Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures profiles the black women computers who worked on NASA's human spaceflight program. Hidden Figures is on my to-read pile (see below), I just haven't read it yet.

In science fiction, I recently finished Babylon's Ashes, the sixth book in The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey. It's a great series of "space opera" novels that's also become a series on SyFy that's worth watching. I also enjoyed Solar Express by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. It tells the tale of an alien artifact that makes way through the solar system, the astronomer that discovered it, and someone that gets sent to visit it.

I bought Liu Cixin's The Three Body Problem mostly because of its interesting title (Okay, the fact that it won the 2015 Hugo Award for best novel may have had something to do with it too). It was a fantastic read. When I started it I didn't realize that it was the first of three books. The second book, The Dark Forest was just as amazing. I'll soon be starting Death's End, the third book in series. I can't wait.
Somewhat related to science fiction are some other books I should mention. William Shatner's Leonard, a biography of Leonard Nimoy. It was far more moving than I expected and well worth reading for any one who is a fan of Star Trek and Nimoy's work. Speaking of Star Trek, I also very much enjoyed both volumes of The Fifty Year Mission by Mark Altman and Edward Gross. They are oral histories that look at the 50 years of Star Trek (surprise!). The first book covers the original series and the movies made by that cast, while the second book looks at The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise and the JJ Abrams Trek movies. I preferred the second book, as it had much more in it that I had never heard of, but both were good reads.

The book that I perhaps enjoyed the most was an unexpected choice for me. It is one that I picked up on on a whim that then sat in my to-read pile. It was there at the end of both 2014 and 2015. This year I decided that I should really give it a try and I'm glad I did.

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides was riveting. The title really says it all, it really was a grand and terrible expedition. Hampton Sides did a wonderful job in telling the tragic tale of this doomed expedition that set sail for the arctic in the late 1870s. It is a gripping history that I highly recommend.

Finally, as I like to do, here is a photo of my to-read pile as we head into 2017. I've actually already started The Big Book Of Science Fiction, but it is such a big book of short stories that I am only occasionally reading that it might very well be somewhere in the pile next year. Hopefully 2017 will bring even more good books to read.

*The full title is Black Hole: How an Idea Abandoned by Newtonians, Hated by Einstein, and Gambled On by Hawking Became Loved, but that's just too long to put into a sentence with other book titles that also have really long titles, such as this one: The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe. I don't know about you, but we seem to be living in a period of book title inflation.

Star Trek: The Enterprise Incident

It has been a very busy fall for me and as a result my blogging has come to a standstill. I'm on winter break now and back in action. Before the year is done I should be posting my thoughts on the books I read in 2016, but now its time to visit another episode of the original series of Star Trek.

The Enterprise Incident is considered by many to be the best episode of Trek's otherwise disappointing third season and for good reason, as it is a standout.

The premise is that Kirk and Spock are acting under secret orders to try to steal a Romulan cloaking device. Kirk violates treaty by bringing the Enterprise into the Romulan Neutral Zone and quickly finds that his starship is surrounded by Romulan ships that suddenly appeared out of nowhere.

On the bridge, Kirk asks Spock about what happened:
Kirk: "Mister Spock, you said you had a theory on why your sensors didn't pick up the new ships until they were upon us."
Spock: "I believe the Romulans have developed a cloaking device which renders our tracking sensors useless."
Kirk: "If so, Romulans could attack in Federation territory before we knew they were there, before a vessel or planet could get even begin to get their defenses up."
This of course should be no surprise to anyone, as the Romulans already had a cloaking device in season one's Balance of Terror. Yes, most episodes from this era of Trek don't refer to any of the previous episodes, but this one really should have done so.
Kirk and Spock beam over to one of the Romulan ships and find that the Romulan fleet is commanded by a woman (Joanne Linville), which was wonderfully progressive for the time. Even more so when you consider that there was no comment about it.

The Romulan commander attempts to find out what the Enterprise is doing in their space and Spock describes it as being all Kirk's fault.
Spock: The strain of command has worn heavily upon him. He's not been himself for several weeks.
Kirk: That's a lie!
Spock: As you can see, Captain Kirk is a highly sensitive and emotional person. I believe he has lost the capacity for rational decision.

Kirk: Shut up, Spock!
Spock: I'm betraying no secrets. The commander's suspicion that Starfleet ordered the Enterprise into the Neutral Zone is unacceptable. Our rapid capture demonstrates its foolhardiness.

Kirk: You filthy liar!
Spock: I am speaking the truth for the benefit of the Enterprise and the Federation. I say now and for the record, that Captain Kirk ordered the Enterprise across the Neutral Zone on his own initiative and his craving for glory.
Kirk: I'll kill you, you filthy traitor! I'll kill you! I'll kill you!
Spock: He is not sane.
A seemingly despondent and exhausted Kirk is incarcerated and McCoy is brought over treat him.
When Spock enters his cell, Kirk attacks him and Spock responds in kind:
Spock: I was unprepared for his attack. I instinctively used the Vulcan Death Grip.
McCoy: Your instincts are still good, Mister Spock. The captain is dead.
Yes, Kirk is dead. Only he's not. There's no such thing as a Vulcan Death Grip and it's all part of the plan (though McCoy didn't know it at the time). That way the blame can be put on Kirk and not the Federation.
Scotty: "You look like the Devil himself."


To distract her from their real mission Spock romances the Romulan commander (where they drink Tang together, because that's what you drink in space) as "Romulan" Kirk beams aboard in an attempt to steal the cloaking device.

Naturally, Kirk find and steals the cloaking device, which looks like a cross between Nomad and Sargon's glowing receptacle. He beams back with it and tells Scotty that he's got just fifteen minutes (!) for him to successfully integrate this piece of alien technology into the Enterprise's systems. 15! Yeah, that's crazy. This is how Scotty got his reputation as a miracle worker.

Naturally, it worked. They manage to beam Spock back aboard (complete with the Romulan commander), saving him from execution and successfully make their escape. It's all exciting and fun.

Alexander Courage wrote about 38 minutes of music for the episode with themes for the dramatic action, Spock's romantic encounters with the Romulan commander and more.

The Enterprise Incident is top-notch Trek and easily the best episode of season three. Next up, one of the worst: And the Children Shall Lead.