A large part of being a scientist involves reading, constantly. However, many things scientists read in journal articles can be understood by maybe a handful of people in the world, and don’t have much impact on broader society for many years after their publication. I always feel awkward in conversations with non-scientists when the topic of conversation turns to literature. Despite reading all the time, there’s a little less excitement in the air when I talk about a recent article from the Bergmann, Myers, or Martindale labs with my non-scientist friends. Furthermore, while I was keeping pace with the scientific literature, I rarely found time to read a novel, a biography, a poem, or broadly, anything that would be found in a liberal arts college dorm. Part of my sabbatical plan is to start catching up on the literature I should have read over the past ten years, so here’s a little blurb on what I knocked down in September.
The Martian, by Andy Weir
I can’t quite put my finger on what makes The Martian a spectacular read, but indeed it was fantastic. There are many ways my cross-country trek felt like Mark Watney’s adventure, including eating lots of potatoes, having a lot of solo time driving and making camp, and having your friends know more precisely where you are on the planet than I did myself (thanks to a SPOT beacon). There were lots of things that tried to kill me, too, like bears, storms, and ticks. I think what made this book such a great read was the portrayal of an astronaut as a regular human. Most people think of astronauts as super-people, which in a way they are. But, beneath the jumpsuited ‘thumbs-ups’ they have perfected in astronaut school, all the astronauts I’ve met have been down to earth human beings, too. Watney’s character is written perfectly, as a human, not a superhero. Judging by the movie reviews out this week Matt Damon has done a reasonably good job of conveying this trait on the silver screen. If you haven’t seen the movie, pick up the book first! It’s a great read.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I’m not sure how I managed to get through high school in Canada without any exposure to Atwood, but I felt it was time to pick up her best known book. Set in future dystopian Harvard Square, I felt an odd connection with the main character for reasons unintended by the author. While The Handmaid’s Tale won the first Clarke award for science fiction, it’s most certainly not a classic sci-fi novel. Indeed, Atwood has stressed that it is a piece of “speculative fiction” which does not require any leaps in human technology, or intergalactic visitors to be logically consistent. Atwood’s style contrasted with Weir’s in a way that made it difficult to jump between the two books. The Handmaid’s Tale is described in such great detail, as opposed to The Martian which left a little more to the imagination. The narrative laid out by Atwood placed me right back the heart of Cambridge, with obvious references to familiar landmarks, and placed some difficult imagery on those landmarks at times. It was hard to remember that this book was published in 1985, as it felt like it could have been published much more recently, given the attention paid to environmental and social issues which are far ahead of their time. If you have missed this book along the way, I’d certainly recommend picking it up. I should also note that this book has been surrounded in controversy since its publication, usually by overprotective parents at PTA meetings, however Game of Thrones makes The Handmaid’s Tale seem rather tame by comparison.
Superfreakonomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt
Meh. That’s how I felt when I finished this one. Maybe I’d set the bar too high from the first Freakonomics book being quite good, but despite being a quick read, with some interesting stories, I didn’t really feel that my life changed by reading this one. The pace is quick, I finished it in two post-hike evenings by the campfire, and the language was probably oversimplified by the journalistic background of Dubner. Anyway, I received this book for free, I’ll give it away again soon in a Little Free Library somewhere in Calgary. Pick it up if you want a light read that makes you think a bit, but don’t take the authors’ words as the final say on any of their investigations.
Should we Eat Meat? by Vaclav Smil
Vaclav Smil is my favorite author for many reasons. His books are dense, not particularly well written, and of subject matter uninteresting to most non-academic humans, but damn they’re well researched, and good research allows for interesting conclusions. In this book, Smil takes on the notion of modern carnivory in a way only he can: data-rich, speculation-absent, with a strong historical background. Humans evolved eating meat. This much is clear. Our gut has evolved to process vegetables, too, but meat consumption has allowed humanity to expand its range, forced cooperation among individuals and the development of strategy, provided the foundation for a specialized economy, and perhaps the energy and protein obtained from meat allowed us our large brain size that differentiates ourselves from other animals. From a historical perspective, it is very clear that humans have a long tradition of meat consumption. However, Smil does not shy away from the downsides of the meat-industrial complex that dominates in the western world, and increasingly in the developing world. There are obvious problems with industrial-scale meat production that could be fixed quickly if the political climate required such change. If you feel strongly about meat, either for or against, you will probably be offended by something in this book. That’s my favorite part about reading Smil – he’s a slave to data, not to ideology. Those with strong feelings about an issue tend to ignore the data when it’s not in their favor, and Smil’s dispassionate approach may leave you feeling that your cause was not well represented. That’s a good thing. If you get a chance to see Smil in a public lecture, definitely make an effort to attend. He’s sarcastic, and very intelligent, with a cynical dark side to his humor. Should we Eat Meat? lives up to that reputation, and while I can’t recommend this book to everyone, I absolutely loved it.
ps – I’m back in Calgary now, getting settled, and adjusted to Canada again. I’ve never heard so many hoser accents before, but my ear picks up on it so quickly now. I’ll be off in the Canadian Rockies for the next couple weeks, trying to get some backcountry camping in before the snow flies. More adventures to come, soon!
pps – I’d love suggestions for good reads. Leave me a note in the comments!