Book Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

The Cover of An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield

The Cover of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield

I was actually given this book as a present by Harrison Ruess (who is the other half in Beyond the Sun); it was an extra special surprise because not only was it signed by the Colonel Chris Hadfield himself, but was also signed by Dave Hadfield the brother of Chris Hadfield. Harrison had spent a weekend with Dave Hadfield learning to fly old war planes in Ottawa, and so took the opportunity to get the book signed. Quite a great gift I must say.
I’m glad I received it as a gift, because I had been wanting to take a look at it. Clearly, Hadfield has become a Canadian icon (in more ways than one), and it felt pertinent to stay on top of the content he has been developing. However, I went into it with trepidation, almost to the point of aversion. It felt like the book was ‘riding the wave’ of his astronaut fame, and I feared it would be nothing more than a piece of superficial pop-culture writing. Turns out I don’t know Hadfield very well; when he does something, he doesn’t do it superficially.
The book is entitled An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, and walks a line somewhere between motivational and memoir. He describes his life, starting from when he was 9 years old walking outside near his cottage on the night of July 20, 1969 after Neil Armstrong had just set foot on the Moon; the moment Hadfield decided to be an astronaut. Using his road to becoming an astronaut (beginning on that night) as a tool, Hadfield describes the lessons he learned along the way, and, in encouraging spirit, describes how you can use his lessons to achieve your own goals. I was honestly motivated while reading. He makes some simple but strong connections between how he got to where he was, and how we can learn from it. I very much enjoyed that part of the book.
Somewhere about half way through the book, Hadfield begins describing is last trip into space, expedition 34/35; during the latter he was Commander of the International Space Station. This is where we as an interested public became much more aware of Hadfield; he was championed by the Canadian Space Agency, and he took to twitter like no astronaut had before. While I very much enjoyed this part of the book, it seemed to have switched gears a bit. Here Hadfield focused much more on describing in detail his preparedness and life aboard the ISS. It became a memoir more than anything. The lessons dried up a bit. Probably because it was the lessons that led him to those moments, and it was no longer time for lessons, it was time for living.
As a result, I feel it is two kinds of books in one: a memoir and a motivational guide. Both of which I appreciate.
My favourite part of the book was when Hadfield described his two space walks to install the CanadArm2 on the International Space Station back in 2001. His writing here was full of poetic wonder. Clearly, the experience had changed him, and it was palpable in his words. I enjoyed it very much.
A great read. If you’re interested in learning about the story of Chris Hadfield, definitely worth it.

Book Review: Treasure Island

The cover of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

The cover of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

This book was originally my younger brothers; I remember him reading it when we were kids and he liked it, and I always wanted to read it. Recently my parents have been cleaning out all the children’s rooms (mine, of course, was the last they got to because it was the most packed). They recently gave me many boxes of stuff that I needed to take with me back to my apartment, and one was a box of books with Treasure Island in it. The stars aligned, as they say, so it was time to read it.
Treasure Island is the infamous tale of pirates, treasure, open sea, and adventure. The book was written by Robert Louis Stevenson and published on 23rd of May 1883.
What very much struck me about this book were two things. The first was that almost every pirate book/movie/play I’ve seen in my life seems to have drawn on Treasure Island. Most notably, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has based much of its writing on the classic children’s tale. That’s not to say Pirates of the Caribbean stole the story, I think it quite the opposite actually. The movies were almost an homage to the original. The story focuses on pirates, the relationship of the ‘men of England’ with pirates, buried treasure, mutiny, adventure, big boats, and more. Even the ‘black spot’ makes an appearance. And perhaps the most similar quality of Treasure Island to the movies is Johnny Depp himself. The character he plays, Jack Sparrow, is very similar in personality to Long John Silver, the main pirate of Treasure Island. While Depp has certainly put his own (very unique) spin on the character, the essence is still there. Silver was forever flipping his allegiances from pirates to Englishmen (both in secret and not) depending on how his fortunes were fairing. Sparrow is very much the same way, turning his back on whomever and whenever in order to get the best possible outcome for himself.
The second thing that struck me about this book was that it was for children! It includes so many dark scenes and themes you’d not expect it to be for children.

It’s a classic piece of literature; I highly recommend reading it.

Book Review: Pale Blue Dot

Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan

Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan is the FIRST work by Sagan I’ve ever read. Sagan wrote many books both fiction and non-fiction, and I’ve yet to get to any of them. I suppose the closest I’ve come is seeing the movie Contact (1997), with Jodi Foster playing Eleanor Arroway (a great movie!).
Pale Blue Dot is a non-fiction, however, and is Sagan’s analysis of the role space will play in humanity’s future. It was written in 1994, and therefore one of his last publications, as Sagan tragically died in 1996.
The title of the book, Pale Blue Dot, was taken from the instantly infamous Pale Blue Dot photograph taken by Voyager 1 in 1990. The back story to that image is worth describing before actually talking about the book itself.

After the Voyager 1 space craft had completed its primary mission and sailed past the furthest planet (Pluto at the time), Carl Sagan requested that the Voyager team turn the cameras of the distant space probe back at the centre of the Solar System and take images, thereby taking a ‘family portrait‘ of Earth and its planetary siblings. It was only able to capture Jupiter, Earth, Venus, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune (Mercury, Mars, and Pluto were too hard to image). As important as the family portrait is, the image of Earth left most breathless. It was with prescience that Sagan pushed for the family portrait. I’m sure he didn’t know exactly what the images would behold, but he knew it would be important. Here is the image, can you see Earth?


[Roll mouse over to animate] The infamous image. Taken by Voyager 1, a space probe launched by a species inhabiting that tiny little mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

Can you see it? Can you see our tiny little Earth? Look harder. There, ‘suspended in a sunbeam,’ is a tiny pale blue dot. This is what Sagan had to say:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

It’s hard to imagine the immensity of space and time. Our brains are designed to think in distances that scale roughly with our ability to travel regularly, and in time that scales roughly with our lifespan. In looking at the above image, Sagan hoped you would see the fragility of our planet. Giving you a taste of the feeling that almost all astronauts get after seeing Earth from orbit. A realization of just how important it is for us to work together.
In his book, Pale Blue Dot, Sagan took this a step further, creating a short analysis of the importance of the human exploration of space. Over my years as an astronomer and science communicator, I’ve developed lots of good reasons and justifications for our continued foray into the unknown ocean of space. These reasons ranging from spin-off technology (seriously…a huge upside) to the intrinsic value of exploration and discovery. What struck me about Sagan’s book was that although he talked extensively about these as, in general, good reasons to explore space, they weren’t the BEST reason. Or rather, they weren’t enough. Not ENOUGH? What could possibly be better than the reasons I’ve already thought up and read about? Sagan goes on to argue that the single greatest reason to explore space is the survival of the species.
Although I had heard this argument before (from everyone to my colleagues/friends to Stephen Hawking), I had not given it as much thought as perhaps I should have. It is possible that we could destroy ourselves through nuclear war, yes, but that’s not the survival Sagan is talking about. He’s speaking about asteroids. There is a very non-zero chance that at some point in the future a rock big enough to destroy human life will collide with Earth. Exploring space and developing new technologies is the only way to search out and redirect incoming asteroids. Further, if incoming asteroids cannot be redirected it is of vital importance to the species that we have settled elsewhere.
A great book; it is worth every page. Highly recommend reading.
PostScript: These don’t have really much to do with the notes I made above, but were things I wanted to remember.
1. Lucretius Carus (99 BC to 55 BC). Sagan indicated in the book that Lucretius was one of the first to popularize science. Lucretius wrote a poem called De Rerum Natura (‘On the Nature of Things’), wherein he describes the physics of nature (or at least..that known at the time) through beautiful language and poetic imagery. Though I haven’t read it yet, this piece on the New Yorker looks like it covers Lucretius’ work very well.
2. Quote: ‘Travel is broadening.’ I wrote this quote down while reading the book (I wish I marked the page number). It struck me personally. I love traveling (I have a whole tag dedicated to it), and see traveling as a way to both learn and explore new places, but also reflect upon where I’ve been so far. Half of the learning you do while travelling is done when you return to your place of origin and look at it through eyes with more experience. Travel IS broadening. Well said Sagan.
3. Planetary Conjunction. Sometimes planets align in the sky, but rarely do all 5 naked eye planets meet. In Sagan’s book he indicates a date where this did happen: just before dawn on 4 March 1953 BC. This intrigued me. I wondered what it would look like. Happily, I happen to have access to a planetarium (though I could have used free software) and went and checked it out. After playing around a bit, I realized I had to put in the year 1952 BC. Either that means I wrote it down wrong (probable), Sagan wrote it down wrong (doubtful), or the issue was in how year zero was counted. Meh. Either way….it would be amazing to see all the planets in one little group like that.

Book Review: Romeo and Juliet

The cover of the graphic novel

The cover of the graphic novel

The classic Romeo and Juliet, originally written by William Shakespeare between 1591-1595, is a tragedy of feuding families wherein the innocent die. We all know it well, for most of us it was required reading in school. Learning of the well-to-do families of the Capulets and the Montagues who’s blood boil whenever they run in to each other.
I picked up Romeo and Juliet: The War at the San Diego Comic Con in 2013, and it is a re-imagining of that classic story except with one important difference: the Capulets are race of genetically enhanced super humans, while the Montagues are a group of powerful cyborgs made of artificial DNA. Yup….you heard me. The story was written by Max Work, and the artwork by Skan Srisuwan. While the writing was great, after all it closely followed the original Shakespeare story, the artwork was the winner. It was published as an oversized coffee table-style book, with massive full and dual page works showing the beauty and darkness of this futuristic Verona.
I really spent most of my time looking at the landscapes, the character art, the buildings, the shadows, the colours, the style. It is a massive work in the visual realm, and I highly recommend checking it out.
Further, the book was in partnership with Stan Lee! Though I’m not sure how much of a hand he had in it (I believe a bit of the re-imagining, but mostly on the production side), his influence is there.

Happy reading!

Book Review: Into Thin Air

Written by Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air tells the story of the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest

Written by Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air tells the story of the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest

With the opening of a new exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre, which includes talk of mountain climbing, I became interested in learning a bit more about Mount Everest. This interest was also sparked because a coworker of mine’s brother has climbed Mount Everest.
Into Thin Air is a recounting of the infamous climbing disaster that happened on Mount Everest in May of 1996; it is written by Jon Krakauer. He is a professional writer and mountaineering hobbyist who was sent on the Everest expedition by Outside magazine charged with the task of writing an article about his experience.
Before reading this book I knew very little about Everest. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you who climbed it first (I know now it was Hillary and Norgay in 1953)*. I would not have been able to tell you what country it was in (the summit actually straddles the boarder of Tibet and Nepal). Nor would I have been able to tell you that Everest is spiritually connected to the people who live in the area (the Sherpa People, among many others). What I could have told you before reading this book is, really, what most of us know: it’s the tallest mountain on Earth (at 8848m). That’s about it.
In reading the book I gained a new appreciation for high-altitude climbing and to Everest itself. While it speaks mostly about the 1996 disaster, Krakauer also covers a wide range of history of the mountain (* including the story that Mallory and Irvine may actually have summited the mountain in 1924, however they never returned so we’ll never know), and also covers how Everest is turning into a tourist destination.
While I’ve never seriously considered climbing Everest, I’ve long thought that it would be an amazing experience. After reading it I’ve realized just how fool hardy you must be to think that you can climb this mountain having no experience. The interesting thing about Everest is that it’s not necessarily technically difficult climbing. There are a few places that demand good climbing skills (like the Khumbu Icefall or the Hillary Step), but the rest of the mountain isn’t that tough. What’s tough is the environment. For weeks you are living at altitudes above 6km (base camp is at 5380m) which makes doing anything physical very difficult. The lack of air also makes it difficult to sleep, eat, and drink. The temperatures can change from extreme heat to extreme cold from sunrise to sunset. Further, the lack of air makes cognitive processes difficult, and therefore making decision making hard. Climbing Everest is not a technical challenge in mountain climbing, it’s a slow determined battle with the mountain and yourself. The even more interesting thing about it, is that it is entirely different from person to person. Some people’s physiology just seems to work in high altitude, making their trek to the summit relatively easier than others.
I would recommend this book. It’s a somber story, but one worth it’s time.

Science-y Side Note:
I’ve discovered that, while Everest is the highest mountain on Earth above sea level (seriously, passenger planes fly at the same height as Everest), it is not the furthest point from the centre of the Earth. Since Earth is an oblate spheroid, the equator is further away from the centre of the Earth than is the North/South pole. As a result, mountain climbing near the equator puts you closer to space, or further from the centre of the Earth. According to this article I read from NPR, it appears that Mount Chimborazo in the Andes (Ecuador) is about 2.5 km ‘higher’ than Everest. Remember, if you’re counting from sea level, Everest is still higher, but if you’re wondering where you need to go to be closest to the Moon, go to Mount Chimborazo. wicked.