Wisdom of Sci-Fi: For the Benefit of Humanity

December 3, 2018

I’ve wanted to do a Wisdom of Sci-Fi post about Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice trilogy for some time now.  I absolutely love these books, and I’ve been telling every complete stranger I meet to go read them.  These books are full of so much wisdom.

But they’re not easy to quote.  For these Sci-Fi Wisdom posts, I really like to have a nice, pithy quote.  Something that really brings an important idea into focus.  That’s kind of hard to do with the Ancillary series.  I feel like you have to be immersed in the politics and culture and language of that universe before the truly poignant moments start to make sense.

However, I did find a quote in Ancillary Mercy (book three of the series) that does a decent job summing up what this series is all about:

How can there be any benefit at all?  She tells herself that, you know, that all of it is ultimately for the benefit of humanity, that everyone has their place, their part of the plan, and sometimes some individuals just have to suffer for that greater benefit. But it’s easy to tell yourself that, isn’t it, when you’re never the one on the receiving end.

The “she” referred to here is Anaander Mianaai, the ruler of the great and powerful space empire in which these stories are set.  Through the course of the series, we’ve either heard about or witnessed the many things Mianaai and her empire have done for the alleged benefit of humanity.

I guess you could say Mianaai has a “the ends justify the means” philosophy.  It’s easy to fall into that mode of thinking, even when you’re not the ruler of a vast space empire.  Who doesn’t want to fight for the benefit of their family, friends, co-workers, etc….  These are worthy causes.  The benefit of humanity is a worthy cause.  But when you accept that the ends justify the means, when you really start to believe that, then maybe all you’re doing is making excuses.  Maybe you’re just telling yourself you’re doing what’s right, even though you know you’re doing what’s wrong, and you’re desperately trying to ignore the full consequences of your actions.

Something to think about, at least, and to be on guard against in yourself and others.

P.S.: And seriously, if you haven’t read Ancillary Justice, I highly recommend it.  It’s the best book I’ve come across in many, many years.


Book Recommendation: Chasing New Horizons

August 21, 2018

If you’re a Pluto fan, this book is required reading.  Authors Alan Stern (who led the New Horizons Mission) and David Grinspoon tell us the story of why NASA neglected to send a space probe to Pluto for so long, and how an intrepid group of scientists fought for a Pluto mission and eventually won the day.

This is not just another book about science and technology.  Yes, a large portion of the book is about the technology it took to get to Pluto and the science we learned once the New Horizons space probe started sending back its data. But more importantly this is a David and Goliath story, with NASA’s bureaucracy cast in the roll of Goliath and the so-called “Pluto Underground” playing the roll of David.

I feel like the authors must have made a few enemies at NASA, and maybe a few enemies in Washington D.C. as well, for writing this book. This is an honest and forthright look at the kind of political and bureaucratic resistance New Horizons had to deal with.  As a space enthusiast, I keep hearing about other space missions that are struggling to get to the launch pad.  After reading Chasing New Horizons, I think I have a clearer idea of what causes these sorts of hold up.

And then there’s the elephant in the room: Pluto’s planet status.  The authors say very little about that, which in and of itself says a lot.

I’m guessing the authors made a few enemies at the International Astronomy Union as well.  They give us only a few pages about the I.A.U. vote to demote Pluto and why they believe that vote was wrong.

Overall, I highly recommend this book.  Five out of five stars, or maybe I should give it a rating of nine out of nine planets.


Time: Mission to Mars, A Book Review

October 31, 2016

A few years back, I picked up a special edition of Time Magazine that was all about Albert Einstein. It had a lot of new-to-me biographical information, and it did a surprisingly good job explaining Einstein’s physics. So when I saw Time’s “Mission to Mars: Our Journey Continues” on the magazine rack, I bought it.

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Quick Review

It was just okay.

Longer Review

It’s worth taking stock of the fact that there is so much Mars-related stuff going on, but I think the writers were trying to cram too much into a magazine (booklet?) that’s less than 100 pages.

They touched on the search for Martian life, the Curiosity rover, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, Scott Kelly’s Year in Space, the competition between SpaceX and Blue Origin, President Obama’s space policy, production of The Martian staring Matt Damon… they touched on all of this stuff, but they didn’t go into detail about any of it.

Any one of those topics could have filled a whole magazine by itself (in fact, Time did do a special edition on the Year in Space mission). If they had narrowed their focus just a little, I think they could have produced a much more interesting and informative publication.

Recommendation

If you don’t know much about Mars and the current state of space exploration, and you want to be better informed, this isn’t a bad place to start. For people like myself who are already huge space enthusiasts, the forward by Buzz Aldrin is worth a look. Otherwise, I’d say give this one a pass.


All These Worlds Are Yours: A Book Review

October 11, 2016

In his book All These Worlds Are Yours: The Scientific Search for Alien Life, author Jon Willis gives you $4 billion. How many authors do that? Okay, it’s imaginary money, and you’re only allowed to spend it on astrobiological research. But still… $4 billion, just for reading a book!

If you’re new to the subject of astrobiology, All These Worlds is an excellent introduction. It covers all the astrobiological hotspots of the Solar System and beyond, and unlike most books on this subject, it doesn’t gloss over the issue of money.

There are so many exciting possibilities, so many opportunities to try to find alien life. But realistically, you can only afford one or maybe two missions on your $4 billion budget. So you’ll have to pick and choose. You’ll have to make some educated guesses about where to look.

Do you want to gamble everything on Mars, or would you rather spend your money on Titan or Europa? Or do you want to build a space telescope and go hunting for exoplanets? Or donate all your money to SETI? Willis lays out the pros and cons of all your best options.

My only complaint about this book is that Enceladus (a moon of Saturn) didn’t get its own chapter. Instead, there’s a chapter on Europa and Enceladus, which was really a chapter about Europa with a few pages on Enceladus at the end.

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I agree, Enceladus. On the other hand, Enceladus is sort of like Europa’s mini-me. So while I disagree with the decision to lump the two together, I do understand it.

In summary, I’d highly recommend this book to anyone interested in space exploration, and especially to those who are new or relatively knew to the subject of astrobiology. Minimal prior scientific knowledge is required, although some basic familiarity with the planets of the Solar System would help.

P.S.: How would you spend your $4 billion? I’d spend mine on a mission to Europa, paying special attention to the weird reddish-brown material found in Europa’s lineae and maculae.


I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That — A Book Review

August 29, 2016

Today I thought I’d try doing a book review. Not really my thing, but since I read a lot of sciency books anyway, why not blog about them? I’m going to start with a book called I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That by Ben Goldacre.

I picked this book up based solely on the title. It expresses bluntly exactly how I feel about the portrayal of science in the popular press and in popular culture in general.

The book is actually a collection of articles, most of which originally appeared in the Guardian. Goldachre tackles news reports, advertisements, and quack scientists in an effort to show how scientific data get oversimplified or misinterpreted by the media and others. As a result, real science morphs into pseudoscience, and pseudoscience masquerades as real science.

A lot of the book seems to confirm a thought that I’ve had before (and written about before): be wary of purported scientists who won’t show their methods or data. Science is about sharing as much as possible, not protecting your secret recipes for cancer “cures” or whatever.

There was one common crime against science that I was not previously aware of: misleading press releases. Even reputable institutions conducting legitimate research have P.R. departments, and these P.R. departments will occasionally (or perhaps not so occasionally) overhype scientific discoveries in their press releases.

I intend to be far more skeptical of press releases in the future. I also intend to pick up more of Goldachre’s books: Bad Science and Bad Pharma. Even though these books are outside my primary field of interest (planetary science), I’ve come to believe that the best way to understand how science does work (or at least should work) is to examine science gone wrong.