At the Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program – Milton O. Thompson

The X-15 program ran from 1959 to 1968, with three aircraft exploring high altitude and high-speed flight. The research program contributed a wide range of scientific advances that were instrumental in the development of the Space Shuttle and fly by wire control technology, among other things. The work of flying the X-15 was dangerous and exacting, leading to the death of one pilot and involving numerous emergencies. It remains to this date by far the fastest and highest-flying winged aircraft in history.

Mr. Thompson’s account is matter-of-fact, with few embellishments. (The author does note that he is not a writer.) While it retains a certain flatness of style throughout, the book is nonetheless fascinating for the aviation buff. These men, including a young Neil Armstrong, were exploring the unknown fringes of the flight envelope in an unforgiving aircraft, frequently referred to in the book as “The Bull”. While sometimes the text veers into catalogues of flights with their respective purposes, it is peppered with interesting and funny anecdotes, as well as edge-of-your-seat accounts of in-flight emergencies.

How Apollo Flew to the Moon – W. David Wood

A technical overview of the Apollo program, from hardware to missions, set at a level suitable for the interested layman. The author wisely starts discussions from first principles, from a basic explanation of orbits to the intricacies of stellar navigation.

The book is extremely well researched and clearly written. Mr. Wood has sprinkled the text with actual radio chatter and interviews with the protagonists. This elevates the chapters from a dry, textbook style discussion into something far more real.

A must read for any space program enthusiast.

The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss – Jason Fung

Dr. Jason Fung is a specialist in Type 2 Diabetes and obesity. The Obesity Code goes back to first principles in order to explain why people become obese, and what they can do about it.

I liked the fact that almost every bold statement in the book, of which there are many, was thoroughly researched and supported by actual data. This is not a pop-science guide with only vague foundations that “seem to make sense”. If the data doesn’t fit, Dr. Fung examines why it doesn’t, and which hypothesis would actually fit. This is tome of solid science targeted at the layman.

What I found most interesting was how complex the mechanisms controlling weight gain and loss are. I had for a long time believed strongly that input vs. output was the only answer. It seems I was wrong, or at least only partially correct. It turns out that most perceived wisdom about weight is, if not incorrect, then at least incomplete, especially if individual factors are taken in isolation. And that is perhaps the key message. You cannot take a single reaction and single it out. A holistic approach is needed.

Now to do some testing on myself.

Ignition!: An informal history of liquid rocket propellants – John D. Clark

Ignition was written by one of the scientists working on rocket propellants from the 1940s to the 1970s. Back when there was a Cold War on, meaning missiles of various varieties, and a Space Race on, meaning rockets of various varieties.

The text stretched my high school chemistry to its breaking point, and then broke it. While I won’t pretend to understand much of the actual science, I was drawn in by Dr. Clark’s bone-dry prose and hilariously understated anecdotes, as well as his humourously cynical view of government research projects. When asked how to handle a certain unstable explosive compound, he writes “I recommend a good pair of running shoes”. The period described was a golden age for propellant research, and government agencies were throwing around silly money to projects with little or no chance of success, in the hope that something would stick. In that way it is very much a sideline commentary on a time where mankind went from Earthbound to Spacebound; a time when science and technology were the answer. Just a bit more research and we can crack just about anything.

The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space – Eugene Cernan with Don Davis

On 14 December, 1973, Gene Cernan re-entered the Lunar Module Challenger after the third and final moonwalk of Apollo 17, the final Apollo Moon Mission. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s aspirations, first as a US Navy Pilot, then as an Astronaut. This is his story, told in his own words.

Mr. Cernan comes across as a straight talker with a rock-solid work ethic; a conservative in the traditional sense. When he wrote this memoir, he gave the impression of being long past any point where he needed to impress anyone.  His account is frank and does not mince words about anyone, including himself. While Cernan will never be remembered like Neil Armstrong, Apollo 17 had much more value from a scientific standpoint. It had the longest stay on the surface, the longest space walks, the longest distance traversed, the heaviest load of samples and the speed record for the lunar rover (unofficial).

A great book for any fan of the space race, or even flying in general.

In a sad coincidence, Mr. Cernan passed away on 16 January of this year, while I was in the middle of reading his book.

The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe – Thomas Levenson

TheHuntforVulcanIn the centuries following Sir Isaac Newton’s publication of the Law of Gravity, scientists equipped with increasingly advanced telescopes tried worked to explain anomalies in the orbital paths of planets. “Wobbles” in the orbit of Uranus led to the discovery of Neptune. Mercury also wobbles, and it was long thought that it was under the influence of a small undiscovered planet named Vulcan. This book traces the history of the search for Vulcan, and how Einstein’s Theory of Relativity finally “killed” the need for the little planet.

As history of astronomy and science, this short book is interesting. However it is not page-turning material, failing to really grip the reader.

3Rosbochs

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Chris Hadfield

AnAstronautsGuideToLifeOnEarthChris Hadfield is a man’s man. Test pilot, astronaut, commander of the International Space Station, guitarist, and most importantly endowed with the perfect Canadian Pilot mustache. This book is part memoir, part advice text, part space exploration tome.

I have long admired Colonel Hadfield. His videos from the International Space Station were inspirational and he is the perfect ambassador for the astronaut profession. Despite his many and often spectacular achievement, he embodies a quiet competence and work ethic without braggadocio. Everything I have seen and read with and about him gives the impression of a pleasant, hardworking and cheerful man who stays cool in a crisis.

Hadfield’s “nice guy” character may indeed be the reason for the weakness of his book. The tone is so earnest as to almost be off-putting. He couldn’t be more politely Canadian if he tried. (He even self-deprecatingly touches on the Canadian national character in the book.) Unlike Mike Mullane’s snarky and often hilarious Riding Rockets, this astronaut memoir feels rather plain vanilla.

Having said that, Hadfield’s story is well worth telling, and the message of hard work and striving for excellence without letting (possible) failure define you is inspirational. The theme of the book is not so much about space as about what we can do to define our lives and careers in a meaningful way.

Despite its shortcomings, for fans of astronautics this is an interesting read. I found the the insights into the charming traditions of the Russian Space Program particularly interesting.

3Rosbochs

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time – Dava Sobel

LongitudeLongitude is the story of an unlikely genius, John Harrison. Self-trained clockmaker, he solved the problem of determining longitude on ships during the second half of the 18th Century. Determining longitude is trivial today with GPS, but for hundreds of years it was a big problem and inaccurate navigation was the death of thousands of sailors. There was even a Longitude Prize to be awarded for the man who could solve the issue.

In itself, the creation of the Harrison timepieces is a fascinating bit of science history. However, the real prize here is the political backstabbing at the highest levels of the contemporary British science community. The problem at hand was that various methods for longitude determination competed for primacy. Harrison, the relatively undistinguished watchmaker, found it hard to compete with the villain of the story, or in the author’s words the anti-hero. This man was Nevil Maskelyne, who seems to have been a bit of a bastard. To be fair, however, Maskelyne made significant contributions to navigation. Luminaries like Edmond Halley and Sir Isaac Newton also feature prominently.

I have been fascinated with geography since I was a child, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Well-written and without any excessive heft from unnecessary tangents, it should be good reading for everyone, but especially those with even a passing interest in navigation and maritime history.

4Rosbochs

Bonk – The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

BonkThis non-fiction book describes and explores “sex science” in a way that the layman can understand. Ms. Roach has performed extensive research, traveling around the world and around the US Patent Office website among other places. In a frank but very amusing style peppered with the driest of irony, she goes through everything from sex therapy in antiquity to sex machines for therapy and research, to genital implants.

Despite sometimes cringing at the descriptions of surgeries and other things in intimate regions, I found this a fascinating read. Ms. Roach can probably make any subject fun, and when combined with the somewhat taboo aspect, her writing makes for compelling reading.

If I had one gripe, it was that while all individual chapters were interesting, by about two-thirds of the way through I was losing interest. I guess there’s only so much sex science I can take.

4Rosbochs

Quicksilver – Neal Stephenson

This is the prequel to Cryptonomicon, although they are only vaguely related. The story focuses (as far as I can tell from the first hundred and fifty pages) on the heated debate between Newton and Leibniz on the nature of calculus. Or rather, on the notation that should be used to explain it. You don’t have to be interested in mathematics (no formulae so far), but it helps. The other interesting part is how the backdrop is shaped by events following the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England and the ongoing struggle between Gathered and Established churches (Puritans and Anglicans, to put it rather simplistically), as well as the birth of the scientific method. Like Cryptonomicon, this is seemingly a collection of anecdotes loosely strung together into some sort of plot.

Stephenson’s style is, as always, florid and imaginative. The cool and gritty edge of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon is still there, but it has mutated into a sort of 17th century format.

Unfortunately, I found the whole thing very dull and long-winded. This book can’t seem to hold my interest. I gave up on page 241, which is just over a quarter of the way in. I don’t think I will be reading the other two books in the trilogy either.

Bad Astronomy – Philip Plait

Subtitled ‘Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing “Hoax”‘, this book discusses misconceptions related to astronomy. For example, various false explanations to why the sky is blue are talked about. The first part is about things like tides, eclipses. Then the book moves on to things like astrology and the purported Moon landing hoax. There is also a section on bad astronomy in films.

Philip Plait is an astronomer who also runs the excellent Bad Astronomy website. He has made a name for himself as a rationalist and debunker. His casual and easy style defuses any potential animosity in the text. He dislikes fraudsters and but he does not speak condescendingly about those who merely misunderstand. He also goes out of the way to explain complex physical phenomena in ways that laymen can understand.

It’s a fun book even if you don’t have much interest in astronomy, and I learned quite a bit reading it.

The Demon-Haunted World – Carl Sagan

The great Carl Sagan explains how science works and how it can rescue us from harmful ignorance. The way in which he debunks myths of all kinds is great. Well written and accessible, I would recommend this to anyone who wants to annoy people fascinated by the occult. Jokes aside, this is a very important book that I think everyone should read.