Science, Fiction, Life

Category: History

The Most Important Thing in the Universe

One of the side effects of studying science is an appreciation for how insignificant humans are in the scheme of things. It is pounded into your head at every opportunity. We are microscopic compared to the Earth, and Earth is not the center of the solar system. Our solar system is one of billions in our galaxy. Our galaxy is to the universe as grains of sand are to the beach. The universe is unfathomably old, and the Earth has been around for a good chunk of that time but humanity is brand new. In Sagan’s famous cosmic calendar analogy, in which the age of the universe is compressed down to a single year, humans don’t appear until minutes before midnight on December 31. On the scale of the universe in both space and time, humans might as well not exist. 

Apart from a thin film of life at the very surface of the Earth, an occasional intrepid spacecraft, and some radio static, our impact on the Universe is nil. It knows nothing of us.

Carl Sagan

This is all true, and it’s important to teach people, especially people who plan to make it their business to study the universe. You need to face reality even when it makes you uncomfortable.

However, it’s a little alarming how gleefully some people like to drive this point home. There’s a sense of smug superiority, a feeling of being somehow above the petty things that concern “ordinary” people. I find this is especially true of certain fields (you get this much more from the physical sciences than biological and social sciences) and certain types of people (especially those who think they have something to prove). 

As I have gotten older, I’ve started to realize that despite good intentions, this “minimize humanity” mindset leads to its own flavor of wrong-headed thinking. People begin to mistake feeling smart for being wise. 

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is one of those cases that Fitzgerald is talking about. Humans are indeed insignificant in both space and time when compared to the universe. But at the same time, we are far more important to each other than the distant reaches of space and time. Both of these things can be true. “Meaning” or “significance” are not laws of physics, they are human constructs. We as humans get to decide what is significant, and the scale of the universe is not the appropriate comparison. Our lives occur on the time scale of decades, and on the spatial scale of a tiny fraction of the surface of the Earth. So what if that’s small compared to the universe? It’s big for us.

Minimizing humanity might help avoid mistakes like saying that the sun goes around the Earth, or that we are at the center of the universe since most galaxies are flying away from ours. But it can also lead to dangerous reasoning like: If humans are insignificant, then how can we be responsible for climate change? Even if you accept that there are enough of us that collectively our actions are significant enough to mess up the planet, it can lead to a nihilistic view that it doesn’t matter. After all, we’re just a flash in the pan. Earth will survive whatever we do. Some species might go extinct with us, but others will adapt and flourish. So who cares? The sun will eventually become a red giant and consume the Earth, and the universe will eventually succumb to entropy. On the scale of the universe nothing matters, everything is insignificant and transient. So if nothing matters why should I care about anyone other than myself and my immediate gratification? A brief bit of hedonism before I return to the nothingness from whence I came. 

Of course, that’s a cop out. An avoidance of the uncomfortable responsibility of deciding for ourselves what is meaningful. It’s easier to throw our hands up and say “well, nothing matters.”

LIfe has no meaning a priori. Before you come alive, life is nothing; it’s up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing else but the meaning you give.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.

Jean-Paul Sartre

This minimization of Earth and of humanity also can trick otherwise smart people into fixating on the wonders of the universe and neglecting the wonders around them. I have been somewhat guilty of this. I was fascinated by science from an early age, and started studying space right when I got to college. I thought I had a pretty good understanding and appreciation for “mundane” stuff and was more interested in the exciting weirdness of the rest of the universe. But of course, I knew almost nothing about life, and now as I get older and have more life experience, I have come full circle: I feel less drawn than I used to be to the mysteries of space which have no bearing on human life, and am more interested in the richness of regular everyday life.

My point is not that we should not marvel at the universe, my point is that, in looking up at the stars we must try not to devalue the wonders that are right in front of us.  The things that matter and can bring us real happiness are right here on Earth. 

Think of your own life. All the memories and experiences that are stored in your brain. All the relationships, all the places you’ve been, all the things you’ve done. Think of your proudest moments, your greatest disappointments, your loves and your losses. Think of the things you have created, the mark you have made on the world, whatever forms that takes. Just take a moment to recognize the richness of your life and everything you know and have done. These things don’t lose their significance because the universe is vast and ancient. The universe doesn’t get to decide what is significant to you. You do. 

Now consider: there are 7.9 billion other people on this planet. If you looked at one face every second it would take 250 years to look at everyone (and in that time, billions more would be born). Every two years, humanity’s collective experience spans more time than the age of the universe. That’s a lot of people. And what really boggles the mind is that every single one of them has just as rich and vivid and intricate a life as yours. Every one of them has their own favorite places and favorite foods, their own family, their own memories. Every person has things they have created, songs they have sung, dreams they have pursued. Every person has their own story. 

Every place and every thing in the world plays a role in countless people’s stories, and has a story of its own. That big tree in the park is just a tree to you, but to someone it’s where they shared a sunny afternoon with their first love. To someone else it is where they were sitting when the doctor called with bad news. To someone else, it’s where they take their family photo every year.

I think about this a lot when traveling or looking at a map: every place that you see is someone’s home. Every house, apartment, street or park, is at the center of someone’s whole life. When you really think about this and stop relegating these things to mere scenery, the world feels anything but small. 

It feels even larger when you fold in time as well. Consider not just the significance to people alive today, but the countless lives going back tens of thousands of years. We hear so much about how all of human history is the blink of an eye in geologic or cosmic time, but at the human scale, our history is almost unimaginably deep. We’ve been here long enough for every single patch of the earth’s surface to be rich with human history. Most of it forgotten, but all of it real. 

Lately I’ve gotten much more interested in history, especially ancient history and prehistory for this reason. Just as it is eye opening to think of all the places you visit on vacation as someone’s home, it fires my imagination to consider people as real and complex as you and me living thousands or tens of thousands of years ago. Real people peering out over the wilderness of an uninhabited continent, or cautiously trading with tribes of Neanderthals, or waging a forgotten war on the ground we walk every day, or struggling with the timeless day to day tasks of raising a family. I feel the depth of history stretching out into the past, at once unreachable but intimate in our shared humanity. 

I came across this on my social media feeds after I had written this blog post.

Yes, we humans are insignificant on a cosmic scale, but so what? We don’t live on that scale, we live on a human scale. Nihilism is a cop-out. We are responsible for deciding what is significant and meaningful, and as anyone who has held a newborn can tell you, it has nothing to do with size or age. You can hold the most important thing in the universe in your arms.

For small creatures such as we, the vastness is only bearable through love.

Carl Sagan

The Fire at Notre Dame

Notre Dame de Paris burned last week. As I watched along with the rest of the world, helpless to stop the loss of centuries of history, there were moments when I had to fight back tears. It may seem strange for an atheist and scientist to feel the loss of a religious building so acutely, but I love cathedrals, and Notre Dame in particular holds a special place in my heart.

I love cathedrals because, in attempting to build structures invoking the glory of God, humans instead have demonstrated our own potential. Cathedrals show us that despite the cruelty and pettiness and meanness that we too often see in the world, we are also capable of breathtaking beauty when we work together toward a common goal. They demonstrate that we can do anything if we set our minds to it, even if it is the work of many generations. Cathedrals show us that physics and engineering can work hand in hand with artistry, and in fact can become art themselves. When I walk into a cathedral, I am in awe, not of God, but of humans. Imagine what we could do if we once again devoted our time and ingenuity and resources and hard work to a common goal. What could our modern cathedrals be?

Notre Dame de Paris is special to me. I first visited in the summer of 2001 on a whirlwind trip to Europe with a bunch of other high school kids as part of the People to People program. To give an idea of how little I had seen of the world up to that point, one of the highlights of the trip for me was seeing mountains with snow on top of them. I had spent my whole life in the midwest and the biggest mountains I had ever seen were the Appalachians.

Notre Dame was the first cathedral I had ever seen, and it took my breath away. The experience of entering from the hot, bustling noise of a summer day in Paris through the intricately carved doorway into the cool, quiet, interior, of looking up into that impossibly high vault, then down the length of the cathedral to the distant altar, of marveling at the stained glass windows, is one that left its mark on me. Of all the experiences from that trip, that first astounding view of Notre Dame became the touchstone for the whole trip for me. It encapsulates the wonder I felt at the sudden broadening of my horizons, the internalization of what had until then been just the abstract knowledge that the world is huge and fascinating and full of rich history beyond anything I had experienced.

The woman in blue, singing beneath the rose windows.

I have had the privilege of returning to Paris twice on work trips, once in 2012 and again in 2015, and both times Notre Dame was one of the first places I visited. In 2012, I went to Notre Dame immediately after arriving and dropping my bags at my hotel. It was late afternoon when I got there and I inadvertently walked in on a service. There was a woman in a blue robe on the dais, illuminated by spotlights mounted high up on the walls, and her voice was impossibly beautiful in that impossibly beautiful building. On that same trip, I returned to the cathedral later with two colleagues from work, Ken Herkenhoff and Nathan Bridges. We waited in a short line and then climbed up the towers to the walkways that afford the classic views of Paris, with the chimeras in the foreground and the Eiffel tower behind. From that walkway you also get a stunning view of the roof and spire of the cathedral, all of which are now gone. Nathan is gone now too; he passed away unexpectedly two years ago. Whenever I see Notre Dame, I am reminded of him.

The fire at Notre Dame is shocking because we like to think of monumental buildings like cathedrals as eternal. Yes, we know intellectually that in the past they have burned and been renovated and rebuilt and expanded, but that was all in the past. We have a certain arrogance that now, in our modern era, disasters like that don’t happen anymore. There’s a feeling that we live in a post-historical world that is somehow special and different from all the time that came before, and that we will be able to preserve things as they are forever. Of course that’s nonsense. Anyone who is paying attention to what is happening in the world should be all too aware of how the world is changing.

Almost all of this is gone now.

Even without superstition, it is hard to not to see the symbolism of the fire. It reminds me of the poem Ozymandias, about the folly of believing that current glories can last forever. It is a reminder that even the most apparently permanent human creations can be lost at a moment’s notice, just as a human life can be suddenly lost, and that we should appreciate and cherish the beauty in our lives while we have it. The fire represents the loss of a beautiful and irreplaceable relic of a bygone era, but there is also an element of hope. More of the great old structure survived than many expected during the blaze, thanks to those who took swift action to limit the damage, many risking their own lives in the process. What looked like total destruction has turned into a chance to rebuild, honoring the long history of the structure but also a chance to put the mark of our current era on it, preserving a record of ourselves in the long history of the edifice.

There are lessons here to be learned.

Book Recommendations

There are few things I enjoy more than recommending books to people, so you can imagine how happy I was to find that there are two subreddits that are dedicated to book recommendations. It’s awesome to have a place on the internet where people are constantly asking for advice on what to read!

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been recommending up a storm, and I thought it would be interesting to collect a list of my most-recommended books and post them here. This is different from my list of favorite books, I should note. There are a few very common requests that appear over and over on the book recommendation subreddits, so those tend to guide my recommendations. Here are some of the most common requests, along with my general recommendations.

“I am new to reading for fun” or “I used to love reading but I haven’t read anything recently. What should I read?”

Of course when responding to this one, it depends what the person is interested in. But I generally try to aim for easy-reading page-turners that are the beginning of a series:

  • Old Man’s War by John Scalzi – Good, modern take on military sci-fi with a sense of humor but also some poignant scenes. This book starts a series.
  • Wolf of the Plains by Conn Iggulden – Historical fiction about the early life of Temujin (aka Genghis Khan). Does a great job of conveying the rugged life on the steppes. Starts a series.
  • The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell – Very readable historical fiction book about a Northumbrian boy who is captured by Danes (vikings) and raised as one of them, but who eventually joins forces with Alfred the Great. Interesting look at the early middle ages, when a castle was a hall on top of a hill surrounded by a palisade, rather than a towering stone fortress. Starts a series.

“I just read The Martian. What should I read next?”

  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – This is an epic realistic sci-fi novel about the first 100 colonists on Mars as they try to found a new civilization and terraform Mars to become more like Earth. It was written in the 90s, but holds up pretty well. Where The Martian was a very small-scale story, this one is huge in scope, spanning many years with tons of characters.
  • Contact by Carl Sagan – Writen by an actual astronomer, about deciphering a signal received from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization. Full of good science but also lots of philosophical discussions.

“I just finished Ready Player One. What should I read next?”

  • I often recommend Old Man’s War for this as well. Even though the books are not that similar, the tone of the writing is.
  • Other books that I haven’t read, but which I have heard would go well with Ready Player One are Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

“I’m looking for a new fantasy series to get hooked on (often after finishing A Song of Ice and Fire or Name of the Wind).”

  • The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – Classics, but it’s surprising how many people haven’t read them. These are must-reads for any fan of fantasy, if only because so much of fantasy is either imitating or subverting the tropes introduced by Tolkien.
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin – Another classic, and the start of a series. I especially recommend this to people who say they enjoyed Harry Potter because LeGuin basically invented the idea of a wizard school in this book.
  • Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb – This is the first in several trilogies set in the same world. Fitz, the protagonist, is in my opinion one of the best characters in all of Fantasy. Occasionally infuriating too, but still a great character, and it’s interesting to see him mature through the books. Also, some of the books about Fitz get pretty dark and gritty, even though they were written before “grimdark” became its own subgenre.
  • The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie – The standard by which all other grimdark is judged. Great characters who are also terrible people, in an interesting fantasy world that has fun subverting some fantasy tropes. I recommend this book and its sequels especially for people who liked Game of Thrones and who want something dark and gritty.
  • Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – For fantasy readers who want well-polished prose that takes familiar well-worn tropes and makes them excellent just by the quality of the writing. This book and its sequel are good for fans of Harry Potter who want something similar but a bit more mature.
  • Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin – Everyone has heard of this book and its sequels by now, but many have still not read them. If the person seems to have read other huge series but not this one, I highly recommend it. At this point Martin’s influence on the fantasy genre rivals Tolkien’s.
  • Shogun by James Clavell – This is historical fiction rather than fantasy, but it has a lot of what makes Game of Thrones great (tons of characters, tons of politics and intrigue, epic scope, etc.), so I often recommend it to Game of Thrones fans. It’s about an Englishman who is shipwrecked in Japan in 1600 and gets involved in court politics and falls in love with a Japanese woman. Surprisingly, it is based pretty closely on actual events.
  • I also often recommend Cornwell and Iggulden’s historical fiction to fantasy fans.

For fantasy fans who are looking for something a bit different:

  • Perdido Street Station or The Scar by China Mieville – Extremely creative and bizarre stories about a steampunk-ish fantasy-ish world. Strong horror influences. I haven’t read anything else like these. I personally enjoyed The Scar more than Perdido Street. Mieville also loves to use lots of fancy vocabulary in his writing: this annoys some people, but I like it. And if you’re studying for the SAT, I bet these books would be better than a bunch of boring flash cards.

“I’m looking for some good post-apocalyptic books.”

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – One of the best books I’ve read this year, and the best post-apocalyptic book I’ve read in a long time (ever?). It doesn’t do anything particularly new with the familiar tropes of the genre, but the writing is great, with well-drawn characters. Manages to be more literary than most books in the genre without coming off as pretentious.
  • Wool by Hugh Howey – This one is a page-turner. I especially recommend this to fans of the Fallout series of video games, because it deals with underground refuges from the toxic post-apocalyptic wasteland on the surface that are awfully similar to the Vaults in Fallout.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy – Bleak and depressing, but great, spare writing. And after all, shouldn’t the apocalypse be a bit of a downer?
  • The Stand by Stephen King – A classic of the genre. I loved the first ~2/3 of The Stand and thought the ending was just ok, but still. It’s a must-read.
  • The Postman by David Brin – Obviously an inspiration for The Stand and for the early Wasteland and Fallout video games. Much like The Stand, the first 2/3rds are better than the ending, but still a classic of the genre.
  • Earth Abides – Another classic. This one explores how civilization would change, what knowledge would be kept and what would fade with time, after a disease-style apocalypse. One of the first books of its kind, but quite good, if dated.
  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson – Another classic. This one was among the first to consider an apocalypse populated by monsters rather than just radiation or disease. Here the monsters are like vampires, but this led to the zombie apocalypse sub-genre. And for its age, it is still quite readable.
  • On the Beach by Nevil Schute – This one is different than most in the genre, but is well worth reading. Possibly the saddest of them all. It’s about several families in Australia after a nuclear war has been waged in the northern hemisphere as they wait for the deadly cloud of fallout to get to them.
  • The World Without Us by Alan Wiseman – This one is non-fiction! But I put it in the post-apocalypse list because it’s about what would happen if humans just up and disappeared one day. It’s a really fascinating book, especially for fans of the post-apocalyptic genre.

“I’ve read lots of YA series (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, Eragon, etc.). What should I read next?” or “What are some good books for a middle school kid?”

A lot of this depends on age. Some adults have only read YA but want something more mature, so for them I refer to the fantasy list. For actual kids in high school or middle school, I recommend:

  • The Golden Compass (Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman – Great YA series with a sort of steampunk-ish world and interesting magic. There are armored bears and witches but also some pretty interesting exploration of physics, philosophy, and theology.
  • Redwall and sequels by Brian Jacques – These books are lots of fun. Woodland creatures in the middle ages with swords and bows and stuff! Also some of the most gratuitous descriptions of feasts I’ve ever read. Probably best for a middle-school aged audience though I read them well into high school.
  • So You Want to be a Wizard? by Diane Duane – Lame title, but I loved this book in early middle school. It’s about two kids who learn how to become wizards and travel to a parallel version of New York, complete with predatory cars and other cool stuff.
  • The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – I loved these books in early high school, though now I can’t really remember much about them except that they are awesome. Both have great female protagonists.

“I’m looking for non-fiction that will change the way I see the world.” or “What are some must-read non-fiction books?”

  • Books by Carl Sagan including Cosmos, Pale Blue Dot, and Demon Haunted World – Sagan was a brilliant science writer, and all modern popular science writers are basically rehashing things he wrote better. These books will teach you about the history of science, the future of space exploration, and how to think critically about the world around you.
  • 1491 and 1493 by Charles C. Mann – These books deal with what the Americas were like before Columbus, and how the world changed due to globalization after Columbus. These changed my view of history: real history is way more interesting than what you learn in school!

“Halloween is coming up. What are some good creepy/horror stories?”

  • Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – Not the sort of story that is likely to give you nightmares or keep you up at night but some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read. Bradbury’s writing style is practically like poetry, and this book is all about autumn and death and a creepy carnival, so it fits with the season. All of Bradbury’s books are great, and this is not actually my favorite (That would be Martian Chronicles, of course) but this is the one I’m recommending most lately.

Recap & Review: Game of Thrones Season 4, Episode 3 “Breaker of Chains”

I realized last week that, as someone who does reviews and is a big fan of Game of Thrones, I should really be posting reviews of each week’s episode. So, Here we go, starting with the third episode of this season: “Breaker of Chains.”  Warning: here be spoilers! 


So. Last week Joffrey kicked the bucket and this week we begin to see the aftermath. I was expecting the showrunners to make it clear that the murder was coming and who was in on it, to build suspense by giving the audience information that the characters don’t have, a la Hitchcock’s famous example of the bomb under the table. But I like what they did instead even better. Leaving it ambiguous, with so many suspects, makes the suspense last a lot longer, and gives viewers who haven’t read the books the fun of guessing whodunnit.

This week’s episode starts with Tyrion being arrested, and Sansa’s escape, which was done well. I liked the touch with the necklace, giving non-book readers another hint as to its significance. Gems, and even glass, don’t normally shatter that easily.  Also, let it be noted that Littlefinger as always is a creeper. I’m still not a fan of the weird growly voice they gave him in the show, but it’s way too late to change that.

Next, we see Joffrey’s wake, where he is looking mighty creepy with those eye-stones. I enjoyed Tywin’s lecture to Tommen (non-book-readers: remember Tommen? He’s suddenly important!), particularly because it was also a lecture to Cersei, basically saying: “You messed up with Joffrey, I’ll take over from here with Tommen. PS: Tommen, has your mother explained where babies come from?”)

I liked that part of the scene. I even liked when Cersei demands that Jamie kill Tyrion, because it shows (a) how messed up and paranoid she is, and (b) how conflicted Jamie is. But then for some reason he rapes her, which is… rather different than the (mostly) consensual crypt-sex in the books, and casts Jamie in a very different light. He’s already an incestuous dude who pushed children out of windows, so I get that he is still a terrible person, but we were in the process of coming to sympathize with him against our better judgement. This is something that Martin does really well in the books, taking bad guys and making you sympathize, and taking good guys and making them unlikable. But I have to say, showing Jamie raping his sister in a church next to the body of his dead son makes it pretty hard to redeem his character. The audience is not going to sympathize much with him now, are they? It will be interesting to see what the show intends to do with this. I hope they did it for a very good reason.

Aside from the plot ramifications for the show, I can’t see how this was a good move for HBO considering the abundant criticism of the books and the show for their misogynistic tendencies and heavy use of rape. Deliberately changing the story to add in the rape of one of the more prominent female characters shows a disturbing level of ignorance about the ongoing discussions of sexism and rape culture in modern media and particularly in sci-fi and fantasy. (This article from A.V. Club deals more eloquently and in greater detail with the show’s tendency to turn sex scenes from the books into rape scenes in the show, and its implications)

Speaking of HBO’s misogyny issue: later in the episode we got some more gratuitous nudity in the brothel as Tywin walks in on Oberyn in the midst of an orgy. At least there was some minor male nudity to even things out this time, but still. I’ve said it many times: almost every episode HBO deploys some gratuitous nudity and/or violence just because they can, not necessarily because they should. Otherwise though, the conversation between Oberyn and Tywin at the brothel was an interesting confrontation that we don’t get to see in the books, which is something that I appreciate about the show.

The episode also returns to everyone’s favorite odd couple: Arya and The Hound. They somehow manage to serve as comic relief even as they do terrible things. This week the comedy comes from Arya claiming the Hound is her dad and then reacting with silent astonishment as he decides to work for a fair wage for the poor farmer the encounter. The terrible part comes pretty quickly though: the Hound knocks the farmer out and steals his silver. Again: a character who started out as a bad guy, became more sympathetic, but now seems to be headed back toward baddie territory by revising his personal code to permit robbery.

We also check in with Sam and Gilly at the wall in a wonderfully awkward few scenes as he tries to protect her from his fellow men of the Night’s Watch, many of whom are “rapers”, but can’t bring himself to say that he is interested in her. Unfortunately for Gilly, Sam’s version of protecting her involves shipping her off to Mole’s town rather than, you know, actually being willing to confront any of his brothers in person if they try to do anything inappropriate.

Jon’s story line at the wall looks like it is going to be doing some ad-libbing, with a possible foray beyond the wall to get rid of the rebellious Crows who murdered the lord commander and took over Craster’s keep. This doesn’t happen in the books that I recall, and I suspect it is just to give Jon something to do until the battle at the wall happens. But I guess we’ll see how this plays out.

Next stop: Stannis and Davos at Dragonstone, where Stannis is happy to hear that Joffrey is dead (thanks to Melisandre’s leech-magic, he believes), but less than happy that he is lacking an army or any money. Davos goes from Stannis to Shireen for his reading lesson, and we get a fun scene between this adorable odd couple (the show seems to really enjoy these odd-couple pairings, and I can’t complain, they work). I like’s Davos’ quip that the difference between a smuggler and a pirate is that if you’re a smuggler and everyone knows your name, you’re not very good at your job.

Shireen’s book-of-the-week inspires Davos to get the money needed for Stannis to hire an army by borrowing from the Iron Bank of Braavos. I’m pretty sure the Lannisters have also been borrowing from the iron bank, and I’m sure nothing terrible will befall whoever fails to repay the bank when the time comes.

Back in King’s Landing, Tyrion is locked up, and has a sad scene with Podrick, where he essentially orders Pod to testify against him, figuring that it’s best not to take the boy down with him in the ongoing fiasco. The scene, much like the one in the book, helps to reinforce just how hopeless Tyrion’s situation is. Basically the only person he can turn to is Jamie. In the show, even Shae is gone, but somehow I suspect she will make a shocking appearance at the trial, which, by the way, is going to be an awesome episode.

The episode wraps up with Dany doing her thing at Meereen. The duel between the Meereenese champion and new-Daario was fun, but as a book reader I couldn’t help but miss Strong Belwas. Oh well. Dany gives a nice speech and then launches barrels of broken shackles into the city, presumably inciting a slave rebellion.

The whole Dany-frees-the-slaves story line has a rather uncomfortable “white people save brown people” thing going. Notice that all of the most important characters in Dany’s storyline are white? And how the slaves are not even a single race of darker-skinned people, but are just generally brown? It’s as if the show decided that people with brown skin are interchangeable, but they had better not include any white people among the slaves, to make it clear that they are different from the White Heroes. This is another issue that has been with Game of Thrones since the first season and has been discussed in great detail elsewhere so I’ll just say: Yep, the show is still doing this, and yep, it’s still uncomfortable. On a related note, if you’d like to get a better understanding of the controversy over race in Game of Thrones and other fictional (and historical!) depictions of medieval worlds, I very highly recommend checking out the Medieval People of Color tumblr. It’s worth reading if for no other reason than that it demolishes the argument that a lack of people of color in medieval Europe-like settings is “historically accurate”.

And that wraps up this weeks episode. This was definitely a set-up episode for events later in the season, but I find myself often enjoying these types of episodes of the show quite a bit.  This season has been consistently good so far, which is fitting since there’s so much exciting stuff that happens in the latter half of the third book, but it’s nice to see. I’m really looking forward to some of the events later in this season, and HBO has made it quite clear that they will be sprinkled throughout the season rather than having a big episode 9 shocker like previous years. This, plus the show’s gradual departure from the strict timeline of the books, makes it fun to watch even as a book reader who technically knows what will happen, because I don’t know what will happen when anymore!


Book Review: Year of Wonders


It’s not as if I didn’t know what I was getting into. The subtitle for “Year of Wonders” by Geraldine Brooks is “A Novel of the Plague”, and I read some reviews before plunging in, so I was ready for lots of death. I think what threw me off was the title, which seems to promise good things amid the horrors of the plague. I don’t think it gives too much away to say that this novel is lacking in “wonders” and rich in terrible things, above and beyond even the plague.

The premise is this: in 1665 a small town of ~350 people in England is infected by the black plague, and the town rector convinces the people that instead of fleeing to relatives in other towns, they should protect the neighboring villages by quarantining themselves, cutting off all contact with the outside world and dealing with the plague as best they can. The main character is Anna Frith, servant to the rector and his wife, and as the book progresses she becomes close friends with them and learns a great deal about caring for the ill. She grows more confident and skilled even as she is surrounded by loss and grief.

The writing in this book is very good, and the historical details are excellent, touching on everything from herb lore to religion to lead mining. Brooks does an especially good job of introducing the reader to the various characters of the town, which makes it awful to read of their gruesome deaths when they are stuck by the plague. I read plenty of fiction rife with death, but it is rarely delivered in such unflinching detail and it is easy to become numb to it. That is never the case with this book. The writing is so skillful and detailed in its description of burst plague sores and maggoty bodies and entire families wiped out in days that it is difficult to read at times.

With such a dark topic, I had hoped that the “wonders” in the title might allude to moments of joy or comic relief even during the darkest times. But other than a healthy birth here or there, and the friendship between the main characters, scenes not dealing directly with plague victims often dealt with all the other madness that comes when uneducated superstitious people  are subjected to something like plague. Witch hunts leading to unjust murder, Anna’s drunken and abusive father charging exorbitant prices to dig graves for families before the sick person is even dead, death by self-flagellation, men trying to steal a little girl’s rights to her father’s lead mine after her entire family has died, the wealthiest family in town fleeing the plague and leaving their servants homeless and penniless, the book is unrelentingly depressing. Even the backstories of the main characters, from long before the plague strikes, are awful to hear.


I’m conflicted because all of these depressing things are told very skillfully. As I said, the writing is very good, and normally I would enjoy a book more for that reason. My main complaint about the writing is the ending. I won’t give it away, but there is a twist at the end that seemed very strange and spoiled what seemed to be the hint of something positive at the end of a long dark tunnel.

So, the bottom line for this book is: it is full of great historical detail and skillful writing, but it is relentlessly depressing. This is not something you read on the beach for a fun bit of escapism. It was even darker than I thought it would be, going in well aware of its subject matter. Still, it’s a vivid and memorable story about the black plague and how it affects the people of a small town, and I will not forget it anytime soon. Despite the depressing nature and strange ending, I would say that it is worth reading. Just go in aware of what you’re getting into, and have something lighthearted at hand to read or watch when you need a break. And be thankful you live in a time with antibiotics.


PS – I should also note that I listened to the audiobook, which was read by the author. Sometimes authors reading their own book can be bad, but she was actually a pretty good reader. For just plain narration she sounds a little boring, but she did the emotional inflection of dialogue quite well. Her voice is very similar to that of Anna from Downton Abbey (Joanne Froggatt), and with the main character named Anna, I was constantly picturing the Downton Abbey character.

The Physics of Getting Hit By An Arrow

The Wonderful Story of Britain: The Bowmen of Britain

So, while I was reading “Genghis: Birth of an Empire” I noticed that there are quite a few instances when the book describes a man being knocked down by an arrow. As someone who reads and watches a lot of fantasy and historical fiction, this was far from the first time I’ve seen such a thing, but as a physics person I wondered whether an arrow would really hit someone with enough force to knock them down.

Now, I’m not disputing that getting hit by an arrow might cause someone to lose their balance and fall off of a horse, or off of a castle wall or the like. The question here is how hard the arrow actually would hit. For anyone who remembers their high school physics, that means we’re talking about a momentum problem. We need to figure out how much momentum a typical arrow would have, and figure out what that amount of momentum would do when transferred to a human. Specifically, this type of problem is an “inelastic collision”, where two bodies collide and then stick together. If the arrow somehow bounced off the person, that would be an elastic collision, but we won’t worry about that.

We are going to assume that our hapless victim is standing still and the problem starts with an arrow speeding toward them. To find the arrow’s momentum, we need to know its mass and velocity.  For an estimate of the arrow’s mass I will go with 65 g based on this source. The velocity depends on the draw weight of the bow that fired the arrow, but generally I am seeing arrow velocities of around 200 feet per second (61 m/s) for longbows.  Momentum is just mass x velocity, so the momentum of a 65 g arrow going 61 m/s is 3.965 kg*m/s.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t mean very much to me, so let’s figure out how fast some more familiar objects would have to be going to have the same momentum, starting with a baseball. A standard baseball has a mass of ~145 g. So a baseball with the same momentum as our speeding arrow would be going 27.3 m/s, or 61 miles per hour. We can do the same calculation with a soccer ball, which has a typical mass of 450 g. A soccer ball with the same momentum as our speeding arrow would have to be going 8.8 m/s, or ~20 miles per hour.

A 60 mile per hour baseball or a 20 mile per hour soccer ball don’t really have enough oomph to knock a person over unless they’re already off balance. So, a typical arrow would not knock a man down, or stop him in midair, or the like. He might fall down because he suddenly has an arrow sticking in him, but it’s the damage done by the arrow, not its momentum that would make him fall.



2013 in Review: Books I Read


It’s the end of the year, and you know what that means: lists! I read a total of 13 books this year, and I thought I’d do a quick run-down here. I’ve fallen behind on my reviews, so this will also serve as a good way to get caught up. Without further ado, here are the books I read in 2013, roughly in order of when I finished them:

  • 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created – Charles C. Mann (Nonfiction – History)

This book is the successor to 1491, which I listened to on the drive to and from Pasadena during MSL primary operations and really enjoyed. 1493 looks at the ramifications of globalization begun by Columbus arriving in the new world and continuing over the next few centuries. I really enjoyed this book too, though it got to be a bit long winded. The most interesting part to me was the discussion of how Spanish control over the extremely productive silver mines in South America had ripple effects all the way around the world, changing the course of history in Japan and China as well as triggering wars in Europe. These two books, 1491 and 1493 have rekindled my interest in history, and are full of interesting historical anecdotes. I liked the books well enough that I went out and bought paper copies to have as references, and as inspiration for future fiction writing.

  • The Winds of War – Herman Wouk (Fiction – History)

Speaking of history, this year I started reading more historical fiction as well. Winds of War is a massive book following the members of a family as they are strewn around the world in the early years of World War 2. Wouk strategically positions his characters in interesting places so the reader gets multiple perspectives on the war. I probably learned more about World War 2 here than I did in school.  Although some of the characters’ travels are improbable and at times it gets a bit soap-operatic, I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to reading its successor.

  • Wildwood – Colin Meloy (Fiction – YA Fantasy)

We picked up this book mostly because it is written by the lead singer of the Decemberists, which is one of our favorite bands. It’s a simple young adult fantasy tale set in a realm of talking animals whose factions are at war in the woods outside Portland, OR. I liked it well enough, but it didn’t really grip me in a must-turn-the-page sort of way. It is well-edited and structured, following the principle of Chekov’s Gun well and wrapping up neatly. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to a younger audience, though some of the animals actually die in the war, so it’s not for very young kids.

  • The Last Days of the Incas – Kim MacQuarrie (Nonfiction – History)

This book was great. I read it before and during a trip to Peru, and it does a great job of making the history of the conquest of the Incas come alive (though actually having visited the key locations also helps!). MacQuarrie scours the historical records, but then takes enough liberties and indulges in enough scene-setting and description that the book reads more like a novel than nonfiction. Although I had the general idea for a novel based on the Incas in mind for years before reading this, this book introduced me to the historical figure of Felipillo, the young Inca boy who served as translator between the Spanish and the Incas. He became the inspiration for one of the main characters in my novel. I highly recommend this book for a readable and fascinating account of the conquest of the Incas.

  • Wool – Hugh Howey (Fiction – Sci-fi/post-apocalypse)

This book was probably the best surprise read of the year. I picked it up  on a whim after reading some glowing reviews, not really knowing what to expect, and got completely swept away. I wrote a long review of it here on the blog, so I won’t rehash all of that here. Suffice it to say, I really enjoyed this book, and rank it among my favorites of the year.

  • Shogun – James Clavell (Fiction – History)

This was my only re-read of the year, but I really enjoyed it the second time around as well. I also wrote a more detailed review on the blog, so take a look. This book is another example of how fiction can do so much more than classroom lectures to make history come alive. I highly recommend this book to anyone with a passing interest in feudal Japan or any fans of fantasy like the Game of Thrones series with large casts and lots of political intrigue.

  • The Summer Tree – Guy Gavriel Kay (Fiction – Fantasy)

I wish I had more good things to say about this one. I read Kay’s book “Under Heaven” a few years ago and enjoyed it pretty well, especially as an example of historical fantasy set it a fictional world that closely mimics our own, so I thought I would try his earlier, more “pure-fantasy” work. Kay was involved in editing Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion”, so when I saw reviews of “The Summer Tree” saying that it borrowed a lot from Tolkien, I figured I would still give it a chance. The story in the Summer Tree is sort of like The Lion, The With, and The Wardrobe with college kids, mashed up with Lord of the Rings, but it fails to live up to either. At its best, this book has some passages of really lovely prose, but more often it feels very much like an imitation of better books. I can’t recommend this one. If you want a good take on “college kids in a magical setting” check out Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. If you want epic fantasy, either read Tolkien himself, or go with more modern classics like Game of Thrones .

  • The Last Kingdom – Bernard Cornwell (Fiction – History)

After enjoying Winds of War and re-reading Shogun, I was in the mood for more historical fiction, and Bernard Cornwell’s name kept coming up, so I tried this one. The story is set in the mid 9th century and follows Uhtred, the son of a Northumbrian lord who is adopted by Danes (vikings) after they invade and kill his father. There is lots of gruesome and gritty action, interesting characters, and conflicted loyalties as Uhtred grows up and comes to sympathize with the people who killed his family. This book is the perfect gateway book for fans of fantasy who want to get into historical fiction. It reads very much like epic fantasy, except it’s based on real historical events. It’s also refreshing to read something set in the depths of the middle ages rather than toward the end. In this book great castles are houses on mounds of dirt with wooden walls, and a shirt of chainmail is the best armor available. No knights in shining armor and towering fairytale castles here. One of the other things I really enjoyed about this book is learning what places used to be called. London = Lundene, Nottingham = Snotingaham, York = Jorvick. Anyway, I really enjoyed this one, and am planning on starting the second book in the series soon.

  • The Well of Ascension – Brandon Sanderson (Fiction – Fantasy)

This is the second book in the Mistborn series, the first of which I read a year or so ago and enjoyed. It took me quite a while to get into this one. One of the problems I run into with the Mistborn books is that the magic system, although interesting, is pretty complicated, so action sequences have to be extremely detailed for the reader to be able to follow what’s going on. Especially at the beginning of this book, when Sanderson is trying to get new readers up to speed, the action sequences can lose their urgency and interest as they devolve into tutorials on the magic system. By the end of this book, I was finally drawn in by the several slowly building arcs and enjoyed what appeared to be the climax. Unfortunately, the book keeps going to set up a major cliffhanger for the following book. I follow the Writing Excuses podcast, which is hosted by Sanderson, and he has actually mentioned this ending and discussed a bit why it had to be done, but it still was an ending that left me dissatisfied. I’ll probably read the next book in the series eventually, but this one only worked for me some of the time.

  • Shift – Hugh Howey (Fiction – Sci-fi/post-apocalypse)

This is the prequel to Wool, and so I came in with high hopes. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed, Shift is a fine novel, but it didn’t have the addictive qualities of Wool. Whereas I could not put Wool down, Shift I read over a period of months, picking it up now and then but not really getting sucked in. It was very interesting to see how the world introduced in Wool came to be, but I think because I read this one spread over so much time, I lost track of some of the threads and didn’t enjoy it as much as i would have if i had read it faster. All in all, I would still recommend this, but don’t expect the same compulsive readability as Wool.

  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Michael Chabon (Fiction – alternate history)

While I was in Pasadena for MSL operations in Fall of 2012, I listened to Chabon’s “Manhood for Amateurs”, a collection of memoir-essays, and really enjoyed them, so I had been wanting to try his fiction for a while. The premise behind this book is weird: what if instead of creating Israel after World War 2, a temporary nation for the Jews was instead created in Alaska? The story itself follows a down-on-his luck detective trying to solve a murder that he has been instructed not to pursue. The prose in this book is awesome, and it’s worth reading just for some of the wonderful descriptions that Chabon uses. You can see why he won a Pulitzer. On the other hand, the plot is not as strong. It feels like Chabon wrote a lot of scenes with weird and interesting characters in this weird and interesting setting, and then toward the end of the book had to scramble to wrap them up into a plot somehow. Still, this one is worth reading just for the prose and the unusual setting. But be prepared to learn a lot of yiddish terms. I found out only after finishing the book that there is a glossary in the back (I was reading as an e-book, so it was not obvious), and there are times it would have been useful…

  • The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie (Fiction – Fantasy)

I had been meaning to read Abercrombie’s books for quite a while. They have been heralded as the peak of “grimdark” fantasy, where the pure good vs evil conflict of stories like Lord of the Rings is replaced with morally gray characters in a nasty, gritty world. Heck, Absercrombie’s twitter handle is @lordgrimdark. The Blade Itself definitely fits this description: all three main characters are anti-heroes in one way or another. You’ve got a former swordsman turned torturer after having his own body ruined in a torture chamber, a veteran barbarian warrior who is trying to be a good person but can’t escape the massacres he committed in his past, and a rich obnoxious self-centered nobleman who is so classist and annoying that he verges on self-parody. In fact, I think this novel succeeds because it knows (and expects the reader to know) exactly what tropes it is trying to subvert and which ones it is shamelessly embracing almost to the point of absurdity. There is a dark humor that runs through the book that saves it from its own grittiness and makes characters that would otherwise be nearly impossible to root for much more likeable. My main complaint is that this book was clearly written with sequels in mind, and ends up feeling like a long introduction to the real story that will be told in future books. I’m looking forward to reading the sequels, but the ending of this one was a bit unsatisfying.

  • The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction

I started this in 2012, put it down, and then picked it back up again at the end of 2013. I was hoping that, as a collection of the “best of the best”, this would be nothing but great short stories. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Some of the stories in here are great, and had as much or more impact as many novels. “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang was a particular stand-out that was really excellent. But many of the stories in this collection are not very good. Or at least, they didn’t work for me. I’m not sure if I would recommend this or not. It’s a nice cross section showing the state of science fiction, but about two thirds of the stories are mediocre if not actively bad. I’m glad I read it because the good stories make it worthwhile, but I almost didn’t finish it because of the many stories that just didn’t connect with me.


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