A Magnificent Mind

It would have been so, so easy to dismiss him as useless. And many did, at first.

His father died when the boy was still in the womb, and his grieving mother gave birth to him early. He was a runty little thing whom nobody expected to survive.

He lived, but when he was three his mother remarried and trotted off to start a new family, leaving the toddler in the care of his grandmother for years.

The boy wasn’t a good student, and when he was a teenager, he was sent to work in the fields of the family farm, where he nearly drove everyone mad with his ineptness.  There were whispers that he was not quite right in the head. Unable to concentrate on the simplest tasks, he would wander the fields, staring at nothing, or fiddle with piles of rocks, allowing the sheep he was tending to escape.

It’s safe to say, in other words, that no one would have guessed that 350 years later, the brightest scientists in the world would still be referring to the boy’s mental gifts as “divine.”

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I’ll be honest. I tend to swoon a little, when it comes to smart-ies. Continue reading

Into the (Not So) Deep

Hollywood has a long and fruitful history of making disaster movies that feature large quantities of humans being wiped out by “off-planet” forces: asteroids, solar flares, aliens, and so forth. From Armageddon to Deep Impact to War of the Worlds to Independence Day, we eat this stuff up like candy.

So how many people in history have been killed by space matter or aliens?

None. (Well, there was a dog that was allegedly killed by a meteorite in Egypt in 1911. But the single eyewitness account was pretty sketchy, so the story is considered to be the Egyptian version of crop circles, or Bigfoot.)

How about people being killed by events originating from this volatile, molten planet we live on? Well, last year alone, the figure was over 250,000.

You’d think we would have examined this place a little more closely. Continue reading

Japan’s Nuclear Crisis – a Q&A

Last night, I read this statement on CNN’s website: “A nation on the brink, Japan is coping with three disasters at the same time: a major earthquake, a sweeping tsunami and a deepening nuclear crisis. Any one of these would bring a country to its knees.”

The human, environmental, and financial impact of these disasters (only one of which is partially man-made) are staggering and heart-wrenching. Medical teams that flew into Japan, to help with the rescue efforts from the earthquake and tsunami, are now fleeing the country because of the nuclear crisis. Survivors who desperately need assistance are being abandoned in their hour of greatest need. Continue reading

We Are Who-ville

I used to think Planet Earth was a pretty big place. That was before I gained a little perspective.

A few months ago, my husband and I were driving to a friend’s house. While looking up at a streaky afternoon sky, I was jabbering on about how far away the moon was, since it was already visible. (I had only recently started reading up on the subject, and the whole thing was freaking me out, quite frankly.)

When I mentioned how big our galaxy is, my husband paused for a moment, then proclaimed, “We are Who-ville!”

And that’s a very good way to wrap your mind around it. Remember the book Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss? Our Earth (which seems so very, very huge to us), is equivalent to a speck on a clover being carried around by an elephant on top of something else that is the size of our Earth.

Except, actually, we’re much, much smaller than that. Continue reading

The Great Flu (no, not mine)

It may not surprise you to learn that natural disasters greatly intrigue me.

I own books about the Krakatoa volcanic explosion of 1883, the Johnstown Flood of 1889, and the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. My “purchased but un-read” shelf holds a book about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Give me a disaster, and enough time, and I’ll research it.

(I also have books about the sinkings of the Titanic, the Lusitania, and the USS Indianapolis. And the Mount Everest disaster of 1996. And a variety of famous crimes. But I’m not macabre, honestly.)

As it happens, I started writing this post last week, a few days before I (ironically) came down with the nastiest case of stomach flu I’ve ever had, from which I’m still recovering. I am assuming that I did not give myself bad flu juju with all the researching.

Anyway, I recently read a novel that incorporated the events of the real-life 1918 influenza pandemic. (The novel wasn’t that great, so I’ll spare you the title.) In a note about the book, the author wrote that, for some reason, many people know very little about the 1918 flu. Either it isn’t taught in school, or it’s glossed over. I certainly don’t remember learning about it.

Which is strange, because that flu has been called “the worst medical holocaust in history.” Its only possible rival is the European Black Death of the mid-14th-century. I’ll get to the statistics in a moment. Continue reading

Writing that rocks – Disturbing the Universe

You can find the most interesting things in other people’s garages.

We were all at Brother #2’s house, a few months ago (this was the same visit where I learned of the North Sentinel Islands), and the guys and I ended up in the garage, looking through boxes of books that hadn’t been unpacked yet, after my brother’s recent move. We kept exclaiming over novels that we’d all read as children, some of which I hadn’t seen in almost thirty years. Of course, as soon as we’d “Oh-my-goshed” over a book, we immediately tried to identify which of us the book originally belonged to.

Such things are taken seriously, in my family.

After a few minutes of this, my brothers picked up a paperback book and started raving about how great it was. It had a creased cover and yellowish pages and was titled Disturbing the Universe, by Freeman Dyson. I’d never seen it before.

“You’ve got to read this,” both brothers said. “It’s by a scientist, a physicist…it’s his memoir.”

What luck! This dovetailed nicely with my very recent obsession with space and physics.

They handed the book to me, and I added it to a small stack of books that I’d pulled out because they either belonged to me; probably belonged to me; or possibly belonged to me, subject to further investigation. When we left that day, I jammed the books into the back of our van, where they tumbled over and fanned out across the floor. (My patient husband didn’t say a word. We’ve been married for twenty-one years and he knows, by now, that no matter where we are, books tend to attach themselves to me like barnacles.)

A few days later I picked up Disturbing the Universe and started reading. And, oh my stars.

First of all, Freeman Dyson is a great writer, not in a flashy way, but in a steady, sturdy, draws-you-in kind of way. Secondly, the book covers a particularly fascinating period in history, a period which included the creation of the atom bomb and the birth of space exploration. Dyson includes everything from technological details to arguments over the morality of both programs. There is philosophy. There is quoted poetry, quite a lot of it (Dyson is something of a Renaissance man.) There is, of course, physics.


Dyson was born in England in 1923, and became captivated by science as a small boy. During World War II he worked for Bomber Command, using mathematical analysis to try to reduce Allied casualties (all the while wrestling with his personal moral opposition to bombing.)

After the war he came to America for graduate studies, then went to California and worked on the General Atomic program (which eventually foundered.) He was involved in the test-ban negotiations of the 1960’s, and he spends chapters musing over the ethics of everything from defense strategies to DNA research. He worked alongside some of the most brilliant minds of the 20th-century, and he pays tribute to them with a great many personal anecdotes.

The last third of the book is devoted to space exploration, and this section is particularly dazzling (at least, if you’re a space nerd, like me.) The book was published in 1973, and it is evident that Dyson thought that by now (2010), the space program might have been more advanced than it is. He discusses all the possibilities that physicists were then debating, including extraterrestrials and interplanetary colonization. (He also admits that the latter is not likely to happen, and explains why.)

Disturbing the Universe is still in print, a testament to its enduring appeal. After I’d finished it, and was raving about it on Facebook, Brother #1 told me, “You know, I think that copy is actually mine.”

To which I maturely replied, “I don’t see your name in it. Finder’s keepers.”

Because blood may be thicker than water, but when it comes to a good book, it’s every man for himself.