Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences

Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences by Pere Romanillos

“Serendipity” is the good fortune that comes when you discover something useful or interesting while you were looking for something else.  Knowing how to grasp the opportunity offered by serendipity is one of those skills that every scientist and artist should have at their disposal.  This book, originally published as ¡Menuda chiripa! Las serendipias más famosas covers many instances of serendipity, mostly in the area of science.

Great Historical Coincidences

After a lengthy introduction on the subject of serendipity and fortunate coincidences, there are 49 essays on individual discoveries divided by scientific field.  We begin with physics and Archimedes’ Principle (and the origin of “Eureka!”) and end with archaeology and the terracotta soldiers of Qin.  Many of the stories were familiar to me, such as the melting chocolate bar that revealed the existence of microwaves; while others were new to me, such as the origin of the Pap smear.

This book is heavily illustrated and the translation by Janet Foster uses language that should make this book suitable for bright junior high students on up.  (Some parents may find discussion of the biology of sex unsuitable for their kids.)  There’s some clumsy phrasing from time to time.  There’s no index or citations, but there is a bibliography to search for more information–much of it in Spanish.

This is one of those books primarily meant as a present; the treatment of each discovery is short and only covers highlights and often context is missing.  Consider it for a budding scientist or history buff, perhaps as a pair with the same author’s Great Historical Blunders.

Book Review: Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology

Book Review: Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology edited by Terry A. Garey

Poetry related to the various genres of speculative fiction (SF, fantasy, horror, etc.) is pretty common.  You can see samples by ones or twos in many magazines and spec-fic collections.  But full hardback anthologies of speculative poetry are rare.  So Rune Press in Minnesota brought out one in 1991, and I recently got my hands on a copy.

Time Frames: A Speculative Poetry Anthology

The slim volume features eleven poets; the only name I recognized immediately was Ruth Berman, who starts the volume and has a couple of nice pieces involving the Oz books.  From her “Wizard’s Road”:

Home in Omaha at last

It was hard to believe

In a probable world.

To be honest, most of these poems are the modern free verse stuff I don’t fully understand, and don’t know good from bad.  There are a few exceptions with more formal rhyme and scansion, and one attempt at a rare Welsh form called a “toddaid.”   It’s not very good, but I appreciate the poet’s effort to stretch.  I did like Roger Dutcher’s “The Smart House” about an AI-run domicile that learns from other houses’ mistakes.

The book ends with John Calvin Rezmerski’s “Challengers”, a memorial to the Challenger disaster of 1986.  I do not know if the poem moved me of itself, or because of my lingering sorrow over the event.

As is often the case with poetry, those who are trained in its ways may enjoy it much more than I.  It is, I understand, quite rare, so you may have trouble tracking down a copy.

Magazine Review: The American Scholar Spring 1977

Magazine Review: The American Scholar Spring 1977 Edited by Joseph Epstein

The American Scholar is a quarterly production of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, published since 1932.  Its primary focus is non-fiction essays, but it also features poetry, book reviews and since 2006 fiction.  I happened across an old issue, was intrigued by one of the essay titles, and decided to review it.  At the time it was published, I was in my sophomore year of high school, Jimmy Carter was president of the United States and James Dobson founded Focus on the Family.

The American Scholar Spring 1977

Leading off the issue is “The Despairing Optimist” by René Dubos.  It discusses the various international conferences held during the 1970s.  The essay describes their well-meant aims and somewhat less than impressive results.  Professor Dubos reckons that the best approach is to set world-wide goals but work out individual approaches to getting things done as different areas of the world need specific tactics to deal with their specific problems.  “Think globally, act locally.” (Professor Dubos is said to be one of the possible originators of the motto when he was advising the Stockholm United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972.)

“Observing the Sabbath” by Aristides (probably a pen name) is about the custom of Sunday as a day of rest, and how that was changing in the modern age.  Less a span of enforced inactivity, and more a time of enjoying oneself as religion became less of a factor and just having some time off work became more of one.

“Freedom of Expression: Too Much of a Good Thing?” by John Sparrow talks about whether there should be laws against obscenity and pornography.  He discusses various objections to these laws, and attempts to address them.  On balance, Mr. Sparrow is in favor of having at least some laws on the subject, even if it’s difficult to precisely define obscenity without actually being subjected to it.  Generally, he seems to favor “community standards” laws.

“The Limits of Ethnicity” by Howard F. Stein and Robert F. Hill addresses the then recent upswing in “ethnic pride” groups in the United States, and they note that at least part of the impetus appears to have come from the civil rights advances of African-American people.  “Racism is a WASP problem, we Croatian-Americans or Italian-Americans have no culpability here–besides, we’re oppressed groups too.”  The authors feared attempts to re-segregate neighborhoods by moving all the people from one ethnic heritage together, making those of other heritages uncomfortable.

One of the weaker essays is “The Tyranny of Harmony” by John P. Sisk.  It starts out talking about the music of the spheres, which supposedly had perfect harmony, and eventually gets around to suggesting that an excessive love of harmony resulted in Nazi Germany.  The logic is forced.

“Rest in Prose: The Art of the Obituary” is by William Haley, who was editor of the London Times for many years.  He speaks of the obituary as a literary form, as history, and as an editorial comment on the worth of a person.  He’s especially enamored of the obituaries published by the Times.  Mr. Haley is a good writer and I enjoyed this essay.

“A Literature Against the Future” by James Stupple is the essay I bought the magazine for.  He notes that in the 1970s science fiction had become the subject of serious university study.  (Though he’s quick to point out that the colleges offering these courses tended to be second-rank.)  His main premise is that SF isn’t really serious, important literature.  Like many critics in the 1970s, he thought that real science showing that Mars is lifeless would kill the field, leaving only science fantasy.  Indeed, he suggests that science fiction would quickly become no more relevant than Kabuki or country western.  (Well, okay, maybe country western.)  From our perspective in the future, it’s easy to see where Mr. Stupple went wrong.  (The only other thing I could find by him in a Google search was half an essay on Ray Bradbury; he liked Bradbury’s stuff as fantasy.)

The final essay is “The Provincial Towns” by Barnett Singer, who wrote about his experiences the previous year touring the less-populated areas of France.  He chronicles the dying of an old way of life, but then old ways of life are always dying.  It’s rather sentimental, but he also notes that the young people seem okay with the changes.

The poetry is all that modern stuff I don’t care much for.  The best of the lot is “On the Language Which Writes the Lecturer” by Jeanne Murray Walker.  “English merely comments on the structure of another language concerning which nothing can be said.”

There are several book reviews, all of books I have never heard of.  The most positive review is of The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Márquez.  Sadly, despite the enthusiasm of the reviewer, it sounds dreadful.  There are also a lot of book ads.  Most of these are the barest snippets that seem to have been written by someone who doesn’t know anything about selling books.

The other kind of advertisement is for colleges–apparently the main audience was expected to be bright high school students looking for a place to get further education.  Saint Olaf!

Last is Letters to the Editor, very erudite people criticizing essays and reviews (in one case, a book reviewer is allowed to respond.)

It’s an interesting assortment of subjects, most of which don’t feel dated.  If you happen to spot a copy of this magazine at a garage sale, it’s worth a look.  The American Scholar is still published, and you can read more recent essays at their website here:


Book Review: The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution

Book Review: The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton

At the beginning of the Fifteenth Century, there were no scientists as we understand the term, and no science.  Received wisdom from Aristotle and Galen ruled knowledge and philosophy.  Then a series of changes in technology and the way people investigated nature brought a new way of thinking.  By the end of the Seventeenth Century there were scientists, an intellectual community of people who had created a process we call “science.”

The Invention of Science

This book covers the history of those centuries, and how the Scientific Revolution began.  David Wootton is a professor of Intellectual History at the University of London and an Anniversary Professor at the University of York, and the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries are part of his focus.

There were, according to this book, several contributing factors to the Scientific Revolution.  The printing press allowed ideas to be widely spread and preserved for long times.  Perspective drawing allowed more accurate pictures to be published–you could build something from plans!  The telescope and microscope opened up new worlds to human vision.  Readily available compasses improved navigation.

Plus of course, the “discovery” of America showing there were entire landmasses unknown to the ancient philosophers, and a nova in 1572 that revealed the heavens were not fixed and unchangeable as Aristotle had decreed.  The old answers no longer satisfied, and people began methodically testing to see what actually happened when, for example, you floated ice in water.

It wasn’t an overnight change; several of the pieces took a while before their true significance or usefulness was understood.  At first, much of it was simply mathematicians applying their skills to astronomy or ballistics.  But over time, the changes accelerated, so that by the time of Isaac Newton, what he did with refraction of light was clearly the scientific method.

This is a college level text, with copious footnotes and end notes, bibliography and index.  Professor Wootton spends a great deal of time tracking down earliest uses of various words used for science in a science-related context, like “fact” and “hypothesis.”  This can get tedious, but he’s trying to show how the new way of thinking had to adapt and invent vocabulary for ideas that simply didn’t exist in that form before.  Thankfully, there are also illustrations throughout, and a center section of color plates.

The author also has a section devoted to calling out historians he disagrees with, primarily relativists.  Apparently, there is a school of thought that science is effectively a group delusion, with more socially prominent or connected scientists imposing their views on their colleagues.  Creationism is just as good science as evolution, it would seem.  The author claims that there are such things as theories that don’t stand up to facts.  I am not educated enough to evaluate his conclusions or his description of other historical philosophies; he may have misrepresented them.

Recommended primarily for history students and science buffs.  The casual reader would probably be better off with biographies of the various individual people involved, many of whom led interesting lives that are barely touched on in this volume.  (Women and non-Europeans who helped advance the cause of science are barely mentioned, mostly to say they existed.)



Book Review: Headstrong

Book Review: Headstrong by Rachel Swaby

This is a collection of short biographical sketches of women who made advancements in various scientific fields.  According to the introduction, it was inspired when the New York Times ran an obituary of Yvonne Brill that listed her home cooking as her most important accomplishment, followed by being a wife and mother.  And only then mentioning that she was an award-winning rocket scientist that made it possible for satellites to adjust their orbits.


And it is true that scientists who happen to be women have often been downplayed or outright ignored in books on the history of science.  So in the interest of making these scientists more widely known and giving role models to women and girls interested in the sciences, Ms. Swaby picked fifty-two stories to tell.  One of her criteria was that they had to be dead, so their entire body of work could be assessed; she points out that this made her list less ethnically diverse as women of color and those outside the Europe/America culture area have been even more hampered in pursuing science careers, though strides have been made in recent decades.  Also, she chose to write about Irène Joliot-Curie rather than her mother, as Marie Curie is the Smurfette (the one woman who gets to be in the club) of science books.

Ms. Swaby suggests reading one entry a week, but reviewers have to step up the pace, so I did it in two days.  The biographies are divided by scientific fields such as medicine, physics and mathematics (Florence Nightingale was listed under the last category for her advances in statistical analysis.)  The women profiled go from Mary Putnam Jacobi, who did a medical study disproving the then popular theory that a college education made women infertile to Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar.

Many of the stories are bittersweet; the women had to fight to even be allowed to study, were denied paying jobs in their fields, denied credit for their work, denied promotions, titles and awards–and these are just the ones who persisted!  Things have improved over time, but one can see where systemic sexism has slowed advancements in science and technology.

It should be noted that some of the women in this book did work or had opinions that are still controversial,  Certain readers may object to their inclusion, despite their prominence.

While the book is written for adults, the language is suitable for junior high students on up.  It may be an uncomfortable fit for some male readers, but that’s the way it goes; growth is painful sometimes.  Elementary school readers may enjoy Girls Research more; see my review of that book.  The volume comes with endnotes, a bibliography for further reading, index, and credits for quotes used.

Highly recommended to science fans and those wanting a quick introduction to scientists they may not have known about before.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was involved.

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 15: Dark Matter

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 15: Dark Matter edited by Mary François Rockcastle

This literary journal is published by Hamline University in Minnesota.  The title comes from another name of the Philosopher’s Stone, the transformative agent which turned base metals into gold, in the search for true immortality, as literature turns ordinary words into art.  This issue’s theme is “dark matter” the unknown encountered and given a name by humans in an attempt to categorize it.

Water~Stone Review #15

This issue is heavy on the poetry, unfortunately, most of it is modern poetry which (as I have mentioned before) I do not have the tools to fully appreciate–I can’t even tell good modern poetry from bad.   I did like Ruth Stone’s “Train Ride” which at least has a rhyme scheme and comprehensible imagery.  Also of note is “Song for the Generations: December 26, 1862” by Gwen Westerman.  It’s about the mass hanging of Native Americans in Minnesota as a result of a rebellion, and uses a particular line structure to reflect this event.  (For more on this subject, see my review of The Thirty-Ninth Man by Dale Swanson.)  It’s also the poem in this issue that caused the most dissension in the editorial office, as different families learned different stories of the event.

One of the two book reviews covers three books of modern poetry–because of my previously-mentioned problem, it read like gibberish to me.  There’s also an interview with poet Ralph Angel, and that was mildly interesting.

The fiction and “creative non-fiction” sections are very similar, being mostly melancholy stories about relationships with parents or loved ones that stop rather than have endings.  Of the fiction, the most striking was “Missions, 1969” by Anastasia Faunce.  A little girl is used as a servant at her mother’s moon-themed party, and learns yet another lesson about the casual cruelty of adults.

From the non-fiction section, the two most interesting pieces are “Elegy for the Old NIght Sky and Other Bodies” by Katie Hae Leo, about childlessness, being an adoptee, and dark matter; and “Dust to Dust” by Amy Roper, about the author’s job cleaning fossils for a museum.

There are also visual arts, a section of photographs titled “Open. Shut. Open.”  It’s pretty random-feeling, some are in color, a few are interesting.   Lawrence Sutin contributes two “erasure pieces” in which he has taken old books and erased most of the words to create “found” poetry.  It seems like a mutilation of perfectly good books to me.

The concluding piece is another book review, three books that reflect the reviewer’s hobby of collecting other people’s home movies.

Due to my dislike of modern poetry and the generally depressing nature of most of the prose pieces, I did not get much out of this magazine, despite the above-average quality of writing.  If modern poetry is your bag, I think you’ll appreciate this much more than I did.

Book Review: Milestones of Space: Eleven Iconic Objects from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Book Review: Milestones of Space: Eleven Iconic Objects from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum edited by Michael J. Neufeld

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Milestones of Space

When I was young, I wanted to be an astronaut.   It sounded like the best job in the universe.  I dreamed of flight, of going into space, exploring new worlds.  I still have my astronaut curtains up in my bedroom.  But it was not to be.  By the time I hit puberty, it was clear that my poor vision would prevent me from being a pilot.  Once the Space Shuttles came along and started accepting astronauts that weren’t pilots,, my life had gone down other paths.  I may never get to space.

And that’s why I was so pleased to receive this book to review.  it’s a bit over-sized, somewhere between standard and coffee-table.  As the subtitle indicates, it’s a series of articles about various items in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum, mostly written by Smithsonian curators, and arranged in chronological order.   They range from Friendship 7, which carried John Glenn around the world in orbit, to (pieces of) the Hubble Telescope, launched in 1990.

The book is profusely illustrated, and has a lot of sidebar articles that explain topics related to the objects in question.  For example, an explanation of why Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit is not currently on display.  (Turns out some of the fabrics and materials have long term interactions that are harmful to each other.)

The language is formal, and younger readers may struggle with some of the vocabulary, but anyone who’s followed the space program over the years should have no difficulty.  There’s an extensive bibliography, and an index.

I would recommend this as a gift for anyone  junior high school and up who has an interest in the space program or related sciences.  I do have to warn that this book made me a little sad.  Why haven’t we gone back to the moon yet?  When will we finally get to Mars?

And now, a video in homage to the Apollo 11 mission:


Book Review: Girls Research! Amazing Tales of Female Scientists

Book Review: Girls Research!  Amazing Tales of Female Scientists by Jennifer Phillips

Disclosure:  I received this book from a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Girls Research!

This is a part of the Girls Rock! series by Capstone Books, which presents short biographies of women and their achievements, aimed primarily at young girls.  In this book’s case, the stories are about female scientists and women who made advances in science-related fields.   The introduction talks a bit about the difficulties that faced women who wanted to become scientists, and still do.  But it’s emphasized that these are women who overcame those obstacles.

There’s a variety of presentations, from short quarter page blurbs to two-page spreads.  Some entries have a dry recitation of facts, while others use “creative non-fiction” for the scientist to tell her story in the first person.  There are plenty of photographs, some in color.

Naturally, the usual suspects such as Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale appear, but there are also much less well known examples, such as Chien-Shiung Wu, who was a vital member of the Manhattan Project.  There’s a good effort to include diversity, but the book does tend a little bit U.S./Western Europe-centric.

The obstacles faced by women who are scientists are mentioned in various stories; difficulty getting an education, getting hired, getting listened to (a couple of them had their research outright stolen!)  At least one is mentioned as having additional difficulties because she was Jewish in Mussolini’s Italy.

But there are also accounts of Frances Glessner Lee, who turned her dollhouse hobby to good use in developing forensic crime investigation techniques, and Hedy Lamarr, who was a glamorous Hollywood actress when not inventing torpedo guidance systems.

The biographies are grouped by the type of science (astronomers here, primate researchers there) with an alphabetical index at the end.  There’s also a timeline of when these scientists did their most important work.  My major nitpick is that the source citations are on the indicia page in tiny print, and not well-formatted.  The bibliography is short and a bit lacking; parents will need to do the heavy lifting to find more complete biographies and vet them for their children.

The book has a nice sturdy binding, suitable for elementary and middle school libraries.  While the primary audience is of course elementary school girls, boys should also find the biographical sketches interesting, and parents may find out some new things too.

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