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: The Year’s Best S-F: 5th Annual Edition

Book Review: The Year’s Best S-F: 5th Annual Edition edited by Judith Merrill

This 1960 book features a selection of speculative fiction short stories published during the 1958-60 time period.  Editor Judith Merrill provides an introduction about the concept of wonder, chatty introductions to each story (she doesn’t think much of Kingsley Amis as a literary critic) and an ending summary (as well as a listing of “honorable mention” stories.)

5th Annual World's Best SF

The 22 stories themselves begin with Damon Knight’s “The Handler”, which is a metaphor for Hollywood phoniness, and end with “Me” by Hilbert Schenk, Jr., a humorous poem about the difference between machines and humans (which is as of now, still true.)

The absolute standout in this volume is the original novella version of “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes.  Charlie Taylor, a man with developmental disabilities, volunteers for an experimental surgery that increases his intelligence.  Told through Charlie’s own journal, the use of changing vocabulary, literary style and attitude is masterful.  The dawning of a new intellectual world, the disappointment when Charles learns that being smart doesn’t in itself make you happier, and the sinking horror when he discovers that it’s all going away make for a powerful gut punch.

The story is also commendable for the sharply drawn minor characters, like Fanny Girden, who fears what has happened to Charlie and considers it evil, but refuses to sign a petition to fire him because discrimination is against her principles.  The novel version is also excellent but contains more sexual content (sometimes published as Charly because of the Cliff Robertson movie.)

Also interesting is an editorial by John W. Campbell, Jr. titled “What Do You Mean…Human?”  It asks the perennial question of what precisely the definition of “human” is, and how to explain it to something that is not human, such as an intelligent robot.  The question remains open at the end, but it’s a good starting point for late night discussions.

“Mariana” by Fritz Leiber turns out to be about clinical depression, and a failed treatment program.

Mark Clifton’s “What Now, Little Man?” is a question about the nature of intelligence, and an uncomfortable look at colonialism.

“The Other Wife” by Jack Finney details how one man learned how to travel between alternate universes, and how he exploits this fact.  Kind of sexist, as he doesn’t let either wife in on what’s going on, but decides for them that this is the best use of his time.

Most of the other stories are readable, but also a bit forgettable.  As is common with books of this vintage, “World’s Best” means the English-speaking world at maximum, and there’s a heavy tilt towards white male protagonists.  The New Wave hasn’t quite hit in this volume, although there  is a hint of it in J.G. Ballard’s “The Sound Sweep” which focuses on the social effects of new acoustic technology.

Well worth looking up at your library or picking up if you see it at the used bookstore.

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.

Headstrong

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.

Manga Review: The Twin Knights

Manga Review: The Twin Knights by Osamu Tezuka

This is a sequel to the classic Osamu Tezuka work Princess Knight (“Ribon no Kishi” or “The Ribbon Knight” in Japanese), about Sapphire, a princess raised as a boy due to strange circumstances.  Queen Sapphire is now married and gives birth to twins, Prince Daisy and Princess Violetta.  There’s a question of succession, as the inheritance rules were changed to allow women to ascend the throne of Silverland, but don’t account for twins.

The Twin Knights

The equivalent of a coin flip makes Prince Daisy the heir apparent, which enrages the Duke and Duchess of Dahlia.  They kidnap the prince and have him abandoned in the Forest of Slobb.  To calm the people while the search for the missing prince is ongoing,  Queen Sapphire and her husband regretfully decide to have Violetta disguised as her brother on alternate days.

Years pass, and when Violetta is in her teens, things reach a crisis point.  She must leave the castle to seek out her brother, who, yes, is still alive.  Many perils await, and not all who begin this fairy tale will be alive at the end of it.

Osamu Tezuka innovated in many areas of Japanese comics, and Princess Knight was one of the first shoujo manga (girls’ comics) in Japan; certainly it’s the first one anyone still remembers.  This sequel was also written in the 1950s  It shares the same simple but dynamic art style and attitudes towards gender issues that were progressive for the time it was written but seem outdated today.

There’s a lot of exciting action, some comedy, and a bit of confusion involving mistaken identities.  Princess Violetta ends up impersonating Prince Daisy,  impersonating himself!   Even though Queen Sapphire is much more ladylike now, she hasn’t forgotten her sword skills.  In the fairy tale tradition, there are several deaths, with the evil tending to die gruesomely (but tastefully–this isn’t a gorefest.)

An important supporting character is Emerald, Queen of the Gypsies.  Although she and her people are depicted sympathetically (and Emerald is heroic when her temper doesn’t get the better of her), it’s still pretty stereotypical.  Parents may want to talk to their children about the real-life Roma and the prejudice against them.

I’d especially recommend this volume (and the series it’s a sequel to) to fans of the Disney princesses, as Tezuka took a lot of his early inspiration from the Walt Disney style.

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