caltech-bookclub

Kindred

Book Notes

This is another Caltech Bookclub read, I started reading it way behind the rest of the readers, so spent much of today reading to catch up. Aaaaaaaaaand, finished it in a day. I do like reading while treadmill walking.

Butler grew up in Pasadena, which is the connection to Caltech for the book club. Previous books were about Caltech scientists or Caltech research or by Techers. This one has a lot of Pasadena in it. It was neat to know where she was describing, even if the Pasadena and Altadena even I knew are as gone as hers.

Butler is known as a science-fiction author. While this book has unexplained time travel as a plot mechanism, no time is spent exploring the phenomenon, making this book not really science fiction in my categorization. It is, however, a seriously good commentary on human nature.

The main character, Dana, is transported back to early 1800s American South. As Dana is black, we read about the atrocities of slavery, as told from a modern person transported back to the brutality of the era. We see how we normalize horrible behaviours, often to survive. We see how we assume power, even when we are one of the powerless. We see how we don't see our own privilege, how seeing another's view is difficult, it not impossible.

I think what's lingering with me most, however, is the slow descent into acceptance that Butler weaves into the story. It reminds me a great deal what Mistakes We Made (but not by me) discusses about human nature: we are all frogs in the pot about to boil.

The Disappearing Spoon

Book Notes

Okay, here we go, traipsing both down memory lane AND across the periodic table. I so much enjoyed this book. It took me a while to read it, however, and I totally missed the Caltech Bookclub meetings about it. I ended up checking it out from two different libraries for a total of three checkouts, not because it wasn't interesting, but rather because I needed to just start reading it.

The book is all about the periodic table, its history and its current state. Kean gives us stories about the different parts of the table, along with the stories of the main characters in its development, including those who sidetracked along the way.

Kean discusses the various parts of the periodic table, going through the chemistry and the physics of different elements, along with the science of finding the elements and the politics of naming them.

So... much... fun.

Probably helped that a lot of it happened at Tech and at Berkeley.

If you like science, this is a good book. If you enjoy pondering the periodic table even a hundredth as much as I do (yes, I have it memorized!), I strongly recommend this book. Even if you don't even think about the periodic table much, it still makes a great book to read to the kids before bed.

The discovery of eka-aluminium, now known as gallium, raises the question of what really drives science forward — theories, which frame how people view the world, or experiments, the simplest of which can destroy elegant theories.
Page 54

Melts in your hand! Geranium doesn't!

And after such a breakthrough, Böttger reasonably expected his freedom. Unfortunately, the king decided he was now too valuable to release and locked him up under tighter security.
Page 61

Black Hole Blues

Book Notes

When I joined the Caltech Alumni Book Club, I didn't realize what the theme of the book club would be. After this book and the last one, I can say with a good level of confidence that the theme is "has to do with Caltech." And really, that's expected and probably in the book club description that I didn't read when I joined ("A book club? SQUEEEEE! Join!"). The book club reads more slowly than I read, which is to say, more slowly than the maximum library checkout time, so I've been finishing these books faster than the book club. Not a great thing when I want to be participating in the book club.

Phew. That all said...

This book is, unsurprisingly, about the gravitational wave experiments, the people involved in it from the beginning, the stumbling blocks, the successes, and the failures. It's a great scientific tale that I enjoyed reading about.

That some of it occurred while I was AT Caltech reminds me of just how f---ing oblivious I was when I was at Tech, as well as how oblivious I must still be about my world. I want to believe I'm more aware, and more appeciative, of things around me. NO IDEA IF I AM.

That this book was published before LIGO succeeded is delightful. That LIGO succeeded is even more delighful. I enjoyed this book, enjoyed reading about people who love science as much as I do, and had the courage to pursue that love.

I recommend this book to anyone who has a slight interest in the biographical information about the LIGO project, black holes in particular, or science in general. Fun read.

Rise of the Rocket Girls

Book Notes

I started reading this book because Caltech had a new alumni book club starting up, and this was the first book to be discussed. My timing in the reading, however, wasn't so great. I was all SQUEEEEEEEE about reading this book, and placed a hold on the book from the library. The book club started on February 22nd, my loan was due on February 24th. Which is to say, I read the book on the 23rd. As I do.

This book is about the math women at what would become, and is, Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. The people who computed. The computers.

Of this story, of their tales, I have mixed feelings.

The strongest feeling I have is of anger that smart, well-educated, ambitious women can't be engineers because, and only because, they are women. "Let me do all these amazing calculations, but I'm not allowed to design these things, or if I can contribute, my contributions aren't even a footnote in history." Every part of the book about this, about the history of this, is rage-inducing.

A close second to this feeling is appreciation. That I would go to college was never a question, of course I would. The question was always, "Which one?" That I was able to go to Caltech is to me these days, somewhat stunning. At the time, my thought was "of course," but that's the arrogance of youth and my ignorance of the world. Probably a good thing on the latter, not so much on the former, because it leads to the third feeling.

Sadness. Sadness that this rich history was there, that these women had blazed the path I so obliviously walked. I wish this book had existed when I was at Tech. I might have appreciated where I was an the opportunities in front of me more.

Or maybe not. Arrogance of youth and all.