The Midnight Library

Book Notes

I expected the Caltech Book Club to be pretty much all science and technology. So, imagine my surprise when I read this book, about death and the opportunity to live a life that undoes your biggest regrets. Start with the biggest and see where you end up in life with that correction. Holy shit, that reality sucks. Well, what about this second biggest regret, undo that one. Huh, this reality isn't what I expected it to be. Continue with this regression, and eventually you learn the lesson that every life has its downsides, disappointments, heartaches, choices, and losses. No life worth living is without some sacrifice. By looping through all the regret-fixes she can stand, Nora figures this out, and decides she wants to live.

The timing of this book for me was good. I strongly recommend this book.

The Tangled Tree

Book Notes

This book was a Caltech Book Club selection, which is to say, I read it and more than a little bit didn't participate in the discussion. I am uncertain what to do in the online book clubs, and so, happily read the comments, and struggle with adding any insights.

And none of that is about this book, which is delightful. I recommend a read if only for the HORIZONTAL TRANSFER OF GENES. Like, wait, what? Genes do what? Yeah, that.

I enjoyed the book (even though in books that don't write women out of history, we learn that Crick's aha moment was actually inspired by a woman, no credit given), which goes through the development of evolutionary genetics. What? A science history book? Why, yes, including the parts of "oh, that's not correct," which is great. Science is never linear.

Recommend the book, worth a read.

There was class stratification in science as in every other part of Victorian British society.
Location 517

Into the 1860 edition of his Elementary Geology, he inserted his rejoinder to Darwin’s book, based mainly on proof by authority. He noted that Pictet saw no evidence for transmutation in the fossil record of fishes.
Location 579

That was characteristic of Crick—so brilliant and recklessly imaginative that he sometimes influenced the course of biology even with his elbows.
Location 593

But in science, wrong doesn’t mean useless.
Location 754


Book Notes

I'm doing a poor job of participating in the Caltech Book Club. I am, however, doing a fantastic job of reading the book club books. When this book entered the list, I immediately checked it out from the library and devoured it. A book on paper? PAPER? Sign me up!

The blurb from the back of the book:

Paper is one of the simplest and most essential pieces of human technology. For the past two millennia, the ability to produce it in ever more efficient ways has supported the proliferation of literacy, media, religion, education, commerce, and art; it has formed the foundation of civilizations, promoting revolutions and restoring stability. By tracing paper’s evolution from antiquity to the present, with an emphasis on the contributions made in Asia and the Middle East, Mark Kurlansky challenges common assumptions about technology’s influence, affirming that paper is here to stay. Paper will be the commodity history that guides us forward in the twenty-first century and illuminates our times.

The book does that, gives a history of paper. I loved that part. It also gives a commentary on technology, how it develops, how it influences society, and why it happens. I enjoyed that part of it, too.

If you like paper, this book is worth reading. If you like history, also worth reading. I loved the book. YMMV

Throughout history the role of technology and people’s reactions to it have been remarkably consistent,
Location 66

There are other important lessons to be learned from the history of technology—and other commonly held fallacies. One is that new technology eliminates old. This rarely happens.
Location 102

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?

Book Notes

I really loved this book. I mean, I was expecting to like it, but I wasn't expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. Probably helps that Alan Alda was my favorite actor when I was growing up. God, I hope he doesn't Kevin Spacey that opinion. Anyway.

This book was about Alda's journey into his improving scientific communication with "the masses" (my word, not his). He's been excited about science, and wanted to convey that enthusiasm. Here's how, including the scientific basis for some of the techniques he used. Here's how, including how improv can help one become a better communicator. Here's how, including practicing empathy. it was just such a great book.

I wish I had read it with the Caltech Book Club, mostly so that I would have someone to talk with about this book. I know that Tech offers improv classes, and the Book Club organized an online class for the members to take. I love the idea of an improv class, while being simultaneously overwhelmingly nervous about them. I can talk tech to a room of 1500 people, but improv with a group of 10 people? YIKES!

I recommend the book. If you're in science and/or tech and want to improve your communication skills, I strongly recommend this book. Good stuff.

It’s being so aware of the other person that, even if you have your back to them, you’re observing them. It’s letting everything about them affect you; not just their words, but also their tone of voice, their body language, even subtle things like where they’re standing in the room or how they occupy a chair. Relating is letting all that seep into you and have an effect on how you respond to the other person.
Page 10


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.