Saturday, December 09, 2006

I just finished Gen-e-sis by Robert M. Hazen, a non-fiction book about the scientific research into the origins of life on Earth. I read a fair amount of non-fiction popular science books but this one was a little different. First, it was written by one of the researchers in the field instead of a journalist. Second, it was written about a problem that hasn't been solved yet. Because they are written in hingsight, many of these books pick up a stronger narrative feeling -- the scientists face certain adversities, perservere and eventually they are vindicated. For example, see The Double Helix, which tells the story of Watson and Crick discovering the structure of DNA.

In contrast, Hazen's book provides a slightly different window into the world of working science. There are multiple competing approaches with controversies, false starts and personality clashes with no ultimate winner yet. If you want to get an idea how actual scientists work together, compete or think in general, I highly recommend this book.

I was lucky enough to hear one of the researchers featured speak at Wonderfest, a series of dialogues/lectures that is held at Stanford/UC Berkeley every year. The topic of the debate was "Was the Origin of Life Inevitable". Both of the researchers who spoke actually agreed with the thesis but for the sake of having a debate, one of them took the other side and did a very good job of using his expertise in the field to highlight the missing pieces and problems in the current theories. If you're in the Bay Area, you should check it out next November.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Just finished Saga of the Jomsvikings. Quite short and not very lively compared to most modern fiction. If you like the works of Homer or Herodotus like I do, you might enjoy this one as well. Just don't expect a modern story with a Viking setting.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

I just finished Adventures from the Technology Underground by William Gurstelle, an interesting non-fiction book about projects being accomplished by a slew of DIY technology geeks. If you are a fan of Robot Wars, Junkyard Wards/Scrapheap Challenge, Make or even Mythbusters, you will probably enjoy this book. It's a bit short and is more of a collection of vignettes than a deep study of the topic but the people he meets are all interesting and the book could serve as a resource for someone trying to research modern DIY.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The ABC Family Channel was showing the first three Harry Potter movies this weekend. I've seen the first two a number of times on TV over the years but this is the first time I've seen Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on TV. As I thought at the time, it's clearly the best of the movie versions. And it's more than just a result of the book being meatier than the previous ones. Even a cursory examination shows that Alfonso Cuarón created an actual world that Harry and the other characters seemed to live in, compared to the shallow, un-imaginative backdrop that Chris Columbus created. I only saw Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire one time in the theaters but it was clear the Mike Newall was trying to be more in the Cuarón rather than Columbus mode. Good for him.
Arthur & George is Julian Barnes latest book and the first I have read by him. The two main characters are real people - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji - and their lives are compared/contrasted throughout the first part of the book. The later part is more focused on Doyle's involvement in the real life miscarriage of justice that put Edalji in prison for 3 years based on part raciscm, part police incompetence. After his release, Doyle got involved and eventually got Edalji pardoned. Some of the other major themse in the book are Doyle's involvement in the spiritualism movement and his relationships with his first and second wives.

Barnes does a better job portraying Doyle than Edalji. Even though Doyle had some odd beliefs - he believed in spirits and the afterlife and even argued for the existence of fairies at one point - Barnes creates a convincing character based on the Sherlock Holmes author. On the other hand, Edalji remains a mystery. Many other characters respond strangely to him and it is never made clear if this is because of his mixed race or if it is something odd about Edalji's manner. Edalji's relationship with his father is also never fully explained - his father insisted on sleeping in the same locked room as him until he went to prison but the reasons behind this are never comfortably established.

Overall, I would highly recommend it, particularly for fans of Sherlock Holmes or of the Victorian/Edwardian period in general.