Monday, December 5, 2011

A Personal Update and a Holiday Science Book List

It's 10:47 AM, Monday, December 5th, and I'm sitting in my apartment in Albuquerque, New Mexico as a bitterly cold wind gusts dusty snow everywhere outside.  I have the day off today, but my wife is at work, and my Internet connection is acting dodgy at best.  I have my coffee, but my usual distractions are failing me right now.  It appears the universe is telling me it's time to update.

For the past couple months, I've been settling into a new routine of waking up late, going to work late, and coming home late.  My current job is the least enjoyable I've ever had, and I don't mind saying so, as I'll probably be leaving it soon.  In fact, I think I used to have nightmares about needing to take a job at a call center, and here I am.  (I was told it would be mainly email correspondence, which I think I would have enjoyed if it had turned out to be true.)

Soon, maybe this week, I'll begin substitute teaching for the Albuquerque Public School district.  It was a job I had a few years ago, which I only left to work for the city libraries year-round.  And I only left that job because I was forced to after two years, since I was only hired on a temporary basis.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to substitute teaching again.  My schedule will be back to something more manageable, Monday through Friday, 8 to 3 or so, instead of Tuesday through Saturday, 1:30 to 10 at night, which has been wreaking havoc on my personal and social life.  I had to give up D&D for this job.  It's inhuman!

Hopefully I'll begin updating this blog on at least a weekly schedule, because I know updating with a personal diary post once a month is not the way to gain readership among the scientifically curious.  Perhaps my students will give me ideas for new posts.

But remember, if you're reading this, and have a burning question about something you heard about but never fully understood, ask!  My email address is collecting cobwebs, and if my posts are addressing a specific question, it's a great way for me to focus my thoughts.

I've had some ideas milling around to explain how black holes are formed, how we know the center of the Earth is a gigantic ball of molten iron, and why we still have cold winters if global warming exists, but I don't want to spout off without reliable sources, and I hate to keep leaning on Wikipedia.  I suppose I've been reading too many novels lately, and not enough science books.

So, I'm going to leave you now with a list of science books that you should check out from your local library at your earliest convenience, (request they purchase them if you have to!) or buy for yourself or your loved ones for the holidays (or just because).

The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick - A rousing tale, focusing mainly on Isaac Newton and his contemporaries, friends and rivals alike, of the early science of finding the workings of the solar system.  Newton, like many others of his day, believed God had set a beautifully systematic solar system in motion aeons ago, or perhaps still had His hand in the motions.  That either/or was actually a huge dilemma for these thinkers, since either God was no longer necessary for the universe to function, or had created an imperfect universe requiring His constant intervention!

The 4% Universe by Richard Panek - While this book isn't bogged down in jargon, it doesn't make for the lightest reading, either.  But pick it up if you're interested in the story of how the evidence and theories of dark matter and dark energy accumulated over the last century, culminating in two ground-breaking theories of the cosmos emerging in the last few decades.  The book covers many personal stories of the researchers and mathematicians who had to reconcile the known effects of gravity with new, baffling observations of distant galaxies.

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean - Pick this up for a great read on some very interesting elements, beginning from the earliest to be isolated, like hydrogen and oxygen, to those being created in modern atom-smashing labs today.  Elements with interesting properties or histories are covered in more detail, such as gallium, a metal that melts somewhere between room and body temperature, used in an early practical joke chemists would play on their guests.  (1. Make spoon of gallium.  2. Give spoon to guest to stir their hot tea with.  3. Laugh as guest pulls spoon handle out the tea, wondering where the other half went!  4. Make sure the guest does not drink the gallium-poisoned tea.)

Death by Black Hole by Neil DeGrasse Tyson - If you're anything like me, you've probably seen Dr. Tyson on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report about a dozen times now.  He just might have the greatest stage presence and sense of humor of any astrophysicist in history.  In fact, Carl Sagan of the TV show Cosmos was one of his idols and mentors.  I think I first started seeing Neil DeGrasse Tyson on various Discovery Channel specials about the solar system and the rest of the universe.  Death by Black Hole gave me the first clear picture of why a black hole is the way it is.  And Dr. Tyson also gives one of his favorite thought experiments:  what it would be like to fall into a black hole, feet first.  He uses the term "spaghettification."

Death from the Skies by Phil Plait - Another dark title, from one of the most recognized names in astronomy blogging, Death from the Skies covers a myriad of different doomsday scenarios for our little blue planet, from asteroid impacts to the heat-death of the universe.  (Warning:  both are pretty much inevitable, but the latter is the subject of perhaps the most depressing thoughts I've ever had.)  Phil Plait writes the blog Bad Astronomy, which is always worth checking out.

Sciencia: Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Astronomy for All by Burkard Polster, Gerard Cheshire, Matt Tweed and Matthew Watkins - This one could very easily make my job here obsolete, but I'll recommend you pick it up anyway.  This is the only book on the list I haven't read cover to cover, and I almost bought myself a copy, but based on my wife's behavior at the bookstore, I have a sneaking suspicion I'll be getting it sometime soon after all...  The reason I mention this one in particular is that it jumped out at me as a layman's encyclopedia of every major scientific concept out there:  cellular life, evolution, galaxies, stars, you name it.  (I'd have more examples, but I only got a quick peek!)  And each concept is covered in one page of clear language and a picture.  Beautiful.

That's all for now.  Happy reading!

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