Category ArchiveBooks and Literature
Until I began to build and launch rockets, I didn’t know that my hometown was at war with itself over its children, and that my parents were locked in a kind of bloodless combat over how my brother and I would live our lives. I didn’t know that if a girl broke your heart, another girl, virtuous at least in spirit, cold mend it on the same night. And I didn’t know that the enthalpy decrease in a converging passage could be transformed into jet kinetic energy if a divergent passage was added. The other boys discovered their own truths when we built our rockets, but those were mine.
– Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam
Rocket Boys was made into a movie, “October Sky,” the title being an anagram of Rocket Boys, and I’m still charmed by it. I’ve found that the film is much beloved in some quarters, but I found it to be a disappointment, as so many such films are, because the book had the texture of truth, while the film had the texture of Hollywood. Relationships were generified, characters were stereotyped, you know the drill.
There have been a number of historical paths whereby the bright kid gets out and up in the world. Rocket Boys is a description of a new path: Rocket Scientist, exemplified by Hickam himself, but also, to my reading, the more important character, Quentin, the hard scrabble kid who uses his brain and big words to protect himself from his circumstances, and who decides that Hickam, the son of the mine superintendent, has access to the resources they would need to start a rocketry club.
In 1957, the town of Coalwood, in West Virginia, is cut off from the world in ways that are simply unfathomable today. For example, a major point in the book is when their science teacher, through considerable effort, manages to procure for them a book on rocketry. One. Single. Book. Is it possible to picture such a time today, when Amazon.com and Abebooks.com are universally available?
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By Jame Killus
Fred Hoyle was born in Yorkshire in 1914 to decidedly middle-class parents (a wool merchant and a teacher). He was probably the most prominent scientist to ever have a significant career as a science fiction writer, having written such books as The Black Cloud and A for Andromeda. In the latter novel, some scientists genetically engineer an alien woman based on DNA coding sequences they receive from a stellar transmission. The book was made into a 7 episode series for the BBC, then the idea was pinched for the movie Species.
Hoyle is popularly known for his coinage of the term “Big Bang” and for his opposition to the Big Bang Hypothesis; he believed in “Continuous Creation” and held to it long after the discovery of cosmic background radiation and the more-or-less complete adoption of the BBH by the entire astronomical community. Not content to be something of a crank on the Big Bang, he also put forth the theory of panspermia as an alternative to terrestrial evolution. Panspermia essentially holds that life first occurred in space, and then came to planets; its strong form holds that evolutionary changes rain down from space as viruses or something similar. It is held in high regard in some Creationist circles, though I have no idea why genetic changes from space viruses are more in keeping with Creationist logic (or lack of it) than terrestrial mutations.
It’s possible that Hoyle’s anti-establishmentarian mind-set cost him the Nobel Prize. Hoyle’s co-worker, William Fowler, won the Nobel in 1963, essentially for confirming Hoyle’s prediction of a resonance level in the carbon nucleus, a prediction that Hoyle made as a result of a problem in nucleosynthesis of heavy elements in stars. (It may be noted that Hoyle made the prediction as part of his program to explain heavy elements as being a natural result of stellar nucleosynthesis, something that was absolutely essential if continuous creation was to be viable).
The problem that Hoyle was working on involved the nuclear fusion of elements past helium. The difficulty is that, if you try to fuse helium, you get beryllium-8, which almost immediately fissions back into two helium nuclei. So helium looks like a dead end. The only way out seemed to be if another helium nucleus hit the Be-8 during its very short lifetime. Unfortunately, calculations showed that the resultant highly energetic carbon-12 nucleus would also break apart. Indeed, the nuclear formation of Be-8 (from a Li-7 plus a proton, say), or C-12 (boron-11 plus a proton) form the basis of proposals for “light fission” nuclear power, because the created nuclei fly apart to He-4, liberating considerable energy.
Hoyle decided that there had to be a “nuclear resonance” in carbon-12 nuclei, that sometimes allowed the stable formation of C-12 from the Be-8 + He-4 reaction. Fowler later measured that resonance and found it to be only a few percent off Hoyle’s calculations.
It was about as daring a prediction as has ever been made in science, combining nuclear physics, astronomy, and the anthropic principle (Hoyle reasoned that he was made of carbon, therefore there must be a way for carbon to be formed), along with the simple bloody-mindedness of trying to support a doomed theory, continuous creation.
Hoyle was eventually knighted, and is doubtless much more famous than his co-workers, or, for that matter, Alpher, Bethe, and Gamov, who formulated the Big Bang hypothesis, but didn’t name it as such. Hoyle also championed Jocelyn Bell, as the real discoverer of pulsars (her Ph.D. advisor was awarded the Nobel), again showing perhaps the effects of not being from quite the right social class for British science.
Of Hoyle’s novels, only The Black Cloud seems to be in print, but many of his others can be found used; I was always fond of October the First Is Too Late. I’d also recommend Element 79, a collection of short stories, for often providing just loopy good fun.
I have a problem. I am addicted to reading. Normally, I got things under control. I have policies: never order books - if I don’t find them in a store, they’ll have to wait. No libraries. Don’t read more than three books at once. Get enough sleep (together with work, this cuts down on reading a lot). But sometimes, I lose it. I become a binge reader. I’ll read one or more books a day. I won’t sleep much, I’ll forget about eating and I’m late in answering my email (seriously, when I was an undergraduate I sometimes didn’t eat anything but chocolate until I felt too weak to walk up the stairs, at which point I realized that was a bad idea). I discard all discretion - I won’t distinguish anymore between good books and bad, those worth reading and those only good to while away the hours on a transatlantic flight. Do you have similar problems? Then join me in Readers Anonymous. The last couple weeks, I have had an attack.
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Books and Literature Posted by peter ramus, 09 May 2007 11:38 pm
By peter ramus
Beowulf, still as yet the great Geat all these fifty years since Grendel, at last has at the dragon.
Locked in the narrow choices of a paragon, the fellow must go out, Beowulf, take on the beast that breaks and burns his people, put up against the incomprehensibly mighty foe what measure of strength and will to overcome is left him.
It is the man’s method to give full measure in this regard, paragon he is, however residual the powerful powers of one who’d mastered Grendel and his mom so long ago. Engage the worm? Contest it? Oh, yes, mustn’t he, being Beowulf yet?
A specter is haunting America — the specter of financial apocalypse. Record-breaking current-account deficits, plummeting regional housing markets, a weakening dollar, and news that major central banks around the world are beginning to diversify their currency reserves have made the possibility that the U.S. could soon experience what happened to Mexico and Southeast Asia in the 1990s newsworthy even to the reliably rah-rah American corporate media. With Time and the Atlantic Monthly examining the cases for alarm and calm, respectively, in recent weeks, the time has come for the WAAGNFNP to consider its stance on global capitalism.
Flashback: It’s Fall 1997 and I’m teaching a course called Globalization and Its Discontents in the Princeton Writing Program. The course, which examines the processes and discourses of globalization, is a challenge for my students, who come from all over the western hemisphere, but they really get into it and work incredibly hard. After surveying attempts to define globalization in the context of major post-Cold War-paradigm-shift candidates, from Fukuyama’s “end of history” to Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” from Barber’s “jihad vs. McWorld” to Kaplan’s “coming anarchy,” we turn to debates over globalization of manufacturing, agriculture, trade, finance, labor, racism, civil society, and culture: is it really happening? is it new? is it a good thing? for whom? can and should it be stopped? why or why not?
Who has it worse: The poor sap who has to go through Astaroth-only-knows-how-many levels of Dante’s hell trying to reach a real live useful human being at the Help Desk, or the Tech Support person who has to answer the calls?
This Open Thread is dedicated to Loyal Party Patriot “Seattle.” I’m sure she’ll be happy to tell you why!
Video from Bore Me.