10 Great Books is a new feature of Science Book a Day where we get people who ‘know stuff’ about science (scientists, science communicators, sci-philes, kids, science educators, etc.) to write a list of 10 books that have influenced them and why.
Our first list is from Sumen Rai. Sumen is an “Industry analyst, defence & aerospace; former teacher & science comms; space fan.” Please thank her if you like her selections!
This list is eclectic, broad and contentious. My area of interest is ‘space’, but that doesn’t mean much without further definition. The parameters I’ve given myself are that this list would include books related to the human activity of understanding what exists beyond our planet, and in more recent times, physical exploration of what exists beyond our planet.
Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe by Simon Singh
At the Adelaide Festival of Ideas a few years ago, I sat in close proximity to Simon Singh for a whole 10 minutes, and couldn’t come up with anything dazzlingly brilliant to say so I didn’t even say “hello”. What I should have said is that Big Bang is one of the most comprehensive, funny, and accessible books I’ve read on the subject. For someone like me, who has little formal scientific training, it offers a robust qualitative explanation of the concepts humans have devised to understand the origin and existence of the universe, and how these ideas developed through history from the ancient Greeks to modern theories. As a bonus, you will learn the origin and correct usage of the term ‘spherical bastard’.
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan
“Consider again that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” I read this book when I was a teenager, and while I don’t remember all the details now, I do recall how I felt when I read those words (mostly relieved that other people – older, wiser, more accomplished people – spent time thinking about these things too). In Pale Blue Dot, Sagan guides us through sadness and inspiration: sadness at our fragility, petty obsessions and loneliness in a vast universe; and inspiration at humanity’s need to explore, journey and discover. This book is probably an obvious choice to include on a list like this, but very few people can match Carl Sagan’s ability to tell inspiring stories about, and with, science.
Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Most people will know Neil deGrasse Tyson as an outspoken and eloquent advocate for space exploration. This collection of his essays on the topic of space exploration is helpfully arranged into sections entitled ‘Why’, ‘How’, and ‘Why Not’, and explores the positive and negative aspects of space exploration as undertaken by the US. The best thing about this book is watching an accomplished astrophysicist deconstruct the American political landscape with regard to attitudes about science, funding for NASA, and space exploration. More people in power should listen to what he has to say.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
This book is more historical/biographical than scientific/technical. It explores the stories of those involved in and around the first US manned spaceflight program. Wolfe is so good at spinning facts and interviews into scenes that burst into life in your head and this subject, with its adventure, danger and risk-taking, is perfect for Wolfe’s writing style. Before you cringe at the thought that this might be just another ‘Boy’s Own’ story, I have to say that to his credit, Wolfe avoids flat-out hero-worship, as his admiration for the people he is writing about is tempered by his satirical sense.
Not every astronaut memoir begins with the self-administration of an enema (um… that came out wrong). Not every astronaut memoir begins with the description of the author self-administering an enema in the course of the astronaut selection process. While The Right Stuff (above) was written about astronauts by a journalist, this book has exploded straight from the mind of someone who was involved intimately in the processes and operations of the US space program. Mullane tells his story with both tenderness and fierce criticism – you can feel the tenderness when he writes about his fellow astronauts, and feel the criticism when he writes about some of the questionable practices and bureaucracy at NASA. Ultimately, it is a story from the perspective of one participant, but crucially, a participant with fascinating insight and an ability to tell a story well. Also, reading this is the closest I’ll ever get to being an astronaut.
Failure Is Not An Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond by Gene Kranz (2000)
“ANOTHER biography?” I imagine some of you asking. Yes, indeed, another biography. I think the human endeavour of space exploration is most compellingly described through that other very human endeavour, storytelling. This book documents life in Mission Control from the perspective of the man who was the flight director during the US space program’s most iconic missions and events. I have to admit, I pictured Ed Harris (who portrayed Kranz in Apollo 13) while I read this book (I’m superficial that way).
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (including all the sequels) by Douglas Adams (1979-1992)
If you weren’t already yelling at me for including too many biographies on this list, you might be now, for including a work of fiction. You certainly wouldn’t read these books for a science education, but you would read them if you already have a working understanding of scientific concepts and you want to play with them a bit. Artificial intelligence? The H2G2 universe has AI so highly developed it needs psychiatric help. Time travel? You can watch the universe end, as many times as you wish, at Milliways. Fiction has the luxury of speculation, raising questions and exploring possibilities that would be difficult to justify in a work of non-fiction. If you’re still not convinced, read the books anyway, then read ‘The Science of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Michael Hanlon (I haven’t read that book so let me know how you go).
Contact by Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan is not a fabulous fiction writer (ducks to avoid projectiles). In Contact, he breaks out of the story to explain interesting scientific points, and the writing itself is not what I would call beautiful. However, much like H2G2, this book has the luxury of extrapolating from current scientific understanding to explore the ‘what ifs’. What if we were to make contact with an alien intelligence? How would we react? What would our governments do? What would the aliens be like? What would they tell us? These are exhilarating questions and it is a treat to ride along as Sagan’s formidable intellect speculates on the answers. The film adaptation of Contact is worth watching, but it misses some of the nuances and elements that make the book a must-read for science enthusiasts.
Laika by Nick Abadzis
This is not a science book. It is a graphic novel of a fictionalised version of the true story of Laika, the first dog in space. Like the two fiction entries on this list, you wouldn’t read this book to learn scientific concepts, but to explore the philosophical, practical and political questions that our application of scientific concepts raises. This book uses multiple viewpoints, including of Laika herself, to tell the story of the years leading up to the launch of Sputnik 2. There is no doubt that I’m a big anthropomorphising emotional wreck when it comes to dogs, which is probably part of the reason this book had such an impact on me.
NASA History Program Office website (http://history.nasa.gov/)
I had to include this site because it is such a mind-blowingly rich resource for anyone interested in space science, astronomy, space history, politics, engineering, and almost anything else. The site has a range of books, technical manuals, transcripts and other NASA publications available FOR FREE. The only problem is working out what to read first.