Posted by: Neil Hollands
Can science work as a nonfiction subject for book groups? With the right book choices, the answer is a resounding yes, but it helps if you can find science writers who also capture the human side of science. When the scientists are discussed alongside their work, the results are often full of drama, suspense, and emotion.
The topic for our staff book group at the Williamsburg Regional Library this month was science fiction and fantasy, but a few of our more intrepid nonfiction readers balked at that topic (more about that in a future post), so we allowed them to read scientific nonfiction instead.
Connie brought two titles. The first was the droll Mary Roach’s latest, Packing for Mars, a book which explores the human side of space science. Whether it’s motion sickness, surviving high g-forces, eating, sleeping, coping with weightlessness, or relieving oneself in space that makes you curious, it’s all here, and as always with Roach, it’s very funny. It will make you think twice about all those casual space ship voyages in Star Wars or Star Trek, that’s for sure. Roach is so gifted at packing scientific endeavor into a funny narrative that she has developed a devoted following among readers who would otherwise never consider a science title.
Connie’s second book was E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis. I can’t think of a title that sounds much less likely to generate discussion in a book group, but Bodanis’s book tells the story of all the scientists who worked on various aspects of energy, mass, and relativity theory. Connie especially liked how the book depicted the importance of early failures in producing enough creative down time in Einstein’s early life that he could formulate his ideas. Equally important to the story, though, are several women, such as Lise Meitner or Einstein’s first wife Mileva Maric. Bodanis movingly depicts the ways in which men often took credit for their ideas while excluding them from scientific interactions.
One of Cheryl’s selections was Strange Angel, John Pendle’s biography of an odd character named John Whiteside Parsons. The book tells the story of Parsons’ involvement with the early development of rocketry and jets, fields of science that were considered outlandish in their early stages in the 1920s and 30s, but grew in importance as dedicated, brave scientists found ways to make the “impossible” work. But Parsons was equally attracted to other pursuits that really were fantastic: black magic and the beliefs of the mystic Aleister Crowley. This led Parsons (and other better known folks like L. Ron Hubbard) to ever stranger behaviors: sexual rites, drug use, and erratic behavior that eventually led to his expulsion from the Jet Propulsion Lab at Cal Tech that his work helped establish. He would ultimately die in an explosion at his home lab. It’s a fascinating story from a time when science fiction and science were more closely connected.
The fiction portion of this meeting was also interesting, and I’ll discuss that in a post next week.