BOOK REVIEW: The Contact Paradox, by Keith Cooper

BOOK REVIEW: The Contact Paradox, by Keith CooperTitle: The Contact Paradox: Challenging our Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by Keith Cooper
Published by Bloomsbury SIGMA
Published: January 21st 2020
Genres: Science
Pages: 336
Format: ARC
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

Inside the difficult questions about humanity's search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
What will happen if humanity makes contact with another civilization on a different planet? In The Contact Paradox, space journalist Keith Cooper tackles some of the myths and assumptions that underlie SETI--the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
In 1974 a message was beamed towards the stars by the giant Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico, a brief blast of radio waves designed to alert extraterrestrial civilizations to our existence. Of course, we don't know if such civilizations really exist. But for the past six decades a small cadre of researchers have been on a quest to find out, as part of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
The silence from the stars is prompting some researchers, inspired by the Arecibo transmission, to transmit more messages into space, in an effort to provoke a response from any civilizations out there that might otherwise be staying quiet. However, the act of transmitting raises troubling questions about the process of contact. We look for qualities such as altruism and intelligence in extraterrestrial life, but what do these mean to humankind? Can we learn something about our own history when we explore what happens when two civilizations come into contact? Finally, do the answers tell us that it is safe to transmit, even though we know nothing about extraterrestrial life, or as Stephen Hawking argued, are we placing humanity in jeopardy by doing so?
In The Contact Paradox, author Keith Cooper looks at how far SETI has come since its modest beginnings, and where it is going, by speaking to the leading names in the field and beyond. SETI forces us to confront our nature in a way that we seldom have before--where did we come from, where are we going, and who are we in the cosmic context of things? This book considers the assumptions that we make in our search for extraterrestrial life, and explores how those assumptions can teach us about ourselves.

I am not a science-minded person and a lot of upper-level math boggles my mind, but I do love reading about science, especially space and astrophysics and what lies beyond our atmosphere. When I had the opportunity to read The Contact Paradox by Keith Cooper, I jumped on it, because I love the idea of examining what it means to achieve contact with extraterrestrials.

I really loved how Cooper presented his argument, circled back around to clarify and reiterate, and also used pop culture and science fiction references to illustrate some of the ideas about which he wrote. It’s not an easy book to read, but it is accessible and is not full of unexplained jargon so that a casual science reader like myself could pick it up, understand the concepts about which he wrote, and enjoy it. I think writing about a very specialized, specific field in a way that makes it accessible to people on the other side of the field is a difficult task, and I thoroughly enjoyed this from beginning to end.

Two quotes (taken from an unfinished copy, so they may be different in the final versions) really stuck to me that I ended up writing them down in my notebook illustrate the concept of the Contact Paradox:

… maybe the civilisations that last are the ones that keep their heads down and out of trouble. On the other hand […], maybe what other civilisations are looking for as evidence that we are stepping up and becoming a good galactic civilisation is a willingness to reach out, and maybe there are implications if we choose not to. This is the dichotomy at the heart of the Contact Paradox. It is a maze of assumptions, cherished beliefs and few facts.

SETI [the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] is not just a search for aliens. It’s also a search for ourselves. We project our hopes and fears, our history and our expectations about the future of humanity onto what we think extraterrestrial civilisations might be like. The stars are a mirror and, when we gaze up at them, if we look closely enough, we see our reflection staring back. Study that reflection and we may learn something about ourselves.

The concept of extraterrestrial life is big in science fiction, and when I taught science fiction, I always liked to include bits like this (not so eloquently put, but I wanted to get my students thinking about what extraterrestrial life in fiction meant). Often times, in fiction, when characters go out exploring within the narrative laid out for them, they’re not always just searching for something else or the other. A lot of the times they’re also searching for themselves and their meaning within the greater context of their world, and the struggle in searching for themselves is that to themselves they must find definition. Who am I? Who are we? Who do I want to be? These and similar questions are also faced in the context of what it means to actually seek out or receive communication and visits from other planets and whether or not that’s possible in our lifetimes or any near-future lifetimes. And if it isn’t possible, then what? Then who are we?

Thank you to Bloomsbury for a gifted digital ARC! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn Harkup

BOOK REVIEW: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn HarkupTitle: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by Kathryn Harkup
Published by Bloomsbury SIGMA
Published: February 6th 2018
Genres: Non-Fiction, History, Science
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

The year 1818 saw the publication of one of the most influential science-fiction stories of all time. Frankenstein: Or, Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley had a huge impact on gothic horror and science fiction genres. The name Frankenstein has become part of our everyday language, often used in derogatory terms to describe scientists who have overstepped a perceived moral line. But how did a 19-year-old woman with no formal education come up with the idea for an extraordinary novel such as Frankenstein? The period of 1790-1820 saw huge advances in our understanding of electricity and physiology. Sensational science demonstrations caught the imagination of the general public, and newspapers were full of tales of murderers and resurrectionists.

It is unlikely that Frankenstein would have been successful in his attempts to create life back in 1818. However, advances in medical science mean we have overcome many of the stumbling blocks that would have thwarted his ambition. We can resuscitate people using defibrillators, save lives using blood transfusions, and prolong life through organ transplants--these procedures are nowadays considered almost routine. Many of these modern achievements are a direct result of 19th century scientists conducting their gruesome experiments on the dead.

Making the Monster explores the science behind Shelley's book. From tales of reanimated zombie kittens to electrical experiments on human cadavers, Kathryn Harkup examines the science and scientists that influenced Mary Shelley and inspired her most famous creation, Victor Frankenstein. While, thankfully, we are still far from being able to recreate Victor's "creature," scientists have tried to create the building blocks of life, and the dream of creating life-forms from scratch is now tantalizingly close.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my favorite books of all time, and definitely in my list of top ten classics. So when I saw Kathryn Harkup’s Making the Monster beginning to make its rounds on Twitter and Instagram, I added it to my TBR and wishlist and waited for a good sale because based on the cover and title alone, I wanted it for my own collection.

I love literary histories like these that give the reader an insight into the creation of the novel while also providing context for the scientific aspects of Frankenstein. Sometimes I felt that the structure of the book could be better managed, but overall, I thought that the back and forth between Mary Shelley’s life and the real-life science that inspired the science in her novel worked effectively. Harkup’s book is incredibly well researched, and her meticulous attention to detail adds so much to the experience of reading this. For someone like me who isn’t wholly aware of a lot of medical and science history, the chapters focusing on the medical and science history were the most chilling and most engaging, especially the chapter regarding autopsies and the lucrative business surrounding the digging up of cadavers to sell to institutions of higher learning.

The main issue I had with the book were the biographical sections involving Percy and Mary Shelley because a good portion of those sections read as if they had been poorly edited or were a draft that could have easily been tightened up or finished off. I think Harkup’s strengths lie in scientific writing that is readily based upon set-in-stone information, whereas biographies do require a little more finesse in terms of narrative structure. For example, a lot of sentences in the biography sections ended with prepositional phrases and included digits instead of spelled out numerals for numbers under 100. Several sentences contained dangling participles, and I had to reread the sentences several times to be sure what the “it” was in the second half of the sentence. These are my editorial quibbles from my days editing student essays, so my reading experience is jarred when I notice these things in published works.

Overall, the science and medical histories and the biographies in Making the Monster are accessible to a variety of readers, whether or not they are familiar with Shelley’s Frankenstein. If you’re interested in the sometimes gruesome practices in the history of medicine and/or enjoy literary biographies, I recommend checking this one out!

BOOK REVIEW: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil deGrasse Tyson

BOOK REVIEW: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil deGrasse TysonTitle: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Published by W. W. Norton & Company
Published: January 1st 1970
Genres: Science
Pages: 144
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

What is the nature of space and time? How do we fit within the universe? How does the universe fit within us? There’s no better guide through these mind-expanding questions than acclaimed astrophysicist and best-selling author Neil deGrasse Tyson.
But today, few of us have time to contemplate the cosmos. So Tyson brings the universe down to Earth succinctly and clearly, with sparkling wit, in tasty chapters consumable anytime and anywhere in your busy day.
While you wait for your morning coffee to brew, for the bus, the train, or a plane to arrive, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry will reveal just what you need to be fluent and ready for the next cosmic headlines: from the Big Bang to black holes, from quarks to quantum mechanics, and from the search for planets to the search for life in the universe.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is an excellent, fact-packed book about science, space stuff, and physics for people who either don’t have the background in any of the subjects and want to learn more or for people who don’t have the time to read denser books about these subjects but still want to get a decent grasp on the concepts without spending a lot of time getting into the theoretical aspects of it.

What I think I like best about this book is the fact that you can read a chapter at a time and feel like you’ve learned (or refreshed your memory) about some cool stuff that you can then use as a jumping off point for more research, just feel like you can have a general conversation about whatever the chapter covered, and/or understand some of the space concepts covered in the news or on social media. What I think I disliked most was the fact that if I read multiple chapters in one sitting without taking even the tiniest break between them I felt a little lost and confused. This book is definitely something you’ll want to keep on hand and flip through a chapter or two just before bed or in those times while you’re commuting or on a lunch break.

NDT explains complicated subjects well a way that don’t sound condescending to the average reader (or me), and he interjects a lot of humor into his writing which sometimes helps explain some of the more elaborate things. If you’re interested in refreshing your astrophysics knowledge or learning more about space and what we know and don’t know is out there in the universe, this is a great place to start!

Thank you to WW Norton and Netgalley for an advance copy for me to read! All opinions are my own.

Little List of Reviews #5

Here’s another little list of reviews! There isn’t a theme to this list this time, but they’re all books that I’ve been reading on and off for a long time that I’ve finally finished!

Little List of Reviews #5Title: Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle
Published by Tachyon Publications
Published: September 6th 2016
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 240
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

Beloved author Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) returns with this long-anticipated new novel, a beautifully bittersweet tale of passion, enchantment, and the nature of fate.
It was a typically unpleasant Puget Sound winter before the arrival of Lioness Lazos. An enigmatic young waitress with strange abilities, when the lovely Lioness comes to Gardner Island even the weather takes notice.
As an impossibly beautiful spring leads into a perfect summer, Lioness is drawn to a complicated family. She is taken in by two disenchanted lovers—dynamic Joanna Delvecchio and scholarly Abe Aronson — visited by Joanna’s previously unlucky-in-love daughter, Lily. With Lioness in their lives, they are suddenly compelled to explore their deepest dreams and desires.
Lioness grows more captivating as the days grow longer. Her new family thrives, even as they may be growing apart. But lingering in Lioness’s past is a dark secret — and even summer days must pass.

Peter S. Beagle can spin a fantastic, beautiful phrase, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work (can you believe I’ve never read The Last Unicorn??). However, Summerlong didn’t do it for me. I feel like I might have approached this book differently had I know about the mythological twist that reveals itself in the last third of the book, because without having known it, I felt that the fantastic elements of it led to a disconnect between the story that I had become familiar with and the story it ended up being. I don’t recall reading anywhere about the ties to Greek mythology, so it was definitely a wait, what?? sort of moment. I think my lack of enjoyment of the story is completely on me, because I was expecting something more fantasy driven than the contemporary character driven story it is. I felt like I didn’t relate to any of the characters, and it took a long time for me to get through a relatively short novel. If you enjoy stories about coming to life, as it were, after the summer of your life has passed, I think you’ll find this novel right up your alley!

I received a review copy from Netgalley and Tachyon Pub; all opinions are my own.

Little List of Reviews #5Title: Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening by Marjorie M. Liu, Sana Takeda, Rus Wooton
Series: Monstress #1
Published by Image Comics
Published: July 19th 2016
Genres: Graphic Novel
Pages: 202
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

The illustrations in this are amazing and worth it just to peruse it for that, but I found the story incredibly complex and a little unforgiving to casual reading. Not every graphic novel needs to have the ability to just pick up and go, but this is something that will require rereading (either after a first read or while reading it [the latter of which is irritating to me because I really don’t like having to backtrack through a short-form story to find clarity]), so maybe it’s ultimately not the thing for me? The story did become clearer about halfway through once the pieces came together, and I think I’ll read the next ones, but it’s not on the priority list for me at the moment.

Little List of Reviews #5Title: Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A Strauss, J. Richard Gott III
Published by Princeton University Press
Published: September 29th 2016
Genres: Science
Pages: 472
Format: Hardcover
Source: Borrowed
Goodreads

Some of this stuff went way over my head, but it was interesting! And definitely better read in sections as each chapter is essentially a lecture! I liked the structure of it, though. Each chapter built on the one before it, and while it was challenging at times to understand the concepts, I feel like each of the three author’s thoroughly explained the concepts and their relativity (heh) to other concepts in the knowledge we have of our vast universe.