What If? and How To by Randall Munroe

One of the best things that’s come out of 2021 for me so far is finding a new favorite nonfiction author: Randall Munroe. Although I’m an amateur at best in the field of science, I never get tired of learning fascinating scientific facts and explanations, and I’m always a sucker for a dry sense of humor. For me, Randall Munroe reads like Andy Weir’s The Martian – my all-time favorite book. Here are two of Munroe’s books, both recent and not-so-recent, that sum up his style AND are great reads.

What If? by Randall Munroe is a big, ambitious book, packed with humor, science, and fascinating imagined scenarios. You may know Randall Munroe from Thing Explainer – see Brenda’s great post about it here. In brief, Munroe is the creator of a webcomic and website devoted to answering people’s wildest questions with real scientific consideration. In What If? he gathers the biggest collection of these questions and their answers in one place – including relevant cartoons and a collection of the most weird and worrying questions he’s received through the website. From the publisher: “His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity, and often predict the complete annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion.”

 

How To is his latest publication, from 2019. In it, he gives impractical, complicated, scientific instructions for how to deal with real-world problems, including everything from landing a plane, digging a hole, predicting the weather, and disposing of the book once you’re done with it (although in this last case, we’re going to have to insist you dispose of it by returning it in the drop box). As always, the text is accompanied by his simple and amusing cartoons and a good dose of dry humor. From the publisher: “By exploring the most complicated ways to do simple tasks, Munroe invites us to explore the most absurd reaches of the possible and helps us better understand the science and technology underlying the things we do every day.”

As Brenda mentioned in her post about Thing Explainer, books by this author are a great read if you’re a fan of science, like a humorous style, or have a deep curiosity about the world and how things work. If you’re looking for an author to expand your mind, indulge your inner geek/daredevil, and make you laugh, I recommend you try a book by Randall Munroe.

Bill Nye The Science Guy Appreciation Post

If you’ve read some of my other posts, you know I’m developing a real love for non-fiction books about cool science. Recently, I combined that love with a taste of nostalgia by reading an informative and often funny book by one of my childhood icons, Bill Nye (The Science Guy). Bill Nye became iconic in the 90s with his TV show about science for kids, and he remains a beloved source of science and inspiration to many today. This post is not only to recommend you read one of his enthusiastic, fascinating, and inspiring books, but to highlight how much Bill Nye you can get from your local library (or at least the Rivershare library system as a whole).

For Adults: 

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There are three books for adults that Nye has published in the last few years. To catch some of his general enthusiasm, check out Everything All At Once, an energizing look at how to identify your passions, strengthen your critical thinking, and solve ‘unsolvable’ problems. Embrace your inner nerd! If one of your passions turns out to be scientific causes, try one of his other two books: Undeniable and Unstoppable, about evolution and climate change, respectively. In these books, it’s obvious how much Bill Nye cares about kids and wants them to love science, create a better world, and have a fantastic time. And, he gets his message across with humor, which I always appreciate.

If those aren’t for you, you may appreciate his sense of wonder; he wrote the preface for both Earth + Space and The Planets, collections of breathtaking photographs from NASA’s archives.

For Kids (or Kids-At-Heart)

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Of course, this is where Bill Nye shines as a passionate educator and enthusiastic science nerd: he’s created a number of nonfiction titles including Bill Nye’s great big world of science, Bill Nye the science guy’s big blue ocean, Bill Nye the science guy’s big blast of science, AND a fiction series called Jack and the Geniuses.

Even better, you even can check out DVDs of some vintage Bill Nye the Science Guy content including Bill Nye the science guy. Electrical current, Bill Nye the science guy. Dinosaurs, Do-it-yourself science, and much, much more.

In any case, whether it’s a walk down memory lane or a call to action, I really do recommend you look at some Bill Nye for a wholesome dose of lifelong learning, can-do spirit, and hope for the future. 

Online Reading Challenge – Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Challengers!

How was your month of Science reading? Did you find something interesting to read?

I hope you have better luck than I did – this month was a no-go for me. Everything I picked up was too “science-y” for me and yes, I know that was the whole point of this month’s challenge! I don’t think it was necessarily the fault of the books or that they had too much science in them, I think it’s a case of just not finding anything appealing. I think most readers go through reading slumps, when you can’t find the right book. Sometimes other things in your life take priority and you don’t have much time to read. Or, you just finished something fantastic and you’re spoiled.

Fortunately, I didn’t give up on reading altogether. I kept reading books, they just weren’t “science-y”! I will, however, admit to having watched a lot of Big Bang Theory re-runs – does that count?

As I always say, there are no Library Police. I may have missed this month, but I’m going to pick up again starting tomorrow with the next challenge!

OK, now it’s your turn – what did you read for September?

Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check

Hello Challenge Readers!

How is your month of Science reading going? I have to admit, I’m lagging a bit behind. The book I chose (Light From Other Stars by Erika Swyler) hasn’t completely grabbed my interest but it’s early yet and I’m going to keep reading. Some books just take time.

If you’re struggling to check off Science in this year’s Challenge, why not try a movie instead? Here are some good ones.

Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightly. Cracking the code the Germans used in World War II was vital to the success of Allies. Even after one of their Enigma machines was captured, untangling the complex code, which changed every day, was next to impossible, until the genius of Alan Turing finds the solution. Based on historical fact, this film is equal parts tense and heartbreaking.

Hidden Figures starring Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson brings us the true story of the African-American women who were vital to the success of NASA and the space race. Struggling against prejudice – both because they were women and because they were African-American – they persevered with courage and stubbornness as well as having brilliant minds.

The Martian with Matt Damon. And exploratory team on Mars leaves Mark behind, believing he was killed in the sudden storm that has forced them to leave. Mark is very much alive and relatively well except, he’s alone on Mars with limited supplies and little hope for rescue. How he copes, using intelligence and ingenuity and sheer pluck makes for a tense and fascinating movie.

The Big Bang Theory television series. I have to admit, I started watching this series quite late in it’s run, but once I did I was hooked and it was easy to catch up with reruns on cable and DVDs from the library. Yes, it’s pretty silly and really, who in their right mind would ever want to live with Sheldon, but it also celebrates intelligence and education and the sciences. The characters all grow and mature over the course of the series (something that doesn’t always happen on tv) and they’re always good for a laugh. Bazinga!

Online Reading Challenge – September

Hey Reading Friends! It’s September! Time for a new topic in the Online Reading Challenge! This month our topic is: Science!

OK, maybe right off the bat the idea of reading about Science is not particularly appealing. But hang in there! There are some fascinating titles – fiction and non-fiction – that just might change your mind. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier is a novel based on fact about an ordinary, working class girl, and a spinster gentlewoman that make one of the great scientific discoveries of the 19th century when they uncover fossils along the coast of Lyme Regis, England. Chevalier weaves the story of the friendship between the woman and the many restrictions women of the early 1800s faced with actual history into a fascinating novel.

More exploration of women in the sciences can be found in The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict (about Albert Einstein’s wife, a brilliant physicist in her own right) and Enchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini, a novel about Ada Lovelace a brilliant mathematician that many consider the inventor of the earliest computer. If you like mysteries, check out the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters about an intrepid lady archaeologist and her Egyptologist husband as they explore pyramids and solve murders in Victorian-era Egypt. For science fiction lovers, you can’t beat The Martian by Andy Weir about an astronaut mistakenly left behind on Mars during an exploratory mission.

Even fiction-only readers will find something fascinating among the non-fiction books. Take a look at Longitude by Dana Sobel about the search for how to calculate longitude (crucial for sailing ships) and how it was discovered. David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers will take you to that windswept North Carolina beach at Kitty Hawk and the breakthroughs that led to flight. Go inside the early days of NASA and the making of the space program with The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (now being made into a mini-series)

I am planning on reading Light from Other Stars by Erica Swyler, set in the near future about astronauts, the altering of time and family. Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? Also, the cover of the book is really pretty! I’ll let you know how it goes!

What about you? What will you be reading this month?

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

vinegar girlVinegar Girl by Anne Tyler is a modern retelling of the classic Shakespeare play, The Taming of the Shrew. Initially I picked this book to listen to through OverDrive for two reasons: the cover looked interesting and it was available for checkout. I’m glad I checked this out. This was very quick to listen to, the characters are all excellently developed, and the narrator hooked me in.

In this retelling, Kate Battista lives with her father, Dr. Louis Battista, and her younger teenage sister, Bunny. Kate works as a nursery school assistant, takes care of the family house, and has watched her younger sister ever since their mother’s early death. Dr. Battista, a research scientist studying autoimmune disorders, is eccentric to sat the least. His compulsiveness shines through in his work and the way he wants Kate to run the house. Everyone’s laundry is done on a different day of the week, Bunny has to follow her father’s behavior rules 100%, and meal prep is down to a specific science. Kate follows her father’s computer-generated grocery list and makes the family’s “meat mash” at the beginning of the week, a less-than-appetizing-sounding food concoction that contains all necessary nutrients that they then eat for the rest of the week.

Dr. Battista has gone through a number of different lab assistants, the current one, Pyotr Shcherbakov, being his favorite. Pyotr is apparently a star scientist from Russia that Dr. Battista, who is equally famous in Russia, was lucky to get. Unfortunately for everyone, Pyotr’s three-year work visa is about to expire, meaning he will be deported back to Russia unless he marries an American girl. Dr. Battista has the perfect girl in mind for Pyotr: his oldest daughter, Kate, who has never turned down any of his crazy schemes before. This retelling of Shakespeare’s classic veers from the powerful emotions in the original, but is a delightful and positive retelling that leaves readers wondering what will happen between Kate, Pyotr, and her father? Will his research be successful? Will Kate and Pyotr get married? Will the meat mash ever change? Tyler’s quirkiness adds a new level to this classic Shakespeare, something that will have readers clamoring for more.


This book is also available in the following formats:

There are many other clever adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew, some of them you may not realize. Check out this list of my favorite adaptations (and call the library for more suggestions!).
mclintockkiss me kate10 things i hate about you

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Thing Explainer : Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe

thing explainerThe Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe is an unusual book. I have never seen one quite like it. Its full-page diagrams contain details of complex things using only the most common 1000 words (which are listed alphabetically at the back of the book.) Topics range from the human torso (“bags of stuff inside you”), to a helicopter (“sky boat with turning wings”),  oil rigs (“stuff in Earth we can burn”), and washing machines (“boxes that make stuff smell better”), to name just a few. It is hilarious and educational at the same time.

Munroe’s elevator is a “lifting room.” He doesn’t neglect to inform that riding one while facing the back wall is likely to make others think you are strange. He still manages to provide a thorough explanation of its mechanical workings.

I suppose some parts of the book could be construed as bringing too much irreverence to what are usually regarded as important and serious topics. For instance, according to Munroe, nuclear bombs are “machines for burning cities.” If you have a certain sense of humor and are even a little bit interested in science, however, you are more likely to find this fresh, almost child-like approach endearing.

The book’s temporary residence on our kitchen table at home sparked some delightful conversations among all ages.

Randall Munroe is the author responsible for the xkcd webcomic.

Banned Books Week: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

henriettaJust in time for Banned Books Week, a challenge has been filed in the Knox County (Tenn.) School District against the New York Times bestseller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

Published in 2010, the book is medical biography that explores issues of medical ethics, race, poverty, and health care inequality. In 1951, 31-year-old Henrietta Lacks underwent treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University. While she would die from the disease, her tissue samples – taken without her knowledge or consent – would be used to create HeLa, an “immortal” cell line. HeLa was sold around the world, and was critical to many medical developments from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. Despite this, Lacks’ family never learned of use of HeLa until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists began using her husband and children in research without informed consent.

The book intertwines Lacks’ life with larger issues of human medical experimentation, in particular on African-American patients, and the heartbreaking loss of a young mother of five. The book also addresses issues of violence and infidelity, the description of which a parent of a 15-year-old student assigned to read the book over summer break objected to. Also at issue was the description of Lacks’ intimate discovery of a lump on her cervix. Claiming that the book was inappropriate for teens, the parent stated, “I consider the book pornographic,” she said, adding that it was the wording used that was the most objectionable. “It could be told in a different way,” she said. “There’s so many ways to say things without being that graphic in nature, and that’s the problem I have with this book.” The author, Rebecca Skloot, who worked for 10 years on the book alongside Henrietta’s daughter, stated on her Facebook page:

“… A parent in Tennessee has confused gynecology with pornography … I hope the students of Knoxville will be able to continue to learn about Henrietta and the important lessons her story can teach them. Because my book is many things: It’s a story of race and medicine, bioethics, science illiteracy, the importance of education and equality and science and so much more. But it is not anything resembling pornography.”

The student, who had  been assigned the book as part of his school’s STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) program was given a different books to read. However, the parent is still pushing to have the book removed from the curriculum district-wide. Other parents have taken issue with the attempt to remove the book, saying that banning the book would deprive their children of the opportunity to learn about important science and social issues. Doug Harris, Knox County Schools Board of Education chair stated, “Always, good people can disagree,” Harris said, “and I think on this book that’s probably the case.”

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Flood, Alison. “Henrietta Lacks Biographer Rebecca Skloot Responds to US Parent over ‘porn’ Allegation.” The Guardian. 9 Sept. 2015. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.

Habegger, Becca. “Author Weighs in on Knoxville Mom’s Push to Ban Book from Schools.” WBIR.com. 9 Sept. 2015. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.

 

AsapSCIENCE: Answers to the World’s Weirdest Questions, Most Persistent Rumors & Unexplained Phenomena

asap scienceGrowing up, I was always curious about anything and everything and I still am. As a result, my poor parents, and really any adult who happened to be near me, were often subjected to my numerous questions: Why is the sky blue? Is cracking my fingers really bad for me or do you just find it annoying? Are my eyeballs really going to pop out of my head if I sneeze with my eyelids open? And many many more questions…

Now that I’m an adult, I find myself on the receiving end of those questions every day as well as having questions of my own. How do I answer these questions? Well, I look them up either online or in books. One of my favorite places to look for answers when I don’t have books nearby is a YouTube Channel called AsapSCIENCE. (They also have another channel called AsapTHOUGHT where they add a social conscience twist to science.) On the AsapScience channel, Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown have made hundreds of YouTube videos about a wide variety of science subjects.

As I was walking the new shelves, I discovered that Moffit and Brown had come out with a book called AsapSCIENCE: Answers to the World’s Weirdest Questions, Most Persistent Rumors & Unexplained Phenomena that goes into more detail than their YouTube channel does on certain popular questions, rumors, and unexplained things that are populating our everyday lives. Filled with illustrations as well as easy to understand definitions of difficult terms, Moffit and Brown tackle the important questions: What are eye boogers? How can I cure my hangover? Is binge watching tv really bad for me? Crack open this book to answer those burning questions about the 5 second rule, what would happen if you stopped sleeping, and even if the zombie apocalypse could really happen. They even have the answers to my blue sky, cracking fingers, and sneezing questions!

Have more questions that this book doesn’t answer? Come visit the library and our reference librarians can help you find the answers.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

signature of all thingsA glorious, sweeping novel of desire, ambition, and the thirst for knowledge,

Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, The Signature of All Things follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker, a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry’s brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father’s money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma’s research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction – into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical.

Alma is a clear-minded scientist, Ambrose a utopian artist, but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life. Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, The Signature of All Things soars across the globe, from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam and beyond. Along the way, the story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who, born in the Age of Enlightenment but living well into the Industrial Revolution, bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas.

Written in the bold, questing spirit of that singular time, Gilbert’s wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers. (description from publisher)

The Signature of All Things  is also available for check out as a free ebook through the RiverShare Digital Library.