Thursday, January 26, 2012

eReadings 7

History of Science

This is a series of 4 volumes starting in prehistoric times (yes, I said prehistoric times), and carefully covering the advances of science. I think there were 2 eras in which the accomplishments were quite amazing. Keep in mind that I'm reading out-of-copyright books, and this series was written in the late 19th century.

First, the Greeks. Their powers of reasoning and investigation are astounding, and there was very little to match them for centuries after the Greek decline. The Romans added very little to what the Greeks had already discerned. In spite of their limited knowledge about the extent of the world, the Greeks had determined that the Earth was a sphere, even though they had no idea as to where land was, where sea was on this sphere. There was the first notion of heliocentricity of our solar system, forgotten and discarded for many centuries. And of course we have people like Pythagoras and Euclid, who came up with important principles we still learn today. But we also get a sense of the attitude of some of these Greeks, a fair amount of hubris and jealousy, so this series is more than a recitation of dry facts.

In the 19th century, abetted by some very clever people in the 17th and 18th centuries, we see the beginnings of modern science as we know it, with careful experimentation, the discovery of new elements, the early development of the atomic theory, and again the various rivalries, co-discoveries, and they way that some became famous quite deservedly, some who did so less deservedly, and some who should have been famous but were overlooked.

It takes a while to go through these volumes, but for those interested in science and science history, it's well worth your while.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

eReadings 6

The First Men in the Moon
H G Wells

The title's "in" seems like a typo, but eventually you realize that it's very much intended by the author. We live now with the reality of space travel and men having actually gone to the moon, so keep in mind this book comes from the 19th century, when the moon remained a source of great speculation.

There are some inklings of the scientific knowledge at the time, as far as the lower gravity on the moon, the "thinness" of the atmosphere, but there are plenty of suppositions that are way off base, and if you can't separate yourself from what we now know about the moon, then you may find the book just silly.

There is the expected eccentric scientist, who comes upon some form of alchemy involving helium to create a substance which blocks gravity, much as an opaque object blocks light. Thus, we have a means of leaving the earth to arrive at the moon, with some curious, primitive means of survival on the way, yet Wells does manage a decent description of the implications of being in a state of zero gravity.

But there is an idea that the moon has a breathable atmosphere, and that at least as long as the sun is shining on it the temperature is such that one can walk on the moon without protection, and we might say the second surprise after that is that there grows a profusion of plants on the surface of the moon, at least while the sun shines. Somehow Wells had the idea the the sun shines on the moon continuously for many of our earth days, which figures in the events as the adventures on and in the moon unravel. Surprises continue as you read about the goings on beneath the moon's surface.

Of course, now science fiction and fantasy have to travel to distant planets and galaxies to give us believable stories of life outside of Earth, but if you cast away your prejudices about what it's really like on the moon, the story is nonetheless interesting to read.

eReadings 5

Hard Times
Charles Dickens

It doesn't take long into this book to really feel the grime, grit, and bleakness of a small English manufacturing town, covered with coal dust and soot, where most people's lives belong to the factories and owners.

This is really the backdrop, though, for what is going on with the main protagonists, Thomas Gradgrind, and his friend, Josiah Bounderby, both wealthy, both in control of their lives and those around them. Mr. Gradgrind raises his children at home, filling them with facts, so much so that there is no allowance for dreaming, wishing, reading novels, anything not based on facts.

Mr. Bounderby is a self-made man, and reminds those around him incessantly of that fact -- abandoned by his mother, scraping out an existence, to finally make himself what he is today, a wealthy manufacturer and banker.

By the end of the book, each man receives his comeuppance in his own way, and at least Mr. Gradgrind is the better for it. Meanwhile, the story details the inequities of the rich and poor, part of which rests in the way the rich think of and treat the poor, yet at least some of the poor have qualities the rich will never attain.

Dickens is quite the creator of interesting characters, one of whom, Mr. Sleary, provides the challenge of reading through the depiction of his lisp, "Well, Thquire", he returned... "Ith it your intenthion to do anything for the poor girl, Thquire?" Some of Mr. Sleary's long-winded moments are a bit mind-numbing to read, seeming like a poor trick Dickens plays on his readers.

It may be a bit syrupy and sappy in the end, but overall very satisfying.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

eReadings 4

David Copperfield
Charles Dickens

Dickens writes in his preface that, at least of the time of the writing, this was his favorite book, since he really enjoyed the character.

My sense after reading it is that, interestingly enough, even though the story centers around David Copperfield and the things that happen to him as narrator of the story, it's not really about him. It's about all the strange and interesting characters in his life. There is much tragedy, various moments of happiness, sorrow as he tries to make his way through life, and the strange ways that people keep coming back into his life.

One of the most interesting families are the McCawbers, a family always on the verge of yet another financial calamity, going from one ruinous debt to the next, yet happy the whole while.

And now I see where the rock band Uriah Heep got its name, and quite a character he is.

Maybe the ending gets to be a bit of too much goodness, but this is a book full of enjoyable reading.