Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

24 JULY, 2012

Sally Ride, the First American Woman in Space, on What It’s Actually Like to Launch on the Space Shuttle

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Celebrating a pioneering astronaut, remarkable role model, and tireless advocate of science literacy.

On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride boarded the space shuttle Challenger and became the first American woman in space. In 2012, Ride lost her life to pancreatic cancer. President Barack Obama rightfully called her “a national hero and a powerful role model,” who inspired generations of young women.

But besides being a pioneering astronaut, Ride was also a tireless advocate for more science and math in schools and a prolific co-author of children’s science books, including the 1986 tome To Space and Back. Mere days before the book went to the printer, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch on national television, leaving millions of Americans overcome with grief and anxiety about space. Ride was conflicted about whether or not to publish the book in its current form, but in the end decided to go ahead, making it a testament to the importance of space-exploration and a way to answer young people’s questions about being an astronaut. She proceeded to deliver this eloquent, riveting account of what it’s actually like to launch into space aboard the space shuttle — a wonderful way to celebrate her legacy of bravery:

The long elevator ride up the launch tower takes us to a level near the nose of the space shuttle, 195 feet above the ground. Trying hard not to look down at the pad far below, we walk out onto an access arm and into the ‘white room’ The white room, a small white chamber at the end of the movable walkway, fits right next to the space shuttle’s hatch. the only other people on the launch pad — in fact, the only other people for miles — are the six technicians waiting for us in the white room. They help us put on our escape harnesses and launch helmets and help us climb through the hatch. Then they strap us into our seats.

Because the space shuttle is standing on its tail, we are lying on our backs as we face the nose. It’s awkward to twist around to look out the windows. The commander has a good view of the launch tower, and the pilot has a good view of the Atlantic Ocean, but no one else can see much outside.

Launch minus one hour. We check to make sure that we are strapped in properly, that oxygen will flow into our helmets, that our radio communication with Mission Control is working, and that our pencils and our books — the procedure manuals and checklists we’ll need during liftoff — are attached to something to keep them from shaking loose. Then we wait.

The technicians close the hatch and then head for safety three miles away. We’re all alone on the launch pad.

Launch minus seven minutes. The walkway with the white room at the end slowly pulls away. Far below us the power units start whirring, sending a shudder through the shuttle. We close the visors on our helmets and begin to breathe from the oxygen supply. Then the space shuttle quivers again as its launch engines slowly move into position for blast-off.

Launch minus 10 seconds … 9 … 8 … 7 … The three launch engines light. The shuttle shakes and strains at the bolts holding it to the launch pad. The computers check the engines. It isn’t up to us anymore — the computers will decide whether we launch.

3 … 2 … 1 … The rockets light! The shuttle leaps off the launch pad in a cloud of steam and a trail of fire. Inside, the ride is rough and loud. Our heads are rattling around inside our helmets. We can barely hear the voices from Mission Control in our headsets above the thunder of the rockets and engines. For an instant I wonder if everything is working right. But there’s no more time to wonder, and no time to be scared.

In only a few seconds we zoom past the clouds. Two minutes later the rockets burn out, and with a brilliant whitish-orange flash, they fall away from the shuttle as it streaks on toward space. Suddenly the ride becomes very, very smooth and quiet. The shuttle is still attached to the big tank, and the launch engines are pushing us out of Earth’s atmosphere. The sky is black. All we can see of the trail of fire behind us is a faint, pulsating glow through the top window.

The atmosphere thins gradually as we travel farther from Earth. At fifty miles up, we’re above most of the air, and we’re officially ‘in space.’

The book also features this fascinating anatomy of the interior of the space shuttle by artist Mike Eagle:

To send Sally off, here’s the most exquisite cover of “Blue Moon” you’ll ever hear — thanks, Radiolab:

GalleyCat

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23 JULY, 2012

The Great Race: An Exquisite Tale of Forest Creatures Illustrated in the Style of Indian Folk Art

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“I’m the fastest animal in the forest! And I challenge any animal to race me!”

If you read Brain Pickings regularly, you’re intimately familiar with the wonderful work of Indian indie publisher Tara Books, who for the past 17 years has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautifully crafted books that honor the legacy and diverse styles of Indian folk art. Now comes The Great Race (public library) — an adaptation of an Indonesian folktale featuring Kanchil the trickster mouse deer, illustrated in the stunning Mata-ni-Pachedi style of ritual textile painting from the Gujarat region by artist Jagdish Chitara and written by Nathan Kumar Scott — a first-of-its-kind use of this traditional folk art in children’s storytelling.

The Great Race is the third in Scott’s Kanchil series, a follow-up to The Sacred Banana Leaf and Mangoes and Bananas, each equally exquisite in its own right and illustrated by a different Indian artist.

Images courtesy of Tara Books

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23 JULY, 2012

Trinity: A Graphic History of the Atomic Bomb

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From Marie Curie to Hiroshima, or what uranium isotopes have to do with moral philosophy.

When Robert Oppenheimer was charged with recruiting the best and the brightest for a top-secret project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, he was faced with a hard sell: convince some of the most well-respected physicists in America to leave their research, uproot their families, and travel across the country for reasons that he couldn’t explain. There was only one thing he could tell them for certain: that their work would help defeat the Germans.

The dense, complicated, and fascinating story of the making of the atomic bomb is not an easy one to tell. It contains novels within novels of scientific breakthroughs and collaborations, dangerous new discoveries, government cover-ups and conspiracies, of criss-crossing allegiances, entire cities destroyed, and of course, a basic understanding of particle physics. Richard Rhodes gave the story the vigorous historical treatment in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and composer John Adams rendered it elegiacally in his 2005 opera Dr. Atomic.

In Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb (public library), writer and illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm suggests that the story of the atomic bomb is perhaps something told best not through thousands of government documents, but instead drawn on a chalkboard. The result is a concise and beautiful grasp on one of the most complex and essential events of the twentieth century — and a fine testament to the power of graphic storytelling in serious nonfiction.

Robert Oppenheimer prepares for the Trinity test.

© 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

From the discovery of radioactivity in the lab of Marie and Pierre Curie, to the letter that Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt warning about the dangers of the newly discovered nuclear fission, the events leading up to the Manhattan Project are interspersed with exacting diagrams of crashing atoms and the disruptions at the heart of the nucleus that make up the fundamentals of fission, chain reactions, fragile isotopes of uranium, and their destructive potential.

Physicists Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi discuss nuclear fission at Columbia University, c. 1938.

© 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

While the scientists on the project were led by Oppenheimer, the entire Manhattan Project was sealed and compartmentalized by Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, who had the unenviable task of getting thousands of civilians and scientists to abide by military rule. From plumbers, to secretaries, to the military police, few knew what they were working towards. Not even the scientists knew what the other scientists were doing, a frustrating effect of government lockdown for Oppenheimer, who was stymied without scientific collaboration.

The detonation inside of the Fat Man bomb, which was used on Nagasaki.

© 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Eventually, the scientists were allowed to work together in a carefully restricted area, and the work continued. The separate elements of the project soon came together: fissioning a critical mass of uranium, setting off a chain reaction, and delivering the payload.

The beginning of the chain reaction.

© 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Fetter-Vorm explains that the destruction and after-effects of radioactivity on the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left the scientists of the Manhattan project, who had for years wondered “Can it be done?” to finally question “Should it be done?” The single-minded world of Trinity was a bell jar of furiously-working scientists, for whom success was an explosion, but not its result.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons after the dropping of the atomic bomb.

© 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Trinity joins The Influencing Machine, Feynman, and The Zen of Steve Jobs as a fascinating visual reimagining of a story that is at once tremendously culturally significant and thrillingly human.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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20 JULY, 2012

Susan Sontag on Aphorisms and the Commodification of Wisdom

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“Aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking.”

In devouring the newly released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), I came across two passages addressing something that concerns me daily — the reckless reduction of complex ideas into sticky soundbites and catchphrases, a practice that in the three decades since Sontag’s writings has become not merely an accepted cultural standard, but a profitable business model in the “ideas economy.” Under such commodification of thought, after a while, all these bite-sized ideas begin to sound, look and, eventually, act the same.

In an entry dated April 26, 1980, Sontag offers a short but brilliant meditation on aphorisms — the ultimate soundbitification of thinking:

Aphorisms are rogue ideas.

Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details. Aphoristic thinking constructs thinking as an obstacle race: the reader is expected to get it fast, and move on. An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that.

To write aphorisms is to assume a mask — a mask of scorn, of superiority. Which, in one great tradition, conceals (shapes) the aphorist’s secret pursuit of spiritual salvation. The paradoxes of salvation. We know at the end, when the aphorist’s amoral, light point-of-view self-destructs.

Then, ten days later, on May 6, she continues:

With the (1943) epigraph of Canetti. ‘The great writers of aphorisms read as if they had all known each other very well.’

One wonders why. Can it be that the literature of aphorisms teaches us the sameness of wisdom (as anthropology teaches us the diversity of culture)? The wisdom of pessimism. Or should we rather conclude that the form of the aphorism, of abbreviated or condensed or rogue thought, is a historically-colored voice which, when adopted, inevitably suggests certain attitudes; is the vehicle of a common thematics?

The traditional thematics of the aphorist: the hypocrisies of societies, the vanities of human wishes, the shallowness + deviousness of women; the sham of love; the pleasures (and necessity) of solitude; + the intricacies of one’s own thought processes.

[…]

Aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking: by its very brevity or concentratedness, it presupposes a superior standard …

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is a remarkable read in its entirety. Sample it further with Sontag on writing, sex, boredom, and censorship, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated wisdom on art and on love.

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