Book 162: Totality: Eclipses of the Sun by Mark Littmann, Robin Walker, Fred Espenak and Ken Willcox

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Totality: Eclipses of the Sun by Mark Littmann, Robin Walker, Fred Espenak and Ken Willcox

Finished reading on January 17th, 2015

Rating: 7/10

I was searching for a book about solar eclipses that would be manageable in length. This book was one the first results in a search and hence the one I turned to.

My interest in solar eclipse books comes from the fact that in March of this year there will be a partial solar eclipse visible where I live and I had to do some research on the related mythology for work.

The book was a quick read with many interesting topics – in addition to myths and legends, that I was mainly after, there’s also talk about the science and history of eclipse observations and what humankind has found out thanks to solar eclipses – all quite fascinating, as previously I knew only about observations of the corona and the search for a planet closer to the Sun than Mercury and of-course the famous observational proof for Einstein’s General theory of Relativity. But it turns out there are more!

For those more practically minded -the book introduces safe ways for observing and photographing a solar eclipse and gives ideas about what kind of equipment you need and also how to later process your images.

And a book about solar eclipses wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the past solar eclipses and the ones coming up in the next twenty or so years, so you can plan your vacations a bit. For Americans – there will be a total solar eclipse visible in 2017 in some of the states, in the others it’ll be partial. Unfortunately for my location, the next total eclipse is in 2126, so I’ll actually have to go chasing the shadow of the Moonmyself, to see a total one in my lifetime. Good to know 🙂

Though there was something disturbing by the end – although it is mentioned so many times in the book, how extraordinary seeing the totality is, and how you can’t express it in words and can’t really capture the emotions in photographs or on video, at some point I did catch myself thinking “meh, just the Moon in front of the Sun and the sky is dark… big deal” So obviously it is necessary that I’d actually see it myself, otherwise I’ll be as any person who’s never seen Saturn through a telescope and would just shrug about seeing a planet that is so beautiful and so far away yet visible through two correctly shaped pieces of glass in a tube….

So possibly that is what I came away with – you have to see it to actually understand it better.

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Book 161: The Copernicus Complex by Caleb Scharf

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The Copernicus Complex by Caleb Scharf

Finished reading on January 6th, 2015

Rating: 9/10

Nicolaus Copernicus, a 16th century astronomer showed that the Sun is in the centre of the Solar System, and the Earth only goes around it, hence joining the other planets and in some ways losing its importance as a special place.

Discoveries in later centuries have shown that there’s barely anything special about the Earth’s location in the Universe – we circle around a rather average star (although more massive than 75% of other stars, but still a dwarf star) in a rather average spiral arm of a giant galaxy, the like of which are numerous in the Universe.

But if you leave all that aside, there seems to be something that might make Earth a tiny bit special – it’s the only place thus far that we know of that has life.

In “The Copernicus Complex”, Scharf takes a look at exoplanets and the search for life and the mathematics that might possibly give us an estimate as to whether or not we are alone – as soon as we get some more data points.

The book goes through several topics – biology, statistics and astronomy and manages to show how the Copernican Principle – the idea that we don’t occupy a special time or place in the Universe is at the same time wrong and right.

I found the book dipping into some interesting themes – such as celestial mechanics and how although we can predict the motions of planets around the sun in the near future and past, we can’t do so for millions of years hence. Another was the look at how maybe we exist in a special time, when it is (or so it seems) possible to correctly characterize the Universe – it’s age and size – whilst billions of years hence when the Universe keeps expanding, life on a planet in some far distant future planet, might look at the sky, and not see anything else besides their own galaxy.

In general it was a very enjoyable read, especially because of the wide array of themes covered.

If you’ve read Scharf’s previous popular science book, “Gravity’s Engines“, the style is quite different, but in a good way, as the topics aren’t really similar anyway, but I’m sure you’d enjoy reading “The Copernicus Complex”.

Book 160: The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

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The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

Finished reading on January 3rd, 2014

Rating: 8/10

I’m pretty sure there are many people who love movies about food (although they make you hungry), books about food are kind of the same thing, only you get the hungry feeling for a longer time…

This book is about several topics – cooking, traditions, and strong personalities.

The book starts in India, Mumbai, where the reader gets to know a little about the Haji family, who own a restaurant. Because of some events involving religious and financial differences between people who live near the restaurant, the Haji family leaves India and moves to London and then travels in Europe and ends up in France.

There, the head of the Haji family decides to open a restaurant in just the perfect place for one, except for the fact that there is an excellent restaurant at the hotel a hundred feet across the road.

The story continues with several “battles” between the owner of the fancy classical French restaurant, Madame Mallory and Papa Haji, but also with the story of one of the Haji kids – Hassan, who has a talent for cooking, and learnt to cook from his mother.

Lots of cooking, learning and fighting ensues…

That’s about it for what the book is about.

It is certainly interesting, as you don’t know what is gong to happen from one page to the next… the characters stay the same despite the fact that the whole book takes place in about 20 years or so.

The only thing I found curious was that Hassan doesn’t return to Indian cooking until later in the book (maybe because his sister does keep cooking some Indian foods for him?).

Now, there is a movie (you can watch the trailer here), that is (I’d say rather loosely) based on the book. I watched the film about twelve hours after I finished reading the book and I was quite disappointed, since I did like the book, but in the movie things are very different. It might be good though – if you’ve seen the movie, read the book, you’ll be surprised as to how much more happens in the book.

Book 159: Sextant by David Barrie

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Sextant: A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans by David Barrie

Finished reading on December 31st, 2014

Rating: 9/10

If you enjoy a good travel journal, then this book might be for you… on the other hand, if you’re interested in celestial navigation, this book is definitely worth a read.

In “Sextant”, throughout the book you can read about the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean on a yacht in the 1970s and in addition you get to read about different expeditions through centuries where navigation was obviously very important and either made the expedition a success or a failure.

It was quite fascinating, I would have even liked to read a bit more about the explorers like Flinders (who explored the coast of Australia) or George Vancouver, who explored the coast of Alaska and in general the northwestern Pacific coast of North America or Robert FitzRoy who was the captain of HMS Beagle and took Charles Darwin with him on an expedition…

When I was in my early teens I got obsessed with explorers – not just any explorers though – they’d have to be polar explorers. I was fascinated with the cold and the snow (and in my 58 degrees north location, there are winters where temperature can fall to minus 30 degrees Celsius) and the people who would want to spend months on skies to cross Greenland (Nansen) or spend months aboard a ship wintering in sea ice… or defy the Southern seas and a continent covered in ice and aim for the South Pole – even in my essays I’d be writing about Scott and Amundsen or Shackleton. I’ve still not quite gotten over that obsession. But now I also enjoy reading about expeditions to other locations.

This book does mention Shackleton, as in his expedition it’s easy to imagine how errors in navigation would have made the already bad situation even worse.
In case of other expeditions as well – the stories are presented in only a few pages, but you get a glimpse to the importance of celestial navigation at the time and why just having a map doesn’t help you on the sea if you don’t know exactly where you are. In my case it was something I’ve never really thought about (except on a cruise ship going to Stockholm and imagining how could ships get there before modern technology)…

As I enjoy finding out where there are empty spots in my knowledge, I found the book excellent. It gave me lots of ideas what to read next (I just have to read some expedition diary… any suggestions?) and in general several times made me think “oh, that’s so fascinating!”

In general I’d say there are several good reasons for reading this book:
1. gives an idea how mariners navigated on the sea, what methods they used and what were some problems associated with them
2. gives several examples of naval expeditions and some of the hardships the people had to overcome
3. you won’t take knowing your location or precise maps for granted.
4. you might just catch a little wanderlust bug…

Oh and it’s 2015 in the Eastern hemisphere, so happy new year!