Exploring Self with ‘The Black Penguin’

The Black PenguinThe Black Penguin by Andrew Evans

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Vaguely annoyed. That’s how I felt after months of following Andrew Evans on Twitter. When was this guy’s paid vacation going to end? Did he really think he could infect me with his exuberance for world travel? Who was funding him? Annoying! The only reason I followed Andrew was Twitter told me to. That and it seemed a little fun, keeping tabs on a literal globe trotter. Plus, his tweets often displayed a celebratory quality about our world.

Okay, so my early annoyance turned out to be jealousy. Years later, @WheresAndrew remains a Twitter account I recommend following. Even so, buying a copy of his new book The Black Penguin was not an immediate priority, but for one fact that eluded me until last week. I’d never realized Andrew Evans was raised Mormon.

Andrew and I have two critical things in common. We both served LDS Church missions, and we both eventually walked away from the Church. Being both a Twitter fan and a fellow “returned missionary” makes it near impossible for me to write a fully objective review of The Black Penguin. I was rooting for Andrew before I finished reading the preface. Still, this is not a book solely, or even mostly, about his journey out of Mormonism.

The Black Penguin recounts Andrew’s bus trip from Washington D.C. to Antarctica (including a short plane ride and a necessary transfer to a boat near the end). The book exhibits a binary structure. While Andrew proceeds southward by bus in the narrative present, his book flashes back to school years spent in Ohio and Utah, and his time in the Ukraine as a Mormon missionary. Yet, even with this time hopping, The Black Penguin displays a unifying sense of rising action and purpose.

Andrew’s epic bus trip eventually became an article for National Geographic Traveler, supplemented by blog posts and tweets from the road. Along the way the book detours further into his past to reveal an origin story fraught with bullying, religious judgement, and family crisis. All these ordeals were reactions to Andrew’s same-sex orientation. For Andrew, the science of geography became the art of escape.

By running past and present storylines in tandem, The Black Penguin offers engrossing parallels. For instance, the chapter about Andrew being found out at Brigham Young University connects to chapters about dangerous travel through Mexico and Central America. Both episodes exhibit the same sense of peril, fueled by powerful, sometimes unseen, forces that may decide his fate at any moment.

Yet, like his tweets, Andrew’s book also provides humor, beauty, and excitement. The personable, empathic prose creates a sensation of being in the seat next to him, staring out the bus window while passing near cliffs, through jungles, and along coastlines. And while the book is ultimately about Andrew’s quest, it teams with lively stories about people he meets along the way—quite like an issue of National Geographic.

Page after page, I experienced a keen sense of us all being on a globe, feeling the pace of its spin, gaining greater awareness of our relationship to each other and Earth. I highly recommend The Black Penguin. It’s a trip we all should experience.

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Think you understand Alan Alda?

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and CommunicatingIf I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating by Alan Alda

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The greatest science communication failure of recent history occurred during breaking news coverage of the Higgs boson particle discovery. At least, that’s my opinion. This particle, claimed to be the active ingredient in objects having mass, is a huge deal. Yet, look at this gibberish news outlets threw at me as the leading quotation for the achievement.

“We have observed a new boson with a mass of 125.3 plus or minus 0.6 GeV at 4.9 standard deviations.”

No offense to Dr. Joe Incandela, who made the above technical statement to a room full of scientists. Following his words, the gathering bubbled over with applause, even tears in at least one case. But the jargon was lost on me. That day I refused to be impressed as a matter of principle. Science had failed to explain itself.

Such disconnects between scientists and the public comprise the impetus for Alan Alda’s latest book: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. Known to many for his acting career, Alda has dedicated much of his time to promoting better science communication. Far from being a mere on-camera spokesman, Alda works as a Visiting Professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

Using personal examples, as well as research, Alda makes the case for empathy as essential to good communication. He couples this with insights regarding the Theory of Mind. Think of empathy as the emotional connection, and Theory of Mind as the rational component. Empathy, according to Alda, is a skill which can be developed and refined.

Not surprisingly, Alda advocates cultivating empathy through theatrical improv (a serious performance method, not merely a game-driven attempt to get laughs). Anyone who has taken an acting class with improv as a component, myself included, will find this to be self-evident. The same practiced skills which help actors connect onstage can help scientists connect with the public. As Alda relates, this extends to medical doctors, business leaders, hopeful lovers, and parents mentoring children.

If I Understood You… stays on task via short chapters and focused, conversational prose. It wraps up in a tidy 200 pages. There is also an audio version, read by Alda, which I’ll safely assume is highly enjoyable. The result is a book calculated to be accessible, informative and thought-provoking.

Odd then that this book sometimes struggled to hold my interest. If I Understood You… is full of nuggets: nuggets of wisdom, hindsight, and profound experience. Any chapter by itself can be a delight, and many were for me. Yet, perhaps because of the testimonial nature, perhaps because of the copious repetition of its premise, the book sometimes felt like an after-dinner conversation growing tiresome. In no way am I panning it. However, I do suggest readers avoid devouring the book quickly (which I did so I could post my review asap).

Given its levelheaded blend of entertainment with educational discourse, If I Understood You… disqualifies itself from being Alda’s most fun book yet. It may however prove his most important, given the toxic level of animosity in current public discussion. Therefore, I highly recommend reading it. Come for the theory, but stay for the moments of sublime understanding.

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Star Wars and the Devoutly Lukewarm Empire’s End

Empire's End (Star Wars: Aftermath, #3)Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To hear Mark Hamill and Johnny Carson banter about it on The Tonight Show in 1977, the magic ingredient of the original Star Wars movie was the utter black and white of its morality. Good versus evil. Light versus dark. A swashbuckling morality play with no gray area. In the late 70s, coming out of the Vietnam War, such clarity in the guise of sci-fi fantasy must have felt blissful.

Yet when Lando Calrissian attempts to play the Rebellion and the Empire off each other in The Empire Strikes Back, the morality of Star Wars heads into a murky area. Though Lando ultimately picks a side, a torch of moral uncertainty passes to and from Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker as they strive to convert each other to their respective sides—both claiming to have the galaxy’s best interests in mind. Most recently, Disney and Lucasfilm’s Rogue One revels in moral ambiguity.

Everything I’ve said above applies to Aftermath: Empire’s End, the final installment in Chuck Wendig’s trilogy of novels bridging the storylines of Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Like the makers of Rogue One, Wendig dramatizes moral uncertainty with zeal. His characters grapple with the close resemblance of justice and revenge. The begged question is quite fair. Why do we forgive aggressive and violent political tactics used by the Republic that we condemn when used by the Empire?

The ensemble of Empire’s End features a bounty hunter, an ex-imperial loyalty officer, and an X-Wing pilot who finds herself fighting the remnants of the Empire off the books. In tow are her technologically precocious son and his likably lethal battle droid Mister Bones. Just as Han, Luke, Leia, and Chewbacca found themselves swept up in the political intrigue surrounding the first Death Star, this newer ensemble finds themselves inexorably drawn to the planet Jakku. There an epic battle plays out over the last roughly 100 pages of the book. The resulting wreckage serves as the backdrop for early scenes of The Force Awakens.

Wendig’s ensemble seems utterly beset with nuanced ethical quandaries. We know they’ll win the battle (not a spoiler; it’s in the title folks). But we don’t know if they’ll come out of it with their consciences intact. All the while the novel’s broad strokes paint a picture of a New Republic which could easily become a new Empire, albeit driven by good intentions.

One of the best moments for me comes as two minor characters converse about the nature of the Force. One lets slip a notion that, “…maybe there is no dark side.” This idea doesn’t become the thrust of Empire’s End, but it underscores the murky nature of the post-Lucas Star Wars universe.

Wendig also does a great job developing the character of Sinjir, who struggles to come to terms with his Imperial past. Notable as one of Star Wars’ first openly gay characters, Sinjir also scores the novel’s main romantic subplot. This may be a deal breaker for some fans. However, I felt Wendig entertainingly drew out the same universal sexual tension George Lucas relied on to fire up Han and Leia’s adventure in the original trilogy.

This may be the last Star Wars novel I read. I admire how Wendig avoids enslaving his cast of characters to the film canon. He lets Sinjir and the gang have their own adventures. Of arguably greater value, he strikes a tone that is both thoughtful and playful. Still, there are too many books I want to read for me to invest too much time watching the Star Wars machine feverishly spin new plot threads, only to tie them obsessively back into the original storyline for the cheap thrill of it. Folks, take it from an old-school fan, it’ll never be more amazing than the first time we heard Darth Vader say, “No, I am your father.” It just won’t. Does that make me a bad fan? A good fan just needing a break? Or a fair-weather fan somewhere in between?

I recommend Empire’s End to those who read and enjoyed the previous two Star Wars: Aftermath books. For everyone else, I recommend the first Aftermath novel.

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‘Hidden Figures’ reach the silver screen

For those of us always craving the next Apollo 13, The Martian, or The Right Stuff, January of 2017 brings us Hidden Figures. This historical drama (with heartfelt comedy and thrilling action mixed in) tells the story of women who helped NASA send humans into space. Here is the official trailer:

Though Hidden Figures begs comparisons like the ones I made above, as I watched it I kept thinking of The Three Musketeers. This isn’t a swashbuckling action film. The lead characters wield math and management skills in lieu of rapiers. Nevertheless, Hidden Figures depicts a heroic trio navigating the realms of power, intrigue, and ambition.

Actors Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe depict three of the African American women who broke through race and gender barriers during the early days of NASA. They do so as walking, talking, calculating computers. Like the Three Musketeers, and many of the actors who’ve portrayed them, they bring confidence, gravitas, and zeal to their excellent performances. At the end of the opening weekend matinee I attended, people clapped (including me).

Hidden Figures safely earns a family-friendly PG rating, but manages to bring all the intensity of the subject material. It does so via tasteful, briskly-paced storytelling whose ultimate feel is inspirational. I highly recommend seeing this film.

Planet as Protagonist in ‘Mars Crossing’

Mars CrossingMars Crossing by Geoffrey A. Landis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I met Geoffrey Landis recently at NASA Glenn Research Center, I asked him about his inspiration as a writer of science fiction. His answer both fascinated and disappointed me. In the thumbnail sketch Dr. Landis provided, there was no burning-bush moment that preceded his journey into the realm of sci-fi writing. Instead, he described his initial creative forays as almost a whim, just a perfectly reasonable outlet for the knowledge his graduate studies provided. Oh well. That works I guess.

Still, there is no missing the passion and affection Landis has for his subject. Not unlike the late Carl Sagan, Landis is first and foremost a dedicated scientist. His choice to write a novel, whatever deeper personal reasons might exist, comes as a remarkably practical endeavor—a means to popularize his academic knowledge for a wider audience than peer-reviewed journals afford. Such is Mars Crossing, Landis’s award-winning opus for the red planet.

Mars Crossing gets down to business with an exploration team landing on the surface. What needed back story there is Landis splices into the narrative along the way, interlude style. At first, this piecemeal delivery of exposition seems an obligatory choice to make the characters sympathetic. But over the course of the novel, a compelling order develops with each character getting the spotlight in turn, always at the right moment to add human drama to a particular story development. As it turns out, Landis is quite the narrative engineer.

Indeed, engineering is what the plot smacks of. Priority number one is showcasing as much of Mars as possible, from its sun-seared mid-latitudes to its icy polar expanse. Driven into the Martian wilderness by the failure of their return vehicle, the small ensemble must traverse major geologic features of the planet to reach a distant rescue vehicle left by a previous mission. Along the way they experience a range of hazards real explorers will likely face one day. They also rely on an impressive assortment of advanced technologies currently in development. At times they seem dragged along by Landis’s grand design.

Initially I was concerned the novel would prove a literary letdown. Not so. With each new test, the cast becomes more sympathetic. A climactic monologue by one of the characters strikes an especially poignant tone. At last, Mars becomes something more than a dry, impersonal place. It proves extraordinary and capable of resonating with the human spirit.

Mars Crossing had one noteworthy disappointment for me. Landis misses opportunities to milk suspenseful moments. Granted, his storytelling is fueled by a wonderful candidness about everything from racial dynamics to microgravity sex. Yet often Landis’s prose displays a mission report dutifulness that wants for a bit more space-opera panache. In a plot where every new development displays a utilitarian quality, always serving the author’s scientific agenda, the prose sometimes exhibits a drama-sapping succinctness.

Then again Mars, not humanity, is the main character. And few people are as qualified as Landis to serve as tour guide. In person and on paper, he has taken me there twice, and both times I have come away satisfied. It’s also a credit to Landis, whose NASA research depends on public funding, that he doesn’t shy away from depicting the considerable risks inherent in a Martian voyage. As with his straightforward answer to me about the choice to write science fiction, Landis’s novel tackles directly the dangers of venturing to Mars. I thoroughly recommend Mars Crossing to readers interested in getting to know the red planet in a personal way.

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Voyaging through ‘The Interstellar Age’

The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager MissionThe Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission by Jim Bell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A tense, house-of-cards moment occurred during Voyager 1’s flyby of the planet Saturn in November of 1980. There were many tense moments, but this one had broad implications reaching decades ahead to the present day. Voyager 1’s top priority was to image the moon Titan close up. Titan boasted an atmosphere and potentially liquid on the surface. The close flyby meant sacrificing any chance for Voyager 1 to travel on to Pluto (which ended up waiting until 2015 for its first visit). But here’s the part that made me catch my breath. If Voyager 1’s flyby of Titan had failed, there was a plan to have Voyager 2 make a second attempt. If Voyager 2 had been routed to fly by Titan, there would have been no visits to Uranus or Neptune. Such are the ultimatums given by orbital mechanics and the ever changing positions of planets.

The above dilemma plays out in a chapter titled “Drama Within the Rings.” The Voyager missions, like all space missions, generated a great deal of drama. Jim Bell captures it well in The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission. Readers will learn how close we came to missing out on the famed, almost religiously revered, Pale Blue Dot image. Much of the drama comes from the flyby nature of the mission. Every time Voyagers 1 and 2 arrived at a new planet, the science teams back on Earth knew they had only one opportunity to capture images and data. A recurring theme, and word, in this book is “pressure.” No U-turns and few if any second chances.

To a lesser extent, The Interstellar Age is about a budding young scientist: the author. Bell ferreted his way into the mission control center, willing to fetch pizza and coffee for a chance to be near the action. Voyager’s mission has spanned his life heretofore. His book captures both heart-stopping moments and poignant changing of the guards. As scientists and engineers who designed the mission moved on to other missions or retired, younger researchers came onboard.

Bell exhibits a keen awareness, but also an evangelical fondness, for the subject material. Late in the book he unabashedly refers to himself and others as disciples of the late Carl Sagan. I must include myself in that group. Bell’s decision to embark on a career in science holds as a primary inspiration watching Dr. Sagan’s Cosmos series. Of his approach to communicating science, Bell suggests Sagan “was probably the first scientist I had ever encountered who spoke English.

“I mean common English, more like what you’d hear around the dinner table than the jargon and shorthand codes that most scientists typically use when talking about their work. But that plain talk was also laced with metaphor and analogy and evocatively grand cadences, often accompanied by the soaring and romantic electronic music of Vangelis.”

Like Sagan, Bell strives to make his writing conversational and accessible. This is a great read for people wanting to take a grand tour of the Voyager mission. As readers glide through the final pages, the Voyager probes glide toward the edge of the solar system. The primary mission long since completed, Voyager’s greater journey into the galaxy has only just begun.

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Massimino’s “Spaceman” is all Human

Spaceman: An Astronaut's Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the UniverseSpaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Mike Massimino

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve about had it with likable optimists. I mean, they just keep looking on the bright side, sloshing that half-full glass, and touting marginal increases in strength from things that didn’t kill them. And all the while they just keep being likeable. What’s a devout pessimist like me to do?

For me, the answer was to preview astronaut Mike Massimino’s soon-to-be released book “Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe.” Talk about likeable optimist! As astronauts go, “Mass” is an all-star. He flew on two shuttle missions to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. He also excels at popularizing science and engineering, in part through appearing as himself on the hit sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” Despite my affinity for pessimism, Massimino’s “Spaceman” won me over. He tends to do that to people.

I’ll spin it with this analogy: Mike Massimino is to Twitter as Neil Armstrong is to the moon. Through social networking and undeniable likability—in addition to intelligence, courage, and hard work—Massimino has fueled popular support for space exploration like few others. His book “Spaceman” tells the story of how he rose from a normal childhood to an extraordinary career within the tightknit yet super-competitive corps of NASA astronauts.

An unabashed fan of “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff,” Massimino draws on those films to craft a thrilling prologue describing his first launch into space. Yet this book rewards readers with more than just high-flying thrills. Throughout “Spaceman,” Massimino incorporates elements of history, politics, culture, and human nature to craft a fascinating and engrossing narrative. The result is a complete and balanced picture of his journey, often humorous, in the tradition of good old-fashioned page-turners.

Speaking candidly, like Massimino often does, the most thrilling passages for me involved the author’s struggles to pass NASA’s eye exam. NASA rejected Massimino three times before he finally made it into the astronaut program. Similar to watching “Apollo 13,” I found myself tense up witnessing just how close Massimino came to being rejected by NASA (a fourth and final time). As a pessimist, I often fret about how obsessed we humans are with stories fixated on simple If questions. With Massimino’s thought-provoking adventure, I am heartened to observe a publisher—and soon readers—embrace a story focused on the richer questions of Why and How.

As I read how Massimino overcame his ocular limitations, I noticed a parallel with Hubble Space Telescope’s own visual impairment. Both suffered from flawed lenses. Frankly, Hubble and Massimino had every right to fail. Yet they both succeeded. Delicately orchestrated planning combined with dogged effort enabled both the man and the machine to overcome their initial sight defects.

The word “human” shows up often in “Spaceman.” Attributing this to a writer in need of a thesaurus would be a mistake. As Massimino worked his way through the academic ranks of engineers, he labored in a specialized topic called “human factors.” I’ll let the man holding a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering explain it. “Anytime you get in your car and you can work the brakes and the steering wheel and read the speedometer and not drive off the road in confusion, that’s because an engineer who understands human factors designed it for you.”

“Spaceman” succeeds because of Massimino’s keen sense of human factors. The result is a book capable of satisfying a wide range of readers in addition to space enthusiasts like myself. In a conversational manner, “Spaceman” relates the remarkable journey of an eager kid from Long Island who made it all the way to 350 miles above the Earth’s surface. There he repaired arguably the most important science instrument ever built. The risks, the costs, the times NASA came up tragically short, are discussed with candor. Nevertheless, the prevailing sentiment is one of optimism steeped in gratitude and faith for human potential.

I strongly recommend “Spaceman” by Mike Massimino for optimists, pessimists, and of course, for all the starry-eyed young men and women who currently dream of Mars. Explorers like Massimino remind us how fantastic an adventure life can be, no matter how unlikely success may seem.

DISCLAIMER: Jake received a complimentary advance “Uncorrected Proof” copy of “Spaceman” from Crown Publishers.

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