An Astronaut and Endurance

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of DiscoveryEndurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finding candor in a vast public relations program can be like searching for water in outer space. It’s there, but it’s scattered in small amounts that are easy to miss. So, it’s quite a joy for a space enthusiast like me to come across a book like Scott Kelly’s Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery.

In Endurance, readers will find candor about NASA operations and culture. They will also read revealing descriptions of the scrappier Russian space program. What is more, Kelly speaks candidly about his time as a Navy test pilot and life at home. His pathway from boy to man to astronaut included plenty of turbulence.

Arguably the most shocking detail in the book is Mr. Kelly’s poor showing in high school. I have this image of astronaut candidates as elite almost from birth, straight A students, Eagle Scouts, double doctorate types. Though Kelly had the right stuff, he failed to truly tap into it until college. Even then, it proved a struggle.

Though the main storyline of this memoir is Kelly’s record-setting time aboard the International Space Station, he also intersperses chapters about growing up in a troubled home, his time as an EMT, and his marriage and subsequent divorce. Space geeks will experience the cosmic adventure the dust jacket promises. They will also learn of the broader personal and professional challenges, the years of preparation for a single flight.

“Our space agencies won’t be able to push out farther into space, to a destination like Mars, until we can learn more about how to strengthen the weakest links in the chain that makes spaceflight possible: the human body and mind.”

Kelly presents a highly personal narrative of camaraderie, both with his twin brother and fellow astronaut Mark, as well as with his Russian counterparts. At the center of this grand project, Russia and the United States remain the two biggest players. While describing the no-nonsense–well, the modest amounts of nonsense–culture of the International Space Station, Kelly also brings into focus the symbiotic relationship of America and Russia.

On YouTube videos, we see one space station. Yet in a sense, the ISS is two stations joined at the hip. At times this partnership seems as vulnerable and pockmarked as the hull of the ISS. Yet it triumphs again and again. Kelly’s book left me feeling more insecure about our two nations’ spacefaring bond, but also convinced we must continue cooperating.

Running consistently through Endurance is Kelly’s dry, but unmistakable sense of humor. Also evident is his fondness and admiration for fellow astro- and cosmonauts. Readers will have spaceflight explained by a coolheaded thrill seeker who has spent a lifetime learning how to manage risk. For me, the dryness and attention to technical detail sometimes make for a less engaging read. But this is a minor criticism. Endurance took me deeper into the ISS’s guts and culture than I’ve ever been.

For readers making their first foray into spaceflight literature, I recommend Mike Massimino’s more conversational book, Spaceman. However, if this adventurous subject has already taken hold of you, make sure Endurance is on your reading list.

View all my reviews

Foundation and Closed Priesthood

foundation-asimov-bible

There are books that itch inside your mind and say, “It’s time! Read me again.” For me Isaac Asimov’s Foundation is one of them. So I recently gave it a second read. I’m in awe of its depth of thought and its continued, if not increased, relevance today. I highly recommend this book.

I do not suggest Foundation as a light and fun read. You must show up. You must give it your full attention. You will be rewarded.

Perhaps the ingredient in Foundation which I find most interesting is the notion of science as a closed priesthood. Quite literally, scientists as a group who derive power and authority from their vocation, but who remain highly exclusive, mysterious, and suspect to non-scientists. Their work takes on the air of magic–attractive to some and fearful to others–by virtue of being well-guarded, specialized, and difficult for laymen to comprehend.

In his book Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, Carl Sagan has these cautionary words to say about closed priesthood:

“The best way to avoid abuses is for the populace in general to be scientifically literate, to understand the implications of such investigations. In exchange for freedom of inquiry, scientists are obliged to explain their work. If science is considered a closed priesthood, too difficult and arcane for the average person to understand, the dangers of abuse are greater. But if science is a topic of general interest and concern – if both its delights and its social consequences are discussed regularly and competently in the schools, the press, and at the dinner table – we have greatly improved our prospects for learning how the world really is and for improving both it and us.”

I’ll leave you to think about this issue. But I suggest the topic is both fascinating and critically deserving of our consideration. One of the best ways to consider science as a closed priesthood, for good and ill, is to read Asimov’s masterwork.

To read an earlier review I wrote of Foundation, visit Goodreads.

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.

View all my reviews