Read Recently — May 2016 — Nonfiction

The Year Without A Summer: 1816 and the volcano that darkened the world and changed history by William K. Klingman and Nicholas P. Klingman

I first heard of “the Year without a summer” in a Rasputina song (called, strangely enough, “1816, the year without a summer”:

The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Indonesia area (home, also, to Krakatoa, about which more another time) was the largest and deadliest eruption in history (largest known eruption in the last 2000 years, according to the Klingmans). The explosions (for there was more than one) were heard hundreds of miles away, mistaken for cannon blasts by nervous sailors. The eruption also threw ash for hundreds of miles and left rafts of pumice floating on the surface of the sea thousands of miles away for a long time.

It also threw sulfer dioxide gas into the high atmosphere, where it blocked out sunlight for months to come, leading to several years of colder than usual temperatures, and it is this and its physical and political effects that the Klingmans spend most of the book reporting on and analysing.

It’s well-writen, easy to understand, contains few typos (I noticed none, but I was caught up in the story so I might have missed some) and is a fascinating look at a historical event that until now I have somehow managed to miss learning about (except for through the medium of song, of course). Highly recommended.

Undeniable: evolution and the science of creation by Bill Nye; edited by Corey S. Powell

Yes, it’s that Bill Nye.

Some time back, Nye was invited to have a debate with a well-known creationist. Now, a lot of scientists (and even science popularisers) won’t bother debating creationists because it accomplishes nothing useful (the audience is preselected of believers, so they won’t change their minds; and the creationist is not required to come up with all the facts to answer any spur-of-the-moment attack by his opponent; to say nothing of the goalpost shifting) except to make the creationist in question look like someone that scientists take seriously. Still, Nye took the debate, and this book, a discussion of evolution and why scientists say it’s true, is the result.

You probably already have your own opinion on Nye, based on his show. He writes well here (and/or is well-edited; note the second credit), in a converstional style. The book is a good general introduction to the subject of evolution; there is little here that you wouldn’t encounter elsewhere if you’ve read widely on the subject before. One exception is a chapter on Genetically Modified Foods; Nye is sceptical but for the paperback edition tacks on a closing chapter in which he rather unconvincingly argues that he’s changed his mind.

Other than that my only complaint is that Nye has the bad habit of repeating certain jokes throughout the book: usually some variant of the line “If you’re like me, and I know I am”, and some off-hand remark about one of his former bosses being lower on the evolutionary scale. The first one was funny maybe twice and went downhill from there; the second was never funny, and this kind of undercuts Nye’s affable persona.

Still, if you’re looking for a beginner text on evolution, you could do worse. Recommended.

Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin

It’s a biography of Bruce Springsteen. Long, thorough, and thought-provoking. I did kind of get the feeling that while Carlin is suitably in awe of Springsteen’s enormous talent, he doesn’t think much of him as a person (though I can’t point to anything in particular which makes me think that, so don’t take that too seriously).

Recommended.

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