Friday, October 23, 2020

Science through Space: Voyager's Greatest Hits

by Alexandra Siy

This is a fascinating book describing the Voyagers, their creation, and their discoveries. It has lovely photographs to inspire and solid diagrams to illuminate scientific principles. The author explores the process of the mathematical equations to identify that a time when such a project could succeed in visiting multiple planets of the solar system, the development of the technology to build the Voyagers, amazing pictures sent back, and some of the questions scientists were able to answer using the data. There are also some interesting questions we have now because of what we learned!

One of the things I noticed was the relatively high number of female scientists mentioned in the text, especially as the data from Voyagers came back over the years. I believe the author must have done so on purpose, though she doesn't say so explicitly (and the book is the better for it).

It does mention the Galileo affair in the usual sense:

In 1632 Galileo was arrested by the Roman Catholic Church and locked up for the rest of his life. His crime? Refusing to take back his statement that Earth and the other planets revolve around the Sun.

So one more opportunity to remind our students there was a little more to the story. 

I intend to assign this book in Level 3 (6th grade) in our astronomy unit (after Our Universe and The Stars). The chapters are short so an advanced reader can probably read more than one in a day and cover the book in a week with narrations. It would be an excellent book for strewing, too, if you had the kind of student who would pick it up and read it on their own.

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. Links to Bookshop and Amazon are affiliate links. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Stories from Psychology: The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat

by Oliver Sacks

I picked up this book for First Son to read this year (eleventh grade) because he wanted a book about psychology. This book has more neurology than counseling in it, though, so I've told First Son he can read a bit and then decide whether he wants to continue.

Oliver Sacks is the author of the wonderful Uncle Tungsten and his lovely writing is as apparent here as there. He writes beautifully about his patients and their struggles, seeking always to see who they are and who they can be. He is open to the mysterious and the divine in his patients, even though he does not profess a traditional faith. One patient was unable to retain memories, but the nuns who ministered to the patients knew better. They invited Dr. Sacks to chapel.

I watched him kneel and take the Sacrament on his tongue, and could not doubt the fullness and totality of Communion, the perfect alignment of his spirit with the spirit of the Mass. Fully, intensely, quietly, in the quietude of absolute concentration and attention, he entered and partook of the Holy Communion. He was wholly held, absorbed, by a feeling.

The chapter on the visions of St. Hildegard is similarly open to the mystical possibilities, even while exploring her experiences from the perspective of a clinical psychologist.

Some diseases have symptoms or consequences best left for more mature readers, like "Cupid's Disease" in chapter 11. Another patient murdered his girlfriend while under the influence of PCP. These kinds of stories might be difficult to read.

It is likely many of the conditions described by Dr. Sacks are now treated differently, perhaps even have something more like cures, than they did in 1970 when this book was first published, or in 1985 when it was last updated, but the stories of these people and their struggles remain meaningful. Certainly some of the language is now out of date, but it is clear Dr. Sacks does not intend any disrespect.

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. Links to Bookshop are affiliate links.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Evaluating Science: The Monkey's Voyage

by Alan de Queiroz

Alan de Queiroz gives an extensive history of biogeography, the study of why plants and animals live where they do and not in other places. He also provides interesting perspectives on the kinds of assumptions scientists make about their fields and how those assumptions may be challenged over time. When the theory of continental drift became more accepted, biogeographical studies became constrained by the idea that all geographical differences were caused by the separation of land masses through continental drift. de Queiroz provides extensive evidence for the surprising idea that a few random long distance journeys by living things dramatically shaped the biogeographical landscape we have today.
Obviously, the continents had moved--nobody was claiming that the theory of plate tectonics was wrong--and obviously, they had carried species with them, but somehow, these facts did not explain nearly as much about the modern living world as we had thought.

One aspect I liked was how he showed the way scientists (really, anyone) tend to tackle any problem with the tools they know, the tools they have, or the tools that are new. Molecular modeling and dating (using changes in nucleotide sequences over time to determine how long ago a new species appears) and PCR were two tools that changes biogeographical studies. Whether those tools were used in the best manner or make the most comprehensive arguments is an interesting discussion to address before assuming results based on those tools are trustworthy. Those kinds of questions are important to ask. For some people, it's important just to realize and acknowledge that those questions exist. It is very easy to skip that step. (The alternate is also important: being able to read some eccentric website calling into question a standard scientific practice and recognize it for the fringe attack it is, rather than a valid argument.)

Building on those ideas, the author also discussed the value of scientific studies based on their methodology. Even within studies using the same models, some studies can be universally acknowledged superior or inferior, but there's a lot of room for gray area. de Quiroz explores many studies, identifying how the same method or tool can be used well or poorly, depending on the initial assumptions of the researchers. I found de Queiroz's detailed analyses informative, for anyone interested in science. The kinds of questions he asks can be translated to any other scientific discipline.

Throughout the book, the author interviews and introduces a large number of different scientists. They are real people with quirks, biases, and families. He even includes pictures of them. There are also lots of instances where scientists with very particular areas of interest talk with each other and make connections each alone would be unable to discern; that's real science in action. 

This book contains a fairly heavy dose of scientific analysis, but it is fascinating if you can wade through it all. Following the trail of studies and their value was one of my favorite biology major projects. It was fun to spend a little time thinking deeply about how research is done and whether it was valid.

This would be a fantastic geography and earth studies book for an interested and ambitious late high school student. While the study descriptions are sometimes dense, they are generally understandable for anyone willing to concentrate. You could also glean a lot from the book even if you can't follow every argument. That being said, I'm not sure most high school students would be willing to put in the effort.

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. Links to Bookshop are affiliate links.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Literary Weather: 18 Miles

by Christopher Dewdney

This far-ranging book begins with the creation of the earth, the weather that might have ranged in the early millennia of earth's existence, and the development of life in the primordial landscape. He then covers the atmosphere, clouds, rain, storms, hurricanes, wind, weather forecasting, seasons, ice ages, climate change, and dramatic weather's role in human history.

Mr. Dewdney is a poet and his finesse with words shows on every page. He incorporates quotes and references to poems, stories, and novels throughout the book. He even quotes from my favorite Lucy Maud Montgomery novel, The Blue Castle.

It's a book best for more mature readers, though I think you could adjust on the fly if you wanted to read it aloud to multiple ages. There are, for example, descriptions of people dying due to lightning strikes or hypothermia, which young children may find upsetting.

I'm still considering options for high school science, but this is now at the top of my list for a spine on meteorology. I think, paired with some labs of measuring weather indicators and working with forecasting ideas, it could be a good term (twelve weeks) of earth sciences.

Mr. Dewdney is not a Christian, but he is generally pleasant when describing Christian beliefs. This mainly is an issue in the first chapter when he discusses the beginning of life on earth.

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. Links to Bookshop are affiliate links.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Becoming who God Wishes: Holiness

Holiness: A Guide for Beginners
by Dom Hubert van Zeller

This is a short little book, perfect for my Level 4 (eighth grade) daughter's Advent reading this year. The ten chapters are short but rich. It is deceiving in its simplicity. I will assign it to my Level 4 daughter this year, but I think I will also assign it to my Level 6 Year 2 (twelfth grade) son next year. I'll leave it on the list for my daughter when she's a senior in high school because I think it's the kind of book that improves with repeated readings. I look forward to reading it again myself.

van Zeller begins with a description of what holiness is, and what it isn't, but it's not an easy definition. Though we can recognize holiness in others (Jesus and the saints, for example), our own path to holiness may look different, because we are called to be holy in our own unique way.

[W]hat is is that the saints do that makes them into saints? The answer is that they do two things: on the one side they keep clear of anything that they think is going to get in the way of grace, and on the other they head directly for our Lord. The only thing to be added to this is that they do it for the glory of God and not for what they can get out of it.

Holiness is not something only for the saints, the martyrs, those in high places or religious orders. Holiness is the standard for every single person and is therefore attainable in every interaction and choice we make. This is, of course, a lesson we know but which can never be repeated too often. van Zeller compares our goal of holiness with that of Jesus as a boy. His obedience to his parents gave glory to God just as much as the miracles.

And just as the little works He did were not little in the eyes of the Father because they were being done perfectly by the Son, so the little ones we do are not little to the Father because we are trying to do them perfectly with the Son.

As I said above, I'm assigning this to my eighth grader this year and adding it to the list for my twelfth grader next year. It would be perfect for anyone to read slowly during an adoration hour or as preparation for Mass.

This book was previously published under the title Sanctity in Other Words.

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. I requested this book from another member of (not an affiliate link). Links to Amazon above are affiliate links.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Continental Drift and Weather: Ending in Ice

Ending in Ice: The Revolutionary Idea and Tragic Expedition of Alfred Wegener
by Roger M. McCoy

This book explores the life and legacy of Alfred Wegener, the scientist who first provided extensive multi-disciplinary evidence for the movement of continents. He was mistaken in many of his arguments, but his ideas are now recognized more formally in the theory of plate tectonics.

The first chapter of the book is a brief biography of Wegener. Then there are a couple of chapters outlining his revolutionary ideas about the movement of continents. The author shares many ideas here about how new scientific ideas are accepted (or not) and why, a topic that is continued in the last few chapters of the book.

Then there are eight chapters detailing Wegner's expedition to Greenland and his disappearance. These chapters are a thorough and fascinating window into Arctic (and Antarctic) expeditions between the World Wars. Dramatic advances in mechanical engineering and aeronautics have since eliminated many of the most dangerous aspects of arctic research.

The last two chapters discuss Wegener's contributions to science from his research as a meteorologist and for geology and earth sciences through his ideas about continental drift. The last chapter covers a lot of technical information on plate tectonics in a readable way.

One of the aspects of the proofs of the continental drift theory the author pointed out was the transition from science by an individual (Galileo, Newton, Curie) to that of vast organizations and governments. The evidence that led to the understanding of continents moving over time was only possible because governments invested in extensive ocean floor mapping during and after World War II. No single individual could have undertaken such a task. 

The author explored reasons why Wegener's theories were initially refuted. One of the main problems was that his ideas about how continents moved were recognized as incredibly weak. Scientists therefore, erroneously as we now know, discounted his entire theory of continental drift. This is a good reminder to us all that one point of weak evidence does not negate an overall idea. It is best to consider all the evidence, setting aside that which is weak, but giving full consideration to that which remains.

I appreciate books that describe the history of scientific ideas in a way that shows how scientists communicate and assess each other's work. Scientists are people, people who have disagreements and make mistakes. Science is also a discipline in which people offer best guesses based on the current information. Over time and with the accumulation of new information, theories coalesce. This is an important lesson in a world that expects answers at the swipe of a touchscreen or the posing of a question aloud to a computer.

This book would be an excellent choice for a supplemental reading book on North American geography. It combines a relatively recent understanding of plate tectonics, an interesting story about climate research in Greenland, and a biography of a fascinating scientist. It does feel a little like a book inside a book rather than a coherent whole, but that's a small complaint.

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. I borrowed the book from my library. Links to Amazon are affiliate links.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Exodusters in Kansas: Follow Me Down to Nicodemus Town


by A. LaFaye, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell

In this bright and cheerful picture book, Dede's family struggles to make ends meet at sharecroppers but are delighted to one day be able to start a new life in Nicodemus, KS, a town built by and for African American settlers after the Civil War (one of multiple communities like it). 

I'm sorry to say both of our attempts to visit Nicodemus have been thwarted (by vehicle break-downs and pandemic shut-downs).

This book was published in 2019, so my own children missed out on reading it for lessons, but it would be a great addition to either a Kansas history study or American history in the 1870s.

I have not received anything in exchange for this post. I read a library copy of this book. Links to Bookshop are affiliate links.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A Level 4 Biography: Edith Stein

by Joanne Mosley

As my daughter entered eighth grade, Level 4, I wanted to offer her some female twentieth century saints. First Son read about Pope St. John Paul II, Servant of God Emil Kapaun, and Bl. Stanley Rother. All of these are excellent options, but this is what we do, right, always looking for the next best thing. I found a wonderful option for St. Teresa of Kolkata, but I also wanted an option for St. Edith Stein because I think First Daughter would appreciate her intelligence. Many of the books on St. Edith Stein, though, examine her philosophy in a way that's inaccessible to a young teenager. This is one that is on the list on the Mater Amabilis Level 4 page so I bought a used copy and read it myself. 

It certainly includes a brief look at the philosophy of St. Edith Stein, and some of that might go over my daughter's head, but overall this is a lovely little introduction to a saint who offered herself up for her people. Part I (Ideals in Edith's Life) describes her biographical details from early life to her death. Part II (Ideal Figures in Edith's Prayer) explores St. Edith Stein's relationships to Jesus, Mary, Queen Esther, and the saints of Carmel.

Early in the book I found an anecdote that reminded me of First Daughter. Canon Schwind helped guide Edith early in her faith. She would visit him every Sunday to question him and learn.

His housekeeper and niece describes how, after one such meeting, he fell into a chair in the kitchen, writing his hands and declaring: 'Oh, this philosopher! She can ask more questions than ten learned theologians could answer.'

The book shares much of Edith's thoughts through her writing. For example, when talking about Love of the Cross:

In this essay, the words, 'joy' and 'joyous', occur almost as often as 'Cross'. How can this be? It was so because, as Edith knew, 'love of the Cross' was not love of a torture, love of a piece of wood, but love of the Person who was on the Cross. Suffering was the very place, therefore, where Edith could always find him, come closest to him, and help him to save the world.

The focus of Level 4 history on the twentieth century is a delicate balance: the horrific tragedies of the century are studied, but with enough grace and light to avoid depressing a young mind and soul. St. Edith Stein offers great insight into her time and ours. She counseled a young student in Echt.

One day, Anthony told Edith he was so concerned about world events that he could hardly concentrate on his work. Edith was adamant: he should get on with his thesis and be grateful he had the seems she was telling him something else, a message embedded in Carmelite values: to do God's will at the present moment, to carry out our daily tasks as well as we possibly can -- to walk the 'Little Way', instead of musing on 'great' actions to which we have not been called. 

Part II focuses more on Edith Stein's writings and spirituality. I loved these chapters that shared her understanding of the saints of Carmel, but I have decided to tell my daughter they are optional. They may be more meaningful for a more mature reader.

I don't know much about St. Edith Stein, so I can't comment much on whether the author has correctly represented the saint, her thoughts, and her philosophy, but the book seems to be well researched. There are quotes from letters and interviews, many in German, that give a sense of intimate friendship with the saint.

There's a similar book by the same author (Edith Stein: Modern Saint and Martyr) that might actually be a slightly updated or annotated version of this one. The description and number of pages are basically the same.

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. I purchased this book used. Links to Bookshop and Amazon are affiliate links.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Fuel for the Mind

I will be sitting in my van or a waiting room and, glancing at my book, realize those few moments of waiting are now precious time to dive back into a world away from my own. How odd it seemed to me that this Kansan stay-at-home mom was so enthralled with the world of biogeography and the intricate arguments for various methods of the dispersal of species on the land masses of the world. This is not a topic necessary for my homeschooling preparations, for my daily tasks, or for my spiritual growth. What I think about the author's arguments will have no impact on my career (or his), yet it's certainly one of the books I've enjoyed most this year.

As I was reading through my friend's rich and thoughtful blog, Abandon Hopefully Homeschooling, on Charlotte Mason's Twenty Principles, I was reminded of how well Mason articulates the reason for this expansion of my spirit when I pick up my current book. On Principle 8: On Education as Life, my friend writes:

The mind wants to think, and it wants to think a LOT, but it has to have things to think about.

The same need for things to think about is present in every mind, including my own. While most of the books I read focus on education, or spiritual growth, or reading something ahead of the kids, there is great value in reading something fascinating and challenging just because it is fascinating and challenging.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

An Earth Science Tour of the United States: The Earth in Turmoil

by Kerry Sieh and Simon LeVay

The Earth in Turmoil covers plate tectonics and its ramifications for earthquakes and volcanoes in a readable but thorough way. The events and locations explored are all in the United States, mainly the West coast, Basin and Range, and Hawai'i, but also chapters dedicated to Yellowstone, the New Madrid Fault, and the Northeast. They always remind readers of other places in the world with similar physical conditions and phenomena.

Through the course of the book, the authors explore the history of geology and earth science, describing theories proposed, experiments conducted, and papers from a variety of scientists around the world. They provide excellent diagrams, maps, and drawings to illustrate geological principles like the recycling of the lithosphere and how volcanoes are produced by a subducting slab, to name a few from the first two chapters.
This solemn, silent, sailless sea--this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on Earth--is little graced with the picturesque. [Mark Twain in Roughing It, describing Mono Lake, quoted in The Earth in Turmoil]
All these descriptions and explanations are woven into the chapters through stories from people who experienced earthquakes or survived volcanic eruptions, stories which make the events come alive for the reader in a way the scientific descriptions alone never could. The authors also show how first person accounts and other primary source documents can allow the dedicated scientist to develop a more comprehensive picture of earthquakes or other events, even when modern scientific instruments were not around to measure anything at the time. 

This book was published in 1998 and takes into account new research and events right up until their print deadline. A lot of time has passed since then in human terms, so there are some chapters for which I'd recommend searching recent events online to see if there's new information.

The book is out of print, but seems reasonably easy to find used. I'm probably going to assign it as our earth studies reading at some point in high school. I've been looking for one to cover plate tectonics and this one seems to be the best mix of stories of real people and essential geological information without being an actual (expensive and dense) college textbook.

One thing to note, if you have a sensitive student, the purpose of the book is to develop the relationship between knowledge of the earth's forces that results in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and how humans use the land and spaces affected by those forces. Someone anxious about the chances of massive eruptions or earthquakes may find some of the risks outlined upsetting. In fact, the authors often comment on the psychological ramifications of experiencing extended times of frequent earthquake activity.

On the other hand, the authors sometimes explore how those risks translate into public policy, laws, and insurance coverage, which can be useful and fascinating information for anyone interested in politics, environmental law, or urban development. Given the current conditions as I write this in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the discussions of the balance between scientific forecasts of risks and impacts of those forecasts on businesses and daily lives (especially in the chapter on Mammoth Lakes and Long Valley) were fascinating and relevant.
Sam Walker, who owns a brewery and a restaurant and has been chairman of the chamber of commerce, told us that relations between the townspeople and the USGS scientists had improved greatly in recent years. A lot of the misunderstanding, he told us, was caused by inaccurate reporting of what the USGS people had said. If the USGS said that an eruption was a possibility, some TV station or other would announce that lava was flowing down the street. 

The last chapter explores these ideas of risk assessment and policy in the most detail. 

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. All links to Amazon and Bookshop are affiliate links.