Book review: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

I was excited to delve into this slim book on physics. I was never a stellar pupil of science. I shied away from it in school, confused and befuddled. I grew up in an environment where you either got it or you didn’t. I didn’t. Physics was deemed the hardest, so I did not even attempt to dip my toe into that milieu.

But adulthood is different. I have waded into different fields, trying to make up for time lost. What can I learn? What could change my understanding of the world? What can I grasp from these fields seemingly closed off in my youth?

I don’t profess to understand all that Rovelli discusses in his slim volume, but he starts to lift the veil on different fields in physics, what constitutes these fields, and how they contribute to our understanding of the world.

These lessons are divided into chapters based on a series of articles that appeared in an Italian newspaper. Rovelli walks through the major theories and its proponents: general theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, the cosmos and its elementary particles, quantum gravity, and probability and black holes.

Some seems to contradict early learnings or expands on them. Other introduces me to whispers that I heard elsewhere or am encountering for the first time. It is all a brief, cursory intro. But my hope is that like with other things in life, this basic knowledge will form a loose framework that I can add to over time. I can build on this knowledge, that something that I encounter in the future will remind me of a concept that he introduced and it will help illuminate the concept further. That something will click and a lightbulb go on.

Rovelli’s book may be too basic for those well-versed in physics or science. But to the novice it is a great place to dip one’s toe before wading in.


Movie review: Bill Nye: The Science Guy (2017)

I missed out on the Science Guy. He was slightly after my time. I knew of him. Heard about him. But didn’t really know him. He hosted a science show aimed at kids. That was about all I knew.

Bill Nye: The Science Guy showed up on the Heartland Film Festival roster a couple years ago but unfortunately, I couldn’t fit it into my movie-viewing schedule. And then it appeared on Netflix. Finally! I was going to be introduced to Bill Nye.

This documentary covers quite a lot, jumping back and forth to discuss different points of his life. It doesn’t feel like a typical documentary or biography. Bill isn’t interviewed as much as he is followed. Others who worked closely with him, old friends, and even profession colleagues like Neil deGrasse Tyson are filmed with him and interviewed separately.

The movie touches on his famous persona and even dives into psychological reasons behind starting his famous show on science aimed at kids. After the TV show ended, he disappeared for a while. But he couldn’t stay out of the limelight—at least according to a psychological profile of him.

The movie also delves into family relations, discussing his parents and siblings. (His mother, it turns out, was a code breaker for the Navy during World War II!) Although his relations are a vehicle to understand the man, they are also a teaching opportunity. A rare disorder runs in his family: ataxia. His father suffered from it. His brother and sister with whom he is close both suffer from it. The movie follows them through medical evaluations about the progress of the disease. Bill is fortunate to have not inherited the disease. Possibly passing on the disease is one reason he did not have children.

After a hiatus, Bill re-entered public view as a science advocate, taking on the wave of anti-science that has been building into a crescendo over the last couple decades. After spending years getting kids excited by science, Bill was bewildered and disheartened by the movement against science. His mission in the 1990s was to inspire the younger generation to get into STEM. And yet now all the progress he helped make was crumbling away. Now the younger generation was being indoctrinated by adults opposed to science, the scientific method, and critical thinking.

Bill took the dangerous step of engaging with big anti-scientists. Other scientists shy away from interacting with those who challenge anything science-related, but not Bill. The movie shows him going head-to-head with climate change deniers such as Joe Bastardi and then evolution deniers such as Ken Ham. Audiences attend his debates with them. And camera crews film him touring the Creation Museum and the Ark at the invitation of a big evolution denier. Of course, the outcome isn’t a triumph over the deniers. But Bill cannot seem to stop trying. And frankly, we wouldn’t want him to.

The movie clearly shows that he is a hero to kids of the 1990s who grew up watching him and learning science from him. Everywhere Bill goes for talks people take pictures of him and selfies with him. Young women scream and gush as though he is a rock star from across the Atlantic. (That actually was kind of cool. People who are gaga for a science instructor.)

Bill was attacked by the anti-science people for his lack of credentials (never mind their lack of credentials). He is not a scientist, they rant. He only has a degree in mechanical engineering (and studied with Carl Sagan). Yes, he admits, that is why I talk to the experts in different fields.

The movie shows Bill flying to Greenland to visit scientists at the ice core project. We learn what the scientists are doing, why, and what it all means. (The movie educates us about Bill Nye AND science at the same time. How cool is that.)

He does rub shoulders with the gods of the science world. He was a student of Carl Sagan and a friend of Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson actually recommended Nye to head the institute (The Planetary Society) that Sagan started before he died. The movie shows a demonstration of the institute’s project, which was a dream of Sagan’s: a solar sail. (Sagan actually took a model on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1978. Nye is now overseeing the launch of these solar sails.)

And I’m thinking, wait, solar sails? The use of sunlight to power a spacecraft? How come I haven’t heard of them before? (So I researched them. In 2015, LightSail 1 completed a shakedown cruise—basically a test run where it deployed its solar sails in space. In August 2019, LightSail 2 completed a “controlled sail flight in Earth orbit”.)

The movie is a great introduction to Bill Nye—his most famous role on TV, his crusade as a science advocate and denier debater, and his latest incarnation as head of a science nonprofit. But the documentary isn’t necessarily a lovefest. It looks at the human aspects of the Science Guy, his love of the limelight, his human foibles, and the effectiveness of engaging the science deniers.

The wave of science deniers—whether it is about climate change or evolution—is a disturbing trend. Currently there is a weird dichotomy in society: an emphasis on STEM as the way to future and others who turn their backs on science. Since the 1990s, too many people have spoken out as so-called experts to sow doubt around science and scientific issues. (For a good documentary on the rise of these so-called experts doing damage to the public understanding of critical issues, see Merchants of Doubt.)

The science community has largely stayed silent in the face of those rejecting science. To engage with them rarely brings positive results; for some reason science has moved into the realm of religion for people, something you believe in rather than a training that you use to understand the world. Bill Nye is one who has been passionate about educating others about science and combatting the science deniers. Sadly, the latter feels like a losing battle. The former though could ultimately cause science to win the war.


Sometimes I forget
Who I am.
I move about in the world
Often oblivious.
Then a word,
A gesture,
Stops me short.
I observe others
Moving in groups.
It is rare indeed
To run across another outsider.
We are elusive.
At least in the public view.
Perhaps others hide
Themselves better than I.
Those moments when I remember who I am
I pull back and observe.
Everyone else is enmeshed in their own worlds.

Movie review: East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden was on my to-see list for several years. I seemed to have escaped ever reading Steinbeck’s classic. A visit to Steinbeck’s museum in Salinas, California prompted me picking up The Grapes of Wrath, but time got away from me and his other books didn’t make it into my orbit.

A visit to Fairmount, Indiana last year with all of the James Dean sites and museum reminded me that I hadn’t actually seen a James Dean movie.

So it was with some delight that I saw East of Eden. Having not read the book, I really walked into the movie fresh, with no idea really of the plot. I also have no idea how true to the book the movie was. How well did the movie do with covering Steinbeck’s story? That will have to wait for another time.

East of Eden is set in Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula—not very far apart geographically but they seem to occupy entirely different worlds. The story is set just prior to the US entry into World War I. Railroads connect the two worlds of the farmland of Salinas with the city of Monterey, with James Dean’s character (Caleb) hitching rides to get from one world to the other.

Railroads were also the defining moment for the fertile farmland in California’s Central Valley. If only there was a way to keep produce fresh during transport from the California farmland to places back east. Caleb’s father tinkers with the idea of putting lettuce on ice for transport by rail. Unfortunately, his attempt ends in failure; he bet heavily on his idea and lost.

East of Eden uses this backdrop to explore ideas of identity, the self-made man, and parent-child relations. Caleb is the bad child compared to his perfect brother Aron. References to Cain-Abel are stark. Caleb doesn’t kill Aron but rather eclipses him. As the story progresses, Aron becomes the sulky one, brooding and beset with troubles. Caleb steals the heart of Aron’s betrothed. In the end, Caleb assumes the long-desired place in his father’s heart.

Caleb is bedeviled by the role he seems to be forced to play. Others see him and thus he sees himself as the bad brother, a disappointment to his father and to everyone else. He assumes this interpretation of himself and becomes obsessed with the idea that his badness was inherited. His mother was long gone from the scene—died after childbirth. Or did she? Somehow Caleb suspects that she is still alive and tracks her down. As he suspected, he takes after his mother—a woman who refused to conform to the roles assigned to women at the time. She is a successful businesswoman. To break free of the constrains on women at the time, she had to leave her family and personal relationships behind.

After interacting with his mother, Caleb seems to accept himself more. He is like her. Genetics are destiny it seems. But he still strives for acceptance and love from his father—a highly unlikely source of either. He devotes himself to helping his father succeed in his endeavor to send fresh produce east. His father partially accepts his hard work and inventive ideas.

After seeing his father’s money and dream disappear when the venture ends in failure, Caleb uses his talent and skills to earn back the money his father lost. He takes advantage of the times, knowing that the US entrance into World War I would result in increased food prices. Borrowing money from his mother, he invests—along with a partner—in produce futures. At a birthday celebration for his father, he presents his father with the money. Sadly, his attempt to receive love and acceptance fails. He and his work are rejected by the high morals of his father who views benefiting from the high prices caused by the war as immoral.

Advised by others to leave the area and the family, Caleb seems destined to strike out on his own. But fate intervenes. On what will apparently be his deathbed after a stroke, his father asks Caleb to stay and care for him. Caleb, the wayward son continually rejected by others, seems like a vulnerable little boy who has finally received what he needed all along: love and acceptance from his father.

As his first major film, James Dean played the role of Caleb well. Critics point out that he played sulky teenagers well but that was all he played; his accolades may be misplaced. Perhaps if Dean lived, we would have discovered that this was the only type of role he could play. Or perhaps we would have discovered that he really was a great actor with a wide repertoire. We will never know.

I enjoyed the acting Dean brought to the role as well as the film in general. The themes explored were engaging and the film shots interesting, sometimes off kilter at an angle. I am looking forward to watching his other films…and reading more Steinbeck.