Don't Know Much About the
Kenneth C. Davis
C. Davis, the author of the easily digested, valuably informative
Don't Know Much About series, writes in the introduction
to the latest installment, Don't Know Much About the Universe,
that while he grew up in the much-heralded Age of Space Exploration
(think Sputnik, moon landings, etc.), his actual education in
astronomy and the related sciences was woefully lacking.
This is a sad commentary on my schooling and education in
general, because I am certain I am not alone. As with the other
subjects I have covered in the Don't Know Much About series,
the areas of space and astronomy hold considerable fascination
for many people who have a basic curiosity about the universe.
But, as a nation, we are "Astronomically Ignorant"
in every sense of the expression. Textbooks, written by one set
of professors and academics to be read by other professors and
academics, left us miserable and muddled. Miseducation, media
confusion, and Hollywood myth-making have all played significant
roles in creating this knowledge gap. And this celestial shortcoming
is all the more remarkable because the fascinating story of outer
space and the universe is not just about physics and rockets
and payloads. Basically, it's a human story.
Human, indeed. Davis's book is divided into five sections,
and the first is driven by the personalities behind the history
of cosmos-directed thought. From myth to religion to science,
he charts the changing answers human have offered those perennial
favorites: Why does the world exist? How did it begin? How does
its structure lend meaning and order to our world?
Davis's methodology here--focusing on intriguing and even
arresting biographical details (like the fact that Tycho Brahe,
who worked with Kepler, wore a metal nose)--mirrors Carl Sagan's
1980 Cosmos series (to which Davis refers occasionally).
But while it's not especially new in its approach or content,
it's certainly highly readable, and Davis's organizational skills
are put to good use. The text is presented as answers to a series
of questions (like ""Did Aristotle start the crystal
craze?" and "Who pierced Giordano Bruno's tongue?"),
and he helpfully includes several chronologies that put religious
/ scientific notions into a larger social context.
The second section moves from the history of sky-oriented
thought to an extended, fact-packed look at the solar system,
complete with stats on each planet's diameter, distance from
the Earth and sun, length of year and day, temperature, atmospheric
and land composition and number of satellites (if any). Davis
certainly keeps this section interesting and light enough for
sustained reading, but the sheer number of facts makes it a good
reference work that can be consulted briefly for a particular
piece of trivia.
In the third section, Davis explores the world beyond our
solar system ("Do all the galaxies look alike?" "Which
galaxies are nearest the Milky Way?" and, most disturbingly,
"Has anyone found a black hole?" among others.) The
fourth section deals with (and defends) space exploration, and
in the final section, he asks the big, profound questions: how
did the universe begin, and how will it end?
It goes without saying, of course, that a book that takes
on such a broad spectrum of complicated subjects will inevitably
prove lacking in something or another by some readers. All things
considered, though, Don't Know Much About the Universe
is an appealingly lighthearted, informative installment in a
strong series, and a general reader interested in astronomy should
consider it a particularly useful starting point.
Back to Archived Short
the young protagonist of Hanif Kureishi's Gabriel's Gift,
is a surprisingly resilient character, which is a lucky quality
for his beautifully drawn but (frankly) depressing family. They
are not so much dysfunctional as simply desperate. Emotionally
desperate, economically desperate and even, at least for Gabriel's
washed-up musician father, artistically desperate. And as the
novel opens, their situation is getting worse: Gabriel's mother
has thrown his father out of their London apartment and taken
a menial job waiting tables in a local bar.
Gabriel himself seems destined for a life of desperation as
well. School doesn't interest him, and as young as he is, he's
already experimented with drugs, alcohol and sex. He's got real
artistic talent, though, and when his father lucks into a reunion
meeting with an old band mate (a self-absorbed rock star modeled
closely on David Bowie), a signed drawing from the rock star
seems to offer Gabriel's family a way out of at least some of
their problems, if Gabriel can only handle the drawing's diplomatic
complications adroitly enough.
Gabriel's Gift is, perhaps surprisingly for the author
of Intimacy (recently published with Midnight All Day
in a single paperback edition), a gentle novel about moral lessons.
It has a fairy tale quality, partly because the main character
is a child trying to make sense (and good) of an often frightening
adult world. It's also a novel about artistic drive and the creative
process. Creativity, Kureishi suggests, is the best strategy
for surviving adulthood. It may require a childlike self-absorption
that seems to defy those noble goals of selfless maturation,
but it allows your life and work to be the same thing, as Gabriel
It's a strong, if quiet, novel, and while Kureishi's skill
at drawing complicated, likeable characters isn't the least of
its accomplishments, it's certainly the main reason we care so
much about his story, I think.
Back to Archived Short
Alfred A. Knopf
Susan Minot's Rapture opens, Kay Bailey and Benjamin Young
have renewed their three-year-old, on-again-off-again relationship
with a rather intimate act of...oh, let's skip the euphemisms,
shall we? Kay is performing fellatio on Benjamin, and Minot takes
us, in the course of this remarkably short novel (at one hundred
and sixteen pages, isn't it a novella?), inside the minds and
backstories of each of the two as the surprisingly non-erotic
action in the present unfolds.
The lack of erotic charge comes not from Minot's writing (which
can be a bit clinical, it's true) but from the disparity between
the two lovers' experiences. Kay considers her act a gesture
of devotion and communion that reaches almost religious heights.
"She thought," Minot writes, "This is what it
must feel like to be a saint. Full-hearted and ecstatic."
On the other hand, Benjamin finds himself curiously removed from
the experience: "He looked with cool, lowered lids at her
mouth pressed around him. As he watched he felt the pleasant
sensation, but it was not making it up to his head. The good
feeling remained relegated to what was going on down there. It
stopped in the vicinity of his hips."
With the material in the present being taken up entirely by
this single act of fellatio, Kay and Benjamin's backstories--and
the answer(s) to the question Why are they back together again?
drive the bulk of the story. Along the way, fundamental issues
are explored--What is love? being principal among them,
with other critical questions being How does a person fall
in love? and How can a person help but fall in or out
of love? These are people adrift, wondering where they're
likely to end up and asking themselves if they can exercise any
control over it. They struggle to understand the deeper questions
love poses, and then, failing that, they lose themselves in sensations.
"The little alarms of the mind," Kay tells herself,
"are less likely to be detected when the body is taken over
by pleasure." The wide chasm that lies between their isolated
musings undermines their hopes that sex can provoke love, and
the effect is ultimately a little depressing, to be honest. (Shades
of Antonioni and Bertolucci here; it's no surprise that Minot
wrote the screenplay for Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty,
and Antonioni's L'Avventura merits a reference in Rapture.)
The philosophical musings are strong enough, but Rapture's
story structure is weak. The material set in the present isn't
dramatically engaging, and as a result the flashbacks and backstories
are made to carry more than they really should have to. (They're
supposed to help us understand the characters' present circumstances
and future actions, not carry the story dramatically, right?)
Minot's previous efforts (particularly Evening) are certainly
more significant artistically. But as a couple hours' respite
(as well as another take on the Antonioni school of sex-as-philosophy),
Rapture may fit the bill for many existentialist-tinged
Back to Archived Short
The Future of Life
Edward O. Wilson
Alfred A. Knopf
are living in the middle of a vast experiment whose outcome is
far from certain and may be very grim indeed. No one knows when
the "tipping point" may come, when reversing course
may no longer be possible and our one and only Earth's intricate
and delicately balanced biosphere will collapse like a cascade
of dominoes. We will be the instruments of our own extinction,
going the way of the dinosaurs and taking with us the better
portion of the planet's flora and fauna, leaving nothing behind
but the cockroaches, the tree of heaven and possibly Strom Thurmond.
The most unnerving thing is that no one is certain that it
isn't already too late.
This is the message delivered by a spate of recent books by
scientists, environmentalists, nature writers and others, and
entomologist Edward O. Wilson's The Future of Life is
one of the newest additions to the growing collection.
The Future of Life jacket features a beautifully colorful
illustration that seems to speak to the wonderful richness and
diversity of the living world; when you open the book, however,
you discover that the artwork is a graphic enumeration of sixty-one
members of an unhappy confederation: the endangered and the extinct.
Here is the Hawksbill sea turtle, the Guadalupe violet, the Santa
Ana woolystar, the American burying beetle, the Contra Costa
wallflower, the McFarlane's four-o'clock, and on, and on, and
According to Wilson, the current rate of species extinction
is running at somewhere between one and ten thousand species
per million per year--a frequency thousands of times higher than
what you might call the "background rate" that existed
before humans began making a significant mark upon the planet.
To put it in more succinct terms, Wilson notes that it is estimated
that "almost one in four of Earth's mammal species and one
in eight of the bird species are at some degree of risk."
The culprits in this worldwide holocaust are, of course, that
rapacious two-footed species homo sapiens, trashing the
Earth, says Wilson, by means summed up in the acronym HIPPO:
habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, population,
and overharvesting. Among these, habitat destruction is the first-degree
offense, compounded by the rest.
The evidence he marshals against the accused is significant,
extensive, thoroughly depressing and, admittedly, by now too
painfully familiar. The vanishing rainforests, the depleted fisheries,
the melting polar ice caps, the spreading invasives, the ransacked
natural resources. Every page practically stands up and bellows
reproof at our shortsighted, self-absorbed ways.
Wilson doesn't mince words; his memorable turns of phrase
include a description of humankind as "serial killer of
the biosphere." One of the most chilling lines in his book
states simply, "The damage already done cannot be repaired
within any period of time that has meaning for the human mind."
The biosphere is on the ropes.
But the complexities of saving the Earth, Wilson notes, are
intricately tied to matters of population growth and wealth distribution.
Many of the world's most important "hot spots" of biodiversity
lie within some of the world's poorest developing nations, places
sorely pressed by the demands of hunger and poverty. Considering
that the well-off and well-fed United States is gobbling up open
land at a frightening rate for strip malls and subdivisions,
how much more difficult is it to discourage the advance of similar
development in countries where millions struggle simply to feed
and shelter themselves? We already have our DVDs and our SUVs
and our KFCs, and who are we then to preach constraint to our
neighbors when we cannot manage it ourselves? Yet "for the
rest of the world to reach United States levels of consumption
would require four more planet Earths," Wilson notes.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me admit here that
I fully agree with every dire breath of Wilson's warnings, and
with a four-year-old child whose well-being is dear to my heart,
frankly our uncertain future scares the PCBs out of me.
And therein lies the problem. People like me read the book,
and worry, and fret, and send our ten dollars to Greenpeace.
But I'd lay money on the odds against The Future of Life
ever finding its way to George Bush's night table. The believers
believe and the non-believers don't, and ne'er, or so it seems,
shall the twain meet. The well-reasoned solutions Wilson lays
forth in the final chapter of his book are good and admirable
and eminently advisable, and are almost certain to be roundly
ignored by the people who brought us a nolle prosequi
on the Kyoto Protocol.
To this end, Wilson pleads for a reconciliation and a recognition
of common bonds--even the most ardent pro-business capitalist
does not rise in the morning vowing to destroy the world, and
even Julia Butterfly Hill used a cell phone. Somewhere between
wanton disregard and wide-eyed idealism there must be a middle
road of rational self-interest. Otherwise, as Tom Lehrer famously
put it, "We will all go together when we go."
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