Book 241: The Only Woman in the Room by Eileen Pollack

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„The Only Woman in the Room. Why Science Is Still A Boys’ Club“ by Eileen Pollack

Finished reading on November 15th, 2017

Rating: 10/10

I find it difficult to focus my thoughts on this book, because it made me relive a large part of my life. At first look even I had the thought, that why should it be relevant to me? The author studied physics at Yale in 1980s, surely it can’t be the same experience in a different country, ca 30 years later?

In this book you can get a glimpse of all the small things that add up to why there aren’t more women in STEM fields. In some ways Pollack gives the impression that it’s STEM itself and science culture that keep women away, but in others you can see that it’s more of a general environment and society and even pop culture that contributes to the problem. And everyone has biases one way or another whether they’re in a STEM field or not.

I feel like a lot of things I had thought about were present in the book, and I could see my thoughts reflected in either the author’s or in one of the interviewed persons’ answers.

Do women need to be encouraged more in STEM fields? Or maybe do women in general require more encouragement? I can think back on many occasions when I was encouraged to continue on with something even though I hadn’t done particularly well on a test. And then I think how I had actively sought the encouragement on those occasions and hadn’t on others (and wasn’t encouraged then). So I feel that the answer is „yes“. But why?

At one time I was certain, that physics is the most difficult subject to study, and worth studying even for that sole reason. I still feel that way. And I also think that (possibly) everyone can learn it as long as they’re interested in it. Which leads to the question, why do so many quit STEM when they’re not getting the top grades? Maybe that’s why there aren’t as many women in STEM? If you don’t have the highest grades in science, you wouldn’t even consider studying it? Isn’t it just giving up too early? I remember one occasion when someone told me to not give up so soon. ONE occasion.

And then I remember all the times when I’ve hear someone say „I give up“, when I know that just a little more effort would get the person to the goal. How about teaching everyone not to give up?

An interesting thing that was mentioned in the books, is how many physics (and possibly other science) students feel the need to be a „well-rounded person“. One might be just interested in science, but they have to make an effort to have something to talk about with non-science majors. I feel like the whole list of „fiction books I’ve read“ on this site attests to that, because it’s unlikely that a humanities major would meet me half-way and read about astrophysics or general relativity for fun. Why is that? You can be considered a well-educated person if you’ve read James Joyce, but haven’t heard of Robert J. Oppenheimer?

It’s interesting how many times Pollack mentions falling in love with a teacher, TA etc. Someone older and smarter who shares your interest in a STEM field and appreciates a smart woman sounds like the ideal….

But then we get to all the small things – feeling isolated in a group where you’re in a minority. The general feeling of not belonging. Being the only person who’s not wearing black, gray or dark blue in a class. Abstract art that obviously is of nude women on a department’s walls (that’s from my life). Inappropriate jokes and examples by lecturers in class…

I did like the book for several reasons – I could relate to the author and the book made me realize a few things that I hadn’t seen or understood before:

The first thing was how it disturbs me whenever I hear a name of a scientist in a lecture in relation to a law or effect that the scientist discovered, and how there’s rarely ever any mention on who the scientist was. It’s fine in case of Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, but otherwise it bothers me. I discovered how it bothered me because several scientists are mentioned in Pollacks books, and I liked how I could put the names together with a few facts I knew about them already or that Pollack provided. To me it makes physics more interesting to know who were behind the discoveries and definitions and it makes it easier to remember the science too 🙂

The second thing was that I feel I generated a sort of imaginary bubble around me for at least a while during my studies, where all I cared about and read about was physics, because I didn’t have any time for anything else, nor any interest either. Which seems to be an important part of studying a STEM subject.

I feel like this book should be read by everyone, not just women in STEM, who might have had the same experience. It should be read by primary school and kindergarten teachers, by anyone who in their work or life encounters children or young adults. All for the sake that the students wouldn’t be getting ideas about how some area of study is more appropriate for one gender than another one.


On a different note: this book reminded me of Wil Wheaton’s book „Just A Geek“, in a slightly odd way. In „Just A Geek“ Wheaton acknowledges his need to prove to everyone that he hadn’t made a bad or wrong decision in his youth. I felt like in some way Pollack was doing the same.


I’m still thinking about the topics discussed in the book. And I still wonder, whether maybe it’s rather a question of shouldn’t men be encouraged more to study humanities and social sciences? And with that approach you immediately hit the fact that traditionally those lead to less well paid jobs….

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Book 240: Chandra’s Cosmos by Wallace H.Tucker

PIMG_2291Chandra’s Cosmos: Dark Matter, Black Holes, and Other Wonders Revealed by NASA’s Premier X-Ray Observatory by Wallace H. Tucker

Finished reading on November 14th, 2017

Rating: 10/10

NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory was launched in 1999. Since that time it has been used to study the Universe at wavelengths 0.12nm to 12nm that don’t get through the Earth’s atmosphere.

“Chandra’s Cosmos” introduces the types of objects and cosmic events that can be seen in X-rays such as supernova remnants, pulsar wind nebulae, very hot gas in galaxy clusters, quasars etc.

It is a beautiful and informative book and certainly talks about dark matter and black holes as is mentioned in the book’s subtitle. It is full of beautiful color images that combine data from Chandra and occasionally also data from Hubble Space Telescope or some other telescope.

I think Tucker really achieved what he was out to do with this book – show the coolest objects that have been observed with Chandra, but in a well-integrated way so that you don’t have a list of objects and images, that aren’t connected. Instead you have very detailed information on who was doing the research, why it’s interesting, what we still don’t know and it even mixes in a little bit of history of astronomy etc.

Although at first look it might seem as just a picture book or more of a coffee-table-book, it’s not, but it would function as a slightly more informative kind 🙂

The book is awesome.

You can go and find out more about Chandra here.


There’re also several details that I really liked about my edition of the book (Smithsonian Books, 2017) is first the little silver Chandra telescope on the hardcover and secondly the fact that the paper isn’t glossy. I feel it’s important to have well illustrated books about science that could be given to children without having fingerprints all over the photos after just a short while.

Book 239: Just A Geek by Wil Wheaton

Just a Geek: Unflinchingly honest tales of the search for life, love, and fulfillment beyond the Starship Enterprise by Wil Wheaton

Finished reading on November 10th, 2017

Rating: 9/10

I picked this book up rather randomly. I did know who Wil Wheaton is, but I didn’t really know anything besides the fact that he was in Star Trek The Next Generation and also appears on The Big Bang Theory occasionally.

This book is sort of like a small diary/journal kind of thing about Wil’s life in the early 2000s.

I enjoyed reading it, because it was funny in some parts, but mostly it was just a look into his mind and ideas about Star Trek, why he felt he had to prove to everyone that leaving the show wasn’t a mistake, and how he changed his attitude towards it.

I think maybe the reason I likes it, is the fact that it is about trying to prove to everyone, including yourself, that something you did wasn’t a mistake. I feel like that is very relatable, even though that something wouldn’t have been quitting Star Trek :).

It leaves me wondering though – is it ever a good idea to try to prove that you did the right decision? Isn’t it already a bad decision when you need to explain doing it?

But getting back to Wil Wheaton – he sounds awesome! The book is good and well written. It has a sort of casual style, which makes it easy to read, but (I feel like it) doesn’t reflect how deeply some events changed his mind…


And finally just a cool talk by Wil Wheaton:

Also, why not go and visit his website?

Book 238: The Dark Room by R. K. Narayan

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The Dark Room by R. K. Narayan

Finished reading on November 5th, 2017

Rating: 8/10

“The Dark Room” is a story of a family in Narayan’s created Maguldi.

There’s the head of the family – Ramani, secretary of an insurance company, who drives a car, goes to a club after work and expects things to be the way he wants them when he gets home to his family. There’s the dutiful wife – Savitri, who tries to please her husband and keep the household working. And the children – eldest boy Babu and girls Kamala and Sumati, and then there’re some household servants and a cook…

the story begins with the introduction of the family and their way of life and how Savitri would react to her husbands mean or angry moods – she would lie in bed in a dark room.

And then we meet a new addition to Ramani’s workplace – a young woman, who is starting work there. And Ramani goes on to be very “friendly” with his new colleague to the point where he at first just reaches home really late at night to where he only arrives at home in the early morning hours.

Savitri finds out, confronts Ramani and leaves home, only to return a few days later.

I think this is a really interesting story, as there is a certain amount of Jane Eyre like elements in the story. Sure, it lacks a romantic brooding Mr. Rochester, but in a way it’s Jane Eyre transposed to Malgudi as a mother of three children with a husband who has found another younger woman to spend his time with.

There are even whole sentences which have just a little bit missing from being Jane’s “I am no bird” speech when Savitri is looking for justice from her husband.

Ramani doesn’t see it though, and she leaves in the middle of the night, only to go through a similar, but noticeably shorter detour, during which she is saved from drowning by a helpful stranger, who in a way takes her in and helps her find a job, even though it’s for a short while – but it’s the elements of Jane Eyre’s story. The stranger doesn’t turn out to be her relative in any way though…

Savitri, as Jane Eyre, is determined to not accept charity, and to work for her food, as her husband had pointed out and as she herself feels, that she doesn’t own anything, everything has only ever been her father’s, her husband’s or her son’s. And she is happy when she gets to have rice that she has earned with work…

The end of the book is poignant though – Savitri has returned home, her husband has been in a good mood, but Savitri is still gloomy. The stranger who had helped her, goes past her street yelling out his services and she consider’s calling out to him, seeing as he looked hungry. But she doesn’t, as she feels that she doesn’t have anything to offer – everything is still only her husband’s.

It is a really short book, but it’s a powerful story and Narayan has brought out many opposing ideas -we have a family with the man being the dominating one, in Savitri’s and Ramani’s case. And one where the woman dominates in case of the stranger Mari who saves Savitri, and his wife Ponni. There is the idea that married women and prostitutes have a lot in common, with the difference being that married women don’t switch men… and then there’s Savitri’s understanding of how it’s really important that her daughters would get a better education than she did, so that they could earn a living on their own – I think that is the reason why Savitri returns home.

Book 237: Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens

Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens

Finished reading on 4th of November, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Yesterday evening I happened across a quote by Christopher Hitchens on Goodreads which is from “Letters to a Young Contrarian”:

Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.

And after reading this quote I thought I have to read this book, and I did. I was probably struck most by the last three sentences of this quote (which comes from the very end of the book) .

First – “Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake” is pretty much the basis for a good entertainment in social situations in my view… as long as the other person sees it in the same way.

Second “Suspect your own motives, and all excuses.” is something I’ve noticed recently (whenever I think of an excuse for doing/not doing something, I imagine the voice of a character from the movie “Carrie Pilby” saying “Excuse!”, which stops me from saying excuses out loud at least 🙂

And the third part leads me finally to the book as well “Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.” that just sounds like Nietzsche….in the sense that you should be living for yourself and finding out what your own values and ideas are instead of following someone else (the public /a mentor etc).

This book is written as letters, so it’s really easy to read, and I liked what I read for several reasons. First I liked the clear points, then the references to characters in literature and historic figures, his contemporaries and others and how he mentioned the reasons for bringing them into the discussion. And ultimately I was drawn to a realization that was fostered by this book.

There were two main points that drew me in, the first one is to not look at what a person thinks, but rather how they think. That makes sense and it goes well with the argument and disputation which brings out how people think. It made me think of how maybe sometimes I just miss exactly that – a certain way of thinking being demonstrated by an author/ speaker/ anyone. (On a different and totally irrelevant note – don’t we all just want to hear someone say “I like how you think”?)

Back to the book – the idea is that it’s in a way advice for people who are in some way going against the grain of something… ideas on religion, politics, morale, anything.  And as far as I gathered, the main advice is to think and if at all possible try to have a sense of humor and when thinking one should think for themselves and you shouldn’t accept others’ ideas and principles or policies without thinking about them first or maybe not at all. And also that the masses and public opinion can be wrong and to finish with the words of J.R.R. Tolkien and Gandalf: “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future”.

In general I found it interesting and something that would be useful for any intelligent being to read at least once.

So don’t be afraid to disagree 🙂

One thing I found interesting – I am really disturbed by the fact that most editions of the book show a cigarette on the cover of this book either on its own or between the fingers of Hitchens.

Oh and I don’t think I’m a contrarian. Just opinionated.
The second thing that drew me in was Hitchens’ mention of humor.I like random and at times odd connections or links that come into my mind when talking or reading etc, and when they’re humorous then that’s even better.

And in all honesty: I liked Hitchens’ thinking.
However not everyone needs to or even can be a contrarian on such a large scale, but even small opposition to injustice or simply bad ideas can get noticed.

I have to read it again some time, because I’ve sort of swallowed the book whole, so I need to digest it some more….

Book 236: The Origin of Stars by Michael D. Smith

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The Orion Nebula – closest place to the Solar System where massive stars form

The Origin of Stars by Michael D. Smith

Finished reading on November 1st, 2017

Rating: 10/10

How are stars born? What processes lead to the birth of a star? And what conditions are necessary for star formation? Those might be some of the questions that lead you to read Professor Michael D. Smith’s book “The Origin of Stars”, which was first published in 2004 by Imperial College Press.

This book is aimed for any reader, who is interested in how stars form,and although it gets into the equations governing star formation in a lot of detail, that shouldn’t scare off even say a determined high-school student.

I found the book and the topic fascinating, and more so than I first thought it would be. As far as I knew or remembered from astronomy lectures from a few years ago – matter collapses, temperature on the inside rises, thermonuclear reactions start and poof – you’ve got yourself a brand new star! Or that’s at least how I’d have described it. Now I know better.
In “The Origin of Stars” you find out more about the environment in which stars are born, what prompts the formation of stars and what will eventually stop star formation in a molecular cloud. You also find out about the different stages that a protostar goes through in it’s collapse to in the end accrete matter from its surrounding disk to eventually become a star. And what happens to the environment in which it’s located? What kind of objects that have been observed are related to star formation?

There’s a lot of fascinating details from how come newborn stars don’t rotate so fast as to lose their matter because of its envelope achieving escape speed.  And how do different kinds of stars form and what can form if certain conditions aren’t met. The book is packed with information.

Now to get away from my excitement about star formation, I’ll leave you with one last important bit of information, that I’m sure everyone will eventually need in their life. If you happen across Lithium in an objects hot atmosphere, you can be pretty sure that you’ve either happened across a really young star, or a brown dwarf. And if you wait astronomically long enough, you’ll find out which it is – if it loses the Lithium after a while, then it’s a young star, if it keeps its Lithium – brown dwarf! If it keeps its precious stones – it’s Thráin.

Book 235: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

Finished reading on October 27th, 2017
Rating: 9/10

Why is it that a lot of women with higher education after some years don’t work or haven’t advanced in their careers as much as men with the same education? Why don’t men opt for being work-at-home fathers as often as women make the choice to stay at home with their children? Why shouldn’t one ask how to “have it all”?

This is another one of those books that I wouldn’t normally read, just because the content seems logical anyway, so why spend the time reading it? It’s still how I  feel, that’s why I only rated it with 9 points out of 10.

However I did find some points in it interesting. And I do feel that high-school and undergraduate students should read it, so that more women would stay in the workforce and also so that men would also see more options….

There’s a lot of good advice. For example to make your partner a real partner – don’t just do all the chores yourself, but share them and don’t require the other person to do them your way, but rather their own way, even if you consider it wrong.

Another one would be to not judge people on their choices when it comes to career and family – it might seem as if everyone has the same choices but in reality that might not be the case.

An interesting point Sandberg made in the book is that a man and a woman with the same skill-sets would be perceived differently and that there are different expectations to women in professional situations, and not just from men, but from women as well – you’d expect a woman to be nicer in any given situation than a man with the same kind of job. But at the same time successful women are seen as less nice and not liked as much as successful men.

While reading this book, I had one successful woman in the back of my mind, whose decisions have influenced me a lot and that probably is the reason why I felt that Sandberg’s book is just purely logical, and there’s not much new to me information in there. And I consider it obvious that it isn’t  “a woman’s” job to cook and clean – the person who can and wants to do those things will, but there’re no expectations for any one person to do it.

Another interesting thing was the part about mentors – asking someone to mentor you, or having a mentor without even realizing it. I think the main point there was to not ask someone to mentor you in those words, ask for specific advice rather than “be my mentor” – a sneaky way to get a mentor without the mentor even realizing it :).

I’m glad that I read it, and I think that everyone might benefit from reading it – to lean in to what ever it is you want to do with your life, be more confident and reach for the opportunities even when you don’t feel particularly ready for them.

 

Book 234: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Finished reading on October 21st, 2017

Rating: 7/10

I always had the idea that somewhere in this book there would be someone counting sheep in their mind to fall asleep and wondering whether androids would be doing the same with electric sheep…. Well, I was wrong…

This book is not my usual kind of fiction book to read for several reasons – first if I read sci-fi it the book’s plot should better take place on a different planet or a moon, secondly isn’t it just a bit too mainstream?

I’m not going to get into the synopsis of the book, because that can be found anywhere else…

So my thought on this book: I’m glad it’s over. The end.

…..

I do feel like this book took me for a trip outside of my comfort-zone, which isn’t all that bad in itself.

*Androids as personal servants. Ok, why not. Though why not have them do everything else too? Humans are lazy, programmable robots however can be much more efficient, even in giving orders I’d think, so androids escaping humans sounds logical.

What doesn’t sound logical is having androids of two genders (as far as the book is concerned). Why? If you’d make them indistinguishable from humans, then you shouldn’t be surprised if they behave like humans. But that doesn’t sound effective – my question/idea arose from reading the part where Pris is encouraged to move to Isidore’s apartment where he could take care of her. That’s confusing. They’re capable of pretty much everything but a good cover for an android is living with a “chickenhead”? I wonder whether that’s for compatibility or some other reason that androids have genders…so that humans could relate to them better?

Now electric animals instead of real ones because a lot of species have gone extinct, very few survive and having an animal has become a status symbol – that’s an interesting idea. I remember as a kid wanting a remote-controlled dog when I couldn’t get a real dog, so it makes some sense. But it’s curious that androids aren’t considered as electric humans and as someone you should take care of and keep as pets, but rather as servants. So the latter serve a purpose, the former are merely symbolic and fake at that too. But I guess it’s more the culture – you have to have an animal or you’d be seen as odd, kind of like someone who doesn’t watch TV….

There were two things which I found most disturbing, should those ever come to life. First is fake memories. It’s been used elsewhere too ofcourse. But it’s just creepy.

Second is empathy boxes and Mercerism. So you take hold of the handles and feel what someone else is feeling and others can feel how you feel (kind of like the point-of-view gun in Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide, only it works both ways). Maybe I’m just (trying too or really am) not that emphatic so I would hate to feel someone else’s feelings and moods – partly because I feel it’s an invasion of their privacy even if they’re doing it willingly and secondly it’s making you feel different. However now think of what reading fiction does….. Aren’t they just empathy boxes with pages instead of handles? That’s a disturbing thought. Which is also why I find that any book recommendations should be really well-considered and thought-out. (At least when I’ve read a book on someone’s recommendation I still always connect them to that book…) But why should everything be shared?

Then just something I noticed – in case of names of people etc that I haven’t come across too much, or not at all, I find it difficult to assign a different meaning or character to it, so in my mind Mercer is connected to the Mercer in Eggers’ Circle and the Rosens are connected to Dr. Rosen from A Beautiful Mind….

And now for the last thing – mood organs are probably the most interesting bit of technology that is in that book. The ability to just dial a different mood and schedule your moods in advance -that’s quite intriguing. If such a thing existed, would I use it? On the one hand it goes against my idea of what a mood is and that would just be a setting… and I’d prefer to not have my moods changed even just by me… On the other hand I see how it might make some things easier – for example set it on a sociable mood and you’re willing to talk to people or a learning mood for those early morning lectures…

In my mind the most disturbing part in the novel is the bit with the spider. I do have empathy for the spider…Those awful bully androids…

So that’s what I thought about while reading this book. Unfortunately I finished it way past midnight, so my thoughts haven’t been organized too well.

What were your thoughts on this book?

Data remains my favourite android.

Book 233: Hacking Electronics by Simon Monk

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Hacking Electronics: An illustrated DIY guide for makers and hobbyists by Simon Monk

Finished reading on October 18th, 2017

Rating:8/10

Where would you start if you’d want to get into building electronics? Or just learning about it? I would suggest starting from this book that provides a lot of information on different electronic components, procedures and ideas for beginner-friendly projects.

I picked up this book on a whim at the library and was drawn to it because of its title and later by the illustrated nature of it – it makes electronics seem easy enough and with a few safety procedures in place I might even try some of the projects out.

I liked that there is variety in the projects and the directions seem easy and clear enough to follow. However with some of the projects I sort of started wondering what for would you make one thing or another. I mean in addition to fun, what purpose would it serve? That was the only reason I gave it 8 points out of ten. I can see how some of the projects are helpful, but in case of others I’d like to have seen a bit more of what use would it have. Or maybe a gallery of ideas for useful gadgets you could make with the techniques and components introduced in the book. You’d have to figure all that out yourself.

I am glad that I read it though – it’s great to learn new skills even though I might not put them to use right away.

Book 232: Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps by Peter Galison

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Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps by Peter Galison

Finished reading on 10th October 2017

Rating: 8/10

What is simultaneity? How can clocks be synchronized? Why do we have 60 minutes in an hour instead of 100? These are some of the questions you’d find answers to in this book.

I wanted to read this book just because of the title – first of all it mentions Einstein, and secondly I remembered Poincaré’s name from one or another physics lecture.

This book starts out with the practical need for synchronizing clocks that was first felt at the observatories and on the railroad. In case of railroads it might sound more practical as it makes sense that even small differences in time can cause accidents in case of fast-moving trains. In the case of observatories however it was connected to the need to find your exact location on a map for cartographers etc.

As railroads covered more and more land surface with their grid it also became important and necessary to think of standardizing time. Which brings the book to the topic of what kind of ideas were proposed and how the Greenwich meridian came to be the one acknowledged as the prime meridian.

In addition to practical need and solutions, Galison goes into the idea of simultaneity as a basic idea in physics and philosophy and how it was approached differently.

It all leads us to the special theory of relativity.

Having read several books on relativity and Einstein before, I felt like this book gave me a different insight into special relativity. Maybe it was just because of the comparison with Poincaré’s ideas, or Galison showing it in the context of contemporary ideas of synchronizing clocks.

This book was interesting from the beginning to the end and approached time from a different perspective than what I’ve encountered before. It’s not a difficult book to get through, but it makes you appreciate having standardized time and accurate clocks, and might also make you think about why couldn’t we have decimal time instead?