science

Rocket Billionaires by Tim Fernholz

35721160Ever since I started reading this book I want to grab every stranger on the street by the collar and yell at them: “We’re going to Mars!”

This book has been with me for the last two weeks and it has left me completely mesmerized by the unquenchable fires of human innovation and by how much can be achieved through mass collaboration. Rocket Billionaires, written by Tim Fernholz, follows the narrative of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and the plan to create a colony on Mars in hopes that humans can become a multi-planetary civilization.

Fernholz focuses on the competition between Bezos and Musk to realize their visions of humanity as a multi-planetary civilization by building space companies focused on reusable technology. Fernholz spends some time examining the managerial differences between Bezos and Musk and looks at how these differences affect their relationship to this project. Aside from the clash between the two billionaires, there was also a tension between military-industrial space programs and these new, self-made, space companies. Fernholz describes how NASA policymakers stepped in to save SpaceX when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. The plan as we know it, is that in the next decade there will be an attempt to place the first colony on Mars. Over time, this colony’s goal will be to grow to one million citizens so that it can get started. Supplies sent on each individual mission will include a new batch of people as well as foods, plants, technologies etc. in order to create greenhouse farms, Martian villages with hospitals and schools, and a full-on functioning civilization.

This book is exemplary journalistic work. Fernholz relates the story of these two self-made companies to the public in a non-biased way. It is evident on every page how passionate Fernholz is about this project and it really shows, yet he maintains an academic, non-intrusive journalistic voice. The narrative flows smoothly and is by no means elitist or exclusive.

Reading this book made me jot down a lot of questions. For instance, I wonder if the women who embark on this mission be under insurmountable pressure to procreate. Will future generations look back and remember Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos in a kind of Henry Ford/Thomas Edison way, or will people forget the financial struggles and remember the name of the first man/woman to step on Martian soil, the way we all know the name of Neil Armstrong? What technologies will be created as a result that could better life on Earth? After discussing this topic over the last two weeks with people at home, work, and public spaces, I was taken aback with how ‘civilians’ receive information about this project. For one, everyone ‘heard’ about this topic, and yet, they look at it both as ‘old news’ and as a ‘it’s probably not going to happen in our lifetime.’ For me, this book has been eye-opening. The project is not only on its way in a monumental way, but it will happen within the next decade.  The second comment I am met with when bringing up this topic is “what a waste of money, why not save the starving, struggling people here on Earth first?” While I agree that it is a fair point, this project is equally important. I am somewhat relieved that the people leading this project are very much focused on renewables, and reusable technologies.

Henry Ford famously said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” That is to say, we don’t know what this undertaking will accomplish for humanity yet. This book makes me see the scientific intrigue to colonizing Mars. It will be monumental on an engineering, scientific, educational, and human level—no matter how the mission will go. It will make students want to study the sciences even more ardently than before, and as Fernholz narrowed it down in this book, one of the answers to the question of “why go to Mars?” really can be as simple as: “because it’s there.”

Fernholz relates often the reality of the project to the leading figures in science fiction literature particularly that of the big three: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein, and of course Kim Stanley Robinson whose Red Mars trilogy is precisely this project (set in 2026 no less). The sprinkling of sci-fi references made this book exemplary. The sci-fi allusions act as a cohesive between the imagination found in the arts and what the great minds of scientists, programmers, engineers, and mathematicians can help bring to fruition—making readers see the beauty in humanity’s collective effort.

Would I recommend this book? YES!

Tim Fernholz is one of the leading journalists reporting on SpaceX and one of the best news commentary experts. Many of his articles have been featured in Quartz, and you may recognize him from the 2016 Quartz/Marketplace economics podcast: Actuality. Fernholz was both a Knight Journalism Fellow and at the New America Foundation in Washington D.C. He is a Georgetown University alumni with studies in Government, Theology, and Arabic, and one of the founding editors for the Tomorrow Magazine. If you’d like to learn more about his other fascinating projects, and previous journalistic work, you can find more information here.

The book is available as of Tuesday, March 20th, 2018 on Amazon, Audible, (read by Erin Moon) and The Book Depository, as well as your local bookstores (some links: Indigo, Barnes & Noble, Blackwell’s) and of course libraries.

Many thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt both for publishing this wonderful book and for sending me a review copy. The book design is completed by Graphic Artist Chloe Foster.

 

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My Top 5 Librarians in History

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I thought it would be fun to write a post of my top favourite and most inspiring librarians in history (and a bonus one). There are many others I have left out, but these are the ones whose works I have had the pleasure of reading. It will become apparent shortly as to why they are so inspirational:

  1. Jacob Grimm

grimm-jacob-imageJacob Grimm is by far my favourite librarian. This man, like most librarians on this list, was multi-talented. First, he’s one of the two ‘Brothers Grimm’ which is what he’s most famously known for. The two brothers (Jacob and Wilhelm) collected fairy tales and wrote them down (and refined them). Jacob though, was also a prominent linguist and he contributed greatly by creating “Grimm’s Law” which was very useful when studying Old English. Jacob Grimm also worked as a librarian in Kasel, after graduating with a law degree. His work on language, and fairy tales has had a huge impact on my life and career trajectory, which is why he gets the #1 spot.

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  1. Lillian H. Smith

IMG_20170425_164640Lillian H. Smith was the first head of the children’s services at the Toronto Public Library in the earlier days of the public library (starting with the 1920s). She created many programs for children like story time and founded the Girls’ and Boys’ House. The reading clubs that she hosted expanded in all aspects of storytelling like puppet shows, literary discussion/debate, and historical subjects. She was a firm believer that a librarian’s job was to deliver “the right book, to the right child, at the right time.” Her published work The Unreluctant Years: A Critical Approach to Children’s Literature (1953) includes the choices of literature she deemed appropriate as well as her new classification system specific to children’s literature. Her services for children and philosophy spread worldwide and she was a highly influential woman. Her name is currently used as the name for one branch of the Toronto Public Library.

  1. Jorge Luis Borges

jorge-luis-borgesJorge Luis Borges was an Argentinian writer who made significant contributions to literature in the 20th century and nominated many times for the Nobel Prize in literature but alas did not win. He lost his sight completely in his later years. He was a municipal librarian from 1939-1946 in Argentina, before getting fired by the Peron regime. One of his most famous short stories, “The Library of Babel,” depicts the universe as a huge library and is one of my favourite stories of all time. His poetry, essays, and reflections on literature, as well as his own major contributions have made him a prominent author—and often his librarian role is discussed as an extra.

  1. Eratosthenes

Eratosthene.01Eratosthenes the chief librarian at the Great Library of Alexandria. In addition to pretty much running the world’s greatest wonder, Eratosthenes discovered the system of latitude and longitude and made significant contributions to astronomy. He calculated the circumference of the earth without ever leaving Egypt, and has been nicknamed “the father of geography.” His work Constellation Myths: with Aratus’s Phaenomena was recently reprinted by Oxford Classics.

  1. Lewis Carroll

300hCarroll is known for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland but his main career was in mathematics. After graduating from Oxford with a B.A. in mathematics, he became a sub-librarian at Christ Church there. He left that position in 1857 to become a Mathematical Lecturer. In addition to this, my favourite fun fact about him was that he was a stickler for near writing. He would often get great ideas for writing after he had already gone to bed but didn’t want to wake up and light the lamp, and he also didn’t want to have messy writing under any circumstance.

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A recreation of the Nyctograph and the alphabet Carroll created for it

So he created this rectangular device called the nyctograph, where he would have his own “alphabet” and write in code at night, so it looks neat in the morning. Recently someone printed a copy of Alice completely in nyctograph from, and that’s just awesome. Carroll’s bibliography is vast and I don’t have to convince you that he was amazing. The key thing here is that he was also a librarian which makes him extra amazing.

Bonus Librarian: Benjamin Franklin

BenFranklinDuplessisBenjamin Franklin founded America’s first lending library the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731. He served as librarian there for three months (Dec.1733-Mar.1734). He was a huge fan of John Baskerville’s printing work back in England and is responsible for bringing back to America the font of John Baskerville. Franklin also started the first medical library in Pennsylvania. I can’t list in a paragraph all the incredible things Franklin did in his lifetime. He was an inventor, a printer, an intellectual in every sense of the word, a newspaperman, a library founder, politician, mathematician, oceanographer, and scientist. I think sometimes his other works are so incredible that they overshadow the fact that he was a librarian and founded many of America’s firsts special and lending libraries—which is pretty amazing.

Invisible Planets | Book Review

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Jacket design by Jamie Stafford-Hill. Photograph of spiral galaxy M81 (detail) by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage team.

Invisible Planets is a 2016 TOR publication. The thirteen short stories had been previously featured in short story publications like Clarkesworld, Uncanny, and Tor.com. The short stories are written by Chen Qiufan, Xia Jia, Ma Boyong, Hao Jingfang, Tang Fei, Cheng Jingbo, and Liu Cixin. All the stories are translated by Ken Liu whose short story “The Paper Menagerie” is the first work of fiction, of any length, to win the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, and who also translated The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy written by Liu Cixin.

Each author’s stories are preceded by a brief biographical note on the author. At the very end of the collection there is a series of non-fiction essays on Chinese Science Fiction. I have never read any contemporary Chinese literature. Like most people in the West, I was introduced to a few translated fairy tales, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and translated philosophies like I Ching, Lao Tzu, and Confucius. We are missing out on much of China’s contemporary artistic output due to lacking translated works. As a reader, I feel embarrassed for how little I know of China’s contemporary literature in general, let alone specific genres. I had only heard of Liu Cixin because of the Three-Body-Problem which I still have not read. Ken Liu urges the reader in the introduction to read the stories as they are without trying to morph them into what we think Chinese literature should be. He writes:

“Given the realities of China’s politics and its uneasy relationship with the West, it is natural for Western readers encountering Chinese science fiction to see it through the lens of Western dreams and hopes and fairy tales about Chinese politics…I would urge the reader to resist such temptation. Imagining that the political concerns of Chinese writers are the same as what the Western reader would like them to be is at best arrogant and at worst dangerous.”

He continues:

“Chinese writers are saying something about the globe, about all of humanity, not just China, and trying to understand their works through this perspective is, I think, the far more rewarding approach.”

For instance, Liu urges us not to read Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat,” as a critique of the Chinese education system and the labour market. As I was reading the story I couldn’t help but smile through several parts like this one:

“I sat next to Pea by coincidence. I was an undergraduate majoring in Chinese literature; he was a graduate student in the biology department. We had nothing in common except neither of us could find jobs after graduation.”

I think that problem is quite universal right now. This thought is prevalent here in the West as well. That is just a small example of the warnings Liu gives us when reading contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in translation. Read it like it is, and don’t think of any of it as a critique of China alone.

I found the stories to be varied in content. Qiufan’s science fiction is more about dialogue and character with very subtle airs of science fiction, while some of the later stories are hard science fiction, or futuristic. This book is an introduction to Chinese Sci-fi and it’s well-put together. Bits of non-fictions, introductions, and summaries contextualise the sci-fi stories and give the reader a good overview of Chinese Science Fiction.

I would strongly recommend this to anyone interested in exploring literature from a different country, expanding one’s horizons (quite literally for some stories), and for those interested in Science Fiction. I have personally become mesmerised by both Ken Liu and Cixin Liu that I am very much looking forward to reading their other works.