Tag Archives: science

Staff Review: The Martian

9780804139021The Martian

Andy Weir

Crown Publishing Group


Available February 2014

What would MacGyver do if he was stranded on Mars? Well, astronaut Mark Watney answers this question after he is stranded in a dust storm during a mission to Mars, left by his crewmates who mistakenly believe he is dead. In The Martian, by Andy Weir, Watney wakes up to find himself alone, unable to communicate with his crew or Earth, and with limited food supplies. Even if a rescue mission could be sent, he would starve to death before they ever arrived.

Being a resourceful engineer and botanist has its advantages, however, and Watney manages to find a way to generate oxygen without blowing himself up, make water, fix the solar cells for power, create soil with viable bacteria, and grow potatoes from 12 food potatoes left behind. He even manages to find the abandoned Pathfinder Rover and rigs it up so that he can communicate with NASA. Eventually (a year and a half later) he manages to drive the rover from his mission 3200 kilometers to where there is another base from which he can connect with a flyby mission. It’s one disaster after another, but the MacGyver of Mars always manages to find a solution.

I liked this novel, mostly. I wanted to like it more. I liked it more for various parts, than the sum total. At first I found Watney’s conversational style irritating, but it grew on me, and I often found myself laughing at his humor. I really did want to find out What Happens Next, so the book was hard to put down. I found myself skimming the text when descriptions of chemical reactions and numbers seemed to take over the page; I have a scientific background, but I don’t really want to read a blow-by-blow description of the breakdown of CO2 to make oxygen, and the conversion of the rocket fuel hydrazine to make hydrogen, and the subsequent combination of hydrogen and oxygen to make water.  Nor am I particularly interested in reading about why 62 square meters of soil are needed to grow 150 kilograms of potatoes in 400 days.

However, I didn’t know that Mars has no magnetic field! And I really enjoyed the sense of place that I got from the text: the utter sense of being alone, the alien landscape, the silence. I like hard science fiction, but my tastes tend to run to Kim Stanley Robinson or Stephen Baxter. I don’t think I would recommend this novel as a hardcover, but I might recommend it as a paperback. And I do think this would appeal to a reader who likes thrillers, or maybe someone who remembers watching MacGyver back in the day.

~ Lysbeth Abrams

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Morse Pond Review: Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab

9781594746482Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab

Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hickensmith

Quirk Books


Available November 2013

Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab by Tom Pflugfelder is about two kids named Nick and Tesla.They go to live with their uncle for the summer. Their uncle is a crazy scientist. They are going to solve a mystery. This book also has built-it yourself gadgets. This is an amazing book for soon to be scientists and anyone who likes a good mystery.

~ Adam , age 11

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Staff Review: A Tale for the Time Being

9780670026630One of the best things about  my first year at college was discovering the university libraries. I quickly settled on a favorite, and it wasn’t the beautiful old main library in the campus center, although I loved all of them (I don’t think I’ve ever met a library I didn’t like). Rather it was the library on the agricultural quad, with its utilitarian looks. The stacks were housed in a nine-story central tower, with study carrels tucked into the corners of each floor. The quietness was almost palpable and I rarely saw another person the higher in the stacks that I climbed. Sometimes I would wander through the stacks, perusing the titles, sometimes pulling one out for a closer look.  Just doing this gave me an almost giddy feeling, as though by random chance I might stumble across some forgotten tome holding the key to everything. At times I felt like a 20th century alchemist searching for a modern day philosopher’s stone — I know how pretentious this sounds, but don’t you remember how being 18 years old felt?

As the years have passed, I have given up searching for the answer to everything in dusty old books, and that feeling of giddiness is a lovely memory, but I have never lost my sense of wonder and curiousity about how the world works.

Every week it seems there are new scientific discoveries, and while they provide new answers, they raise yet more questions. For some time now I have felt that the field of quantum mechanics just might be the modern-day equivalent to the answer to everything, if only I could actually understand it. I am not a physicist, however. So I’ve read a few of those nifty “Very Short Introduction” guides that Oxford publishes; I’ve looked through Mr. Tompkins and Alice in Quantumland; and I’ve even read a graphic guide to quantum theory. And occasionally the fog I seem to wander through lifts briefly: I feel a glimmer of understanding. But when I try to articulate my “aha” moment, it just slips away.

Making analogies makes difficult concepts easier for me to understand, and one of my favorite analogies is to visualize quantum mechanics as a library — within the universe of each book, all the events are occurring simultaneously. It’s only when you pick up a book to read it that time moves in a linear fashion.

And then along comes Ruth Ozeki’s new book, A Tale for the Time Being, just in the nick of time! It may be the closest I ever get to understanding the basic concept of quantum mechanics. This book is a story told within the framework of quantum time. The two main characters, Nao and Ruth, never meet. Although their stories are told simultaneously, they occur at different times. Nevertheless, the two characters communicate with each other. Nao is a schoolgirl who lives in Japan prior to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and Ruth is a writer who lives on an island off the western coast of Canada. Nao puts her journal in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, which Ruth finds when it washes up on her island. Nao says that she is a “time being”, which she takes from a Buddhist poem with the words “for the time being” repeated in every line; we use this common phrase so often, to mean “for the present”, “for right now”, or “until further notice”, but Nao interprets them to mean that we are all time beings living somewhere in time, whether it is in the present, the past, or the future. Nao writes her journal as though she is speaking to whoever is reading it, and Ruth doesn’t want to finish reading it because she is afraid to end it and lose touch with Nao. Nao writes that she will commit suicide soon, and Ruth doesn’t want this to happen, even though it may have already happened. Ruth, who at one point declares that “writing is the opposite of suicide”, is suffering from a bit of writer’s block.

But wait, there is more: Zen Buddhism, Japanese popular culture, bullying, the dark legacy of Japan’s role in WW2, the special relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, island life, writing and literature, science, and philosophy. There is also sadness and joy and hope and love and humor. This is not a book I wanted to finish quickly.

I like to think of my books as my own personal quantum universe, my library of multiverses happening all the time right in my own house. A Tale for the Time Being is one place I will return to time and time again.

~ Lysbeth

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2012 Picks of the Year — Early Grade Chapter Books


Outside Your Window: A First Book of Nature
By Davies, Nicola
Candlewick Press 
9780763655495 $19.99

Davies’ observations of nature are transformed into poems by Hearld’s glorious illustrations. This book will encourage any child with an ounce of curiosity and creativity to create their own nature journal.


Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird: A True Story
By Spinner, Stephanie
Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
9780375868467 $17.99

This book is a retelling, for children, of the book Irene Pepperberg wrote (Alex & Me : How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence —  and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process) about her language research with the African grey parrot Alex. At a time when bird intelligence was considered extremely limited, Alex proved to Pepperberg and the scientific world that he possessed vastly more smarts than anyone had guessed, and a boatload of personality as well.


Malcolm at Midnight
By Beck, W. H.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH)
9780547681009 $16.99

Malcolm is such a small rat he’s mistaken for a mouse when he becomes the class pet in Mr. Binney’s fifth grade. Soon Malcolm joins the Midnight Academy. The Academy is a secret society of the pets from all the classes, and they’re a varied lot. In fact, some of them may be traitors, allied with the unknown threat that lives in the clock tower. Malcolm has to manage tricky relationships with both the humans and the other animals. The writing is charmingly believable, and the many illustrations add another lively dimension.


The One and Only Ivan
By Applegate, Katherine
9780061992254 $16.99

A quick read based on a true story. A massive silverback ape, Ivan, lived for years in a cage in a faltering roadside attraction. When a baby elephant is added to the menagerie, he realizes she will be condemned to this humiliating drudgery unless he can come up with a way to free them both. Much of the book’s strength lies in the way it recognizes the power of language.

Bestselling author Applegate presents an unforgettable and uplifting tween animal fantasy that explores the power of friendship, art, and hope with humor and touching poignancy. Illustrations.


Lulu Walks the Dogs
By Viorst, Judith
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
9781442435797 $15.99

Lulu needs money, never mind for what, and decides her best gambit is a dog walking enterprise. She certainly does NOT want any interference from Fleischman, the goody two-shoes boy down the block. Lulu is terrible with the dogs, Fleischman keeps trying to be helpful. Chapter by chapter, compromise by compromise, they negotiate their way to a true partnership.

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