Why December Has The Longest Days

MinutePhysics explains why the holiday season is more complicated than you might think.

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The Physics of Car Crashes

MinutePhysics explains the science behind something that you’ll hopefully never have to experience.

Flavor Science: What’s Really in a Pumpkin Spice Latte

SciShow explains why your favorite foods are way more complicated than you might think.

Rodin’s The Thinker

Rodin's The Thinker

When they hear the name Auguste Rodin, the first thing most people will remember (aside from him being one of the most awesome artists ever) is The Thinker: A gigantic man hunched over a rock, utterly focused on his philosophical pondering. The detailed design and musculature show off Michelangelo’s influence, but only Rodin could’ve captured that kind of expressiveness. In terms of fame in popular culture, The Thinker comparable to the Mona Lisa. What most people don’t know is that it started as part of a much bigger project (and serious contender for my all-time favorite sculpture I’ve personally seen) called The Gates of Hell. Rodin eventually decided to make this a separate work, resulting in a modern sculpting legacy. There are now over 30 Thinkers in existence, spanning museums and universities around the planet. This one is the centerpiece of the court at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Larger version is viewable here.

The Martian (Book) Review

Mark Watney has a problem. Due to a dust storm during his NASA mission, he’s been stranded on Mars. His teammates – and the rest of mankind – thought he died. He has no way to communicate with Earth. He’s trapped in a small habitat designed to last a month. There’s no breathable atmosphere outside. He has enough food for six people which, even if rationed, will last him less than one year. Since a rescue mission will take at least four years to arrive, he has to figure out a way to grow more food…on a planet devoid of water. But if no one knows he’s still alive, he’s going to starve anyway.

Okay, make that several problems.

SPOILERS

Needless to say, The Martian isn’t your typical survival story. A deserted island is one thing, but Mars is a completely different beast. How do you live on a planet that’s essentially uninhabitable? The answer is an awesome blend of the sheer isolation and desperation of Castaway and the determination and scientific improvising of Apollo 13. Watney was part of the NASA mission for a reason; as the team’s botanist and engineer, he’s got the right skills and knowledge to keep himself alive. Not enough food? Okay, cover the floor of the Hab with dirt, plant potatoes, and use your own waste as fertilizer. Keep track of your daily calories and ration accordingly. No water? Fine, burn some hydrazine, store the results, and be careful not to blow yourself up. Need to go on long excursions outside? Outfit your rover with solar panels, create a breathable atmosphere inside, and find a heat source to keep yourself from freezing. Communications array busted? Scrounge for leftover technology, fix what you can, and send information via telemetry, handwritten signs, or Morse code. Your spacesuit helmet cracked? Duct tape.

Seriously.

While some of these MacGuyver-esque techniques might seem daunting for the non-scientifically inclined, The Martian is quite to easy to read and understand. Andy Weir’s extensive research in potential and existing spaceflight technology shows through in both the details and the way they’re presented. While most sci-fi narratives are bogged down by their technical aspects, this novel benefits from having a narrator with a sense of humor. For all his expertise, Watney is a huge geek with a penchant for sarcasm. His first journal entry is laden with profanity, which is exactly how any normal person would react. His ability to describe realistic science in layman’s terms is impressive and often funny; he can say things like, “Problem is (follow me closely here, the science is pretty complicated), if I cut a hole in the Hab, the air won’t stay inside anymore” or¬†‚ÄúSomething very hot and very explodey had happened” without coming off as condescending. His journal entries give a sense of confidence and self-awareness; he confronts the dire situation with straightforwardness and honesty, but relies on knowledge and humor to keep himself sane. When he’s not explaining how stuff works, his idle musings over Aquaman, Three’s Company, disco, other pop culture tidbits are more than enough to keep readers hooked.

Whenever we need a reminder that Watney’s situation isn’t all laughs, however, the perspective switches over to the rescue operation. NASA discovering he’s still alive is a foregone conclusion; they still have active satellites observing the planet’s surface. Communicating with and getting him back to Earth requires extensive logistics and engineering marvels. The novel examines what would actually happen in this kind of situation; the media frenzy, JPL redesigning rockets with limited time and budget, spaceflight physics, and frantic improvising when things go wrong. There are no villains; everyone wants Watney to make it back alive. How that’s achieved is up for debate, and coming up with a decisive plan is what forms the conflict. While the explanations are in-depth, the characters describing them are not. Most of NASA’s higher-ups (aside from the wonderfully brash Mitch Henderson and supremely competent Mindy Park) are sadly forgettable. Watney’s crew fare little better; their personalities are developed just enough to keep things interesting. There’s potential, like Commander Lewis dealing with the guilt of leaving one of her men behind, or Johanssen’s adorkable interactions with Beck. Aside from those, the astronauts are utterly one-note. Martinez is an ace pilot, constant joker, and nothing else. Then there’s Vogel, the German orbital mechanics and chemistry expert. That’s all. They all provide a little witty banter and technical expertise to get them – and the reader – through the mission, but nothing else. While the story is supposed to be focused on Watney’s survival, a little more time with the rest of the crew would’ve been appreciated.

That doesn’t make The Martian a bad novel. Far from it. It’s got just the right combination of humor and technical know-how to keep readers hooked. Mark Watney is a wonderful protagonist; his snarky attitude and determination turn what should’ve been a tragedy into an epic survival adventure. While the other characters don’t get nearly enough time, they serve their purposes in portraying a nearly impossible rescue mission. The story is well-paced and incredibly difficult not to finish in one sitting. Not due to brevity – the paperback release clocks in at just under 400 pages – but because it’s entertaining. I’m not going to spoil if or how Watney survives, but let’s just say that you’ll be rooting for him every complicated step of the way. This is one of those rare science fiction novels that strives for realism, but absolutely refuses to be weighed down by technical jargon. It can inspire people to study sciences, space flight and exploration, and anything else associated with astronomy. That, above all else, makes The Martian worth reading.

Wind/Pinball Review

It finally happened. After years of letting them fade into obscurity, Haruki Murakami brought Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball,1973 stateside. For longtime English-speaking fans, the 2015 release of Wind/Pinball was a dream come true; finding translated copies of these novels was almost impossible. The fact that they were were the first two entries in Murakami’s “Trilogy of the Rat” made things even worse. While it wasn’t necessary to read them before A Wild Sheep Chase, having some background on the unnamed protagonist and the Rat would’ve been helpful. Now that the full story is here, Western readers can finally get the experience as it was meant to be…for better or worse.

For those of you expecting another round of Murakami’s bizarre shenanigans and magical realism, be prepared to reign in your expectations. Wind/Pinball were his first two novels, and it shows. Hear the Wind Sing is about the college-aged narrator coming back to his hometown during summer break and spending time with the Rat, his longtime friend and binge-drinking partner. The novel tries to encapsulate the sense of change and budding maturity of a young twenty-something. The narrator gradually realizes that the summers of his youth are long gone, and how much of his life he took for granted. He tries to track down a former high school classmate, but fails miserably. He’s had three previous girlfriends, yet can barely muster any memories of them. He attempts to romance a young lady – who, of course, has only nine fingers – but the relationship barely goes anywhere. We’re only given a glimpse of the girl’s issues towards the end of the novel (she’s practically a precursor to Yuki from Dance Dance Dance), but little else. Murakami’s female characters are often regarded as shallow satellites to the protagonists, but it’s especially obvious here.

Considering that Hear the Wind Sing is the first entry in the “Trilogy of the Rat,” it’s no surprise that its namesake is the more interesting of the two main characters. Unlike the narrator, the Rat has yet to take the first few steps into adulthood. While all of his friends are off studying at the universities, he spends his time getting drunk and avoiding responsibility. He uses alcoholism to drown out his sense of loneliness. Despite coming from a wealthy family, he loathes being rich and considers himself a social outcast. Like the narrator, he confronts some harsh truths: the times are changing, his friends are leaving him behind, and he needs to be able to connect with people beyond drunken debauchery. It’s rather telling that the narrator introduces the Rat as a “virtual stranger to books,” yet he’s seen reading literature in almost every scene he appears after. Whether this is a result of the Rat’s curiosity towards novels or an attempt to strengthen his friendship with the narrator remains ambiguous. Regardless, his character development adds flavor to an already bittersweet story.

The Rat’s issues are taken a step further in Pinball, 1973. Thanks to his wealthy background, he’s able to spend every day at the bar and have drunken flings…but they’re not as fulfilling as actually living. He’s well aware that life is passing him by, and he has yet to find a purpose. There’s a vague notion that he needs to leave town and find his own place in the world, which is nicely illustrated with Rat’s association with the town’s waterfront. As a child, he used to go down to the beach every night; there was a beacon that would turn on at sunset, and he could sit on the pier and watch the waves. However, his current girlfriend undermines his nostalgia. She lives in an apartment near the beach, but loathes the location. She’s complains about the ocean and shuts the blinds on her window, thus cutting the Rat off from the allure it gave him. It’s foreshadowing their doomed relationship, as well as the Rat’s ever-growing wanderlust. While his decision seems obvious (and a foregone conclusion to English-speaking fans who read A Wild Sheep Chase first), his character development is satisfying.

The narrator’s storyline is a little less straightforward. He’s already made the transition into adulthood, but gets a serious case of nostalgia. His focus is on a pinball machine called Spaceship, which used to be part of the bar where he and the Rat frequented. He goes to great lengths to explain the appeal of playing pinball. The dazzling lights, and the rush of a well-played game, the satisfaction of a new high score…and the inevitable burnout. Anyone who has grown up with video games will understand the sentiments all too well. However, it was something more for him; he describes as an obsessive love affair; it is intense, costly, and ultimately fleeting. He also has to face the unfortunate reality: reliving your past isn’t as easy or fulfilling as it sounds, and most people won’t share your passion, let alone even know what you’re talking about. The narrator goes to great lengths in his search for Spaceship, but recapturing those moments is something else entirely.

Pinball, 1973 also serves as the starting point for Murakami’s signature elements. Anyone who’s read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle will perk up when the narrator mentions wells, and the name (and fate of) “Naoko” ought to give Norwegian Wood fans a jolt. There’s even a pair of identical twin girls – called 208 and 209 respectively – who inexplicably live with and interact with the narrator, yet he never questions their origins and possibly otherworldly existence. It all seems like typical Murakami, but not as structured or developed. Some of these aspects, much like the love interest from the first book, feel tacked on at best. Aside from providing the narrator a little emotional depth and some surreal conversations, they add little to the story. If anything, they’re the rough drafts of the stuff we’ve come to expect from the author.

They don’t make these novels necessarily bad, though. Every author, no matter how popular they are, has to start somewhere. Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 were Murakami’s first attempts at storytelling, and it shows. They’re not perfect by any means, but they do well at capturing the loneliness and confusion of someone coming of age. Longtime English-speaking fans will be glad to finally get the missing pieces of the Trilogy of the Rat and read the story as it was meant to be seen. Though far from Murakami’s finest, it’s still an interesting look into a great author’s humble beginnings.