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Let’s Read Our Little Cotton Socks Off! (Part 1)

Earlier today as I pen these words, I was video conferencing with one of my friends regarding a project on which we’re working. We’ll call my chum Brian (because that’s his name). Although he’s a young whippersnapper who has braved only a scant 55 cold and gray winters, Brian told me that he’s becoming increasingly conscious as to how fleeting is our time in this plane of existence. “Tell me about it,” I thought, “just wait until you get to my age!”

Our conversation reminded me of an interesting book called Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths (4.5 stars with 2,967 ratings on Amazon). In this book, Brian and Tom show how some of the algorithms developed for computers can be used to address very human questions. There was a quote in this book by Lynda Davis, who is an American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and translator from French and other languages. As Lynda said: “I had reached a juncture in my reading life that is familiar to those who have been there: in the allotted time left to me on earth, should I read more and more new books, or should I cease with that vain consumption—vain because it is endless—and begin to reread those books that had given me the intensest pleasure in my past.”

I have to say that this sentiment really struck a chord with me. It used to be that—once I’d started reading a book—I continued to the bitter end, even if it was dire. No more. Now, as soon as a tome fails to satisfy, I relegate it to the nether regions from whence it came. Even if I very much enjoy a book, I take a moment of contemplation when I reach the end to ponder the chances that I’ll ever be moved to peruse and ponder the little rascal again. If the answer is “not likely,” then I gift it to a friend or the local library and move on with my life.

One of the things I relish is chatting with someone about a book we’ve both read and enjoyed. It’s also nice to receive recommendations from someone you trust whose tastes complement your own. In this spirit, I decided to share a selection of some of the books that stand proud in the crowd for me personally. I’m going to be strict, stern, and firm with myself and present only offerings that have really called out to me in one way or another. If you’ve already read any of these, or if you are moved to read any after browsing this column, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the little beauties.

Also, before we plunge into the fray with gusto, abandon, and aplomb, it might be worth noting that, although I originally toyed with the idea of gathering tomes by genre, I ended up saying “Meh” to myself. In order to maintain your excitement and anticipation at a fever pitch, I’m just going to jot things down as they pop into (what I laughingly call) my mind (be afraid, be very afraid).

Let’s kick things off with The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester (4.5 stars with 2,967 ratings on Amazon). This tells the true story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a task that began in 1857 and took 70 years to complete. Until I’d read this book, I’d never contemplated what it would take to create a dictionary from the ground up. This would be a hard enough task with a modern computer and the internet, but to do it using index cards boggles my brain. It was especially interesting to learn that there was a debate as to how to handle the fact that languages evolve over time. Some argued for listing only definitions of words as they were used at the time of the dictionary’s creation. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed, and they decided to document the earliest recorded use of each word, all the different ways of using that word, and any changes that had taken place over time, including quotes and references for each usage.  Suffice it to say that this book is much more interesting than you would ever expect.

I like to browse biographies and autobiographies. It can be interesting to read related volumes about a group of people to see how events appeared from their various perspectives. For example, I’ve read works on Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Ronnie Wood, and I’m looking forward to reading the forthcoming biography on Charlie Watts. Similarly, I’ve read biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs pertaining to Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak.

The reason I’m not providing links to the aforementioned tomes is that, although they were good, they don’t meet the exacting standards demanded by this column. However, there is one biography that does clamor for our attention: Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson (4.5 stars with 3,572 ratings on Amazon). This book spans the entirety of Einstein’s life with—of course—a focus on his crowning achievements in the form of the special theory of relativity and the general theory of relativity. I came away with just the hint of a sniff of a glimpse as to how truly awe inspiring were Einstein’s achievements.

I’d also like to acknowledge David Niven’s autobiography, The Moon’s a Balloon (4.5 stars with 2,485 ratings on Amazon). Prior to reading this, I knew of David only as an actor in movies like A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Pink Panther (1963), and Paper Tiger (1975). Reading his autobiography blew my metaphorical socks off. All I can say is that David managed to live enough life for three normal men. On top of this, he was known to be a true gentleman. As biographer Graham Lord wrote regarding the Thanksgiving service held a few months after David’s passing: “The biggest wreath, worthy of a Mafia Godfather’s funeral, was delivered from the porters at London’s Heathrow Airport, along with a card that read: ‘To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king.’” Many of today’s celebrities could take a leaf out of David’s book (did you see what I just did there?).

When I was a young sprog of around 10 years old, my chum Jeremy Goodman and I were in the Boy Scouts. As part of this, we attended weekly meetings at a community building we shared with the Girl Guides (oh, the horror!). Our two groups met on different days, of course, but there was always the fear we might catch Girl Guide cooties. Before we set off on our trek to the scout hut, which took us through the wilds of Ecclesall Woods (in those halcyon days, there was little thought that anything untoward might happen to two innocent young lads meandering their way through a forest during the dead of night; well, during the declining evening in this case), our parents would give each of us a sixpenny piece.

On our way home following the meeting, after braving the woods once more, we would exchange this treasure for a bag of chips (French fries) from the fish-and-chip shop at the bottom of our road. The chips themselves were placed in bags made of greaseproof paper, which were then wrapped in multiple sheets of old newspaper to keep things warm (in those simpler, pandemic-free times, people used to donate their old newspapers to their local fish-and-chip shops). When it started to get dark earlier in the winter months, we would take our bags of chips to Jeremy’s house, use our favorite tree to climb up onto the flat roof of his parent’s garage, and lie on our backs, munching our chips while gazing up at the heavens (there was almost no light pollution as I recall).

Between chomps, we would talk of many things, including the possibility of life on other planets orbiting faraway stars. I remember us pondering the chances of there existing the alien equivalents of boy scouts looking back at us wondering if we ourselves existed (“In order to understand recursion, you must first understand recursion,” as the old programmer’s joke goes—I have no idea what young programmers think of this joke).

Later, when I came to read Have Space Suit—Will Travel by Robert Heinlein (4.5 stars with 652 ratings on Amazon), I started to contemplate what would happen to Earth if it were to be “rotated” into another dimension leaving our Sun behind. In turn, this led me to cogitate about what would happen if our Sun were to be “rotated” leaving the Earth behind (we would carry on orbiting our non-existent sun for around 8 minutes—which is how long it would take for the universe to realize what was happening and for gravity to catch up—after which Earth would simply head out into the depths of space). According to Discovery, temperatures would begin to drop after a few days and the oceans would freeze over after a couple of months (see What Would Happen If the Sun Disappeared?). I just dispatched the butler to verify my emergency stash of thermal undergarments.

Having seen far too many black-and-white science fiction B movies in my time, I’ve also devoted more musing than is good for me ruminating over what would happen if a rogue planet (a.k.a. nomad planet, unbound planet, orphan planet, etc.) were to come hurling its way through our solar system. These were just idle musings, you understand, because I really didn’t think that there were all that many rogue planets out there. I was wrong. We now believe that when our solar system was formed, it probably contained many more planets than there are now, but things were pretty chaotic in those days and more than a few of those planets ended up either being herded into the sun or being ejected out of the solar system. Returning to Discovery, it is now believed that, for every planet that is bound to a star, there are between one and ten rogue ones racing around (see The Best Planets Are Rogue Planets).

Can life evolve and survive on a rogue planet bereft of a sun? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” if we are to believe the writings of James Trefil and Michael Summers in their book Imagined Life: A Speculative Scientific Journey among the Exoplanets in Search of Intelligent Aliens, Ice Creatures, and Supergravity Animals (4.0 stars with 67 ratings on Amazon). As I wrote once on my own Cool Beans Blog: “[…] the authors introduce us to various scenarios by which life could evolve on ice worlds, ocean worlds with no dry land, worlds where the oceans are surrounded by shells of ice, halo worlds that are tidally locked with their sun, super massive planets, and—yes—rogue worlds.”

Of course, there’s life and there’s intelligent life. Much of what I know (or, at least, what I think I know) leads me to believe that life in one form or another is pervasive throughout the universe. But what proportion of this life is currently scratching its equivalent of a head (or an armpit) and thinking to itself “I wonder if there’s anything good on [the alien equivalent of] TV tonight?” For the answer to this and other questions, keep your eyes open for my next column in this mega-mini-series. Until that frabjous day, I await your captivating comments, insightful questions, and sagacious suggestions in dread antici…

8 thoughts on “Let’s Read Our Little Cotton Socks Off! (Part 1)”

  1. “The Professor and the Madman” was made into a movie in 2019. It stars Sean Penn and Mel Gibson. It enjoys a poor rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but I liked it well enough. It’s clearly a movie for geeks and nerds.

    1. The movie was OK, but the book is awesome — the effort it took to compile the first edition of the OED takes my breath away to this day — I learned a huge amount about dictionaries in general — and the underlying story of the key players is something that, if you didn’t know it was true, you’d think it was a poorly crafted unbelievable plot.

  2. I recently finished another Walter Isaacson biography: “The Code Breaker” a biography about Jennifer Doudna and her work with RNA. It’s now in my list of most favorite books along with “The End of Everything” by astrophysicist, Katie Mack. – Two books covering the very small and the very large. Based on your recommendation, I just popped The Professor and the Madman and the Einstein biography on to my Kindle.

    1. Hi Duane — I’ve not read that one yet (the last book I read by Walter Isaacson was his biography of Leonardo da Vinci) — but I have read “A Crack in Creation” by Jennifer Doudna herself and that’s a “must read” (I’ll be including that in Part 2 of this series).

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