Thursday, July 24, 2008

This Week at the Library (24/7)

Books this Update:
  • Personal Memoirs, US Grant
  • The Universe in a Nutshell, Stephen Hawking
  • Asimov’s Mysteries, Isaac Asimov
  • Primates of the World, Rod and Ken Preston-Mafham
  • The Rise of Reason, Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser

I began this week with President Ulysses S. Grant’s autobiography, which was simply titled Personal Memoirs. Grant finished the book shortly before he died, and it was published posthumously by his friend Samuel Clemens, who had also encouraged him to write the book to begin with. While the book is dominated by the American Civil War, the first 2/5s concerns his pre-war life growing up and his experience in the Mexican-American war. Grant also supplies commentary in the midst of his accounts of battles. I typically found his opinions on various matters to be more interesting than accounts of military. The commentary was always interesting and often amusing. For instance:

It did seem to me, in my early army days, that too many of the older officers, when they came to command posts, made it a study to think what orders they could publish to annoy their subordinates and render them uncomfortable. I noticed, however, a few years later, when the Mexican War broke out, that most of this class of officers discovered they were possessed of disabilities which entirely incapacitated them for active field service. They had the moral courage to proclaim it, too. They were right; but they did not always give their disease the right name. (Chapter III, p. 19)

According to Grant, it was his father’s idea to send him to West Point. Grant himself was very much opposed to the idea, and at first looked for any opportunity that would allow him to escape it -- which I found quite humorous. As he grew more accustomed to army life, he decided that he could endure it long enough to merit a professorship -- but fate intervenes and he finds himself a lieutenant in Mexico, serving as a quartermaster. He comments that people have very little control over their own fates, and offers his own life as a testament to this. I want to share some of the commentary.

In the case of the war between the States it would have been the exact truth if the South had said, -- “We do not want to live with you Northern people any longer; we know our institution of slavery is obnoxious to you, and, as you are growing numerically stronger than we, it may be at some time in the future endangered. So long as you permitted us to control the government, and with the aid of a few friends at the North to enact laws constituting your section a guard against the escape of our property, we were willing to live with you. You have been submissive to our rule heretofore; but it looks now as if you did not intend to continue to do so, and we will remain in the Union no longer.” Instead of this the seceding States cried lustily, --”Let us alone; you have no constitutional power to interfere with us.” […] The fact is the constitution did not apply to any such contingency as the one existing from 1861 to 1865. Its framers never dreamed of such a contingency occurring.” (Chapter XVI p. 111)

That particular section of the book has a lot of commentary. I would like to share more, but the passages are so long that it wouldn’t be practical. Grant’s commentary, of course, is his own, and he does not pretend to be a neutral observer of the war. He refers to the Union side as the National side, refers to the rebels as rebels, and records the arrival of southern diplomats as “peace commissioners of the so-called confederacy”. I thought this wonderfully snarky.

Grant doesn’t spend a lot of time on the time between the two wars or on his post-war life. His “Conclusion” begins right after the surrender and he comments on political affairs in Europe as well as on how the war has shaped the nation. On the whole, I enjoyed the book as much as I could. I loved the commentary, but I’m not that interested in military history with a few exceptions -- the growth of air warfare being one of them. I rather wish he had written about his time as president, as one of my hobbies is reading the autobiographies of American presidents. (My favorite is Gerald Ford’s A Time to Heal. I don’t really have a least favorite, although I have read W’s A Charge to Keep . It doesn’t qualify, though, as he only wrote about his experiences as governor -- not as president and…whatever title would be best for his office now, since he has seen fit to greatly increase its powers during his reign. ) A final quotation from Grant, one that regards my hometown:

“Wilson moved out with a full 12,00 men, well equipped and well armed. He was an energetic officer and accomplished his work rapidly. Forrest was in his front, but with neither his old-time army or his old-time prestige. He now had principally conscripts. His conscripts were generally old men and boys. He had a few thousand regular cavalry left, but not enough to even retard materially the progress of Wilson’s cavalry. Selma fell on the 2nd of April, with a large number of prisoners and a large quantity of war material, machine shops, etc, to be disposed of by the victors. Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, and West Point fell in quick succession. These were all important points to the enemy by reason of their railroad connections, as depots of supplies, and because of their manufactories of war material.”

One minor note. The index of Grant’s autobiography lists “Grant, Ulysses S.” in the index. The resulting entry goes on for several columns.

Next I read Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell. Hawking is one of those rare scientists that most people have heard of, even if they don’t have a bastard clue as to what he does. I checked out The Universe in a Nutshell primarily because I wanted to see what his writing style was like. In this book, Hawking explains the ideas composing modern physics, beginning with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. While I was able to understand most of the book, there are some things -- the shape of time, to name one -- that befuddled me. Hawking is a good writer, and the book was replete with computer-generated illustrations to make his points easier to visualize. He devoted one chapter to what the future might hold, comparing it to the ideal world of Star Trek. (Hawking is a fan of Star Trek, and even made an appearance on a The Next Generation episode, where he appears in a holodeck program of Data’s design. The program allows Data to play poker with Hawking, Newton, and Einstein. You can view a short clip here.

I enjoyed the book, although I must say that a lot of the physics is still over my head. I’m getting there, though. According to the Blessed Wikipedia, Hawking has co-authored a children’s book about physics. I’d like to find A Briefer History of Time, as it is supposedly written in regard to a wider audience. (Meaning, of course, ‘easier to understand‘. To borrow from Star Trek, “Brane and brane! What is brane?!” sums up my response to some portions of The Universe in a Nutshell*).

Next I read Asimov’s Mysteries, by the obvious author. Asimov’s Mysteries is a collection of short mystery stories, most of which are set in a science fiction context. One of the short stories is really short: only a page and a quarter. The story was actually used in Asimov’s Treasury of Humor, because it ends with a punch line uttered by one of the characters. While science fiction stories can be a bit dodgy sometimes -- if they depend on technology or on alien settings, the author has to be able to explain the implications of said setting or technology to the reader, and sometimes that doesn’t work so well -- Asimov is a master at writing them, and every single story was excellent. Even the story he wrote as a teenager was interesting. Of course, Asimov included his usual afterwords and forewords. My only complaint is that the book ended. If I’m wrong about the existence of the gods and I die to find myself at the Elysian Fields, I hope they have a library stocked with Asimov’s complete works. Anyway, in conclusion, Asimov rocks my socks off.

Primates of the World was next on my list. It’s a fairly straightforward text on primates. (You might have guessed that from the title.) There’s no argument to be made, no astonishing revelation to be reached: it’s purely informative. The book begins with a listing of the primates, from the oldest forms (prosimians, like lemurs) to the younger forms (apes, humans included). Here’s a sample:

The ring-tailed lemur is immediately recognizable on account of its long black and white ringed tail and its black eyes, nose, and mouth contrasting with its white face. As already mentioned, it may be distinguished from members of the genus Eulemur by the presence of special scent glands situation on the forearm and the inner side of the upper arm. Ring-tails move around the forests of south-western Madagascar in groups of up to twenty-four individuals, feeding upon plant material such as fruits and seeds.

After the listing is finished, the authors move on to discussion various aspects of primate life: feeding habits, social arrangements, predators, and so on. The book ends with a look at how humans are making a mess of things and driving various primates into extinction. I was prompted to look for this book when I saw Jack Hanna on The Late Show with David Letterman, and he had an animal one that Hanna described as “not a monkey”. The animal in question was a prosimian -- a lemur. The next night, Craig Ferguson (of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson) ranted about lemurs for some reason or another. So, I decided to look for a book on primates. I have a large interest in primates -- specifically chimpanzees and gorillas -- so I looked forward to the read. The primate family is home to some truly interesting creatures -- here are some of the more interesting specimens that caught my eye:

Lastly, I read The Rise of Reason by Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser. When I checked this book out, I thought it was a new series. It appears that it is instead the On the Shoulders of Giants series rewritten, which is fine given that that series is over a decade old. The Rise of Reason, for instance, has a notice on the copyright page that says that it is a rewrite of The History of Science in the Eighteenth Century. It would be prudent of me to read the later books in this series -- those written after The History of Science from 1945 to the 1990s ended -- but why re-read the books at the beginning? I decided to read the first one anyway.

This was enjoyable, as the eighteenth century was one of the more fun centuries in science. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, pops up all over the place -- in the colonies flying a kite, in England at the Lunar Society with Erasmus Darwin, in France serving on a council to investigate quackery. There are a lot of interesting stories in this book . Take for instance Charles Linnaeus, who developed the system of biological taxonomy we still use today. (That is, the practice of separating life forms into kingdoms and genera and orders and so on.) He was forever skipping classes because they didn’t teach what he was interested in -- botany. His early life is a series of instances of him getting caught skipping classes and sneaking into libraries by older professors, who take him under their wing, give him full access to their botanical libraries, and then send him on his way to places he can pursue his interest further -- paying for his education by lecturing other students on botany, knowledge of which he had obtained from his constant hooky sessions and stolen library sessions. The guy was a serial vagrant, but he was lucky enough to encounter a string of intelligent professors who cared about their students and who encouraged him. As a result, he winds up creating our taxonomic system. Or take the story of William and Caroline Herschel, a brother and sister who charted the skies together and funded their science by building and selling telescopes. These aren’t vague figures from the past, they’re real people who pursued their interests and made a way for themselves to do so that was actually conducive to their interests.

Do not think, however, that this book is merely an updated treatment. While the book does retain some aspects of the On the Shoulders of Giants series -- the section on the Scientific Method, the division of the book into Physical and Life Sciences -- it includes a third section: “Science and Society”. That section explores how the Enlightenment gave birth to the American, French, and Industrial Revolutions. It then looks at the accomplishments of Diderot and Voltaire and the introduction of The Encyclopedia, moves onto to quacks and others who were starting to prey on scientific ignorance, and concludes with a look at the revolt against reason -- romanticism. (Boo, hiss.) I recommend reading the book. (Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?)

Pick of the Week: Asimov’s Mysteries, by Isaac Asimov.
Quotation of the Week: “I would not have the anniversaries of our victories celebrated, nor those of our defeats made fast days and spent in humiliation and prayer; but I would like to see truthful history written. […] The justice of the cause which in the end prevailed, will, I doubt not, come to be acknowledged by every citizen of the land, in time. For the present, and so long as there are living witnesses of the great war of secessions, there will be people who will not be consoled for the loss of a cause they believed to be holy. As time passes, people, even of the South, will begin to wonder how it was possible that their ancestors ever fought for or justified institutions with acknowledged the right of property in man.” (p. 85, Personal Memoirs, US Grant.)

(Grant was a bit of an optimist on that. I quote directly from one group: “All that the South wanted to do is to establish the CSA to uphold the principles of the founders concerning limited government. lower taxes and individualism.” If that link and quotation made you cry, click here for one that will make you laugh. )

Next Week:
  • The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx. I decided a few months ago to start reading historically significant books, and this is one of the biggies. Outside of religious texts, I can’t think of a more historically significant book -- although just like religious texts, the influence of the book can be both good and bad.
  • The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene. The book is about the theory of relativity, quantum theory, and their relationship to one another.
  • Books that Changed the World, Robert Bingham Downs. I’m checking this one out to aid in my quest.
  • Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future, Neil Postman. I found this one while searching for “Enlightenment”.
  • Nine Tomorrows: Tales of the Near Future, Isaac Asimov. Yes, once again I found another collection of short stories after I thought I was very nearly out.

* That reference will either (1) have no meaning to you, (2) enrage you, or (3) amuse you deeply.

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