Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

Endurance, a biography by Scott Kelly (co-written with Margaret Lazarus Dean), pivots between his yearlong mission aboard the International Space Station and his unlikely evolution from a precocious twin into a veteran Navy test pilot and finally an astronaut.

The parallel narrative begins with Kelly’s childhood—he and his brother growing up with parents, both police officers, and both fond of drinking—and Kelly soon being left behind academically by his more studious sibling. From early in his time at school, Kelly found himself unable to focus in a classroom and barely making passing grades. His apathy to academics continued until college where he began to realize he had to find a path for himself; however, it was only upon reading The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, that Kelly found a goal that succeeding in motivating him. The book goes on to chronicle the difficult obstacles he manages to overcome, from getting into the right college, to entering the military as a Naval officer, being trained as a Naval pilot, and ultimately entering the NASA Astronaut Corps. The aspect of his transformation I found fascinating was how a consistently apathetic student managed to turn his life around and ultimately fly the space shuttle and crew the ISS. That a key book could serve as such a powerful catalyst makes me wonder how many other potential astronauts, artists, scientists, or inspirational leaders lead lives of mediocrity just because they never encountered the right set of circumstances to unlock their latent passion and skills.

Kelly’s astronaut career includes multiple space shuttle flights and ISS missions. His career in space culminated recently with the well-publicized yearlong mission (actually 342 days in space, launching on 27 March 2015 and landing on March 2, 2016) on the ISS during which Kelly underwent extensive testing (most of it self-administered, including taking his own blood samples) as his Earth-bound twin (and fellow astronaut), Mark, was subjected to parallel testing for comparison. While I’ve read other accounts of ISS missions, Kelly’s year in space is the closest experience yet to what a long-duration mission to Mars or other solar system destinations might be like. There have been (and continue to be) “Earth-analogue” missions that attempt to simulate a long-duration space journey here on Earth, such as NASA’s HI-SEAS missions in Hawaii, PMAS in Poland, NEEMO (undersea laboratory), and even the well-known Biosphere 2 in Arizona. However, the year Kelly spends in space exposed him to trials and tribulations only space can offer: the reality only thin metal walls and proto-type life-support equipment separate life from death, the undeniable isolation (no one can walk away from a space station), and all the physiological effects that go along with a “zero-g” (microgravity) environment.

I find the seemingly trivial aspects of space travel fascinating, and in that respect, Endurance delivers. Astronauts experience a host of potentially serious conditions ranging from bone density loss to eyesight damage to persistent accumulation of body fluids in their head and sinuses. One particular challenge faced by Kelly and other ISS crew was fluctuating levels of carbon dioxide caused by changing crew sizes and the two temperamental “Seedra” devices (for CDRA, carbon dioxide removal assembly) which tended to break down unexpectedly requiring difficult repairs. As Kelly explains, even the simplest work is complicated in space where tools don’t stay where you put them unless stuck to one of the many  velcro tags placed around the ISS. Items that do manage to float away can remain missing for months at a time. In zero-g, there are no showers, no spitting, no falling tears, not even a “normal” pee, since liquids, just like solid objects, don’t fall away. One aspect I didn’t consider until now is that in zero-g, a person can’t really relax as they would on Earth—he/she can’t sit down or lie down since there is no “down” and no gravity to hold them there anyway. Viewed another way, you’re always relaxed in zero-g (at least in the sense of not having to expend any energy to counter gravity). But Kelly missed these postures, and I suspect I would, too. One’s experience in space is revealed by the grace with which one moves about. All a seasoned astronaut needs to use are fingers and toes applying just enough force to glide along the desired trajectory without knocking into the ever-present equipment. Simply remaining in place is accomplished the same way, often with a toe hooked about a rail installed just for that purpose.

Kelly’s involvement with the Russian Space Program intrigued me. As he transitioned from a Space Shuttle pilot to an ISS crew member, he spent quite a bit of time working in Russia, at Star City, the Russian version of the Johnson Space Center, and at Baikonur, Russia’s launch facility for its Soyuz and Progress spacecraft. Kelly’s accounts of the Russian cosmonauts, their training programs, in which he and other astronauts participate, and their habits and traditions related to space travel (one such tradition involves mild desecration of a truck tire) provide insight into a major U.S. partner in space exploration. The international aspect of America’s endeavors in space cannot be understated, and as Kelly spends his year aboard the ISS, crews come and go with members representing many countries all working together towards one unified goal—exploring space, and extending humanity’s presence beyond its birthplace. Almost without exception, crew members treat one another as good friends, almost to the point of constituting a family forged by having lived and worked together in space. For me, this may be the most important lesson provided by Kelly’s experiences—the ISS demonstrates what humanity can achieve at its best, when differences and prejudices fall away like a first stage burning up in the atmosphere, leaving the precious human cargo to soar beyond.


In Sky Walking (2006), Dr. Tom Jones recounts his career as a NASA astronaut. Beginning with the application process, Jones takes us on a journey of becoming an astronaut, flying four space shuttle missions, and helping to construct the International Space Station.

The book provides glimpses into the rigorous training astronauts receive in preparation for their work in space, and in particular, for extravehicular activities (EVA). Before each space flight, the astronauts would complete mock missions underwater using shuttle and ISS replicas fascinating. If you calculate the cost of an EVA, from launch to landing back on Earth, every minute must be immensely expensive. Every manoeuver, every task, has to be choreographed and rehearsed for maximum efficiency and safety. Even small issues easily solved on Earth can become mission-crippling obstacles in space, and Dr. Jones  faced his share, including an irreversibly jammed hatch that resulted in a canceled EVA and an improperly-assembled elbow joint that caused enough pain to make competing that EVA a challenge. An even more dangerous case comes to mind: Luca Parmitano’s 2013 ISS mission during which his helmet began filling with water due to a malfunctioning filter while on EVA. Docking operations between the Space Shuttle and ISS were also fraught with dangerous possibilities, and Dr. Jones’ account of these procedures and the astronauts’ calm but meticulous piloting fascinated me. It may be a good indicator of our finally having made the leap to a space-based, multi-planet society when mishaps like these no longer happen or are more easily resolved when they do.

Another aspect of the book is its account of the lead up, politically and practically, to the design, construction, and operation of the ISS. Not only did Dr. Jones fly a shuttle mission (STS-98) as part of ISS construction, but he played a not-insubstantial role in managing NASA’s ISS Program, including the international partnerships that made it possible. NASA’s interactions with the Russian Government, in particular, make for great reading if you’re interested in how the ISS came to be.  I was interested, but not surprised, by the political, diplomatic and logistical difficulties that had to be overcome to build the ISS. That those obstacles were surmounted reinforces my perception of the ISS as a great example of how the human race can work together to accomplish amazing things. In the book, that spirit is clearly on display by the ISS astronauts (and cosmonauts) themselves whose comradery extends across borders forming a uniquely stateless community in space.

Dr. Jones completes the book with a short passage explaining his ideas and recommendations for how human space exploration ought to move forward. While just a bit outdated now, 11 years later, his thoughts on where we should go next are still relevant. A quick reveal—he’s not a fan of more lunar missions and instead recommends targeting a NEA (near-Earth asteroid) before tackling Mars. Regardless of our next destination, we can all thank astronauts like Dr. Jones for paving the way.

Lab Girl is foremost a biography tracing the arc of Ms. Jahren’s life from a childhood in a small Minnesota town first learning about science from a loving father, onwards through graduate school, then moving through a series of professorships across the U.S. Jahren provides a raw, unfiltered glimpse of one scientist’s personal journey to succeed using every tool at her disposal, including a wild sense of humor, an unremitting endurance, and a maniacal joy in the process of discovery, one measurement at a time.

“A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance—to take its one and only chance to grow…apple_seeds_-_variety_minister_von_hammerstein_aka

…When you go into a forest you probably tend to look up at the plants that have grown so much taller than you ever could. You probably don’t look down, where just beneath your single footprint sit hundreds of seeds, each one alive and waiting. They hope against hope for an opportunity that will probably never come. More than half of these seeds will die before they feel the trigger that they are waiting for, and during awful years every single one of them will die. All this death hardly matters, because the single birch tree towering over you produces at least a quarter of a million new seeds every single year. When you are in the forest, for every tree that you see, there are at least a hundred more trees waiting in the soil, alive and fervently wishing to be.”

Jahren’s challenges included an endless struggle for financial solvency, one annual budget at a time, overcoming bipolar disorder and its debilitating effects, and enduring a difficult pregnancy made no easier by an unsympathetic faculty. The message, at least for me, is scientists are people, like anyone else, managing their own problems. It’s easy to forget when Science’s success stories are continually put on display without note of any mortal struggles they may have faced or the casualties of the scientific system who might have been scientists under less adverse conditions.

“No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root. A lucky root will eventually find water, but its first job is to anchor—to anchor an embryo and forever end its mobile phase, however passive that mobility was. Once the first root is extended, the plant will never again enjoy any hope (however feeble) of relocating to a place less cold, less dry, less dangerous. Indeed, it will face frost, drought, and greedy jaws without any possibility of flight. The tiny rootlet has only one chance to guess what the future years, decades—even centuries—will bring to the patch of soil where it sits. It assesses the light and humidity Bark Nature Old Log Tree Root Tree Root Woodof the moment, refers to its programming, and quite literally takes the plunge.

Everything is risked in that one moment when the first cells (the “hypocotyl”) advance from the seed coat. The root grows down before the shoot grows up, and so there is no possibility for green tissue to make new food for several days or even weeks. Rooting exhausts the very last reserves of the seed. The gamble is everything, and losing means death. The odds are more than a million to one against success.”

Aside from milestones, the book details not just Jahren’s challenges as a woman scientist but also her scientific adventures in foreign lands: the Arctic Circle, the hills of Ireland, and Mississippi. Field trips teaching students soil science seem better described as road trips with Jahren’s dryly humorous recollections of bare-bones camping and oddball detours. Throughout her career, She is held up by a persistent and enduring friendship with her lab assistant, Bill, a friendship that defies easy categorization but is touching nonetheless.

“The day after the University of Minnesota conferred upon me a bachelor’s degree cum laude, I dumped off my winter clothes in a big pile at the Salvation Army on Lake Street, took Hiawatha Avenue south to Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, and flew to San Francisco. After I got to Berkeley, I didn’t so much meet Bill. It was more like I identified him…

…It took me about a week to notice that one of our undergraduate students—the one who looked like a young Johnny Cash and was perennially clad in jeans and a leather jacket even in 105-degree heat—always somehow ended up several meters away from the edge of the group, digging his own private hole… …I looked at the course roster and determined by process of elimination that the loner’s name was Bill. I went over and interrupted his solitary work. “How are you doing? Do you have any questions or anything?”

Without looking up, Bill refused my help, saying, “Nah. I’m good.” I stood there for a minute and then walked away and checked on another group, evaluated their progress, and answered some questions. About thirty minutes later, I noticed that Bill was now digging a second hole, his first one having been carefully refilled and smoothed over at its top. I picked up his clipboard and saw that his soil evaluation had been completed meticulously and that he had also included his second-best answers in a separate column down the right side of the page. At the very top of his report, suitability for “infrastructure” was checked, and a specification of “juvenile detention center” had been added in careful handwriting.

I stood next to his hole. “Looking for gold?” I joked, trying to strike up a conversation.

“No. I just like to dig,” he explained without stopping. “I used to live in a hole.””

Jahren is not afraid to delve into her own failures. Failures I suspect most scientists experience but rarely divulge. Throughout the book, she explains selected research projects: from genesis of a hypothesis or question through overcoming technical hurdles to finally answering the question.

The biography is interspersed by beautifully written descriptions of life from a plant’s perspective: the gamble every seed must make, a taproot’s life-or-death quest for water and nutrients, a tree’s adolescence, maturation and death. These passages allowed me to see through Jahren’s scientific eye—how she must perceive things, adopting as much as possible, a plant’s context to enable her to gain insight into the omnipresent, but generally overlooked, green life around us.

“The leaves of the world comprise countless billion elaborations of a single, simple machine designed for one job only—a job upon which hinges humankind. Leaves make sugar. Plants are the only things in the universe that can make sugar out of nonliving inorganic matter. All the sugar that you have ever eaten was first made within a leaf. leaf_1_webWithout a constant supply of glucose to your brain, you will die. Period. Under duress, your liver can make glucose out of protein or fat—but that protein or fat was originally constructed from a plant sugar within some other animal. It’s inescapable: at this very moment, within the synapses of your brain, leaves are fueling thoughts of leaves.”

Her writing possesses a poetry, her eloquent prose mingled with, at times, a cringe-inducing honesty that will make her scientific ideas uniquely available to a non-scientific audience. Her unabashed, general weirdness is delightful and refreshing (speaking as a bonafide weirdo myself). In the end, Jahren’s story is one of survival and more—she seems to define and arrive at her own version of success and happiness.

“A new mind-set became imperative: perhaps I could learn to see the world as plants do, put myself in their place, and puzzle out how they work. As a terminal outsider to their world, how close could I come to getting inside? I tried to visualize a new environmental science that was not based on the world that we wanted with plants in it, but instead based on a vision of the plants’ world with us in it. I thought of the different labs that I had worked in and the wonderful machines, chemicals, and microscopes that gave me so much happiness . . . What kind of hard science could I bring to bear on this weird quest?

The perversity of such an approach was seductive; what was there to stop me, aside from my own fear of being “unscientific”? I knew that if l told people I was studying “what it’s like to be a plant,” some would dismiss me as a joke, but perhaps others might sign on just for the adventure. Maybe hard work could stabilize scientifically shaky ground. I didn’t know for sure, but I felt the first delicious twinges of what would be my life’s enduring thrill. It was a new idea, my first real leaf. Just like every other audacious seedling in the world, I would make it up as I went along.”

In some ways, Jahren’s book aligns with my own experience of the world of academic science as a system in which the struggle for money dominates and senior scientists manage rather than conduct science. I declined a life of always competing for grant funding, where competition seems to overshadow collaboration. I lost faith in my own ability to ask the right questions and find the answers, but not for a lack of curiosity. I suspect successful scientists like Ms. Jahren possess an unquenchable curiosity mingled with enough determination and talent and perhaps just enough mentorship to drive them beyond whatever obstacles lie in their path just like the few seeds who manage to break through to the light.