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10 books started
10 books finished
4,444 pages read
74% digital
20% fiction
8% by non-white-guys Why does this matter?
Celeste Ng
read on October 11, 2018

Sometimes at work I think about how almost every single problem I have, and frankly almost everything I do there, is just an effort to reduce friction in communication. Obviously "meetings" are just an effort to communicate, so is email, so is conversation - but even when I'm "working", what I'm really doing is trying to figure out how to do something, or how something works - things that other people, somewhere, already know. Sometimes I marvel at how much we could increase overall productivity by just making very small incremental improvements to communication. If we could reduce the friction, and increase the accuracy, of information exchange, such that we just "knew" what other people know - boy oh boy.

I was reminded by that a lot while reading this book. Little Fires Everywhere is fantastic. It's exceptionally well written, has great characters, and has a plot that really keeps you coming back for more - I went through this book very quickly. What it really excels at though is showing several sides to each situation. Every moral conflict in the book is first told from one perspective (letting the reader get on that character's 'side', as it were), and then re-spun and told from the other character's perspective, and you're made to feel like a schmuck and now realize that in fact, character #2 is 'correct', etc. It's very deftly done. At the end, you're left with many complex characters, whose motivations you understand, and all of whom you can empathize with quite well.

But the fact of it is, they're all good characters. No one is evil in this book. Some folks are unlikable, but in pity-able ways. This is really a book full of good people, with good intentions, who are, by all measures, trying to do good things. I'm left thinking that if they could all reduce the friction of their communication - if they just knew what the intentions and motivations of the other characters were, if they just talked to each other more - then they would have all avoided so much pain.

And really, in that way, the book is quite sad. It shows so explicitly how we can all have the best of intentions, and still be capable of hurting each other so much.

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The Volkswagen Scandal
Jack Ewing
read on January 21, 2018

The Volkswagen Scandal can be broadly broken into four parts, each worse than the last:

  1. The manufacture of diesel engines that did not meet EPA standards according to US law (these engines emitted up to 35x the legal limit of highly toxic nitrous oxide gas).
  2. The intentional design and implementation of a "defeat device" that would temporarily lower engine performance (and resulting emission levels) when it was detected that the car was being tested for emissions. This device allowed the diesel cars in 1) to pass inspection and be sold in the USA. The sole purpose and intention of the device was to evade US law.
  3. The  egregious marketing of these cars as "clean diesel", and as environmentally responsible.
  4. Upon discovery of the deception, the systemic denial, obstruction, and attempted cover-up of VW management.

The book digs into the details of what happened, but all of it was pretty cleanly summarized in the Statement of Facts that VW eventually had to cop to. It really was a disgusting corruption, and I'm convinced from reading it that I'll never buy a VW/subsidiary car. Some of the more interesting discussion in the book was theorizing what led to such corruption... what led so many people to act so terribly? In most cases you can pretty easily trace a straight line from an outcome like this back to a system of incentives that caused it (e.g., stock bonues, sales targets, etc). That's partially the case here - but there was nothing particularly unique about VW in this respect as from other car companies. Everyone has stock bonuses and sales targets - everyone would love to lie and juice results and get away with it. But VW somehow had/has a really poison corporate culture that doesn't respect the law, or didn't fear being caught. I wish the book had focused a bit more on that, and sought to understand better the first-principals that led to the eventual result. How did the culture get so tolerant of that? How can those lessons be applied broadly to other orgs? Ewing gives some brief thoughts here, with comments around the concentrated control of VW by very few family shareholders, and no diversity on their board at all. A great jumping-off point for a discussion that never fully developed.

Other items:

  • Quite surprised the emissions standards in the EU were looser than the US. While VW was definitely against the spirit of the law in the EU, they never explicitly broke the letter. In the EU, car manufacturer's are allowed to over-emit pollutants when they determine, in their sole opinion, that they're doing so to "protect the engine".
  • Big surprise: no one has gone to jail, all the executives got giant bonuses, the stock has totally recovered (and then some). I.e., nothing at all has changed.
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A Novel
Gabriel Tallent
read on January 12, 2018

This book is so well written that me trying to say anything about it is just foolish.

I am a girl things go badly for. 

It is about damaged people. 

You are supposed to come to the door and believe that hell awaits just on the other side, believe that this house is full of nightmares; every personal demon you have, every worst fear. That’s what you stalk through this house. That’s what waits for you down the hallway. Your worst fucking nightmare. Not a cardboard cutout. Practice conviction, kibble, strip yourself of hesitation and doubt, train yourself to an absolute singularity of purpose, and if you ever have to step through a door into your own personal hell, you will have a shot, a shot at survival.

At times it is very dark, and sad, and depressing, and sometimes it's very uncomfortable to read. But it's also inspiring and happy and joyful and uplifting.

She switchbacks through myrtles and rusty fronds. She comes into the rocky creek and wades up it, her feet numb with cold. The trees rise blackly into the star-glittered vault. She thinks, I will go back now. Back to my room. I have promised and promised and promised and he cannot bear to lose me. To the east, the stream shines glassy from out the riotous dark. She stands breathing, taking in the silence for a very long time. Then she goes.

The prose is unbelievable. 

Turtle climbs out of slaughterhouse gulch and comes into a forest of bishop pine and huckleberries, deciphering them in the darkness by the wax of the leaves and the brittle mess of their sprawl, the dawn still hours away. At times she breaks from the woods into moonlit open places filled with rhododendron, their flowers pink and ghostly in the dark, their leaves leathery and prehistoric. There is a part of Turtle that she keeps shut up and private, that she attends to with only a diffuse and uncritical attention, and when Martin advances on this part of herself, she plays him a game of tit for tat, retreating wordlessly and almost without regard to consequences; her mind cannot be taken by force, she is a person like him, but she is not him, nor is she just a part of him — and there are silent, lonely moments when this part of her seems to open like some night-blooming flower, drinking in the cold of the air, and she loves this moment, and loving it, she is ashamed, because she loves him, too, and she should not thrill this way, should not thrill to his absence, should not need to be alone, but she takes this time by herself anyway, hating herself and needing it, and it feels so good to follow these trackless ways through the huckleberries and the rhododendrons.

This is the best novel I've ever read.  I never wanted to stop reading it. Not necessarily because it's gripping, or because I wanted to know what happened next, but because the act of reading it was so effortless and compelling and rewarding. The best way I can describe it is that most of the time reading feels like my brain is pulling words out of the book, doing work to lift them from the pages and into my brain for processing and comprehension. Reading My Absolute Darling had the effect of the words being siphoned out of the book and directly into my head - once it was started, gravity did all of the of the work. If anything, the work for me became a struggle of making enough room in my head for the words to fit, faster and faster and faster until the book was done.

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Steven L. Peck
read on June 7, 2017

While less than 10% as long as my last fiction book 1Q84, this book as at least 10 times better. More than that. A Short Stay in Hell is phenomenal. Crazy good. I'm not sure where you draw the line between "short book" and "short story" - but I've never really been into either. I always felt (though not from any experience) that short stories wouldn't be engaging enough, or develop enough character or motivations for me to really get on board. Well, I guess I was wrong. This is the best book I've read in a long time, fiction or not.

This book explores the concept of infinity and immortality in interesting ways, from the perspective of a man that has died and is now trapped in (an otherwise very pleasant) "hell", consisting of few other people and a nearly infinite amount of gibberish books, of which he must find a single one, unique to him. The themes I enjoyed:

  • Religion - I like the cute discussion of the "one true religion" being something no one has ever heard of, highlighting the absurdity of our popular beliefs. (I'll note that since having read this book I feel like I commonly encounter Zoroastrianism in other contexts, so maybe jumped the gun on "no one has ever heard of" there). The book was an interesting satire on the nature of what we believe, and why we believe it. Despite religious being very real in the book (they are all in hell, after all), the book subtly also drives home that religion is entirely a human fabrication, a natural consequence of a doomed people seeking a purpose.
  • Physics - Here I just enjoyed the interesting depictions of ordinary items at cosmic scale. If a book is 410 pages long, with 80 lines per page, and 40 characters per page, and each character is one of ~40 (roman alphabet + punctuation), how many possible books are there? How much space would that take up? I've run across similar questions in other physics books when exploring the idea of a unique 'multiverse' for every possible combination of data in our universe. This is a microsim of that, but an interesting example of exploring how quickly exponential equations scale.
  • Purpose of Life / Happiness - The Hell described in the book is actually very comfortable. Everyone speaks english, can move around comfortably, can meet other people, can eat whatever they desire, can fall in love, have sex, etc. They can pretty much do whatever they want... except their entire environment (including their physical bodies, though not their memories) is "reset" every night. I.e., they cannot build anything. Every morning they wake up to the same environment, trapped in a giant library. Why would you be unhappy here? With the fear of death removed from life, what is there to live for? What is there to aspire to? Do we require progression to be happy? Is that the only thing that can even make us happy? If so, why?
  • The Infinite Nature of Time - There is a line early on in the book where one of the characters asks if they're going to be in hell for eternity, and one of the demons in charge laughs at him, and ridiculous his notion of eternity. He goes on to say that hell is not eternal, it is a temporary punishment, and that after hell each person will enjoy an eternity in heaven where they'll someday look back at their tiny stay in hell and laugh. The main character then spends billions of billions of years in hell. The interesting part is that I think the demon was telling the truth. What does that say about life? No matter what you believe, we'll all be dead soon and then we'll (well, presumably) either spend eternity in some imaginary heaven, or nowhere. Either way, there is an eternity of some other experience/nil awaiting us. What does that say about our time now? What is 80/∞?
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read on November 12, 2013

In the first chapter of this incredible work, Zinn breaks down his motivations and intent behind writing A People's History; which I enjoyed so much I want to replicating in part here:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex...

Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees...

My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim...

Still, understanding the complexities, this book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest...

That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know that before going on.
And so begins the best history book I'm likely to ever read. Beginning with Columbus and ending with the modern era, Zinn describes each major period in our history from the viewpoint of the oppressed.

And so begins the best history book I'm likely to ever read. Beginning with Columbus and ending with the modern era, Zinn describes each major period in our history from the viewpoint of the oppressed.

As evidenced elsewhere on this site, I was at best marginally aware of the standard American history before reading this book. Given that Zinn circumvents the standard narrative, it's pretty fair to say that everything here was new to me. While reading this book I discovered again and again, to an embarrassing degree, how clueless I was about the foundational events that have shaped our past.

For a while I thought I'd review this book by writing all the things I learned about it down, but that really wouldn't work. Some chapters I literally felt like I was highlighting more text than I wasn't. (Plus, since Zinn is often used as a textbook for history courses, the internet seems pretty full of chapter-by-chapter summaries anyway). I think instead I'd rather just focus on the parts and themes that spoke to me the most, which were:

  • Using conflict and hardship as a system of control. Throughout the book, Zinn characterized many (all?) of the wars that we've fought as an intentional and manufactured effort of the established class to distract/unite/further oppress the lower classes. While I don't buy into that 100%, he makes compelling points with ample evidence.
    Racism was becoming more and more practical. Edmund Morgan, on the basis of his careful study of slavery in Virginia, sees racism not as natural to black-white difference, but something coming out of class scorn, a realistic device for control. If freemen with disappointed hopes should make common cause with slaves of desperate hope, the results might be worse than anything Bacon had done. The answer to the problem, obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous black slaves by a screen of racial contempt.
  • The next thing for me was in general the atrocities we committed against Native Americans for the last, well, 300 years. I knew Americans certainly hadn't gone out of their way to make things easy for them, but my general impression was that Native Americans just sort of went away over time. Clearly it wasn't something I had ever given very much thought to and it was appalling to realize the truth, that we have systematically been committing genocide against that race since colonial times. I thought it was particularly disgusting the way we repeatedly made treaties and promises to different tribes, and then broke them without hesitation. I mean, the president of the United States would sign a document saying that such-and-such tribe could have X many acres of land in perpetuity, and then as soon as it was even remotely inconvenient to white settlers, we just tore up the treaty and ran the Indians off the land.
  • I think it can be logically (though not necessarily morally) argued that removing the Native Americans was just the cost of doing business, and a necessary sacrifice on the way towards building the most economically productive nation in the history of the world. But the manner in which we went about it, with lies on top of lies on top of lies, about how we were great partners and just need them to move west 'just this one last time' was/is disgusting and shameful. (And, I'll mention, it is not yet over.)
  • My last great takeaway was just getting an overall better understanding of the class struggles between the revolutionary war and WWI. I didn't know too much about early American history outside of slavery and WWI, but (unsurprisingly) there was an awful lot going on. It was interesting to get more color on the growing manufacturing and industrial industries and the fights for unionization. I've never been a fan of modern-day unions, and I always sat on the excuse that they were probably appropriate at some point in the past, but no longer. It was quite a thing to read indeed just how appropriate and necessary they were in the past 200 years.
  • Overall the books as fantastic, and should be required reading for every high schooler in the country. It wasn't perfect though - towards the end I really felt like Zinn got way too preachy, and I felt like he forgot that his perspective is not the only one. What I liked so much about the beginning of the book (his mission to tell the untold stories) turned into, ironically, a denunciation of everything else. He seemed to forget or disregard that the lines between good and bad are not always clear, especially during the moment. It's easy from our perspective now as the undisputed dominant world power to look back with disgust at some of our historical actions - but it does the audience a disservice to condemn those events without considering the implications of having gone with the alternative. Most disturbingly, Zinn advocates several times for what I would consider ridiculously radical policy changes (e.g., a 90% flat tax on the wealthy), without substantially defending those policies or their implications.

Again though, a fantastic and enlightening book.

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The History of the CIA
Tim Weiner
read on June 7, 2013

It's criminal how much formal education I have, and how little basic American history I know. This book helped fill some of those gaping chasms. The book was as interesting as it was horrifying, for both our institutional ineptitude at intelligence, as well as for our total disregard of sovereign rights and international agreements. It seems like for 70 years our intelligence agency has been remarkably short sighted, and the volume and severity of times that has come back around to bite us is unbelievable.

Anyway, here are some of my notes while reading it.

  • The Cuban Missile Crisis was TERRIFYING. There were 99 nukes, each 70x more powerful than Hiroshima, sitting in Cuba. These things were aimed at US and had 2200 mile range - meaning they could nuke any city in the country (less Seattle). CMC only ended because Khrushchev proposed a deal where we'd need to disarm and remove our nukes in Turkey (aimed at Moscow), and we accepted. JFK took a ton of credit for having somehow negotiated a peaceful resolution to an impossible situation - but all that really happened is Russia sent out an olive branch and we grabbed it. USA did pretty much nothing right this whole time, and came unbelievably close to invading Cuba and starting WWIII. Absolutely terrifying.
    It was pretty surprising how little each US President, (and each new CIA director), actually knows about what the CIA is up to. Very often the POTUS is left in the dark as long as possible, and almost always future Presidents are left totally the dark, if not outright lied to.
  • We tried assassinating Castro.. we sponsored dozens of coup's.. some successful, some not. Most foreign policy disasters (Vietnam, Iraq) seem to be because we blew it on some covert coup attempt, or some other pyramid of lies. (For instance, in 'Nam we started the war on the premise that the VC shot at some of our boats in the area, but that was actually misreported by the CIA, they were never there!).
  • 1960's threat of communism was strikingly similar to 2000's threat of radical islam. Both cases produced a mountain of lies and limitation/infringement of citizens rights, all in the name of national security. (And, to be somewhat fair, at the time it's never immediately obvious if such a trade-off is necessarily bad. I mean, the commie threat was legit scary, as per above). But it's alarming how recycled and manufactured the threat seems.
  • It was surprising to me how overtly the US tries to control the world. We have a 50 year history of literally killing (or funding the assassination/coup of) democratically elected leaders because we don't agree with their policy. Pretty easy to understand why we're hated. Obviously this shows how ridiculously naive I am - I've always known the US to have this reputation, but hadn't actually known why.
  • ... following from the last note: the book raises interesting ethical questions about what is/isn't okay in foreign policy. Is it ethical for the USG to subsidize printing educational materials in a foreign country (e.g., could the US distribute John Locke books in Venezuela)? Is that propaganda? Is it okay to fund radio stations that promote the scientific method? TV? Contribute to campaigns? Where does the line get drawn? I hadn't really thought about it in too much depth before - probably something I should figure out.
  • Toward the end of the book, Weiner talks about (via quotes from former CIA directors) about the trouble the CIA has recruiting. The primary problem was framed as how hard it is to find people that are comfortable living a lie, that can totally own it and wrap their entire selves into it. Apparently that's harder to come across these days. Not sure if that's good or bad.
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The Secret of Human Thought Revealed
Ray Kurzweil
read on January 20, 2013

Wow, this was a good one. Several times along the way I had to stop reading this so I could just sit and think about the implications of it. This book puts human intelligence into a very tangible context, taking almost all of the mystic out of it and boiling it down to a formal model that we can work to replicate and improve with technology. I don't yet know enough about this all to really challenge the claims, or enough to judge their plausibility for myself - but if just half of what's in this book is true, the next 100 years are going to be the most turbulent in the history of our species. Kurzweil compellingly argues that it's possible to replicate a brain with computers, and that once we do it will quickly become possible to essentially make ourselves super smart and immortal - oh, and we'll all be machines. Good times. A few memorable points:

  • Interesting observation about how brains recognize visual information - we "sparse code" it, meaning that our eyes/brains reduce the information to the least amount necessary. When we "see" something, we're really only literally observing a few characteristics of the object - the edges, the shading, etc. Then our brains "fill in" the rest with whatever pattern we expect to be there. This is far less cognitively expensive for us than than to actually try to notice every little detail of everything, all the time.
  • Great discussion towards the end of the book about free will, with many compelling examples of confabulation in split-brain patients. It's very clear that our actions are not always as determined as we think they are, rather, we "decide" at some point, often unconsciously/intuitively, and then our brains are fantastic machines at giving that decision a narrative. Thus, we don't critically reason, and then make a decision. We make the decision, and then use reason to justify having done so. This is super creepy stuff, but compelling.
  • In discussing the implications of advancements in artificial intelligence, Kurzweil spends some good time discussing his thoughts on the nature of consciousness. He reasonably assumes that we will soon have such sufficient AI as to be able to create beings with personalities (think Transformers or I, Robot) and asserts that such empathetic characters, despite being non-biological, are conscious. "If you do accept the leap of faith that a non-biological entity that is convincing in it's reactions to qualia is actually conscious, then consider what that implies. Namely, that consciousness is an emergent property of the overall pattern of an entity, not the substrate it runs on."
  • Scientists are working on an artificial hippocampus, which is the part of your brain the recognizes novel events and stores them to memory. In rats, they've been able to insert the artificial hippocampus (with an on/off switch) into a rats brain, replacing the original one. When they turn the switch on, the rats gain "knowledge" stored in the artificial hippocampus, when they turn it off, the rat loses the knowledge. Similarly, instead of replacement, when they load up a rat with an "extra" hippocampus, it learns tasks much faster. The implications here for human brain augmentation are amazingly powerful. Not only is the "I know Kung Fu" scene in The Matrix totally possible, but this really made me expand what I considered bionics and brain activity to be. I have often thought about what people would be like with larger brains, or what a biological superior to humans would be (for instance, in the same way we're superior to cats). The answer is obvious - instant learning. Unlimited working memory. It's not x-ray vision or jax-arms like you'd see in comic books, but it will be many-order-of-magnitude increases in intelligence that mark the transformation. This is not science fiction. It's happening right now. Honestly, how long until we're immortal?
  • Most of the book I was reminded that, in all likelihood, we are already living in a computer civilization.
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Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World
Edward Dolnick
read on July 1, 2011

Fantastic, really great book about the scientific revolution - and particularly about Isaac Newton. It's gives a lot of great historical context to his life, and then turns into a biography of Newton and goes over all his scientific accomplishments and the impact they had on the world at the time. Really well written, and very accessible. I'm sure the book would appeal more to science nerds than anyone else, but you certainly don't need to be a nerd to enjoy it.

Highlights for me were learning about The Royal Society in England (first science club ever), the true impact and scale of the black death, and learning that Newton and another guy independently both discovered calculus at the same time, but Newton got all the credit.

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THE EMERGING SCIENCE AT THE EDGE OF ORDER AND CHAOS
M. Mitchell Waldrop
read on December 1, 2010

If you're like me, this book changes the way you think about science- which, as far as I'm concerned, changes the way you think about everything.

Complexity is about the first ten years of The Santa Fe Institute, a think-tank that studies complexity research. Complexity itself is, unsurprisingly, not something I can sum up in one sentence very easily. It is essentially the study of how systems change when there are many (millions) of agents in the system.

Take water, for example. There's nothing very complicated about a water molecule: it's just one big oxygen atom with two little hydrogen atoms stuck to it like Mickey Mouse ears. Its behavior is governed by well understood equations of atomic physics. But now put a few zillion of those molecules together in the same pot. Suddenly you've got a substance that shimmers and gurgles and sloshes. Those zillions of molecules have collectively acquired a property, liquidity, that none of them possesses alone. In fact, unless you know precisely where and how to look for it, there's nothing in those well understood equations of atomic physics that even hints at such a property. The liquidity is "emergent".

The whole book is how that emergent effect is found in other systems as well, and the implications of what changes and how. It really is a revolutionary way to look at things. The classical Newtonian way that we've been studying science for the last few hundred years has been studying static systems- changing only one variable at a time and seeing what laws we can deduce from that change and what that means in terms of the real world. The complexity idea does the opposite. It starts with the real world, with complex and imperfect systems, and finds what makes them tick.

I don't have a quote for it, but a great example from the book was the idea of technology in economics. In neoclassical econ theory, technology is something that just happens over time that improves productivity. Without electricity one firm can make 200 widgets with their fixed resources, and with electricity they can now make 10,000. The idea of where technology comes from isn't addressed. I never realized how crazy that was. Technology is one of the main drivers of increased efficiency and production, it's extremely important to econ, but econ just sort of assumes that it spontaneously happens over time.

Complexity describes technology in a different way, as an emergent feature of developed economies. It describes how you need a certain base amount of technology 'principal', which then allows further technology to develop. (For instance, think of all the tech that became possible after electricity, or engines, or vaccines were 'discovered'). There is a certain critical amount of technology necessary in a system, and after you pass it that economy can explode into a more productive era. The implications of this on policy are important. Should we send financial aid to countries that have not yet passed this mark? Will that aid actually help the economy?

This was a really remarkable book. It was published in 1992 and I'd love to get an updated version or followup that describes whatever progress SFI has made on these issues since then.

Addendum 2017: Looking back, this book fundamentally changed my perspective on complex systems. In the years since reading this book, I've come across the idea of emergent behavior countless times. Particularly in physiological and sociological settings, and in ways very fundamental to how those systems might work. Two favorite examples being that reasoning is an emergent property of a diverse group of people, and that consciousness is an emergent property of billions of neurons. For me, thinking of systems in terms of their emergent properties (or, more accurately, thinking of observable properties as emergent outcomes of a large set of individuals) has been a true paradigm shift. In our world of "big data" I think this is only going to become a increasingly necessary tool for understanding.

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And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
Sam Kean
read on September 1, 2010

This might be the first book I've read this year that has nothing to do with any of the others. No behavioral econ, no finance, no psychology... just chemistry and physics. Good times! I saw it billed as an accessible, informative, erudite explanation of interesting stories from the history of chem/physics. Sort of like a Malcolm Gladwell-esque book about the periodic table, but with real science to back up the claims. By and large, the reviews were dead on. The book is chock-a-block full of really, really interesting anecdotes and history from chem and physics, and includes enough actual science-talk to make you feel smart, but not enough to make you feel dumb.

A few of my favorite bits:

  • Holy crap gallium is awesome! It looks like solid aluminium, but melts at something like 80 deg fahrenheit. This means you can be holding a clump of it in your hand and have it melt into something exactly like mercury, right there in your hand! ...! (The book is named after an old chemists trick of making a tea spoon out of gallium. When you stick it in your tea, it melts, scaring the crap out of people)
  • Explanation of aluminium vs aluminum. Apparently aluminium was once the most expensive and rare metal! Aluminium bullion was worth more than gold. Then John Hall figured out how to make loads of it for next-to-nothing. He ended up starting Alcoa and renaming the product Aluminum.
  • I finally learned what the vacuum tubes in old school computers did. The vacuum was necessary for an electrical charge to only be able to move one way. That was the only way to keep a one way current going, until they figured out semi-conductors in germanium and then silicon. That's how they got the transistor. Then they finally figured out how to etch the whole thing on a single piece of silicon, which is literally the same design we're using today, just like a billion times smaller.
  • The universe is 90% hydrogen, 10% helium. The rest is rounding error.
  • Every element up to lead is created inside stars. All the ones (naturally occurring) heavier than lead are created during supernovas, when a star blows up with enough force that all the atoms around it collide and fuse into new elements. What?! (Elements are also made via radioactivity, but that's less interesting)
  • There is an awesome theory that the Sun has a twin sun that it orbits with called Nemesis, which has it's own planets and asteroids orbiting it, and that each solar systems get close to each other every 20 million years or so, resulting in the regular asteroids that hit Earth every 20 million years or so and kill everything. Nemesis? Awesome name. The theory doesn't pan out, but it sounded so good.
  • Maybe the most interesting bit was that humans don't have any way to sense if they're getting oxygen. That terrible feeling you get when you hold your breath? That's just your body saying "too much CO2!" It knows when you're not exhaling, but has no oxygen sensors. Which means, if you walk into a room filled with say, pure nitrogen gas, you would breathe in and out like normal and have no idea that you're about to pass out and die. Because you're body is still exhaling the CO2, you would feel just dandy until you got light headed and died. So weird.
  • Lots more neat stuff. Einstein-Bose condensate, the coldest place in the universe was Boulder, lasers, sono-luminescense, lots of good stuff. Definitely a good one to read again sometime.
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