Wednesday, February 9, 2011

CBRIII Book 6: Room by Emma Donoghue

Jack and his Ma live in Room. Jack is 5 and has only known life in Room. He has never been Outside. He and his Ma spend their days with routines and chores like Phys Ed (running Track on Rug) and laundry (washing clothes in their little bathtub). Jack sleeps in Wardrobe at night, because that's when Old Nick comes to visit his Ma. Jack is growing up and beginning to wonder about Outer Space (what he calls everything outside Room). As his Ma struggles to answer his growing questions, she finally breaks down and tells him the truth about why they are in Room, what's waiting beyond its walls, and why they must try to escape.

Room, the novel, is written from Jack's perspective. I knew before I starting reading why Jack and Ma were stuck in the room, so I didn't get to experience the reveal firsthand. Still, I thought Room was an addictive little story. I found it hard to put down once things got rolling. There were a few very tense moments that had me on the edge of my proverbial seat. I did experience a little frustration at times with Jack's narration. A five year old's vocabulary and descriptive ability tend to be limited, but I think Donoghue made the right choice with using Jack as the narrator, and with having him be only 5 and not any older. I mean, how realistic would it be to have, say, a teenager as the narrator? Could Old Nick keep two people trapped, especially if one were a healthy, growing teenage boy? Of course, even if he were older, he'd probably still have the same sense of awe and wonder that 5 year old Jack experiences about the outside world.

The most amazing thing about the novel is how Ma is able to care for Jack with no help from any one else and using only what they have in Room. She teaches him to read and write, shows him how to cook and clean, and keeps him entertained using things like old cups and boxes to build forts and labyrinths, and although he may suffer from a lack of social development, he seems to be a smart little boy. It's amazing to think about how resilient a person can be, especially when they're doing all they can for someone they love.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

CBRIII Book 5: How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown

There are certain things that I learned in school that I've never questioned - certain facts that I was taught year after year until they became indisputably true. One impeachable truth was that there are nine planets in our solar system. I'm sure many people even remember a mnemonic used to recall the names of the planets - "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas" is the one that I was taught.

Well, anyone who hasn't been in a coma the last ten years knows that this is no longer quite true. Pluto, the lonely ninth planet at the farthest reach of our solar system, has been kicked out of the club and relabeled a "dwarf planet." And Mike Brown, an astronomer from CalTech, is solely to blame.

Ok, maybe not "solely." But it was Mike and his team's discovery of several large, planet-sized objects in the Kuiper belt outside our solar system that set off a chain reaction of planetary announcements, attempted discovery-thefts, and meetings of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) that eventually led to Pluto's ousting.

Brown brings his intelligence and passion for astronomy to his story. What would seem to be a fairly straightforward memoir, beginning with his schooling and recounting how he met his wife and started a family while working on his career, is spiced up a bit with the revelation that Brown's work was almost stolen by a group of scientists in Spain. You see, in the field of astronomy, the basic unspoken rule is "He who announces it first, discovered it." Basically, if Scientist A finds a planet, and then the next day Scientist B finds it, and Scientist B announces his discovery first, then Scientist B gets all the glory. Brown makes a strong argument for why scientists shouldn't rush into such announcements - it's better to do the research and compile all the facts first before making lofty announcements. That way, there's no need to retract anything - imagine, for example, announcing you found a planet twice the size of Pluto, only to later realize it's actually only half the size. Why not save looking like a greedy fool and wait until you have all the facts?

Another subject that Brown discusses in depth is the definition of the word "planet." In astronomy, it turns out there is no real concrete definition. As the science has evolved over hundreds of years, the word has changed as well. Normally, when most people think of the word, they think of large objects that revolve around the sun. But does that also mean that asteroids should count? Or moons? How large is large? In the end, the IAU had to come to a decision about what counted as a planet and what didn't, and as a result, Pluto's fate hung in the balance along with Brown's discoveries.

Even though I knew the eventual outcome for Pluto, there was still a bit of suspense in regards to the IAU's decisions. I never realized how much I had taken the word "planet" for granted. But I suppose it makes sense since, in the grand scheme of things, we truly know very little about our universe. We're still learning every day, and like with any science, terminology and long-standing "truths" are bound to change.

I've never been very interested in astronomy, but I still found this to be a great little read. It's definitely worth a look, especially if you've always wondered why Pluto lost its status as a planet.