liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,

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*gigglegigglegiggle* and Bryson lurve

Before Buffy, I had never heard the name "Xander" before. Since then, I've been seeing it around more often. It's still not a popular nickname for Alexander, but it is cropping up more, or maybe I just notice it more. I dunno.

Anyway, today I ran across THREE, count 'em, THREE Xanders.


I was getting my usual Sunday morning omelet (sue me, I like Sunday omelets with an extra large Americano) when I came across my three Xanders.

The first one was an antsy blond kid, approximately age six, who wanted to go outside and plaaaaaaay to the point where he was being a pest. The second was a red-headed kid, also approximately age six, who was driving his mother bats by asking endless questions.

But the real find (for me) was the black lab puppy with these huge paws. Just. Too. Perfect.

There were a lot of exasperated adults dealing with Xanders this morning.

"Xander don't touch that!"

"Xander, please be quiet and eat your bagel."

"Xander! Sit! Heel!" muttermutter *stupid puppy* muttermutter "Please stop bugging the nice lady!"

The last was aimed at the overeager black lab who wanted to greet everyone before they went in to eat breakfast, in case you're wondering.

Giggling nonstop over breakfast is just not normal.

Thankfully, I had Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods to hide behind. He's one of three authors--the other two are Terry Pratchett and David Sedaris--that you can cheerfully blame when you start bursting out laughing in public.

I read A Walk in the Woods awhile ago, but I just felt like reading it again. I love Bryson's playful use of language to economically paint a picture in your head.

Take this one line he writes after he and his wife pick up the indomitable Kaz, his companion for his walk along the Appalachian Trail, from the airport:

"My wife turned to me with a look of serene blankness."

That's so perfect! You can just picture that look on her face while she silently asks her husband what the HELL he was thinking when agreed to team up with Kaz.

Bryson's written a couple of books on writing (I've never read those, although I probably should), numerous travel books, and one science book.

The science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything is a book you definitely want in your library, even though some of the stuff he covers is already out of date (the information about black holes, for one) most of it focuses on basic science that you probably should've learned in high school.

What makes this book so good is that it explodes a lot of common misconceptions the populace has about science and helps take some of the hysteria out of bad pop science.

For example: His section on astronomy is the best antidote you'll ever find against Star Trek science. Think about this: it seems an awful lot of people believe that crossing our solar system should take about as long as the U.S.S. Constitution crossing Boston Harbor under wind power.

People seem to forget that it took six months for the latest mission to Mars to get to the Red Planet. I mean, Mars is our closest neighbor, close enough that in August 2003 you could see how red it was and some details on the planet with the naked eye. It still took us six months to get there with the latest rovers.

Bryson artfully points out that our solar system alone is approximately 3.7 billion miles from Sun to Pluto. That's a little over 4 light-hours. Even if we could go the speed of light, it would still take more than 4 years to get to the sun's closest sunny neighbor, a red dwarf star called Proxima Centauri.

I also liked his section on biological sciences. He points out that all the hysteria over "custom made babies" is just that: hysteria. There is too much we don't know about the human genome and there are too many genes involved in making a human being that "customizing" our children to be smarter, faster, stronger, prettier, or whatnot isn't happen any time soon.

One of my favorite quotes in A Short History of Nearly Everything is when he explains the Laws of Thermodynamics in the section on physics:

"In the briefest terms, the Second Law [of Thermodynamics] states that a little energy is always wasted…The First Law says that you can’t create energy and the Third that you can’t reduce temperatures to absolute zero…the three principal laws are sometimes expressed jocularly as 1) you can’t win, 2) you can’t break even, and 3) you can’t get out of the game."

See? Now I understand that.

What A Short History did for me was explain that a lot of what we "know" is based on a lot of what we don't know. Science is full of guesses, wrong turns, mistaken assumptions, and theories. Granted, these all have a certain amount of education behind them, and granted they are really good guesses based on some compelling evidence, but there's always a little room for doubt.

I suppose it's helpful that Bryson admits to sharing the same problem with science (as it's taught in American schools) that I did: When you start asking How do they know that?, you can't get a straight answer. If teachers didn't spout off complicated theorems that kids can't possibly understand (which leads to tuning the explanation out) and instead came out and stated in plain English that scientists don't actually know for sure, it would be a whole hell of lot easier.

Start with the simple explanation and then work your way backward to those complicated theorems. It would work for kids. It certainly worked for Bryson when he wrote the book. It worked for me as a reader.

Wow. I went from three Xanders to Bryson. How did that happen?

Anyway, I'm just going to throw out two more A Short History quotes because they're my favorites in the whole book:

"We started this chapter with three points: Life wants to be; life doesn’t always want to be much; life from time to time goes extinct. To this we may add a fourth: Life goes on. And often, as we shall see, it goes on in ways that are decidedly amazing."


"But here’s an extremely salient point: we [humanity] have been chosen, by fate or Providence or whatever you wish to call it. As far as we can tell, we are the best there is. We may be all there is. It’s an unnerving thought that we may be the living universe’s supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously."

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