Sunday, June 17, 2007

Mad Scientists?
"The Jasons"
by Ann Finkbeiner

The front jacket of this book is enough to spark anyone's imagination. Every year since 1960 a group of elite scientists meets for six-weeks in top secret locations to solve highly classified defense problems. Hell yeah!

For me, I think of darkly lit rooms, scientists in white coats, high-tech gadgets, and the fate of the world in the balance. I imagine state-of-the-art technology, even stater-of-the-art ideas, and complete tyrannical chaos over each and every one of them. What I imagine is a fantasy.

The best part of this book is on the front cover. The rest, sadly, is boring, static, and unfulfilling. The book filled with useless information about countless scientist's backgrounds and little or no information regarding any of the top secret studies the group "Jason" has worked on.

With paragraph headings like "This next part is far from inspiring" or "After that it is far from interesting," it becomes hard to get excited. I began this book with boyish fantasies of secrets and science fiction, but was quickly tamed by the reality that most of the cool stuff that has been worked on in the last 60 years is still highly classified and thus not in any book, nor anywhere for that matter.

Finkbeiner conducted most of her interviews over the phone for this book, and I can't help but feel that may have lent a staleness to the story's progression as well. The books suffers from it's exhaustiveness. There is too much information given about things that aren't interesting. It makes the few interesting portions zoom by.

The subjects of this book are a group of very highly qualified academic physicists, a group even Finbeiner reminds us is arrogant and snobby. And while they may do some great things for this country behind the scenes (like studies on aging nuclear weapons, how to dismantle them safely, etc.), those arrogant snobs make for terrible bedside reading.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Work of the Ancients
"The Forge and The Crucible"
by Mircea Eliade

Alchemy is mysterious and wondrous and, I think, interesting. I happened across this book through conversation, found it a great starting point to learn about this ancient process that goes so far back in human history and is steeped in tradition, sacred initiation, secrets, and religion.

Eliade basically traces alchemy back to the most primitive religions, gives examples of smiths and metallurgists before alchemy was practiced, and lays the groundwork for alchemy's influence of chemistry (which consequently led to it's decline as a valid practice). Modern science has done away with much of the spiritual side of alchemy, reactions are strictly chemical now, transformation has an explanation (transmutation though is another animal entirely). Eliade, though, skillfully moves through the history of alchemy and enlightens us to a vastly different world, one where people interact with metals as if they are alive, because they believe we came from rocks, they believe in a cosmogony that is holistic and encompasses everything, not just man.

Personally, I find alchemy fascinating. The fact that Newton, the father of modern science, was deeply rooted in alchemy yet persisted on keeping it secret, published books based on alchemical models and did away with alchemy as a serious pursuit is something to be pondered. The symbolism alchemy provides, the inveterate research and prolific work of C.G. Jung on it, is both useful and helpful.

I understand very little about alchemy in and of itself, and I probably never will know much more than an inkling of surface knowledge, but I find it's explanation of the universe, the symbolism of the Philosopher's Stone and Elixir Vitae, the holistic nature, and the fact that it is such an old idea has some basis of validity for me, and I will not be satisfied until I know more.

The alchemist's ultimate goal was to speed nature up and transmute metals into gold, since it was believed that, given time, that is the endgame for all metals. Spiritually, they must abide by several things to keep on that path. It is that path, that symbolism, that ignites my imagination.

It also probably helps that I love mysteries and mysterious things. Check it out on wikipedia.

The Real Lost
"Island of the Blue Dolphins"
by Scott O'Dell

A few months ago Aubrey and I went to Catalina Island, one of a chain of islands off the Los Angeles coast, and on the way our conversation veered to the "Island of the Blue Dolphins". On an island neighboring Catalina, San Nicolas, in the late 1800s, a girl was found, alone, having survived the last twenty-some years on her own. She spoke no understandable language, and the rest of her people had long since passed. I was fascinated.

The book is a fictionalization of the girl's account. It's based on a few facts, but it really did happen. Karana, the girl, became a woman during her stay on the island, she overcame fears about hunting as a woman (forbidden in her tribe), fears of isolation, all while maintaining a consistent hope and goodness. Her story is one that should be heard, and one that should be followed, because at its core it is a story about how resourceful people can be, how instincts do help, and how living in harmony with the world around you is one of the most important things for sustainability.

I don't have much to say about the book other than that I enjoyed it immensely. Karana's relationships with the animals on the island, I found her domestication of a wild dog and birds and, briefly, a fox, heartwarming and sincere. Her struggle was dramatic and the book was fantastically told. It's a young adult book, but I really think that categories like "young adult" should be done away with. Anyone can read a young adult book, and anyone can enjoy it. Case in point: Harry Potter.

For some interactive fun on the Island, go here.