Review: Apollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger

Review: Apollo 8 by Jeffrey KlugerApollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger
Format: audiobook, eARC, hardcover
Source: publisher, publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: nonfiction, science history
Pages: 320
Published by Henry Holt on May 16th 2017
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The untold story of the historic voyage to the moon that closed out one of our darkest years with a nearly unimaginable triumph

In August 1968, NASA made a bold decision: in just sixteen weeks, the United States would launch humankind’s first flight to the moon. Only the year before, three astronauts had burned to death in their spacecraft, and since then the Apollo program had suffered one setback after another. Meanwhile, the Russians were winning the space race, the Cold War was getting hotter by the month, and President Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade seemed sure to be broken. But when Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were summoned to a secret meeting and told of the dangerous mission, they instantly signed on.

Written with all the color and verve of the best narrative non-fiction, Apollo 8 takes us from Mission Control to the astronaut’s homes, from the test labs to the launch pad. The race to prepare an untested rocket for an unprecedented journey paves the way for the hair-raising trip to the moon. Then, on Christmas Eve, a nation that has suffered a horrendous year of assassinations and war is heartened by an inspiring message from the trio of astronauts in lunar orbit. And when the mission is over—after the first view of the far side of the moon, the first earth-rise, and the first re-entry through the earth’s atmosphere following a flight to deep space—the impossible dream of walking on the moon suddenly seems within reach.

My Review:

Anyone who has lived in Chicagoland knows that while expressways may be designated official numbers from the DOT, no one ever calls them by those numbers. Highways in Chicagoland have names; the Ryan, the Kennedy, the Ike. And if you travel through Northwest Indiana, the Borman.

The Borman is named for Frank Borman, the native Hoosier who was one of the first three people to see the far side of the moon with his own eyes, up close and personal. Frank Borman was the commander of Apollo 8, the first mission by any country to send humans around the far side of the moon.

They may not have landed there, that honor was bestowed on Apollo 11, but they were the first humans to leave not merely the Earth, but to entirely leave Earth’s gravitational field and become temporary residents of a different celestial body, in orbit around the Earth’s moon.

Apollo 8 is the story of not just that one mission, but of as much as possible of everything that came before it. Frank Borman was not one of the original Gemini astronauts. He just missed inclusion in that celebrated group with the “right stuff”. He was, however, part of the second class of astronauts, merely referred to as the “next eight”.

It’s always the ones who get there first who get all the good names.

So this is the story of not just the crew of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, and of their lives and careers in NASA up to that point, but it is also the story of NASA itself. Now that’s a story of “big science”, where there are many, many people who give significant portions of their lives to work together for what they hope (and in this case they were right) is a cause greater than themselves.

There are heroes here, too. Names we’re familiar with like Gene Krantz and Deke Slayton. (Krantz was the Mission Controller who helped bring Apollo 13 back from the brink.) But there are plenty of both sung and unsung heroes among this early corps of NASA movers, shakers and believers, and the author does a skillful job of weaving the parts that they play into the narrative of this one, singular mission.

It is also the story of America in the 1960s. While this book does not attempt to portray the entirety of that tumultuous decade – nor should it – within its narrow scope it does set the missions of NASA in general and Apollo 8 in particular into their historic context. Not just the story of what was done, but why it was done and how it felt to be a part of or even watch as it was done.

And to show why the space program was so important. What it did, and what it celebrated. And just how much was accomplished and how many people around the world celebrated with it.

Reality Rating A: I have a very soft spot in my heart for anything to do with NASA and the space program. I was a child during the 1960s, and the space program, its successes and its tragic failures, formed part of the backdrop of my earliest years.

We accomplished so much. We went so far, and we showed such promise. And now it seems to be gone. Not just the adventure itself, but the promise of the future it provided and the surprising amount of unity it engendered.

(Readers interested in a bigger picture of exactly what it means that we don’t go into space much anymore should read Leaving Orbit by Margaret Lazarus Dean)

Apollo 8, the book, does a terrific job at showing the importance, the risks and the rewards of Apollo 8, the mission. By focusing on the smaller perspective of the three astronauts, and particularly Borman, it allows the author to paint the broader picture in a way that allows readers to empathize with the people and to grasp the size and scope of NASA’s operation and how it worked – and how it occasionally didn’t with disastrous results.

So while the focus is on Borman, Lovell and Anders, this is also very much a book about “big science”. And like The Interstellar Age by Jim Bell, it does a good job of making that “big science” comprehensible. And makes the reader wish they could have been there.

I found Apollo 8 to be compelling reading, to the point where I began by listening on audio and then switched to print to see what happened faster, even though I already knew what happened. I was absorbed in the details and the perspectives. As glad as I was to have the crew get back safely, theirs was a journey that I never wanted to see end.

But it did. As did our journey with them.

I leave you with this iconic photograph taken from Apollo 8. Earthrise.

Review: The Great Quake by Henry Fountain

Review: The Great Quake by Henry FountainThe Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet by Henry Fountain
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, nonfiction, science, science history
Pages: 288
Published by Crown Publishing Group (NY) on August 8th 2017
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In the tradition of Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm, a riveting narrative about the biggest earthquake in recorded history in North America--the 1964 Alaskan earthquake that demolished the city of Valdez and obliterated the coastal village of Chenega--and the scientist sent to look for geological clues to explain the dynamics of earthquakes, who helped to confirm the then controversial theory of plate tectonics. On March 27, 1964, at 5:36 p.m., the biggest earthquake ever recorded in North America--and the second biggest ever in the world, measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale--struck Alaska, devastating coastal towns and villages and killing more than 130 people in what was then a relatively sparsely populated region. In a riveting tale about the almost unimaginable brute force of nature, New York Times science journalist Henry Fountain, in his first trade book, re-creates the lives of the villagers and townspeople living in Chenega, Anchorage, and Valdez; describes the sheer beauty of the geology of the region, with its towering peaks and 20-mile-long glaciers; and reveals the impact of the quake on the towns, the buildings, and the lives of the inhabitants. George Plafker, a geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey with years of experience scouring the Alaskan wilderness, is asked to investigate the Prince William Sound region in the aftermath of the quake, to better understand its origins. His work confirmed the then controversial theory of plate tectonics that explained how and why such deadly quakes occur, and how we can plan for the next one.

My Review:

The heart of the book The Great Quake, is literally the great quake itself. The narrative, based on interviews with survivors and with the geologist who ended up making the quake his life’s work (and a bit vice versa) come literally at the 50% mark of the book.

What comes before and after is a layperson’s guide to the geology that causes earthquakes and the development of the scientific theories that surround earthquakes in specific and the movement of the continents in general. For those of us who remember “plate tectonics” as being settled science when we were in high school, it’s a revelation to discover that it wasn’t settled at all until after the scientists did their deep dives into the study of this particular quake, and all the destruction it left in its wake.

And for those of us who have ever lived in an earthquake zone, the building standards that make it much more likely that we will survive an individual quake, even if all our stuff knocks off the walls, owes its research and development to the study of this particular quake as well.

The Good Friday Earthquake, as it is still sometimes referred to, especially in Alaska, was the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded. While the loss of both life and property was relatively small in absolute terms, thanks to Alaska’s rather small population in 1964, it still destroyed two towns completely (Chenega and Valdez) and wrecked parts of Anchorage, Seward, Cordova and many others. The tsunamis it generated wreaked havoc along the Pacific coast on both sides of the ocean, down to California on the eastern side and all the way to Japan on the western shore.

And in some ways, its aftershocks are still being felt today.

Reality Rating B: I picked this book up because I lived in Alaska between 2002 and 2005. We lived near Earthquake Park, the land that is left after everything closer to the water dropped and fell in. I worked for the University of Alaska Anchorage on Alaska’s Digital Archive, a statewide project to digitize photographs of the history of Alaska, and if there was one thing that both the UAA collection and the Anchorage Municipal Museum had lots of pictures of, it was the results of that earthquake.

The book itself packs a lot of information about geology and the development of the theory of plate tectonics into settled science into layperson’s language, and wraps it around the story of the quake and its aftermath.

A lot of things changed in Alaska because of the Good Friday Earthquake. The town of Chenega was wiped out. Valdez was too, but because Valdez was on the mainland, and on the road system, and because it is one of the few ports in Alaska that is warm-water all year round, it was rebuilt inland.

The survivors’ stories from both of those places, particularly their accounts of the earthquake itself and the immediately following events, are harrowing and traumatic, and keep the reader riveted to the page.

However, the first third of the book is mostly scientific discussion. It’s all understandable to the non-scientist reader, and it definitely serves as background for what comes later, but there’s not a lot of human interest in that section. It does however talk a lot about the development and eventual proving of, among other things, plate tectonics, and that first third moves at about the speed of, well, plate tectonics.

Once you hit the story where the pork and beans are flying like shrapnel, it’s a wild and rollicking ride from there onwards, and completely absorbing. Readers who have any interest in geology, natural disasters, earthquakes and/or Alaska will find The Great Quake to be a fascinating read.

There’s a stand of trees on the Seward Highway that used to be up on the cliff above. The earthquake dropped the entire stand into the saltwater of Cook Inlet, where they stand today. They are dead, killed by the saltwater they now stand in. But they remain as ghostly sentinels to the power of that quake.

Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee ShetterlyHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook, movie!
Genres: biography, computer history, history, science history, U.S. history, women's history
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow on September 6th 2016
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Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program—and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now.
Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.
Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine.
Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world—and whose lives show how out of one of America’s most painful histories came one of its proudest moments.

My Review:

Hidden Figures tells an absolutely fascinating story; a story that is all the better for being true.

Once upon a time, a computer was not a piece of machinery. Once upon a time, a computer was a human being, usually a woman, who was just about a genius in mathematics. In spite of the fact that most people believed, rather foolishly, that women weren’t capable of either higher mathematics or professional achievement, this is the story of a group of women who did both, plotting trajectories and engineering airplane designs that led from the battlefields of World War II to the moon.

Although a piece of this story was also told this year in Rise of the Rocket Girls, the struggle for achievement and recognition is even more striking in Hidden Figures. All of the hidden figures in this book were hidden twice, once by their gender, and again by their race.

Hidden Figures is the story of the black women who began their careers, or in some cases re-started their careers, within the segregated confines of West Computing at what is now NASA’s Langley Research Center in Jim Crow era Hampton Virginia during WWII.

It was a job with endless demands, huge requirements and never enough people to fill the positions. During World War II, Langley was THE place for aviation and aeronautic engineering. The space race wasn’t yet a gleam in anyone’s eye, even as crazy as the NACA nuts could sometimes be. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was behind America’s superiority in the air in WW2. But to achieve that superiority required hordes of engineers and battalions of human computers to create and confirm mathematical formulas for everything from missile trajectories to drag co-efficients.

Many of those human computers were black women with degrees in mathematics and a desire to either further their careers, make an amazingly good wage for a black woman in the 1940s to support their families, or both.

They faced segregation at the workplace and in the town of Hampton. They created a place for their families and their friends, and a culture of support that made it just a little bit easier for the next black female computer or the next black male engineer to become part of what they all saw as their new home and the place where important work happened.

Hidden Figures is the story of the women who powered the Space Race. Whether by hand and mind, or by electronic computer, they imagined and created, double-checked and rechecked, the trajectories for John Glenn’s famous first flight, Neil Armstrong’s even more famous first moonwalk, and even supplied the Plan B mathematics that helped bring Apollo 13 back from the brink of disaster.

Their story of mostly unsung heroism is quietly brave and bravely daring. In an era where women’s contributions to computing, especially the contributions of women of color are harassed at every turn, this is a story that shows just how much is possible if we are willing to work and fight for it.

hidden figures movie posterEscape Rating A-: There are two aspects to my comments. On the one hand, there is the story itself, which is absolutely awesome and needs to be distributed to the widest audience possible. (There’s a movie coming this winter!) This is one of those stories that, if it were not true, no one would believe it. A story of female professionals succeeding despite the odds in a male dominated profession and workplace. The story of black women thriving professionally and personally in the Jim Crow South.

In the way that Hidden Figures captures the numerous double standards that these women worked and lived under, and the way that they saw themselves both as just doing their jobs and as powerful symbols for their race and sex, there are some parallels to the histories told in both Rise of the Rocket Girls and The Defender. These women worked for their families, for their race, and for themselves and their own personal hopes and dreams.

The history of Langley, the Space Race and the opening of doors in Civil Service employment owes much to the struggles that are documented in The Defender. The doors opened because the Space Race, the ending of colonialism in much of the world, and the Civil Rights movement cast a glaring light on racism in America, and on the ways that segregation denied so many the education needed for the U.S. to compete on the world stage, while making a mockery of America’s calls for freedom and democracy elsewhere in the world.

Some things never change.

Because we see this story through the eyes of specific individuals, it is easy for the reader to empathize with both their struggles and their triumphs, whether the reader meets the characters on several axes, or none.

But as work of authorship, this story has a slow start and initially a few too many foci. There’s also quite a bit of information about aircraft engineering that may border on overload. Once the story moves from the NACA era to the NASA era, the narrative picks up steam and the points of view become more focused.

Minor quibbles aside, this is a book for anyone who is interested in the history of women in engineering and computer, the history of the ways that both race and gender impact opportunities in those fields, and the history of NASA and space flight.

Fittingly one of the stories at the end is the famous story of Martin Luther King Jr. convincing Nichelle Nichols to remain on Star Trek as Lieutenant Uhura, not because of what she actually did onscreen, but because of what she represented. She represented the future of all the women portrayed in Hidden Figures, and their dream to reach the stars.

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca SklootThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, medical ethics, medical history, nonfiction, science history
Pages: 370
Published by Crown Publishing Group on February 2nd 2010
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Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.
HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.
The journey starts in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo. Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was recommended to me in glowing terms by multiple people the year that it was published. And being in a contrary mood, I didn’t read it at the time.

I’m here to say that everyone who told me to “READ THIS BOOK” was absolutely right, and I was wrong to wait. This thing is awesome on so many levels.

It’s a medical mystery. It provides some serious context for discussions of medical privacy, including those HIPAA forms we all sign every time we get medical treatment these days. It dives deeply into the field of medical ethics. It makes you think about fairness and justice. It provides a fascinating and humanized history lesson in cell research.

And the description of cervical cancer treatment in 1951 is scarier than any horror movie ever made. It’s not that Henrietta Lacks was treated badly at that point, it’s that the treatment in general seems absolutely barbaric from early 21st century perspectives. The standard treatment was to insert tubes of radium into her cervix and sew them in place for TWO DAYS. If you are a woman and this doesn’t make you reflexively clench your legs shut, you are a much braver woman than I. The description of this treatment makes Torquemada look benevolent.

But this was the state of cancer treatment in 1951.

However, the story of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks both is and isn’t about Henrietta herself. Because Henrietta died in 1951. Her cancer killed her. But not before her doctor removed bits of both her tumor and her healthy organs and turned them over to the nascent science of cell research.

Cell science was nascent because of one major problem, the researchers couldn’t manage to keep a cell line alive for more than a few days. The bits of Henrietta that her doctor sliced out without her permission did not obey the normal rules of harvested cells. Just as her tumors grew at an unprecedentedly rapid rate, so did her harvested and cultured cells.

Henrietta Lacks died, but her harvested HeLa cells, thrived. At first only at Johns Hopkins, but eventually at biological research labs and companies all over the world. The cancer that killer her also made her immortal.

Henrietta, through her HeLa cells, helped cure polio. And diagnose cancer, and create vaccines for HIV and HPV. And helped scientists to study the effects of travel in outer space on human cells. You name a medical breakthrough in the past 60+ years, and HeLa cells are somewhere in the story, whether the actual cells, or the techniques that were created around them.

HeLa has saved thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of lives. Those cells have also made hundreds of researchers and biological products companies either rich or famous, and sometimes both.

But her family was not informed. Nor did they consent. In fact, when researchers needed better methods of distinguishing HeLa cells from other cultures, researchers took blood samples from her surviving family, without fully informing them of the purpose of the tests. And revealed their names and relationships to Henrietta in medical journals.

All of this seems unthinkable today, but at the time it took place, it was all legal. It wasn’t until the turn of the 21st century that a researcher chose to include Henrietta’s surviving family in research about Henrietta and her miraculous HeLa cells, but by providing the family with the scientific information and simple respect that they had been denied for so long, was able to both give them closure and create the first complete record of this formerly unsung woman who changed the face of medicine.

Escape Rating A+: This book is really two stories running in a kind of parallel. The first story is Henrietta’s story. Not just the biography of her actual life, but also a tracing of the history of her immortal medical afterlife. The continuing life and journey of her HeLa cells. Those cells helped to create a revolution in cell research, which in turn created a revolution in medicine.

As with so many revolutionary ideas, those revolutions fed on themselves in either a vicious cycle or virtuous circle, depending on one’s perspective. Once a line of viable cells, the HeLa line, came into existence, everything about cell research has spent decades playing catch up. All of the procedures for handling, transporting, culturing and eventually selling cells developed because there were finally cells to create procedures around.

But even more importantly, the ongoing discussions in medical ethics, medical research and patient confidentiality are still catching up to the developments made possible by the myriad opportunities that were opened with the HeLa cells. Henrietta did not give permission for her cells to be harvested and used. The law did not require it. What will astonish you is that the law still doesn’t.

The story of the author’s search for Henrietta and her family, and her work with them and for them over the years that this book was in development make for every bit as compelling a story as the story of the HeLa cells.

As the years went by after Henrietta’s death, and as her cells were used around the world, there was a long period of time in the history where her name was obscured or deliberately covered up. Multiple names were put forward as the original HeLa, including Henrietta Lakes, or Helen Lawson, and most often, Helen Lane. Even as one reads the accounts, one gets the feeling that there was an attempt to hide the origin of the cells from the family. When the HeLa research began, the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment was still going on, and there was a persistent and not totally false rumor mill that African Americans were frequently kidnapped for experimental purposes and often experimented on without their consent or knowledge. The kidnappings may have been apocryphal, but the experiments so clearly were not.

This was also the era of a kind of heroic medical researcher who thought nothing of injecting unsuspecting patients of all types (including sometimes themselves) with all manner of drugs and diseases without their consent. A study was conducted with HeLa cells, injecting HeLa cells, which were known to contain cancer, into healthy patients to see if they would develop cancer in turn. The patients were not informed because it might cause them “anxiety”. No kidding. And the great majority of the patients did develop tumors at the injection site which required surgery. At least one developed cancer.

Just the thought of this kind of research brings back the spectre of Nazi medical experiments in the concentration camps. And it makes me shudder in reflexive horror.

But as the real identity of the HeLa cell donor became more and more widely known, at least in medical circles, it also brought out of the woodwork more and more people who wanted to take advantage of the family in some way. By the time the author of this book began her quest, the family was angry at partial and incomplete explanations and disgusted by or frightened of the charlatans who knocked on their door.

So part of the story that the author tells is of her journey to being trusted, and then the journey she undertakes with Henrietta’s surviving daughter to uncover the truth. The questions that are explored, and the answers that they find, stick in the mind and heart of the reader long after the last page is turned.

Reviewer’s Note: The mother of a 15-year-old boy attending a STEM Academy in Knoxville Tennessee has requested that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks be banned from the entire school district on the grounds that the book is “pornographic”. Her contention is based on two incidents in the book. Henrietta first diagnoses herself by inserting her own fingers into her vagina to find the lump on her cervix that she believed was present. Which it was. And the second “support” for the charge of pornography is that Henrietta’s medical records include her multiple diagnoses of syphilis and gonorrhea, and go on to explain that she contracted the venereal diseases from her husband’s promiscuity. This is not pornography. This is history. And gynecology. Also a whole lot of courage on Henrietta’s part. How many of us would rather continue in ignorance than investigate inside our own bodies for ourselves?