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August 28, 2007

Book Review: Moondust

5 out of 5 stars

Andrew Smith is a columnist for the Guardian.  Born in the US, he is lucky enough to remember that great day in July 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the moon.  For that alone, I am insanely jealous. I put the question to my parents: "Did you watch the moon landings?  What were they like?" and was surprised to find that I got a mixed response (although perhaps I should not have been; this is a good example of the usual juxtaposition of opinions that I've come to expect from them).  My Dad claims to have been riveted by them, glued to the TV (as I would have been), whilst my Mum's response was "Probably".  Surely, I said, it was an achievement so monumental that you must have been inspired by it.  Mum's response was, "I seem to remember it being old hat by the time they actually landed on the moon, as there were launches seemingly nearly every week.  I found John Glenn's accomplishment more exciting".  John Glenn was the third American in space and the first American to orbit the Earth1; slightly disillusioned by my Mum's indifference, I never quite found out why this was more of an achievement than  Gagarin's first flight into space (he was the first person ever to orbit the Earth).

But back to the book.  Moondust is as moving as its premise: that a handful of men (twelve, to be exact), in a crazily optimistic period between 1969 and 1972, were able to fly to and walk on the moon, the very edge of Deep Space.  The journeys these men made were to change them forever: the divorce rate amongst astronauts is "astronomical"; Buzz Aldrin lapsed into alcoholism and was later treated at a psychiatric institution; Neil Armstrong retreated from all public life; Ed Mitchell, of Apollo 14 and sixth man on the moon, reported experiencing an epiphany on the way back from the moon that led him to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), set up to reconcile the differences between science and religion, that has been a lure for hippies and new-age thinkers since its inception.  

The prologue tells the story of Smith's first personal encounter with one of the Apollo men: the tenth man on the moon, Charlie Duke.  During the meeting, Duke received a telephone call informing him that Pete Conrad, of Apollo 12, had been in a motorcycle accident; later he was confirmed to have died from the injuries sustained in the accident.  

It was the words Duke left me with that set my mind reeling that day.  He said them quietly and evenly, as though uttering a psalm.

"Now there's only nine of us."

Only nine.

Correspondingly, Smith divides his book into nine chapters; however, he does not, as one might immediately think, devote one chapter to each of the remaining astronauts.  His journey leads him to meet with not only the remaining moonwalkers, but also the men who could not go "the last sixty miles" to the moon, the Command Module (CM) pilots, such as Mike Collins (Apollo 11) and Dick Gordon (Apollo 12).  

Smith's book combines personal memory, descriptions of the Apollo missions, inner thoughts and recent interviews with the Apollo astronauts to great effect.  His accounts of the Apollo 11 take-off and the Gemini 11 Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA, or "space walk" to you and me) are heart-stopping and real.  His interviews with the astronauts and encounters with other "space nuts" really give you a feel for the characters behind the greatest achievement of mankind.  Alan Bean's (Apollo 12) artwork sounds gorgeous to behold, as he forever tries to capture the "human" part of walking on the moon that he regrets never being explored — too much emphasis was always placed on the scientific, and no time to just experience the moon.  

An undercurrent throughout the book is a sense of urgency to get back, and how we cannot let the Moon landings pass into legend.  Too many people already hold that they never happened, and too many people are alive now (myself included) who don't remember the Moon landings because they weren't alive at the time.  The last optimistic act of the 20th Century is also mankind's greatest achievement, and we should be looking to top it (by getting men on Mars) or equalling it regularly.  NASA's focus has shifted with the large budget cuts it has faced since 1972 and the need to replace the Space Shuttle, and so we haven't got out of low-Earth orbit in the last 35 years.  This is a great shame, and should be addressed.

Smith's book cannot come more highly recommended.  It will get you thinking about philosophy, the wonder of being a member of the only race on Earth to escape the atmosphere, and just how small we are in the grand scheme of things.  Not in a bad way, but in a way that really makes you feel so incredibly lucky to be alive.  What's more,you'll never be able to look at a photo from/on the Moon without thinking, "Wow. That's the Moon!", and a similar, but slightly magnified feeling now erupts inside me as I look at photos from Mars.  Read it. 

1.  John Glenn. (2007, August 17). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:02, August 23, 2007, from

August 15, 2007

Book Review: The God Delusion

4 out of 5 stars

Richard Dawkins is one of the most eminent Evolutionary Biologists around today, and also one of the most eminent atheists around today.  He has participated in a conference about how science should be the next evolutionary step beyond religion (people with an ATHENS login or online subscription can read the New Scientist report on the conference here), written numerous books on why religion is a Bad Thing™, and has accordingly been accused of being a "fundamentalist atheist".  He has also been hilariously lampooned in a two-part South Park story aired around the time of the afore-mentioned conference.

Dawkins uses The God Delusion as his manifesto for advancing the population of the world beyond religion, and a convincing one it is too, at least to the converted such as myself.  Unlikely to sell very highly in religious circles, and having spawned a number of counter-arguments, such as McGrath & McGrath's The Dawkins Delusion?, one wonders about the effectiveness this will have in converting the religious and the religious apologists. 

But this is not, in fact, Dawkins' aim.  Dawkins instead seeks to explain his opinion as to why religion is bad, and, by extension, why something needs to be done.  Interesting points he makes include the question of why religion is automatically afforded so much respect (citing an example of an American sect that won an exemption from the laws surrounding hallucinogenic drugs as their belief was that taking these drugs was the path to God; in the wonderful teenage phrase, not taking drugs is "against their religion"), that religion in moderation should not be tolerated as it provides a justification of fundamentalism and extremism, and that what we in the UK would consider as Christian fundamentalism is mainstream in the US.  He also rails against the indoctrination of children under religion, and calls for a paradigm shift in referring to children not as a "Christian child" or a "Muslim child", but rather "the child of Christian parents" or "the child of Muslim parents"; he maintains, quite rightly, that children should be able to choose religion once they are old enough to think for themselves, and not have it thrust upon 'em before they know what's hit them.  He uses political affiliation to provide a counter-example here: no one would refer to a "Tory child" or a "Marxist child".  

The God Delusion, like most books, is divided into a number of chapters; each chapter in this book is titled with a question or statement to be tackled: "A deeply religious non-believer", "Arguments for God's existence", "What's wrong with religion? Why be hostile?", etc.  The chapters tackle subjects including the roots of religion, the roots of morality, why religion cannot be moral (if said morality is derived from the holy book), focussing mainly on Christianity.  The root of Dawkins' arguments comes from his own particular field of specialty, evolution, and he uses natural selection to argue how and why religion and morality arose, and how he foresees a world without religion as the next step in the evolutionary path of religion.

Generally speaking, the book is particularly readable, and Dawkins conveys his message clearly and eloquently throughout.  The bit I struggled with most was chapter 5, "The roots of religion", which contained a lot of fairly Darwin-heavy reading.  For someone who thought they "got" the theory of evolution and natural selection, I can tell you that it was a tough read, and I'm now re-evaluating that assumption.  However, it is worth persevering; there is much joy to be found in chapter 6 "The roots of morality: why are we good" that outlines how morality might have evolved, along with — importantly — evidence to support the theories.  There are also stories later in the book of the journeys people have made when trying to reconcile a religious upbringing with the rationality they have gained as an adult, and one moving story of a man (I think a scientist himself) who ultimately chose religion.  

I award it 4 stars for a particularly high-level of writing, as would be expected of an academic such as Dawkins (the "Further Reading" list appears to formatted according to the Harvard system), and for the logic, strength of argument, and evidence presented.  The harder-going midsection around chapter 5 already mentioned is what loses the book the last star, but I really can't recommend this book enough. 

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