Two also-reads in recent weeks have been Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System and Kevin Vost’s 12 Life Lessons from St. Augustine.
I’m familiar with Cox from his many appearances in Symphony of Science videos (a YouTube series in which clips from scientists are remixed with music on various themes, like “An Ode to the Brain”, or “The Poetry of Reality”), but have never read any of his work. This volume is the book version of a televised series, I believe, rather like Cosmos or Civilisation’s book versions. Although most books on the Solar System take a predictable approach (The Sun > the planets in sequence > outer reaches including the Oort cloud and such), Cox’s tack does away with that. He begins with the Sun and connects the formation of the early solar system to the present behavior of Jupiter and Saturn and their many moons. Next, Cox shifts to planetary science, examining common processes and features of Earth and other planets. One subsection of this is very similar to Cosmos’ episode “Heaven and Hell” as Cox compares Mars, Venus, and Earth and the role of climate on each of their history. The last section involves life on Earth. Because this is adapted from a television series, photography features heavily, and Cox often uses pictures to compare features on Earth with those found on other planets. The television show must have been exciting to watch, because some of the photographs include Cox’s flight in a jet, taking him nearly out of the atmosphere, and visiting various desolate places on Earth that invite comparison to Mercury, Titan, etc. This is definitely an enjoyable volume. Next and last in the Science Survey will be a work on anthropology, but I can’t seem to find The Moral Animal, so I have to hope I stumble upon it, or that my hold for Behave: The Biology of Human Behavior At Our Best and Worst comes in on time.
Moving on to theology: 12 Life Lessons from St. Aquinas attracted my attention largely because of the author, whose works on Stoicism and the Seven Deadly Sins I’ve read before. Here, Vost adapts some lessons from Summa Theologica to share with a modern audience, but despite my affection for the author, I found it slightly disappointing. Some of the chapters were superficial; the twelfth chapter, for instance, bids readers to keep Jesus central: surely that’s a given for most readers interested in Aquinas? There was substance here, though, particularly the chapter that hooked me into buying this book in the first place, that on Acedia. I’ve come to realize that Acedia, commonly translated as Sloth, is misunderstood. Vost builds on that, expounding on the fact that sloth is not laziness, but rather apathy – a neglect of the inner life, particularly, but also of one’s duties. Acedia strikes me as the polar opposite of mindfulness, and so it’s worth considering if a reader is interested in living mindfully — and of course, its applicability is not limited to any religion or philosophy. Although 12 Life Lessons from St. Aquinas has definite merit, it’s not as substantial as one might expect from an author of Vost’s caliber, and drawing from the Summa as he does.
If astronomy and theology strike you as an interesting combination, keep an eye out for one of my reads for next year: The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Observatories.