This week has seen the fall of two TBR titles that double as my first science reads for 2022.
StarTalk Radio is a podcast hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and features interviews with prominent scientists, policy makers, etc, along with a rotating panel of guest hosts who are described as comedians*. StarTalk draws on the shows, particularly the “Cosmic Queries” segments devoted to listener questions, to offer a smattering of information on both astronomy and Earth science. Each chapter is based on an episode of the show, and uses listener questions as a jumping-off point into a broader subject. It’s very much a coffee table book, largely proportioned and very visually-appealing. Text-wise, it’s very busy, with multiple sidebars and quotes per page surrounding a paragraph of two of the actual narrative. The section subjects run all over the place and leave the domain of science towards the end, with chapters on futuristic speculation. This is a great book to look at and glean quick information from, but it’s not a satisfying read.
* Tastes vary, but I find most of the comedians to be more inane than entertaining.
Regular readers here know that I regard nuclear energy as the practical approach to move beyond the fossil fuel economy, given its ability to provide a steady base load that does not depend on fickle things like wind and cloud cover. I purchased Atomic Awakening back in 2016 to learn more about the nuclear power industry. Although the cover describes it as being about the past and future of nuclear energy, this is thoroughly a history, first of science and then of technological enterprise. The book’s first third is devoted to the line of studies that began with the mysteries of X-rays, and then revealed radioactivity and the structure of the atom, before shifting to the United States’ full-steam-ahead effort to weaponize the atom before Germany could. Following the close of World War 2, the author then shifts to the growth of atomic power in the postwar era, from military applications (nuclear submarines, attempts at a nuclear airplane), civilian development (nuclear energy and wildly irresponsible construction proposals) and the origin of radiotherapy, as well as speculation about nuclear-powered spacecraft. Although the author is a nuclear proponent, he doesn’t shy away from covering nuclear accidents (both in the labs and in application, with sections on the Demon Core that killed two scientists in two separate incidents, and the accidents at Windscale, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl). His coverage of modern reactors is surprisingly nonexistant, aside from commenting that rising concerns about peak oil and climate change have prompted a resurrection of interest in expanding the nuclear contribution to nations’ power grids. Unfortunately, the Fukushima affair (despite its lack of injuries or deaths) has had another chilling effect, for a reason that the author comments on in his text: appearances matter more than substance. Although I wanted more information on the likes of molten salt reactors, Atomic Awakening proved incredibly interesting given the variety of applications it reviewed for nuclear power.