The other side of the world
1Q84 marks Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s 12th novel, and is considered by many to be his magnum opus. First published in Japan as a collection of three volumes, 1Q84 was just released in the United States in October under one cover. The book, which is over 900 pages, is quite different from his previous works, but as a long-time Murakami fan, I was not disappointed.
Mystery at the Institute
One-hundred forty years ago in Lawrence, Massachusetts, John Ripley Freeman found someone’s lost dog. For reuniting pet and owner, the high-schooler collected a generous bounty of $5. Freeman spent that fortune on the latest textbook in Inorganic Chemistry. With the change, he “procured a small supply of glass tubes, flasks, and a Bunsen burner, and set up a small laboratory at home, without setting fire either to the house or woodshed,” he later wrote.
The incredible shrinking argument
Back in November 2009, I reviewed a book by Earl Doherty, Jesus: Neither God nor Man, which discusses at length his theory about the origins of early Christianity without invoking a historical Jesus. After calling Doherty’s theory marginally superior to the predominant view, the atheist philosopher Richard Carrier stated in his review of Doherty’s work that “the tables have turned.” A refutation to Doherty’s theory, Carrier said, would require developing a single, coherent theory in favor of Jesus’ historicity that can explain all the evidence at least as well as Doherty’s. With funding from both atheists and believers, Carrier himself has taken on the question formally, and his work will soon be published in two volumes.
Catching up with the universe
I grew up in the Panamanian countryside, under pristine skies bursting with stars. Defenseless against the nightly spectacle, I had no choice but to become a backyard astronomer. A Spanish translation of Isaac Asimov’s The Universe (1966) transformed a romantic interest in constellations into a healthy scientific understanding of the cosmos. Asimov’s tome, although dated, satisfied my thirst for cosmological knowledge long enough for me to shift my attention to more mundane things. Two decades went by until I discovered — with a mix of delight and trepidation — that while I was not looking, a third revolution in cosmology, by no means smaller than those triggered by Copernicus and Hubble, was taking place right under my nose, during my lifetime.
“Just don’t be so silly”
Victor Stenger has written a wickedly powerful book, so sharp and heretical that had it been published four centuries ago, the author would have been extra-crispy by the time the nearest bishop was done reading the preface. God and the Folly of Faith, with its straightforward argumentation and encyclopedic scope, is a veritable handbook on the fundamental incompatibility of modern science and religion. In the context of the new atheism movement, Stenger’s book serves as the prosecutor’s closing argument in their collective case against religion. The book’s ambitious agenda, with the simultaneous grinding of many axes (from near death experiences and quantum consciousness to intelligent design and cosmic fine-tuning), takes a toll on the reader. The dissection of the multiple arguments and counterarguments that are currently used to support and refute faith makes this no light reading for a lazy spring afternoon. Albeit peppered with zingers, the work as a whole comes across as what it is: a thick and serious discourse on one of the most important intellectual conflicts in history, very much alive to this day.
Putting the horse in front of the cart
A front page for The Onion dated November 22, 1963 reads: “Kennedy Slain By CIA, Mafia, Castro, LBJ, Freemasons.” I’d bet you a nickel that many people find that headline funny. I know it made me laugh. Although the assassination of John F. Kennedy is one of the most traumatic events in American history, the joke works because the reader is familiar with the barrage of wildly speculative and imaginative conspiracy theories that followed the tragedy, regarding the identity and motives of the killer. Yet most, if not all, of the parties mentioned above in jest have been proposed in all seriousness at some point as conspirators in Kennedy’s assassination in hundreds of books and documentaries. Such is the level of ridicule to which assassination theories have sunk in their efforts to seek closure to what is obviously still an unanswered question, and an open wound.
A titanic failure of management and policy
The horrifying image of a muddy column of oil rushing incessantly from the earth’s guts into the deep blue waters of the Gulf is forever branded in my memory. As I watched in disbelief the live video feed from the bottom of the sea, showing the Macondo well vomiting poison into the ocean, week after week, impervious to the incompetent attempts of BP to kill it, there was one question that kept bouncing in my head: how on earth did this happen?
Religious writings, as poetry
I remember the exact moment when I realized some of Jesus’ utterances only made sense as poetry. The time was an evening in early January 1994. The place was the public square in Chitré, a small city in Panama’s countryside. While hundreds of youngsters rode their new Christmas bikes in the tropical summer breeze, I — at the time an 18-year-old devout Christian — sat quietly inside my father’s car, reading my Bible under a dim yellowish light. The version was Nácar-Colunga’s direct translation from the original Greek and Hebrew into my native Spanish. I remember the exact passage I was trying to assimilate: Matthew 6:25-34. “Do not worry about your life,” said the Lord. “Look at the birds of the air … Consider the lilies of the field.” And then the inspired prescription: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow.”
The art of war, in charcoal and watercolor
Two days after the charter incorporating MIT was signed in April 1861, Confederate forces attacked a military installation in South Carolina. It was the first in a series of battles that would last four bloody years and decide the fate of a nation. Shiloh, Antietam, Vicksburg, Bull Run and Gettysburg are now the stuff of history, names that to this day evoke deep wounds — physical, psychological, moral — in the very fabric of America, many of which are still open. But there was a time when citizens on all sides of the war followed these names for breaking news, which often took the form of written and graphical reports in printed newspapers.
When the human-machine boundary began to blur
MIT Professor David A. Mindell PhD ’96 feels equally passionate about engineering and literature, and has the degrees from Yale to prove it. His obsession with the detailed study of the evolution of technology, though, is evident in Between Human and Machine, a twist-by-twist account of the personal, managerial, institutional, military and even political forces behind the field that came to be known as cybernetics, the modern fruits of which — including computers — have become the cornerstone of our technology and an inextricable part of our lives.
Fifty shades of ignorance (rebutted one by one)
Guy Harrison, one of the standard-bearers of the new skepticism movement, has written a book carefully classifying and then mercilessly shredding 50 very popular — and very wrong — beliefs. Ranging in topic from UFOs to the concept of biological races, this compendium of beliefs may very well be a “who’s who” (make that a “what’s what”) of some things some people get wrong. All the usual suspects are there — faked moon landings, Roswell, Area 51, Bigfoot, Nessie — as well as many religious ideas.
On the pillars of our craft
If you are reading The Tech, there is a good chance you have learned the basics of engineering at MIT. In which case, an invitation to read a book called Engineering: A Very Short Introduction might strike you as — mildly put — unnecessary. If you are the cocky type, you may even be tempted to declare, with a smile and a zinger (“Why don’t you go ask the College of Cardinals to attend Sunday school?”), that this book is not for you. But you would be wrong.
Engineering miracles and unsung heroes: A guide to Mars exploration
By now you must have heard about Curiosity, NASA’s latest robotic ambassador to Mars. It has been making headlines for weeks, first with its nail-biting landing sequence, fit for a sci-fi movie, and more recently with its discovery of evidence of streaming water in the Martian past. Curiosity is the stuff geeks dream about: a largely autonomous laboratory on wheels, the size of a small car and loaded to the brim with the most sophisticated science equipment ever sent to another world.
Choose your own adventure, college edition
Many of us have fond memories of time we spent in our younger years thumbing through choose-your-own-adventure books. These novels, now known as gamebooks, were exciting because the reader was responsible for the choices the character made and could spend time exploring different choices and story paths. Zach Weinersmith, creator of popular web comic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (SMBC), recreates and innovates upon this magic for an older (though not necessarily more mature) audience in the spacefaring adventure Trial of the Clone.
You know the dull wall of Building E38 (pink, cream, whatever) that runs between MIT Press and Cosi? The other day somebody had the audacity (dare I say, the good heart) to spray-paint two machine guns with barrels curved together in the shape of a heart. When I saw this act of vandalism, I smiled and nodded. For I have learned to appreciate this kind of art. Street art. And it’s thanks to Banksy.
A magnificent visual guide to the universe
The new edition of Universe is nothing short of what it promises. Edited by Astronomer Royal Martin Rees and published for the Smithsonian Institution by DK, the book is a comprehensive, up-to-date, and visually mesmerizing guide to the cosmos and what we know of it. Its 500 pages are divided into three sections: astronomy in general, the cosmos, and the night sky.
The other side of love
In This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz, MIT Professor of Writing, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and recent winner of a MacArthur Genius Grant, speaks on love. We’ve all heard love stories before, so in the strictest sense this book isn’t anything new. A mother’s devotion to her family and love for her children drives her to withstand crippling captivity in fettered domestication; an older brother abuses his family in protest over his own medical decline; a cheater faces the cold, splintering reality that he’s fucked up one too many times and the love of his life is gone for good.
Remembering the days the abyss gazed back
When a reporter mentioned the Cuban missile crisis during a White House briefing, then-press secretary Dana Perino “panicked a bit” because she didn’t know what it was. “It had to do with Cuba and missiles, I’m pretty sure,” she ventured. One day in particular, Oct. 26, 1962 (exactly 50 years ago) was arguably the single most dangerous moment in human history, with the United States and the Soviet Union on the verge of unleashing upon each other thermonuclear Armageddon. Ms. Perino’s candid admission is often depicted as a funny, self-deprecating anecdote. Call me paranoid, but it gave me goose bumps: I think such a pivotal event, and the lessons it taught us, should not be forgotten.
Maps of the world, in print
There are several reasons why it is handy, at least for me, to have an atlas. First, as part of my work at MIT I get to interact with people from all over the world, and I like to see on a map the exact place they call home. Second, as part of my role as father of a very curious four-year-old girl, I get to answer many questions about places I visit (“Where is Germany?”), places where her favorite animals live (“Where are the lions?”) and places where we have loved ones (“Where is abuelita’s house?”). Finally, sometimes I just need to know where a place is, either because something is happening there (e.g., South Sudan) or because I heard about it and realized I had no clue where it is.
The resurrection as a case study in evidence versus faith
In his recent book Atheism and the Case Against Christ, Matthew McCormick, a professor of philosophy at CSU Sacramento, takes issue with the most fundamental claim of Christianity: Jesus came back to life after being dead for three days.
The evolution of art
Rare are those who profess a love for every kind of art, and rarer still are those who actually have time to read about all of it. With the sheer volume of media that bombards us on a daily basis, is it even feasible to break art down into smaller, more digestible pieces? Luckily for the rest of us, art historian Michael Bird has written a book that caters to every sort of art lover, from novice art historian to seasoned museum-goer. 100 Ideas that Changed Art explains art’s long history in bite-sized chunks, covering topics ranging from cave art to the Internet.
History of a fascination
Be it pre-WWI and flapper gowns in Downton Abbey, or the green halter dress that Keira Knightley donned in Atonement, costume drama (post-Victorian costume drama, in particular) continually draws us in. Last month, Jacqueline Durran won the Oscar for Best Costume for her work in Anna Karenina — a strikingly modern production not just because Keira Knightley practically drips vintage-style Chanel jewelry, but also because the story, set in the late 19th century, was purposefully presented with a good measure of 1950s couture tailoring. What is it about 20th century fashion that fascinates us so much?
Let there be light
Lighting is arguably the most important factor in many types of traditional and digital art, ranging from painting and photography to animation and architectural renders. It is surprising to know that this fundamental building block of visual art is often overlooked by artists, and many do not fully understand the full implications of light on an artwork. This book by Richard Yot serves as an instructive primer for artists of all disciplines, and at all levels, to begin to understand the intricacies of lighting. It serves as a tool to inspire continued creative manipulations of light in visual art to create extraordinary effects.
The bee and the chimp in you and me
Have you ever felt like other people must be crazy — or at least be hypocrites — to hold certain views that you consider profoundly immoral? Some people defend the Iraq War to this day, while others opposed it from day one. Some people want to ban abortion, while others want to ban guns. “What is wrong with these people? What are they thinking?” you may ask in despair.
Casting the spell of a good story
When I sat down to write this review, I wasn’t sure how to begin. Do I expound on how Kvothe, the protagonist of Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, is one of the deepest and truest characters I have ever seen brought to life with words? Do I extol the plots and subplots that naturally and compellingly guide Kvothe through the story?
Science fiction war memoir in a surveillance state
Joe Haldeman’s latest book Work Done For Hire is a riveting near future science fiction story of the dangers of living in a surveillance state. Former sniper Jack Daley was drafted to fight in the continuing war abroad and has been coping with the trauma for nine years since returning home wounded. He has found some solace from his memories in writing, but no commercial success, and so he readily agrees to write the novelization of a horror movie that’s in the works. It may be just work done for hire, but Hollywood’s money will spend.
D*Face’s new monograph
When I told people I was writing a book review on a street artist’s monograph, nearly everyone asked me “Is it Bansky?” “No,” I replied, “it’s about this artist called D*Face who is like Banksy, but different.” The promotional material for the book talks about Shepard Fairey and Banksy, name-dropping to give credibility to this apparently lesser-known urban artist. The foreword is by Shepard Fairey and the “B” word is mentioned a few times, but this book is entirely about D*Face — his life and work — and that’s what makes it unique.
A formal challenge to myths about atheism
Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk have written a volume discussing a selection of fifty “myths” about atheism that they say are commonly held by the public. I will comment on the substance of their efforts below, but first I have a huge bone to pick with the cover someone designed for this book. Why the radioactive violet background? Do you really need seven colors to spell the word “atheism”? Now on to the important stuff!
Snowden’s revelations: the backstory
Leaking secrets in the public interest requires not only a ready and courageous whistleblower. It also demands an able and courageous deliverer to carry the precious message to the world. This year’s graduation week marks the one-year anniversary of the unveiling of Edward Snowden’s identity and the first wave of explosive NSA disclosures delivered by journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras.
The journey of a 2010 Fields Medalist
Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure is the recently released English translation of Cédric Villani’s Théorème Vivant. Director of the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris, Villani cuts a unique figure, frequently wearing large spider broaches on his jacket lapel. He is an expert in partial differential equations and their application to problems in statistical physics. His book recounts his frustrating but exciting journey to winning the 2010 Fields Medal for work on Landau damping.
A tale of hazing and hacking at MIT
For those unfamiliar with MIT, reading Geeks & Greeks will likely be an eye-opening experience, as the graphic novel quickly dispels many MIT stereotypes. In the first few chapters, we see that Greek life exists at MIT, and that students aren’t a bunch of overly serious nerds — they like to joke around, prank each other, and put large objects on top of buildings. I’m a campus tour guide, and you wouldn’t believe (and would maybe be a little insulted) by the number of tourists and prospective students who ask if MIT even has clubs, Greek life, and sports. The artwork is consistently pleasing throughout the novel, and certainly does a great job at bringing many unbelievable events to life. In this way, the novel is certainly a compelling read, filled with jokes that will please anyone with nerdier sensibilities and stories that are sure to inspire young readers to apply to the Institute.
Harry Potter, Book Seven and Three-Quarters
The Cursed Child is well worth the trip to your local Muggle Flourish and Blott’s, but don’t be surprised if you don’t get what you expect. The new play is not quite a stand-alone sequel, but it's not truly the eighth book of the series either, despite being advertised as such.
Out of China, a monumental addition to the sci-fi genre: Death’s End
In terms of sci-fi fare, Liu delivers his usual well-crafted showcase of ideas. What makes Liu’s fiction unique is that the science fiction interest doesn’t simply emerge from the introduction of a new technology, but from key shifts in realizations about the universe.
A neo-Luddite manifesto?
The ambitious title of Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How would suggest that Theodore Kaczynski (the "Unabomber"), after years of deliberating in prison, has found and published the solution to the uncertainty of a technological future. The solution he proposes in this work, however, is not so clear-cut.
What is the acceptable amount of blood for good literature?
Since the publication of God of Small Things nearly twenty years ago, critics and fans have been waiting for the next big thing that Arundhati Roy comes up with. With Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy makes the wait worthwhile...
Second novel by Andy Weir, author of ‘The Martian’, falls short of expectations
The book has overarching themes of class and plot devices typical in a story where there are haves and have nots. There’s an interesting amount of detail about how the moon colony would function from an engineering perspective, which immediately engaged me.
The first contemporary dystopian series that didn’t make me cringe!
Red Rising is a well-written, original, and not too cliche dystopian novel with prose and story complexity that far exceeds The Hunger Games, but it is definitely less sophisticated than A Song of Ice and Fire.
Novel set at MIT is more than black and white
While I probably exist in the same realm of reality you occupy, Mei exists in the world of American Panda, the brainchild of MIT graduate Gloria Chao. American Panda, at first glance, is just a standard bildungsroman with a few reader-attracting tweaks: its protagonist’s main quest is to find a compromise between her parent’s goals for her future and her own, with a side battle that is Surviving MIT. But American Panda is not exactly that.
Imagine a world where mechanical pencils are advanced technology
Chris Babu ’97 graduated from MIT with a mathematics degree and worked on Wall Street as a bond trader for 19 years. But since then, despite being told he was crazy to not stay in finance, he’s changed his career to a novelist.
Few vague ways of ‘fixing’ your broken heart
Next time you are comforting a heartbroken friend, you can use some tricks that you learned in this book. But other than that, this book has little to offer.
Fresh voices of reality and working to understand ourselves
Providing fresh voices that should be heard, 'Points of You' is written with honesty that can be appreciated by all. The voices of Vick Liu, Julia Rue, Mina Fahmi, and Drew Bent alternate throughout the book, speaking about a wide range of topics, including mental health, relationships, and leadership.
Rona Wang’s debut story collection sings
'Cranesong' is a beautiful debut story collection, stringing together characters exploring their identities: what does it mean to be an artist, to be female, to be Asian, to be Asian American, to be queer?
Broken stars, hearts, minds, and realities
In his second science fiction anthology, Broken Stars, Hugo award winner Ken Liu presents a diverse selection of works from fourteen contemporary Chinese authors. Whether you’re curious about the future, the past, or the rapidly evolving present, this collection will not disappoint.
‘The Radio Operator’: A look into 1930s New York City
At its heart, ‘The Radio Operator’ is about identity.
The price of winning
What does it mean to win at all costs? Should love and loyalty persist through the darkest mistakes?
A British history of World War I
Though I may not have enjoyed the novel, I am still glad that the Mysterious Book Exchange left me with a greater desire to continue reading and a renewed hope that books will forever hold a place at MIT.
“Other People’s Clothes”: A peek at Berlin’s party scene
Ultimately, the novel is a recreation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for the modern age — a champagne-bubble of a story
“Our Ancestors Did Not Breathe This Air”: On growing up Muslim in America
The authors masterfully capture the feeling of balancing between two cultures, and they do so with humor, compassion, and warmth.