Tag Archives: science

The Green Glass Sea, by Ellen Klages

The Green Glass SeaDewey Kerrigan, raised by her grandmother until she has a stroke and goes into a nursing home, is sent to live with her father is New Mexico. Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1943: the place where chemists, physicists, and other scientists are working on creating the atomic bomb. All of this is shrouded in secrecy, and Dewey herself knows nothing of it. Her life is concerned with smaller things: having conversations with Enrico Fermi and Richard Feynman, bonding with a loving but overworked father, working on projects with scrap metal and electronics. Then her father is sent away, to Washington, and Dewey is left with family friends and their daughter Suze. Deeply awkward around each other at first, Suze and Dewey slowly form a friendship.

Klages really gets what it’s like growing up as a nerd girl: the way adults can be easier to talk to than people your own age, the way one’s projects can be so fascinating that you don’t even care (that much…) when you’re unpopular, how Popular Mechanics is the most exciting magazine in existence, how great it is when you can share obscure knowledge with a friend like a secret code. I don’t know if I really believe the ending–it has one of those Big Misunderstandings I’m thoroughly sick of–but it’s such a warm and knowing picture of friendship and growing up, with the historical information woven in unobtrusively.

I think I like the book’s approach to the atomic bomb best of all. It’s not foregrounded at all. It’s top secret, and up until almost the end of the book, you only get vague rumors of a gadget that could end the war. But when it does show up, Klages doesn’t spend a lot of time arguing for and agaist the use of the atomic bomb. Dewey certainly doesn’t get to decide that. The scientists working on the bomb can argue about whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but ultimately, it’s out of their hands. Instead, Klage approaches it from three different perspectives–there’s the scientific perspective, and given Dewey’s fascination with science and engineering throughout the book, it’s easy to get caught up in this idea of– Wow! Science did this! And then there’s the political perspective, pro-ending the war as quickly as possible, with as little loss of (American) life as possible. Dewey is a child of her time, casual about using slurs against the Japanese. And finally, you just have to be floored with fear and trembling at the idea that human beings can obliterate each other on such a massive scale. The last chapter is wonderful when it comes to bringing all of these things together without hitting you over the head with them. 


Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, by Atul Gawande

BetterGawande tackles the question of what people can do to be “better” through a medical lens – not necessarily from a surgical point of view, and there’s no scalpels-and-gore in here, but in relation to doctors and medical situations. He divides “performance” into three rough categories: diligence, morality, and ingenuity. It’s interesting how these aspects play into each other. Ingenuity isn’t merely about cleverness; it’s about not being willing to accept the status quo, about being certain that there could be a better way of doing it. And it’s clear from the chapter on washing hands that merely “trying hard” isn’t good enough. You need to set up systems that make it easy to do the right thing.

There’s a wide variety of topics covered in the book’s eleven chapters: washing hands, a polio outbreak in India, war casualties in Iraq, morality around seeing patients naked, malpractice lawsuits, cystic fibrosis, childbirth. Each is thoughtful and revealing of things I hadn’t thought about.

Unless something is seriously wrong with my own body my interest in medicine tends to be limited to watching House on TV, but I read Better on the strength of other people’s recommendations and I wasn’t disappointed.