Category Archives: Review

Book Review: The Guinea Pig Diaries (Jacobs)

I bought this book on New Year’s Eve. Usually it takes longer than a week to get around to reading a newly-purchased book, usually much longer, but this was different. Right now, I am or are supposed to be reading a half-dozen books, some for classes and some for pleasure. I’m reading a few of them simultaneously right now, but I carved out mental space for A.J.’s newest “life as an experiment” books. I didn’t read his second, The Year of Living Biblically, but I loved his first one, The Know-It-All which describes his attempt at reading the entirety of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

But, since this review is about The Guinea Pig Diaries, I should probably start to write about that one, right?
The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment by A.J. Jacobs (2009)

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Initial Thoughts: I originally walked into the Barnes and Noble on Grand River to pick up Christmas presents for my roommates, plus see if any books jumped out at me. I went first to the “comedy” section, saw that there was a new Pearls Before Swine treasury, grabbed it, then turned to walk away. As I turned, however, I saw that A.J. Jacobs had a (relatively) new book out. I picked it off the shelf, read the title and subtitle, and immediately decided to buy it. I loved The Know-It-All because of Jacobs’ writing style and humor but also for the insight into the information as well, and I knew that this book would be no different.

I payed using a gift card (after grabbing a few other things), drove back to my apartment, and left it on my shelf. I didn’t start the book until yesterday, while my roommate and his girlfriend had a discussion and after buying my textbooks for the semester, and I immediately fell in love like I knew I would. Wait, that’s not very rational, which was the subject of his self-experiment in Chapter Five: The Rationality Project (accompanied by Jacobs in his bathroom with twenty-some boxes of different toothpastes). I was immediately pulled back into Jacobs’ writing style with the first page (the last time I read The Know-It-All a few years ago), and I could barely put it down.

The Premise: Jacobs begins by describing the fact that he occasionally performs experiments on himself, and that his previous two books were part of it. Where this newest book differs is that each experiment will last a month or so, allowing him to talk about nine such experiments during the course of the book. He first does research about the topic, whether it is about Multi-tasking versus “Uni-tasking” or how George Washington would shake someone’s hand (spoiler: he wouldn’t shake anyone’s hand). Of course, the prose allows these relatively boring aspects to flow easily, and in no time he turns the discussion to placing cut-out eyes around his home to encourage good behavior or impersonating a movie star.

Since I like the idea behind it, and have in fact done a few somewhat similar things to myself in the past (consecutive hours awake, improve eyesight, TV series marathons, etc.), I was really drawn to the concept once I found out what was actually contained within this book. Honestly, I’ll probably even try out the George Washington experiment, or maybe the rationality one, during this semester. I know that I’ll make a few concessions (shaking hands, for starters), but the essence will still be there.

Conclusion: This book is just over 200 pages long, and those pages go quickly! I barely noticed the flipping pages once I got deep within an experiment, and I just couldn’t seem to take my eyes away. I even read some chapters while watching the History Channel’s The Universe (I own the first three seasons on DVD), which Jacobs would agree with in his uni-tasking chapter. It was funny and well worth the read, and I already have a few friends who want to borrow it now that I’m done. I’ll have to base that decision on who I think will be most likely to return the book in a timely manner, as any rational mind should.

My only suggestion would be to possibly wait until the summer for when it comes out in paperback. Yes, you can get a pretty good deal on Amazon, but the hardcover is still pretty expensive. Hence the use of a giftcard to buy it where otherwise I would have waited or checked the Library…

Book Review: The Case For Mars (Zubrin)

I’m starting something new with this post, and hopefully I keep doing it. Of course, it is dependent on the number of books I can actually read within a given timeframe, especially when you take into consideration my schoolwork and everything else going on in my life. I’m also going to limit this to “first reads,” meaning that all the books that I will invariably read for the third or fourth time in the coming months (Moonwar and Jupiter, both by Ben Bova, at the top of that list) won’t be a part of this book review series, since I’ll be including initial responses and what-not in my dissection of the book. These, however, won’t be full reviews, but more my thoughts on the most pertinent issues or ideas presented in the book, so there will still be a lot of information within the book that I never mention here.

The Case For Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must by Robert Zubrin (1996)
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Initial Thoughts: I ordered this book soon after being selected as a crew member for MDRS 89 as the author is the founder of The Mars Society, and I should read the book that was basically the basis for setting up MDRS and FMARS before actually going to the station. Those I know that had read the book highly recommended it, so I figured the very low cost was well worth it. It was nice getting an actual scientific and factual description of martian colonization, especially since I was able to juxtapose many of Zubrin’s ideas for the “Mars Direct” plan against various SciFi versions of sending missions to Mars, notably Ben Bova’s Mars.

Note: You’ll notice that I’ll reference Bova multiple times in this and future reviews. He is by far my favorite SciFi author, and his Grand Tour series is an excellent read which can be read as a super-extended series, as individual stories, and in any order you want. I highly recommend those books for anyone who likes harder SciFi.

Zurbin uses a lot of anecdotes and historical comparisons throughout the book, which I enjoyed. I felt that relating the first Mars missions to the initial voyages of Columbus or the expansion across the American frontier makes the idea more tangible to readers, especially since the wealth of comparisons really digs in the fact that a Mars mission is not difficult to obtain with present technology, so long as we remember the lessons of the past of living off the land and using ingenious methods to both get to Mars and survive there.

Mars Direct: Zubrin’s plan calls for two launches every two years to send both an Earth Return Vehicle (ERV) and a crew habitat (Hab) to Mars when the launch window opens, after the initial launch of a single ERV in order for the first crew to have a fueled ERV for when the leave the martian surface 500-some days later. While the two launches may initially seem like having more possibilities for things to go wrong, a la Murphy’s Law, it surprising is also the basis for NASA’s Constellation program (using the Ares I and Ares V boosters), making Zubrin’s mid-90s plan very current given the current situation at NASA.

The extended stay on the surface is because of the availability of launch windows from Mars to return to Earth. The crew could either spend the 500-plus days on the surface, accomplishing a multitude of mission goals, priming the area for the next mission, and discovering things that no one might expect. The other option is a 30-day stay which, in both mine and Zubrin’s opinion, would do nothing more than be “putting boots on the ground” and accomplish very little scientifically, which is of course the reason for the manned mission. His longer stay also exposes the crew to less solar radiation, less time in zero-g, and has less fuel requirements, making it in basically all areas the superior choice for a launch schedule.

One depressing part of the book, for me at least, is definitely the timing of it. I’m reading it thirteen years after its publishing date, and the fact that we still haven’t landed on Mars saddens me. It’s even harder to cope with when he gives a theoretical example using Apollo-era technology that could allow for a Mars mission, and that was forty years ago! We could have been a space-faring race for a quarter of a century, but due to the government and changing administrations, among other problems, prevented this from occuring.

Colonization of Mars: Zubrin goes on the discuss the benefits of having a branch of the human race on Mars, from economics to advancement of technology. While, in my opinion, this option will still be far off (twenty years or more after the first Mars mission) and highly dependent on the government’s backing of the program, it should be the ultimate goal of any Mars mission plan. The human race cannot continue to exist on a single rock, especially when you consider the problems that we face daily from having over six billion people confined to a world we are slowly working to destroy. In my opinion, I feel that a Mars colony should be established to be self-sufficient, making the high shipping costs of raw goods from Earth to the red planet not matter. If the colonists can grow food, mine metals, construct additional habitation areas, and survive, that’s good enough for me and I would gladly hop on a ship out there in a heartbeat.

Of course, Zubrin describes the huge economic advantages to establishing a base, from the large amounts of deuterium (for fusion power), access to the Asteroid Belt, and general materials that we use all of the time (aluminum, iron, etc.). That economic advantage will definitely help convince some pocketbook-minded members of Congress to support it (if they took the time to read through the book) and will help convince people to actually move out there that aren’t astronauts. We can’t just have a bunch of spaceheads running around, now can we?

He also discusses the possibility of terraforming the planet, but this of course would take place over centuries, so I don’t see this as a major point for getting that first mission off the ground; it’s more to give a more grandiose purpose for the second, third, fourth missions. By the time that colonists can walk around Mars in shirtsleeves and a breathing apparatus, we will have invariably already expanded to habitats in the Asteroid Belt and possibly other star systems. I agree that the eventual plan for the human race includes all of these things, but going to Mars just for these reasons is the wrong idea, which thankfully is in agreement with Zubrin.

FMARS and MDRS: After finishing this book, I am that much more thrilled to be a part of an MDRS rotation, and to have the possibility of having an actual Mars mission in my own future, whether I go through NASA or as a civilian. Based on how sluggishly the government invariably moves, we probably won’t have a Mars mission for ten plus years, which would be right about the time that I’ll be applying to become an astronaut. Since astronomers/physicists won’t be high on the priority list for the first few missions, I do have some leeway for getting on a future crew should I become an astronaut.

And frankly, this book made me want to become an astronaut even more! Exploration and going where few, if any, people have gone before were what brought me back into wanting to become an astronaut after my young child phase where every American boy wants to become an astronaut. What cooler job is there than traveling to another planet? I can only hope that we get off our seats and go for it.

Conclusion: There’s no sense in giving a rating for this book, since I hate ratings anyway. I’m just going to recommend this to anyone interested in space travel or Mars, or anyone that’s ever had a dream of scooping up a handful of martian regolith. You’ll definitely have dreams of being that person the entire time you read it.