Saturday, October 19, 2013

Perspective ("The Inheritor's Powder" by Sandra Hempel)

Sometimes you think of a book as important, not because it's groundbreaking or a bestseller or even an entertaining read, but because it reminds you just how fortunate you are to be living today rather than, say, six or seven generations ago. For instance, The Inheritor's Powder by Sandra Hempel has a pretty straightforward premise:  it's the story of a farming family in 19th century England who are poisoned, leaving many of them violently ill and killing the elderly patriarch, and the search for a culprit using a new and untested area of science and criminal justice that will eventually become known as forensic science.

Beneath this story, however, is where we find the book's true relevance. In order to not only track down the poisoner but also convict him or her in a court of law, investigators and scientists alike had to deal with corrupt or incompetent officials, outdated methods of evidence-gathering, sloppy detective work, and a court system that still allowed members of the jury to serve while drunk...a prospect made all the more horrifying by the knowledge that inquests and trials were sometimes held at the local pub. On top of all this, the poison that was suspected of being used in this case--arsenic--was difficult to test for, and had it not been for the ragtag group of academics and policemen honored by Hempel herein, an accurate test would not have appeared for some time, allowing countless more murderers to walk free and strike again. (And, as Hempel points out towards the book's close, the setbacks that come with developing a revolutionary new procedure often resulted in criminals walking free, though that was also sometimes due to a judicial system with little interest in following its own procedures.)

In reading Hempel's book, you are struck time and again with just how primitive the entire system was only 160 years ago--only a few decades after our own country, brand new in the world, wrote itself a Constitution guaranteeing judicial practices like the right to due process, a trail by jury, and a safeguard against self-incrimination.* The Inheritor's Powder is filled with stories of detectives getting drunk on the job, losing evidence, or even passing it around to friends at a pub to be contaminated or destroyed; coroners, untrained in even the most basic aspects of anatomy, who offer shoulder shrugs when called to the witness stand; judges who speed through five trials a day, just for the sake of appearing expedient; and so on. To us, living in a world where trials are usually tedious and dull--a far cry from how they're depicted in film and television--these anecdotes are downright appalling.

What's worse, the vast majority of those living in 19th century England saw little issue with the fraudulent science, slipshod criminal justice system, and hack police work of the day--to them, it was their normal--and only when a few small but influential figures raised their voice did public opinion and social ideas begin to change, albeit slowly. Which makes Hempel's book significant, if for no other reason to emphasize the forgotten roles of those very influential few, but it also makes those revelations a little worrying. After all, if so much of science, law, and criminal justice has changed in just a century and a half--their idea of normal now seen as mind-boggling incompetence and tragedy--what will writers think of us two hundred years from now? What aspects of our own society will future Sandra Hempels look back on with disbelief, derision, even scorn? How will we--supposedly advanced, supposedly progressive, unstoppably self-assured--be written about after a half-dozen or so generations have passed?

What's more, the issues that will most likely doom us in those books--our swelling prison-industrial complex, a prison population disgustingly imbalanced along racial and socioeconimics lines**, racial profiling, the entertainmentization of trials via 24/7 news networks--are almost wholly ignored by those in a position to change them, if not outright promoted by them, which is not unlike England more than 150 years ago. We hope, in reading these stories from the past, that our own James Marsh or Alfred Swaine Taylor will emerge to right these wrongs. For the sake of our future. 

*Hempel's book focuses entirely on forensic science in England. For the story of forensic science's origins in the United States, see Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook, an excellent read.

**See Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow...and once you see it, pick it up and read it.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Alone ("Five Billion Years of Solitude" by Lee Billings)

In the final chapter of Lee Billings' Five Billion Years of Solitude, after more than 200 pages of dense exoplanetary prose and interviews with respected astronomists, we're introduced to Sara Seager, a middle-aged scientist at MIT who is one of the world's foremost experts on exoplanets--that is, earth-like worlds existing beyond the scope of our current scientific reach. Unlike the book's other chapters, however, Seager is introduced to us not through the complexity of her research, the revelations of her writing, or her influence on the next generation of astronomers--all of which is important and comes later--but through her relationship with Mike Wevrick and the long canoe trip they took through the empty tundra of the Northwest Territories.

For sixty days, Seager and Wevrick made their way through the wilderness, never once encountering another human being outside of a small outpost and the skeleton of an old Inuit whose grave had been ransacked, leaving his or her skull exposed. They engaged one another in long conversations, observed the beauty of a seemingly barren part of the world, and became closer as a couple. They also spent long moments in silence, not unlike that of the same universe--our universe--which Seager would soon spend her life studying. When they returned from their trip, Seager now destined for Harvard graduate school at only 22, they moved in together and, some time later, married and had children.

Years later, their children still young, Wevrick was diagnosed with intestinal cancer--a result of Crohn's disease--and passed away after a short battle, leaving Seager a widow at 40 with two young boys, a burgeoning professorial career, and the future of space exploration on her shoulders. When Billings meets Sara Seager, he describes a woman who is stretched thin, her life a desperate attempt at balancing her responsibilities to the science field and her responsibilities to her children, both of whom show little interest in their mother's profession outside of its similarities to Star Wars. Nevertheless, Billings also finds himself impressed by her ability to do so much  with so little time, and her willingness to embrace the wisdom delivered by her father on his deathbed:  "I never want to hear you say that anything is the 'best' you can do. I never want you to be limited by your own negative thinking." In the middle of her life and the highest point of her career, Seager is still pushing herself into new fields and struggling with even more difficult questions.

This closing chapter, which rarely touches on the minutia of Seager's expertise, is a marked contrast to the previous nine, which are written in such a way as to bridge the personal stories of scientists with their fields of study, all of which are in some way impacted by the search for exoplanets. More often than not, these bridges collapse under the weight of technical information, much of which is written about in a dry, droning prose that causes the mind to wander; only when Billings focuses back on the stories of those involved does his book regain its footing, and we reach the book's end wishing he had written the first nine chapters in the same way he writes the tenth.

Because what makes the chapter on Sara Seager so interesting is that, unlike many of Billings' other subjects, Seager opens up her life in a way that allows us to see the relevance of planetary science as something more than just a desperate search for fame, patriotism, or scientific understanding. A search for life in the vast, empty universe is a search for a better understanding of ourselves. We want to see life beyond our own world, not just to settle the debate over extraterrestrial life, but to compare that existence to our own. Are they more or less intelligent than we are? Are they scientifically literate? Do they have social classes and hierarchies? Do they look like us? Have they taken care of their world? Do they wage war? Do they have music? We seek these answers, not because we're vain, but because we're afraid--afraid that we're not as good as we could be, that we're not as smart or developed as we think we are, that we're somehow foregoing our own possibilities as a species or committing sins against the very rare world we call home. We fear that, in the great community of space, we are the seven billion outliers who don't belong.

And, more than anything else, we fear being alone. The night sky holds billions of stars, and beyond those there are billions and billions more, and the very idea that we might be alone in the universe, fully and irrevocably alone, worries us to our very core. The idea that this precious blue marble we call Earth, so comfortably distant from the sun but also close enough to sustain life, is a galactic fluke unreplicated anywhere else, and that we're the only source of intelligent life in all of existence--that our world alone possesses the gift of music and love and friendship and curiosity--is an unsettling condemnation of how little we appreciate just how special we might be. As we pollute ourselves ill, shout ourselves hoarse, devalue ourselves to the point of suicide, become angry to the point of violence or revenge, bomb ourselves to dust and commit genocide against our neighbors, the universe looks back at us as its only heartbeat beyond the pulsars of lifeless matter drifting so quietly through the vacuums of space.

When Sara Seager opens up her life to us, especially as she remembers her late husband while their sons sleep in nearby room, she is demonstrating the fears we all feel when we stand beneath that night sky and wonder, either out loud or silently to ourselves, if we're alone. Because loneliness, for all its occasional benefits and virtues, is a disheartening condition after so much time, and never more so is this apparent when we think about our tiny world rolling gently in the cradle of the universe, alone, for billions of years. When we search space for other life, even if that means the possibility of a world like our own light years away--an unreachable distance in anyone's lifetime--it's no less emotional of a search than when we look across our own world for a companion, for a connection to our parents or children, for a memory of someone who's forever gone from our lives but shouldn't be.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Honor ("Last of the Blue and Gray" by Richard A. Serrano)

On its surface, Richard Serrano's Last of the Blue and Gray is the story of two men, both veterans of the Civil War, and the paths they took once the battles ended. The first, Albert Woolson, fought for the Union and would remain and active part of veterans groups until the end of his life. The second, Walter Williams, was a Confederate soldier who kept his distance from those groups after the war's end, choosing instead to live a solitary life in rural Texas. Both men's stories are far from unusual, especially since both lived typical and un-dramatic lives, save for one important aspect:  when Woolson died, he was 107 years old and the last of the Union soldiers, just as Williams was the last of the Confederate soldiers--in fact, the last Civil War soldier from either side--when he passed away at age 117. Their deaths marked the end of an era that, even today, seems almost unimaginable:  young men, even boys, taking up arms against their fellow countrymen; fields were soaked in blood, hills and forests were littered with bodies, and limbs were amputated with medical indiscretion, often worsening the soldier's already excruciating condition. Even more, their lifetimes allowed them--or, if you prefer, forced them--to see the progression and advancements of man's hatred towards man. Their war, fought with cannons and rifles, paled in comparison to the Second World War, in which tanks, B-52s, and atomic bombs became the weapons of choice. Suddenly, in only 80 years, combat became industrialized:  now, instead of facing down foes with bayonets on the battlefield, hundreds of soldiers could be wiped out with one strategic strike. It's a lesson in how our world can change for the worse, if we just give it enough time and ignore the wisdom of those who've come before us.

Beneath this story, however, is a much broader lesson in what happens when history itself is not only ignored but unpreserved. More than a few chapters of Serrano's book focus on the controversy over Williams' age--he may have been more than a decade younger than he claimed--and his service in the war, which was difficult to verify. Throughout the controversy, which took place while Williams was confined to his bed and unable to defend himself, records were sought out and double-checked, which would have solved the issue had it not been for poor Confederate records-keeping. Where Woolson's service was irrefutable, Williams died with his achievement still in question. Even today, his life and service both come with an asterisk, and many now agree that he was not the last Civil War soldier, and even more look at his purported age with heavy skepticism.

Serrano himself seems all but certain that Williams' claim was fraudulent, though he admits it may have been unintentional:  after years of embracing the lie, Williams's advanced age may have transformed the lie into truth without his consent, making him both culpable and innocent. This theory, not to mention a rumination on the nature of truth when its keepers are all gone, would have made for an interesting tangent had Serrano followed it. Instead, he spends more than enough of the book's 200 pages on the history of Civil War reunions--which are interesting in themselves but hardly important here--and the procedures of veteran's-group meetings, differing opinions on the Confederate flag, and the final years of both Woolson and Williams, which are heavy with descriptions of their bodies abandoning them to dementia and immobility. Important topics and difficult questions are ignored for day-by-day descriptions of two incredibly old men--two figures of immense historical importance--slipping towards death.

Regardless of how we see the Civil War today, or how we handle the moral quandaries that come with commemorating men while at the same time being appalled by the cause for which they fought, these were two men who lived long, humble, and productive lives. Accepting that Williams was a veteran in the same vein as Woolson, they deserved to have their achievements celebrated, if not for the sake of preserving their glory as soldiers, then at least to promote their civility and humility as men--as citizens, neighbors, and fathers. And taking as fact what the evidence seems to suggest, that Williams' claim was false, doesn't necessarily mean he deserves to be maligned in print as a sort of contrast against Woolson--the pretend veteran against the real one, the dishonorable man against the honorable one. After all, it's Serrano himself who suggests that Williams may have been little more than an old man grabbing onto a fantasy he thought was true. It seems almost perverse to maintain both storylines in the same book, framing a man as both a willing fraud and a misguided centenarian, and had Serrano explored those ideas instead of rushing past them in search of the next long diversion, he may have found something worth filling his pages.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Tangents ("One Summer" by Bill Bryson)

For all the history contained within his books--the history of science, of language, of domestic life, of nations, of "nearly everything"--Bill Bryson's writing is grounded in the modern world. Read any other work of biography or historical nonfiction, especially concerning specific events, and you'll find the authors rehashing those events (and introducing the people involved) according to an exhausted formula:  begin with the event itself, capped off with a sentence or two about how this seemingly innocent time will change history; go back and start at the beginning of the story, when one or more of the principal players was born; trace the lives of those involved, making special note of disparities in their upbringings or experiences, as though they mean something more than what they really do; and treat the climactic moments as though it were the closing moments of a thriller, with sparse prose and short, matter-of-fact sentences. Along the way, the writer must stop for small sidetracks into historical context that add quite a lot to our understanding of the events themselves--social unrest, race relations, a changing social structure or shifting political ideologies--but often take away from the topic at hand and add little to the author's credibility.

In Bryson's books, however, those sidetracks are the story. In fact, where other writers see history as linear, destined to be written about as a series of events forming the inevitable straight line from Point A to Point B, Bryson sees history as a chaotic web of activity that, taken together, become a map of parallels, coincidences, contrasts, and strange incidents...what we might call actual history. (In other words, Bryson sees history as a Jackson Pollock masterpiece, whereas other authors see history as a paint-by-numbers still life; the importance is in the patterns and intersections, of which there are many, rather than the cleanliness of lines and isolation of color.) In a world where writing about history involves whitewashing out 95% of the information and 100% of the ethical ambiguity and nuance--the "textbook style" of writing--Bryson takes our past and its people for what they are, because it's that chaotic web that makes our collective human experiences worth studying.

One Summer is the story of four months in American history--a very narrow time frame for someone who has previously written about the entire scope of man's scientific inquiry. However, these four months--at least according to Bryson--are worthy of study, if for no other reason than their effects on the world in which we live today. Contained within that June-to-September span are monumental jumps in human progress, such as the invention of television by Philo Farnsworth and Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic Ocean. There is important social change--the beginning of Prohibition's end, for one, as well as a meeting of the rich and powerful that will lay the groundwork for the Stock Market Crash and Great Depression two years later. There is Babe Ruth making a surprise comeback, iron-bodied Jack Dempsey transforming the sport of boxing into a national obsession, and a murder trail that enamors an entire population with its scandal. And there are the figures both famous and infamous, many of them now forgotten, who shaped our entire world--sometimes intentionally, often accidentally--and whose flawless work fails to mirror the personal legacies they left behind.

Bryson's pages are populated by men and women who led fascinating lives and held powerful positions--Lindbergh, Ruth, Dempsey, Calvin Coolidge, Al Capone, Herbert Hoover, Lou Gehrig, and so on--but lived lives that were strange, controversial, and tragic, often all at the same time. Their stories are the heart of Bryson's book because, as Bryson very well knows, history is the story of individuals. In any other book we'd be asked by the author, in classic textbook-style fashion, to wonder if there ever could be another time and place when this sort of thing could have ever happen; in contrast, Bryson writes as though this seemingly random assemblage of stories is all that history truly is, and nothing more. And he does this because that's what history actually is, like a single streak of paint on a canvass:  alone it means very little, but taken as one stroke among hundreds and suddenly it's a portrait of something specific, something more than just its parts.

But we're forced to wonder, as we close the book--and what a bittersweet moment that is, to close the covers on a book by Bill Bryson--if Bryson's choice of these four months could be replicated with the same ease and outcome. Could there be another four months--not necessarily summer months, not necessarily American or from the previous century--that would reveal themselves to be just as relevant and engaging? The answer must be, undoubtedly, yes. And at the heart of Bryson's book is an awareness that, regardless of what subject or location or time period he could've chosen to write about, there would've been another 500-plus pages of material. Human history is rich and bottomless, and to only skim the surface of those waters--so sweet, so bloody--is to do a disservice to those individuals who stand in the past as forces of change. They do not stand as heroes or villains, but rather as gray figures deserving of our attention and our study but not our blind worship or scorn. After all, to know them is to know our history, our world, and ourselves, from one paint streak to the next.