nonfiction

but not a drop to drink

The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Childs (Back Bay Books, 2000) 

The first time I went to the Grand Canyon I disobeyed all the warning signs.

If you've ever hiked in the Grand Canyon, you know that not very far down whatever trail you choose, you will pass a sign telling you not to attempt to hike all the way to the bottom and back up in a single day. Don't do it. You won't make it. You will perish. Certain doom. The words are accompanied by delightful little illustrations of a swooning fool moments from dying of dehydration or exposure.

the desert cities

House of Rain by Craig Childs (Back Bay Books, 2006) 

A few years ago my sister Alia and I took a road trip to visit some archaeological sites in the southwestern United States. I used to be a geologist and she's an archaeologist (although her area of expertise is considerably more Roman and more volcanic), so driving around the desert looking at ruins sounded like a good time to us. We went to Mesa Verde to tour the cliff houses (with—I kid you not—the most ill-informed volunteer ranger in the entire National Park Service), to Hovenweep to wander around among the towers, to Chaco Canyon to cling desperately to the barren rock with our fingernails while a windstorm tried to blow us away. Look, it was a really powerful windstorm. We couldn't even sit outside at our campsite because the wind kept blowing our beer bottles over, and that was beer we had backtracked twenty miles to buy at a lonely gas station on US 550.

the jungle devours

The Lost City of Z by David Grann (Doubleday, 2009) Before I talk about this book, I have to talk about the maggots.

I read nonfiction books about interesting things that strike my fancy because I like learning everything I can about our world, and I write about them here because I figure there's a chance somebody else might want to learn those interesting things too. Knowledge is a good thing! There is no bliss in ignorance; there is only ignorance.

However.

i watched a lot of unsolved mysteries as a child

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar (Chronicle Books, 2013)

In February 1959, nine hikers died in the Ural Mountains. Seven men and two women, all except one were university students, and all were young, fit, experienced and well-prepared mountaineers. There is a bit of a mystery surrounding their deaths, the sort of thing that shows up from time to time in creepypasta forums or conspiracy theories, but the mystery isn't about whathappened to them. The what is simple: injuries and cold killed them. It took a while for the search teams to find them, but all nine bodies were eventually recovered and identified, the causes of death determined. Death by exposure and hypothermia in the Ural Mountains in winter is commonplace, not mysterious, but the story has endured.

two books about one infamous failure

A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke by James Horn (Basic Books, 2010) Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony by Lee Miller (Penguin, 2000)

The story of what happened to the colony of Roanoke is one of those odd enduring myths in American history. Roanoke certainly wasn't the first or the last colony in the Americas to fail miserably. (Both the French Huguenots and the Spanish Jesuits beat the English "planters" in the "Establish A Colony, Everybody Dies" game by more than a decade.) Roanoke stands out in American lore because its 115 people supposedly vanished without a trace (if by "without a trace" we mean "actually there were all kinds of traces, some of them literally carved into trees"). That mystery allows for all kinds of interpretations, ranging from the mundane to the (hilariously) supernatural, often with a focus on the colony itself rather than the context in which it failed. Understandable, from a narrative perspective, but not terribly robust from a historical perspective.

a book, a universe, several potential band names, and all the zeros

10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 is a very large number. An observation from the Obvious Things Are Obvious Department, but it's an interesting one to think about, if you're the sort of person who finds massively incomprehensible things interesting to think about. (You should be.) That's 10^100, a 1 followed by 100 zeros, a number so many times bigger than our usual yardsticks for very large numbers that we have a hard time conceptualizing how big it is:

two protons walk into a black hole

I suspect most of us who have given it any thought have a favorite method of destroying the world. My favorite is a gamma-ray burst, because it's a death ray from outer space. Death ray from outer space! What's not to love? It's so unlikely it might as well be impossible, but it's so gloriously, stupendously inescapable and cosmic, the statistics don't concern me. I don't really want a death ray from outer space to obliterate the Earth's ozone layer and inundate every living thing on the planet with lethal radiation while turning the sky brown and plummeting the planet into a catastrophic ice age, but I love thinking about what a vast and unpredictable place the universe is, and how vulnerable we are as fleshy little blobs living here. If you do have a favorite method of destroying the world, or would like to acquire one for a conversational topic at cocktail parties, this book might be relevant to your interests:

Death from the Skies! The Science Behind the End of the World by Philip Plait

can't get there from here

The Mapmakers by John Noble Wilford, Vintage, first published in 1981, revised and expanded in 2001. I love maps. I don't think anybody can study geology and not come away with at least a healthy appreciation for maps. One of the very first things you learn in an intro geology course is how to read a map, and if you stick with it, a couple years later you'll learn how to create maps, an experience that involves a lot of traipsing about in an absurdly hot desert with a Brunton compass, a homemade duct-tape-and-plexiglass clipboard, a pocket full of colored pencils, and an expression of extreme befuddlement that transforms into alarm when you realize that in your eagerness to measure the strike and dip of that lovely sandstone outcrop you've come just six inches away from stepping on a rattlesnake.

I didn't keep drawing maps in my grad school research, but I did spend a lot of time with the data collected by nineteenth century British surveyors as part of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. Most of my field work involved hunting through even hotter deserts (full of even more poisonous snakes) for the old survey monuments atop hills and towers and temples, always the highest point for miles around. I didn't know when I started grad school that I was signing up to haul GPS equipment up hundreds of steps to a temple outside Rajkot beneath a full moon in the middle of the night, because that's the most sensible time to work outside in western India in the summer, searching for a pinpoint survey marker on a twelve-inch-square stone that might have been carried away to build somebody's house a hundred and fifty years ago. (Advice to students considering a graduate education in geophysics: Ask first if the field work involves carrying car batteries up mountains.) I very much doubt the men who surveyed India would have suspected their careful angles would be useful long after their deaths, not for the purpose of measuring the land, but because the continent itself was changing shape beneath them.

I love maps. I love how they're made, I love how beautiful they are, I love what they show us, I love knowing how to make them myself, and I do not trust anybody who refuses to learn how to read one. The first thing I do when I stop by a visitor center at a National Park is find the geologic map of the region to discover what's beneath my feet. I think it's safe to say I am exactly the target audience for this book.

The Mapmakers is a very thorough history of mapmaking, starting with the oldest known maps and carrying all the way through to cosmological maps of the universe, including detail about the instruments and techniques, projections and navigation systems, and, most of all, the lives of the surprisingly small number of explorers, surveyors, families, and scientists who were, up until the twentieth century, responsible for a very large number of the world's maps.

The revision and expansion twenty years after the initial publication date was necessary. The science and art of mapmaking has undergone a massive revolution in the last few decades, with the rapid development of orbital imaging and navigation technology. It's such a thorough change in how maps are made and produced it's almost an entirely different science now, one that's dependent on computing and satellite technology rather than on-the-ground exploration. The results are more complicated and contain far more information than the even the most detailed two-dimensional map can handle, but the philosophy behind them remains the same: we will always want to know where we are and what's around us.

I found the entire book interesting, but one chapter that really struck me was about the symbolic, mythological maps popular in the early Middle Ages. These were maps created for the purpose of telling a story--a story that reinforced Christian dogma, usually--and were never meant to be an accurate representation of the world. It wasn't that the mapmakers lacked the knowledge to create a true-to-life representation of the world (although they often did; they didn't travel much), but that it was never the conceptual goal of such maps to show rivers and mountains or borders, or to tell anybody how to get from here to there. They were maps intended to tell stories about morality and sin, about monsters and myths. It is so fascinating to me that the very medium we use today to analyze the deep history of a mountain range or to find the directions to the nearest restaurant with a lunch buffet is the same medium popes and bishops used in the twelfth century to stir up fear among the faithful regarding the impending arrival of the armies of Satan.

Maps are such a fundamental part of how we see the world, it's hard to imagine not having that perspective. When astronaut John Glenn was orbiting the Earth in 1962, he remarked that it looked just like a map. He was seeing the Earth as it is, from a vantage few would ever have a chance to experience, and it looked like a map. That's how ingrained the imagery of maps is in our consciousness, and the history of how this one tool has evolved and changed over millennia is an intriguing cross-section of human history even if you aren't a map-lover. (But why wouldn't you be? What's wrong with you?)

(Note of somewhat unrelated interest: John Noble Wilford is the same author who wrote, among many other things, The New York Times's report of the first Moon landing in 1969, a lovely article that is well worth reading.)

on mismatched socks, nonexistent cats, and the nature of reality

The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn by Louisa Gilder (Vintage Books, 2008) Quantum entanglement is weird. Of all the weird aspects of quantum mechanics, it's the weirdest. The fact that what you do to one particle can affect another particle with no physical interaction between them--"spooky action at a distance," in Einstein's words--is a fact of nature, but just because something is proven by every experiment we throw at it doesn't mean we have any idea why.

a book review that contains no jokes whatsoever in reference to magnets, and how they work

In the summer of 1269, the southern Italian city of Lucera was under siege, and in the army outside the city walls a man was writing a letter. Decades earlier, in the first half of the thirteenth century, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II had expelled approximately 20,000 Muslim inhabitants from Sicily in an attempt to quell religious unrest on the island. The uprooted Muslim communities resettled in southern mainland Italy, and many of them ended up in Lucera. After the forced resettlement, Frederick II made what he probably believed was a very fair deal with his displaced subjects: they were permitted to practice their religion in exchange for taxes, military service, and support against the his enemies.