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Review: A Brief History of Earth by Andrew Knoll

 Andrew Knoll tells the story of Earth, its formation, its changes over time, and especially, the story of the interaction of life and geology over that time.  Few if any are more steeped in that story or have contributed more to unravelling it.  The early Earth was not much like Earth today and we could not have lived on it.  Once the crust cooled enough to solidify and for water to condense and form oceans, there were oceans and probably relatively few and small bits of land.  There was no oxygen, so nothing for us to breathe.  A steady stream of potent UV radiation would have made it impossible for land plants and animals of today to live even if there had been oxygen. Nonetheless, the first signs of life appear in the oldest rocks only about a billion years after the planet formed.    How these were found and identified is one of the great detective stories of natural science, and it is told well here.   The subsequent evolution of cyanobacteria is one of the great watersheds in

Review: Dune by Frank Herbert

I just reread Dune, after a half century or more.  Naturally I didn’t remember much, though a few items like the gom jabbar test had stuck.  Herbert created an interestingly different world in Arrakis, the desert planet that was the only source of the crucial spice that conferred both long life and certain psychic powers. Our aristocratic hero, Paul Atreides, is plunged into a world of conspiracy and assassination from the start.   I, as an ancient, probably feel significantly more cognitive dissonance about a world where people still fight with swords and knives despite the fact that interstellar travel has been mastered.   Their quaint efforts at breeding better humans also have a comically antediluvian quality. Villains are caricatures of villainy and the mentats, supposed deep thinkers, are more than a bit slow on the uptake. So far as I can tell, the native desert dwellers of Arrakis, the Fremen, are loosely based on Bedouin desert nomads of our own planet.   They have a som

I grow old, I grow old, my DNA got rolled.

There is an unregulated toxic gas in our atmosphere, and it is slowly killing us all.  Its effects are similar to ionizing radiation, through the same chemical pathways, and it attacks all the key components of our cells - lipid membranes, proteins, and DNA.  No feasible methods are known for cleaning our air of it and still providing us with breathable air. That gas is oxygen, and it constitutes roughly 21% of our atmosphere.  The catch, of course, is that we can't live without it and a whole lot of it.  Its toxicity was first revealed in its effects on underwater divers breathing pressurized air.  Prolonged breathing of concentrated oxygen produces unconsciousness and  inflammation and destruction of the lungs.  We do much better with lower concentrations, but there is no safe level.  Many believe that it is the principal mechanism of human and cellular aging.  How does it do its damage?   Respiration, using oxygen to extract energy from carbon compounds, is how we generate most

Review: Slan by A E van Vogt

Slan might be the first science fiction book that I ever checked out of a library – at any rate, it’s the first one I remember checking out.  Supermen are one of van Vogt’s favorite themes and Slan might have been is first.  It’s my latest read in the classic SF jag I’ve been on lately.  I found the intervening decades had wiped out all knowledge of the characters and plot and the only imagery I retained was the hero’s ability to use his super strong muscles to climb buildings by clinging to the tiny chinks between bricks. Slan opens on a scene in a world where the Slan are fiercely and murderously persecuted by the majority humans, and a mother and her nine-year-old son have been detected by Department of Security who are closing in.   Non stop action continues for several chapters with catastrophe and narrow escapes abounding. The Slan have a number of superpowers and are accused of monstrous crimes.   Given the late 1940’s date, parallels to the Holocaust are inevitable. Van

Don't know much about Ge-ol-o-gy.

 It is a curious fact that evolution on Earth seems to have been paced and constrained by Geological tectonics.  The bilaterians which constitute large scale animal life on Earth could not have arisen without copious oxygen in the atmosphere, which, in turn, took some extraordinary geological events - especially the Sturtian and Varanger snowball Earth episodes. One of many curious and fascinating ideas to be found in  Oxygen: The molecule that made the world (Popular Science)  Kindle Edition by  Nick Lane     (Author)  

Book Review: The Stars Like Dust by Isaac Asimov

  Not too long after I started this book I realized that I had read it before, but so long ago that I couldn’t remember a single character or plot point – except for the finale.   So it was pretty much new to me.   I thought that it was a lot better book than Foundation. There was a complex plot, a certain amount of suspense, and even some science about stars and the galaxy.   It was published 71 years ago, so the novel technology introduced is mostly either overcome by time or just magic.    It’s not possible to write interstellar fiction without a hefty dose of magic, but Asimov confines his wishful thinking to fairly modest dimensions. Logical coherence is not big priority in either plot or background.   Humankind has figured out how to suppress nuclear weapons with some kind of force field but has not managed to clean up the radioactive debris from a nuclear war a thousand years ago that still dominates continents. Society has regressed to feudal systems of government, probab