Sunday, December 9, 2018

1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

Summary (Amazon):
In this groundbreaking work of science, history, and archaeology, Charles C. Mann radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492.

Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized breeding process that it has been called man’s first feat of genetic engineering. Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Challenging and surprising, this a transformative new look at a rich and fascinating world we only thought we knew.


New York Times: '1491' Vanished Americans

Kirkus Review:

The Guardian:

Washington Post:


Author's Website

Author's Article in The Atlantic:

Series on Vimeo based on the book:;
Free overview:

Penguin Random House's Reading Guide (2nd Edition):

Discussion Questions: (Please check back)


Saturday, November 3, 2018

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Summary (amended from Amazon's description):
Questions such as "What is the nature of space and time? How do we fit within the universe? How does the universe fit within us?" are discussed in this little but powerful book, which was on the New York Times booklist for over a year. Tyson brings the universe down to Earth succinctly and clearly, with sparkling wit, in tasty chapters consumable anytime and will reveal answers from the Big Bang to black holes, from quarks to quantum mechanics, and from the search for planets to the search for life in the universe.
Quotes from the book: 
"We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe, atomically."
"The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you."
Citizen Science Project: Search for Gravitational Waves with your computer: Einstein@Home:
Neil deGrasse Tyson's website


10 Scientific Laws and Theories You Really Should Know: 

Discussion Questions: (John will be leading our discussion with the following questions)

1. What is your understanding and experience with astronomy?
2. What are some concepts and observations that surprised you in this book?
3. Discuss Einstein contributions to our understanding of the relationship between energy and matter and also his theory of general relativity (GR).
4. Why and how are we made of stardust? How is this connected to the formation of the universe?
5. What are dark matter and dark energy? Since neither have been directly observed why are both considered necessary to explain the physical universe?
6. Briefly, how was it thought that the universe began? Discuss the most basic building block particles and energies that comprise and hold together matter.
7. What is “Cosmic Microwave Background” (CMB) “? How does it relate to the beginning of the universe and how was it discovered?

8.  Tyson notes that after enough time all current visibly galaxies will be too far to be observed. Discuss the implications of this idea and the possibility that events may be already unobservable.


Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Tip of the Iceberg by Mark Adams

Summary ( Amazon):
"In 1899, railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman organized a most unusual summer voyage to the wilds of Alaska: He converted a steamship into a luxury "floating university," populated by some of America's best and brightest scientists and writers, including the anti-capitalist eco-prophet John Muir. Those aboard encountered a land of immeasurable beauty and impending environmental calamity. More than a hundred years later, Alaska is still America's most sublime wilderness, both the lure that draws one million tourists annually on Inside Passage cruises and as a natural resources larder waiting to be raided. As ever, it remains a magnet for weirdos and dreamers.

Armed with Dramamine and an industrial-strength mosquito net, Mark Adams sets out to retrace the 1899 expedition. Traveling town to town by water, Adams ventures three thousand miles north through Wrangell, Juneau, and Glacier Bay, then continues west into the colder and stranger regions of the Aleutians and the Arctic Circle. Along the way, he encounters dozens of unusual characters (and a couple of very hungry bears) and investigates how lessons learned in 1899 might relate to Alaska's current struggles in adapting to the pressures of a changing climate and world."

Kirkus Reviews:

Publisher Weekly:

(E.H. Harriman - Wikipedia)

PBS: "Harriman Expedition Retraced"
and movie by Bullfrog Films:

Powell Books:

Penguin Random House:


"A pair of northeast looking photographs, both taken from the same location on the west shoreline of Muir Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska showing the changes that have occurred to Muir Glacier during the 113 years between September 2, 1892 and August 11, 2005. The 1892 photograph shows the more than 100-meter (328-feet) high, more than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) wide tidewater terminus of the glacier with a face capped by angular séracs. Some icebergs, evidence of recent calving, can be seen floating in Muir Inlet. The mountain located right-of-center is Mount Wright. Mount Case is in the background. Note the absence of vegetation. (H. F. Reid photograph, muir1892_417, courtesy of National Snow and Ice Data Center). In the 2005 photograph, Muir Glacier is no longer visible, as it has retreated more than 50 kilometers (31 miles).  During the interval between photographs, Muir Glacier ceased to have a tidewater terminus. Note the lack of floating ice and the abundant vegetation on many slopes throughout the photograph. (USGS Photograph by Bruce F. Molnia)."

Author's website

Kim Heacox, "one of Alaska's best know writers":

Discussion Questions: (John and Heidi will be leading the discussion.)

1.     What is your experience with and knowledge about Alaska?
2.     Discuss the reasons that Harriman wanted to mount the expedition to Alaska in 1899. How did the invited participants who joined him reflect those reasons?
3.     John Muir may be seen as a key contributor to this adventure. In what ways did he impact the trip? Discuss some of the wonderful stories about Muir in this book.
4.     One of the author’s goals was to recreate the Harriman journey. To what extent did he accomplish this? What were some of the changes since Harriman, and also things that did not change?
5.     John Muir even back in the late 1800s was observing glacier retreat in Alaska and found even some of the maps he was using showed that the glacial coastline had changed since the maps had been drawn 150 years before.  How did this book affect your view of climate change and the relative roles of human impact versus nature?
6.     How has resources extraction versus nature preservation shaped Alaska as we know it today, for example, gold mining, oil extraction, fishing, lumbering, trapping, national park/forest creation, etc.
7.     How did the occupation by Europeans and Americans affect the native populations and their lifestyles? How has it changed even today compared to 100 years ago?

8.     How did this book change or affect how you have experienced or perceived Alaska?