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Best Books of 2021 – Chapter 1


Happy New Year!  In now what is its ninth annual edition, I thought I would begin the New Year by posting around New Year’s Day my favorite books that I read from the prior year.

My reading year began in earnest after all the New Year’s Day college football games were over and during the year, I read a total of 46 books, 28 fiction and 18 non-fiction, not more than my record number of 58 in 2017, but still a respectable number.

And for the fourth year in a row, my first book to read that just so happened to also make my “Best of” list was one of the books given to me by my daughter and son-in-law for Christmas: The Last Stargazers by Emily Leveque and published in 2020.

For this duo, my son-in-law, in particular, has done a great job of selecting for me as gifts, excellent scientific books not only related to his field of astronomy, but also to him on a personal level.

The first of these books was one about the building of the Palomar telescope, one of the telescopes that my son-in-law used to observe during his post-doc years at Cal Tech.

The second of these was by a colleague of his at Cal Tech who ultimately shot done the planetary status of Pluto.

So, when I opened up this book, I knew I would be in for another interesting scientific narrative.  Then turning to the author page on the dust cover, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this book was authored by another one of my son-in-law’s colleagues, both of whom are now on faculty at the University of Washington (Cool I thought to myself, another astronomy book with a personal connection, little did I know).

In writing this book, Emily interviewed over 100 professional astronomers to tell the story of what historically astronomy has been, what it is today, and what it likely will be in the future.  Throughout the narrative, she interweaves her story of some of the difficulties she encountered along the way—not the least of which was just being a female in a male-dominated field.  It gave me interesting insight into what some of the weather and technical challenges my own son-in-law may have endured as well, advancing in a field I literally knew nothing about prior to learning things from my son-in-law.

Emily includes a statistic in her book that “of the 7.5 billion people on the planet, fewer than 50,000 are professional astronomers.”  That is less than 0.0007%.  But, even with such a small number, another point she brings out is there are far fewer observatories where these limited numbers of scientists can observe.  It is all about telescope-time scheduling which I first learned from a talk my son-in-law gave last year and that I listened to a recording of his presentation.

When she covered some of the things that can go wrong, I was pleasantly surprised to see an interview with my son-in-law about a tragedy that befell him while still a graduate student, a devastating story I was sadly familiar with from his firsthand explanation when it happened the year before he became my son-in-law.

But tragedies aside, I was even more pleased to read in her last chapter about the future of astronomy and the LSST project—Large Synoptic Survey Telescope—being built in Chile (click here for a video overview).  This is a project my son-in-law is currently working on which will offer incredible amounts of new astronomical data and discoveries (who is also interviewed in the video).

While this book made my “Best of” list—me being a fellow scientist—it might not be for everyone, especially those uninterested in science.  But, for me, another great astronomy book with a personal connection to my son-in-law!  Can’t wait to see what might be next.

I have written before about how I love Time Travel books and even explored along that same vein what my own life could had been like had I chose differently in what turned out to be the most critical and impactful decision in my life.  So, when I read the short synopsis about Matt Haig’s newest release, The Midnight Library, I added it to my Amazon wish list immediately.

I have not read any of his books before, but the story sounded too intriguing to pass up.  Early on, Nora—of the same great heroine name as the last time travel book I loved—on the verge of death, finds herself in a library at midnight filled with millions of books of alternative lives for her.  With the aid of a very helpful librarian, she is allowed to pick out a book based on making a different past decision and live that life from that point forward, at least until she decides that alternate life is not for her whereupon she finds herself back in the library at exactly midnight to select a different alternate life to live.  A little akin to Ground Hog Day with Bill Murray, only every life is vastly different.

As she “tries on” many different lives, one aspect that is a common challenge is that since she had not lived that life in real life, she doesn’t know any history about herself.  Which means she doesn’t know who any of her friends are, if she is married, or what profession she happens to be in, which all make for quite humorous anecdotes.  But as she goes along in the multitude of lives, she realizes as the kindly librarian often reminded her, that many seemingly small decisions or actions can have huge repercussions on her close friends or the ones she loves.  Now picture Bill Murray meets Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, only with multiple alternate stories, not just one.

Hopefully my brief description of this book has fascinated you enough to read it.  I cannot tell you more without giving away too much of the fun story.  Whether or not you are a fan of time travel books, if you enjoyed that classic movie with Jimmy Stewart, you will love this book as well!

     To be Continued…

4 thoughts on “Best Books of 2021 – Chapter 1 Leave a comment

  1. You have intrigued me with “The Midnight Library.” Your personal connection to “The Last Star Gazers” is pretty cool. The book is probably too esoteric for me. And even though it may not be technically correct, I still like to think of Pluto as a planet. That’s what I learned in grade school. 🙂 However, that said, advancements in science are exciting, and I do look forward to learning more. Happy New Year, David!

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