Five Favorite Books .. Capturing the Passion of Creation and Discovery

One of the most common and effective of the “classic plots” for a novel is the quest.  Many epic tales are based on it – Frodo and the Ring, Indiana Jones and the Ark, Odysseus and his attempt to get home.  But the passion to create and to discover in the real world can be just as compelling, if they are captured well.  I’m always looking for books that pull it off, and here are five that I particularly enjoyed.

Ship of Gold – in 1857, the SS Central America was wrecked off the Carolina shore on its way back from the California gold fields, with hundreds of people and tons of gold aboard.  The exact location of the wreck was a mystery – a puzzle that Tommy Thompson was determined to solve.  He is an entrepreneur and explorer and inventor who spent 10 years searching for the wreck and preparing for the salvaging operation.  Along the way, he invented a whole range of new equipment and techniques for doing deep-water recovery – the ship was 8000 feet below the surface, distantly out of the reach of traditional salvaging methods.

Thompson throws himself into the project, leading a team of oddball characters and managing investors and lawyers .. while fending off competitors who are watching his every move.  He built a six ton remote controlled underwater vehicle called Nemo, with video cameras and robotic arms.  How he ultimately succeeded in recovering a few hundred million dollars worth of gold from the wreck is a triumphant story of achieving an extraordinarily difficult mission against all odds.

A Place of My Own: The Architecture of DaydreamsMichael Pollan is probably best known for his book “Omnivore’s Dilemma” (which is very good!).  But I am a fan of his less celebrated (and quirky) book describing in immense detail how he came to build a writer’s cabin on his property.  You may have been involved in a construction project of your own at some point, but I’m going to guess that you didn’t approach it in quite the way that Pollan did.  He’s .. well, he’s an obsessive sort of person, and fiercely bookish.  And yet he decided that he would build this house himself, starting from absolutely zero knowledge of architecture or construction.

Work is how we situate ourselves in the world, and like the work of many people nowadays, mine put me in a relationship to the world that often seemed abstract, glancing, secondhand. . . . Nor did what I do seem to add much, if anything, to the stock of reality, and though this might be a dated or romantic notion in an age of information, it seemed to me this was something real work should do.

The two and a half year saga of Pollan and a curmudgeonly builder putting together what is essentially an oversized garden shed is a glorious and beautifully written ode to manual labor mixed with over-thinking everything.  To get things rolling, he turns to the writings of … Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman architect from the first century BC.  And to Chinese writings about the principles of feng shui (he tries running downhill to feel the flow of the land and identify a good site for the building).  And to poets, architects, philosophers .. the list goes on and on.  You get the pleasure of joining Pollan on an absurdly wide ranging set of digressions on the history of architecture, how to design a truss, and the often uneasy relationship between architects and builders.  And at the end, you feel like you have traveled with him on a zealot’s quest to create a perfect organic writing space.

The Soul of the New Machine – as an engineer, I love the way that Tracy Kidder captured the excitement and the exhaustion of creating a new piece of complex technology.  He vividly conveys the marathon sessions of caffeine-fueled intensity, the team driving itself to the edge as it creates and refines a tremendously complex design.  It is one of the truest portrayals I’ve read of what it is like to be swept up in that kind of experience.  And it’s particularly noteworthy because Kidder is not technical at all – he has no real understanding of the work that the team was doing, yet managed to capture the spirit of it very accurately.

This particular machine was built by Data General, in 1981, at the dawning of the age of the mini-computer.  It ended up having little impact on the evolution of computer technology, because DEC’s VAX was and remained dominant.  But that makes the story even more authentic to me, in some ways – you have to believe that what you are doing is incredibly exciting and important.  It’s magical to be swept up in that collective creative act, regardless of the verdict that history ultimately renders on the outcome.

How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming – those of us in my generation grew up in a nine planet solar system, with lonely Pluto orbiting way out in the frigid fringes of the solar system, looping in its eccentric orbit off kilter from everyone else.  It was jarring to hear that the astronomers downgraded the poor little wanderer to being a mere “planetoid” – My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas lost its punch line (maybe now she is serving us Naan, to reflect our globally connected community …).  What happened?

This book answers that question, and it also lets you join Mike Brown, a passionate explorer of the cosmos.  He introduces us to his life as an astronomer and his painstaking exploration of the pocket of space around the sun that we call our solar system.  You will learn about the Kuiper Belt and its littering of frozen asteroids, you’ll watch astronomers move from massive cameras exposing film all through the night to computers that can capture images hundreds of times more quickly and search for cosmic wanderers algorithmically.  It’s a great ride.

Double Helix – I almost didn’t include this book because it is so well known, but it’s such an exciting read, and represented such a transformation in our understanding of genetics, that I couldn’t leave it out.  If you haven’t read it yet, it tells the story of how James Watson and Francis Crick figured out the structure of DNA, the genetic blueprint for human beings (and every other organism on earth, aside from some viruses).  It’s literally the magic key to life on Earth.

The book shows the human drama of discovery, complete with a race to figure out the answer before other teams could “crack the code” first.  And the result is such a beautiful answer – the double helix structure is elegant and resilient.

This is what drew me to science and research as a child – banging your head against hard problems that matter, suddenly having the insight, and then being able to understand how the world works and came to be in a new and exciting way.  It’s what science ought to feel like!

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