Tag Archive: Real Science


MAND labs b

Review by C.J. Bunce

RadioShack was founded 100 years ago, and for most of those decades it has been the go-to supplier for anyone interested in electronics.  Not just for professionals, but it’s where students went to make things if they had even a remote interest in electronics.  The new incarnation of RadioShack is little different, less storefronts but an endless online supply of materials and ideas that what was once the exclusive purview of kids in the A/V Club.  It is now something any young person can–and should–become proficient in.  I knew as soon as I saw the Mand Labs kits on the new RadioShack website that this kind of product can and should be part of the future of STEM learning–whether at home or in schools.  So I reviewed the Mand Labs STEM Electronics Kit (KIT-1) to see if it’s as good as it looks. 

It is. 

Not only does the kit have everything you need–all the technological components to create more than 60 educational and fun projects–the even bigger value is the set of two textbook/workbooks, which provide all the theory, math, history, and core science so students understand the how and why.  With the books, digital videos, and online resources that come with the kit, even a young grade schooler can learn the fundamentals of electricity, physics, computer science, robotics, and electrical engineering.  And for adults, say you’re a cosplayer and you want to wire a helmet or chest box with lights and sound, or maybe you want to understand better why you can’t get your electronic fan or doorbell to work, or always wondered how the electric systems of your automobiles work, this kit will help you get started.

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Goodall portrait

Along with plenty of science fiction reviewed here at borg, we’ve covered “science fact” and making the world a better place through natural science and ecology and we love to review new cookbooks that come along, especially if tied to something we’re interested in.  We also love superheroes, and it’s difficult to find a superhero that ranks higher on our list than Jane Goodall, known first and best for her study of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania–now 60-year study–and more recently as a protector and advocate for the planet.  Working with her Jane Goodall Institute she’s released a new environmentally friendly cookbook #EATMEATLESS: Good for Animals, The Earth & All We tried one of the recipes, and you can check out a few for yourself in the below preview of this new cookbook.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

If you’ve been watching Michael Apted’s ground-breaking Up Series from its first installments, you know each new chapter in the real-life time travel journey makes the viewer feel like he or she has also reached some kind of achievement with the arrival of the new episode.  But the series of documentaries is not for the faint-hearted, filled with gut-wrenching views into participants’ lives, participants who feel like family after watching them over 56 years since their first appearance.  So compelling and personal is Apted’s look at this select group of fourteen English boys and girls turned men and women, revisiting them every seven years of their lives since 1964, the documentary series is practically an interactive experience.  With Apted passing away since the UK premiere last year, and the U.S. arrival of the latest installment–the eagerly awaited 63 Up arriving on BritBox via Amazon Prime this weekend–the question is whether this ninth installment is the last.  Key members of the crew since 28 Up have expressed an interest in continuing the series in 2027, but until then expect this to be a bittersweet end for the series, which Roger Ebert called the noblest project in cinema history and among the ten best films ever made.

At last Apted addresses the thesis of the show to each participant, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” and asks whether they agree after decades participating in this unique social experiment.  Apted was a researcher when working on director Paul Almond’s Seven Up! in 1964.  Seven years later the well-known director of Gorillas in the Mist, The World is Not Enough, Coal Miner’s Daughter and Gorky Park, was just out of university, and at 22 he revisited the original Seven Up! project.  He would go on to direct the subsequent eight episodes over 56 years.  The idea was to get a glimpse of England in the future year 2000 when these kids, the future leaders of England, were only seven years old.  It is difficult to surpass the jolts and surprises of 42 Up, but 63 Up holds its own, although sadly viewers will say goodbye to one participant who has died, another is seriously ill, and another decided not to participate.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

You can’t fully appreciate science fiction without a grasp on natural science, one of the categories of “real science” we look at from time to time here at borg.  We’ve delved into dinosaurs, and trees, and yes, birds (oh, my!) and we’re back again today with a striking tie-in to a 2019 board game that has become even more popular thanks to the increase in game sales due to sheltering at home for the pandemic.  The game is Wingspan from Stonemaier Games, a celebration of birds where you are a bird enthusiast and your goal is to attract birds to your aviary.  The game is so popular it has prompted a market of custom deluxe scoreboards.  But it’s often difficult to play a board game outside–and this is about the natural world–so a new book from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the artists for the board game have come up with an outdoor version that doubles as a gorgeous interactive field guide, called Celebrating Birds. 

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Review by C.J. Bunce

The 21st century contest was whether The Current War or The New Mutants was going to be delayed longest before their inevitable release (The Current War for the Weinstein scandal and The New Mutants for the Disney-Fox merger and now the COVID-19 pandemic), and so The New Mutants wins–or loses–still with no release date.  At least The Current War–technically The Current War: Director’s Cut, was worth the wait.  Particularly if you put aside the inevitable choices in historical interpretations of the real-life historical figures and facts involved and instead marvel at the nicely realized cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung (Hotel Artemis), production design by Jan Roelfs (Gattaca, 47 Ronin, Ghost in the Shell), costumes by Michael Wilkinson (Justice League, Tron: Legacy, Watchmen), snappy writing and pacing thanks to Michael Mitnick, and a fantastic cast of familiar genre actors, adding The Current War to your streaming list is an easy choice.

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The Five cover

Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

I don’t know how old I was when I first heard of Jack the Ripper.  I do remember being quite young when the sensationalizing and romanticizing of the serial killer started to bother me.  “What’s wrong with you?”  I would growl at the TV, comics, Halloween costumes, and centuries-spanning obsession about the murderer.  Where was the attention on his victims, on the real women who lost their lives?  No one seemed to care—in 1888, or now.  They existed only to fuel the fascination surrounding the murderer.  I stumbled across Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper while doing unrelated research for my Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries series.  I knew immediately I had to get my hands on this book.  Here, at last, was someone else who felt exactly as I did and set about to rectify the situation.  The premise alone makes the book worthwhile, and Rubenhold’s research and writing makes it a must-read.

Rubenhold’s The Five is long overdue, and definitely a welcome addition to the field of Victorian social history.  It’s a tough but fascinating read, handled with an equal mix of sympathy and outrage.  What this book is not:  It’s not true crime.  It’s not a whodunit.  It makes no fruitless speculation about the identity of the murderer, and it does not linger over the salacious details of the crimes.  It is a gripping story of characters who are every bit as fascinating, vivid, and richly drawn as their notorious killer is imagined to be.  And it is a stunning social history that spans the mid-late Victorian era and the life and times of working class women.  Rubenhold unearths known, previously unknown, and totally ignored details from each woman’s life, and skillfully fills in the gaps with information drawn from other historical records—what life was like for workhouse inmates, laws that targeted and disproportionately disadvantaged working-class women, contemporary commentary from social reformers, and more.

In five sections, arranged chronologically by the dates of their deaths, Rubenhold examines the family backgrounds, childhoods, young adulthoods, and last years of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and the woman who called herself Mary Jane Kelly.  She takes readers on a journey across England, overseas to Scandinavia, from the tinworks of Birmingham to the barracks of Queen Victoria’s guard, to ambitious charity schools and factories and homes, the open road of ballad-sellers, the terrifying spectre of white slavery, and the sad backstreets of London’s poorest neighborhoods.  In telling the stories of these five individual women, Rubenhold also tells the story of all Victorian women, exploring the ruthless social rules that crippled poor women and condemned them to a downward spiral of poverty and violence.  Rubenhold corrects nearly a century and a half of misconceptions and assumptions about these five women (spoiler alert: they weren’t all prostitutes), and restores the truth of their real lives.

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The truth.  Truth is the only way forward.  Lies and misinformation can destroy any plan, even a good one.  Created by writer Daniel H. Wilson in collaboration with the Michael Crichton estate, The Andromeda Evolution arrived last year 50 years after The Andromeda Strain was first published, the book that launched Crichton’s fame as master of the technothriller.  The Andromeda Evolution has all the components of Crichton’s best works–the trademark structure of a team of unique experts colliding to prevent catastrophe, the integration of cutting edge science to both inform the reader and carry the plot forward, and the surprising juxtaposition of the improbable and the unimaginable.  The ripped-from-the-headlines timeliness was eerily creepy last year, and here in March 2020 with a real pandemic threatening the planet, it’s even more so.  It all begins with a disaster in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, complete with lies–government clashes and misinformation campaigns–and ends with a surprise also ripped from last year’s headlines.  The Andromeda Evolution is now available in paperback here at Amazon from HarperCollins.

The influences and now, unfortunately, familiarity for readers will harken back to many other fictional tales with virus or pandemic components in sci-fi, conjuring callbacks to Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor, Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage II, The Philadelphia Experiment, The Cloverfield Paradox, 2017’s Life, or Crichton’s own novels Sphere and Congo.  More recent fictional touchpoints for addressing virus crises include zombies as in Netflix’s Kingdom, and The Living Dead, both reviewed at borg this week, and even aliens: Who now doesn’t feel like Donald Sutherland–suspicious of everyone who walks by–in Invasion of the Body Snatchers simply visiting your local grocery store?  More fantasy accounts can be found all over the origin stories of superheroes, like the Hulk, Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Fantastic Four, Deadpool, and in DC’s Swamp Thing series, where the environment itself fights back.  Add these to attempts at more realistic stories, the modern, mainstream pandemic thriller, like Outbreak and Contagion.

But can we learn anything from science fiction to help us in the real world, right now?

Those watching the news, working in healthcare facilities, and sheltering at home can certainly find shared experiences as a starting point.  But there may be even more.  Like how not to handle crises.  How the human condition delivers all kinds of different personalities, some who help, some who contribute, and some who hinder.  Reading The Andromeda Evolution or revisiting any of the above books, movies, and TV shows may be something you’re not ready for yet.  If you are ready, they also may provide ideas.  Like anything we might be forgetting.  They also may illustrate that no one can say “we never could have planned for this” or “nobody ever figured this could happen.”  Those assertions may be said aloud, but science fiction proves them as falsehoods.  And if you have kids at home, maybe the superhero stories listed above could help explain how viruses work in real life.

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Feel like you’re late to the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing?  In addition to online and televised events we discussed yesterday here at borg, you have several other ways to look back at Apollo 11 this week as we approach the anniversary of the Moonshot this Saturday.

Last year’s Todd Miller documentary Apollo 11 is back in theaters for a limited engagement.  Check local listings or the film website here for participating theaters.  Also in select theaters is the new documentary Armstrong, narrated by Harrison Ford.  Both Apollo 11 and Armstrong are also available now on Vudu.  Based on James R. Hansen’s book, the movie First Man, although neither an uplifting, exciting, or celebratory film about Apollo 11 mission commander Neil Armstrong, it does illustrate the personal toll, the lives lost, and the downside of life as an astronaut (probably save this one to view without the kids).  On Netflix, you’ll find a different but fascinating angle in Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo.  National Geographic’s Apollo: Missions to the Moon, Apollo’s Moonshot, and Al Reinert’s For All Mankind can be rented or purchased on Vudu.  And The Lunar Rover: Apollo’s Final Challenge is available for viewing free right now on Vudu.  Most of these can also be viewed with Amazon Prime.

You can get any book these days overnighted to you from Amazon.  Just beware there are a lot of substandard books out there and many self-published without any actual insight into Apollo 11.  Many others are highly recommended.  Just after the Moonshot Apollo 11 command pilot Michael Collins wrote an autobiographical account, Carrying the Fire, available in a new edition.  Collins also recommends Jim Donovan’s Shoot for the MoonNo Dream is Too High provides lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin’s personal life lessons from Apollo 11 and his life.  The historical account American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race by Douglas Brinkley has been praised by critics and historians including Doris Kearns Goodwin.  BBC science correspondent and ex-NASA astronomer David Whitehouse wrote Apollo 11: The Inside Story.  Jay Barbree has written the most definitive account of mission commander Neil Armstrong in his Neil Armstrong: A Life in Flight.  And the most recent work on Apollo 11 is this year’s well-reviewed One Giant Leap by Charles Fishman.

Get the new stamps and pre-order your own first day covers from the U.S. Post Office here (the yellow dot indicates Tranquility Base, landing site of the Eagle).  And don’t forget the U.S. Mint still is selling its 50th anniversary commemorative coins.  See our discussion of them earlier this year here at borg.  Stay away from the original memorabilia unless you’re an expert–fakes are for sale all over the Internet this year, especially items like space-flown patches and astronaut autographs.

Looking for more?

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Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

In the small-but-crowded field of Victorian true crime, Paul Thomas Murphy′s 2016 release Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder presents a notable installment in the genre.  Covering a lesser-known crime that was the sensation of its day, Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane details the brutal murder of Jane Clouson, a sixteen-year-old London maid-of-all-work, and the legal fiasco that followed, including—but hardly limited to—the murder trial of suspect Edmund Pook.  Murphy begins his account like a thriller, a police procedural of a bygone era of evolving law enforcement and burgeoning forensics.  His heroes are the detectives, witnesses, and doctors who come forward to uncover the truth of Clouson’s attack—and the identity of her attacker.  Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane is available now in a paperback edition.

In his riveting step-by-step analysis of the investigation, Murphy paints a vivid picture of 1870s London—its law enforcement, its residents, and the neighborhoods torn apart by the culture clash of young Clouson’s murder.  This section of the book really shines, offering both an excellent overview of period forensic science and police procedure, as well as enticing tidbits like the cost of a photograph or the unexpectedly fascinating workings of a ironmonger’s shop from the era.

The second part of Murphy’s tale, leading readers through the labyrinth of the 19th century English justice system, loses a bit of momentum, although that’s as much the challenge of presenting the welter of material about the case (four separate steps to the murder trial and all the attendant solicitors, barristers, judges, and witnesses) as the challenge of making the mystifying Victorian trial process understandable.  That said, it’s unclear who the audience for the book is meant to be—American readers wholly unfamiliar with the byzantine and confusing steps of a Victorian murder trial; or English readers who will find the basics—if not the details (which have changed substantially in the intervening 145 years)—relatable.  Readers brand-new to the subject will likely find themselves lost and confused by references to the Treasury Department (which handled many public prosecutions until the 1980s) and similar trappings, and may struggle to stick with the book through the legal morass.  It is not a spoiler to note that Pook was acquitted of the murder, but the legal battles surrounding him were far from over.  Murphy offers up a cast of characters who, beyond mere professional adversaries, become almost mortal enemies as the many facets of the case churn on.

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It’s Arbor Day, so let’s revisit three books we’ve looked at previously at borg that remind us of the fragility and wonder of the magnificent tree.

If the Scots abandoned Scotland to nature, it would be the birch that would be the first tree to seize its chance, and a birch forest would walk the streets of Edinburgh.

Thomas Pakenham was referring to a gigantic pioneer birch tree in Rothiemarchus, Scotland, but he may have well been writing about the Ents, the grand, wise, old leafed characters of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth.  In his book Meetings with Remarkable Trees, Pakenham reproduces his real-life journey across continents meeting some of the oldest inhabitants of the planet, even if they never actually “walked” the Earth.  In beautiful photographs and stories, he introduces readers to the most noble of Earth’s elders, a chance to marvel in awe at their enormous height, or breadth, of their obvious beauty or strikingly twisted, meandering, slim, or expansive forms.  Pakenham, the 8th Earl of Longford, an Anglo-Irish writer, historian, and tree enthusiast, selected trees “mostly very large, and mainly very ancient, and all with a strong personality,” highlighting the unique qualities unique to each remarkable individual.  His folksy speech and storytelling is refreshingly regional, providing an herbivorous mirror to fellow Brit James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small.

To visit these trees, to step beneath their domes and vaults, is to pay homage at a mysterious shrine.  But tread lightly. Even these giants have delicate roots.  And be warned that this may be your farewell visit.  No one can say if this prodigious trunk will survive the next Atlantic storm–or outlive us all by centuries.

Thomas Pakenham’s photograph of the great Fredville oak, named “Majesty” at least as early as 1820 when it was sketched by artist Jacob Strutt.

And, indeed, even some of the trees pictured in Meetings with Remarkable Trees are no longer around, having succumbed to storm or man-made destruction.  Pakenham’s tome is something profoundly sacred or spiritual.  It’s peppered with historical references, literary allusions to specific trees, and including some very famous trees, whether a thousand years old or more than 200 feet tall.  It seems preposterous humans travel the globe to see manmade creations when we could be on pilgrimages to commune with these ancient living beings.  Sixty trees are grouped by personality: Natives, Travellers, Shrines, Fantasies, and Survivors.  Once you’ve met Pakenham and his craggy acquaintances in this book, you’ll want to move on to accompany the champion of trees on a year in his life in his book, The Company of Trees: A Year in a Lifetime’s Quest.

A different approach to individual trees can be found in photographer Diane Cook and Len Jenshel’s Wise Trees (a preview is below).  Some ancient and many not so ancient, the trees in this book include 50 selected from five continents and identified for their historic or inspirational stories.

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