Thursday, April 2, 2015

A New Appetite for Non-Fiction

It's April! That means the first quarter of 2015 is over. I'm not even going to get into how crazy fast time is flying by. I could go on and on about that, and that is not the point of today's post.

If you remember, I made a bunch of New Year's Resolutions for 2015. I decided to review them on a quarterly basis, to increase the likelihood that I will actually follow through on them.

Looking through my list, I'm pretty encouraged. So far I am at least making some progress towards about two thirds of my resolutions. Since many of them involved changes to my daily/weekly routine, I think that's pretty good! There is definitely still a lot to be done, but I am learning to focus on what is getting done rather than what is not (wisdom from a former boss).

It is very encouraging to see change in one's life, even in small things. For example, one of my resolutions may not seem like a big deal on the surface, but keeping it has reflected a huge shift in my priorities, appetites, and thinking.

As I have mentioned before, I love reading. I enjoy a wide variety of genres, but mostly fiction. Last year I read 1 nonfiction book for about every 3 fiction books. Wanting to enrich myself more and entertain myself less, this year I resolved to read 1 nonfiction book for every 2 fiction books.

Would you believe that in the first three months of this year I have gone beyond my goal and read 2 nonfiction books for every 1 fiction book?

And not because I had to. Because I wanted to.

God is changing my appetite for books.


My husband and I at Wartburg Castle in Germany, where
Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German--
and where an Anabaptist pastor was imprisoned for his beliefs.
I think it started with my trip to Germany last fall. It really got me interested in German and European history, so I read several books on the subject which, interestingly enough, has really enhanced my appreciation for my spiritual heritage as a dispensational Baptist. Seeing the damage inflicted on Europe--Germany in particular--because of a different interpretation of the Bible was very eye opening. Whether or not the church has replaced Israel, or is merely a parenthesis within God's larger plan for the Jews, is not merely a dry theological disagreement. Just ask the Europeans who killed and were killed because people thought the church and state should be combined in a theocracy like ancient Israel. Ask the Jews who have been persecuted in the name of Christ by people who thought the church had replaced an Israel which God had forever rejected and cast aside.

But I digress. After reading about German history and a little about how Baptists helped get the Bill of Rights--particularly the First Amendment--added to the U.S. Constitution, I read Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father. Whether or not I voted for him, he is my president, so I wanted to understand his perspective a little better. Then I read a book by an opponent.

It's very educational to read books coming from both sides of an issue!

Which is exactly what I did when I started reading on the subject of whether or not Pluto is a planet. I got onto this seemingly random topic in a seemingly random way--after finishing one audiobook from the digital library, I browsed the non-fiction section to see what was available, and the title How I Killed Pluto and Why It had it Coming jumped out at me. I mean, really, that book is just begging to be read!

I could not put down (or, rather, turn off) this book. I've always been a science lover (I almost majored in chemistry) and a lover of the stars (yes, I did dream of being an astronaut--who hasn't?), so the book intrigued me on that level. I was fascinated by the descriptions of astronomical work (though honestly it sounds pretty tedious and boring), intrigued by the historical accounts of how the planets were discovered (particularly the asteroids which did not end up retaining planet status), and learned a lot about the solar system and how the science of astronomy works today.

It was also the deeply personal story of Mike Brown, the scientist who discovered Eris, the object larger than Pluto that finally forced the scientific community to define the word planet for the first time, an action which demoted Pluto and Eris to dwarf planet status. (By the way, according to the official IAU definition, a dwarf planet is not a planet).

Brown's book weaves the stories of how he met his wife and became a father in with the stories of his discoveries. This interweaving is quite relevant as he discovered Eris while his wife was pregnant with their first child, and was forced to announce the discovery when she was just weeks old. He included a lot of his thoughts about his daughter, and about being a father. I learned a lot from reading the book, and felt like I really got to know him (and his wife Diane and his daughter Lila). I loved how he kept detailed notes about Lila's first months and posted them online, complete with graphs and statistics. It was eerily similar to what I did with both of my sons, except I didn't post my graphs online.

This was my favorite quote from the book about Lila, as it perfectly describes the wonder every parent has as they watch their children grow:

Diane and I often joke about parents who think that everything their children do is exceptional. ... Watching Lila develop, I finally understood--she is exceptional, because early childhood development is about the most exceptional thing that takes place in the universe. Stars, planets, galaxies, quasars, are all incredible and fascinating things.... But none of them is as thoroughly astounding as the development of thought, the development of language. Who would not believe that their child is exceptional? All children are--compared to the remainder of the silent universe around them. ... In our own house, the most extraordinary thing in the universe was taking place.

Of course this is mainly a book about planets. Brown is very adamant that Pluto does not deserve planet status. Before reading this book, I didn't think it was a very big deal one way or the other. I remember just being annoyed that scientists had changed things on us. But Brown says:

The debate about whether or not Pluto is a planet is critical to our understanding of the solar system. It is not semantics, it is fundamental classification. If you think of the solar system as a place consisting of eight planets, or, better, four terrestrial planets and four giant planets, and then a swarm of asteroids and a swarm of Kuiper Belt objects, you have a profound description of the local universe around us. ... If, on the other hand, you think of the solar system as a place with large things that are round and smaller things that are not quite round, you have a relatively trivial description of the universe around us.

After reading his book, he had me convinced. I better understood the historical context, and better understood the solar system. But then, of course, I had to read a book from the other perspective. So I picked up The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference from the library. (I love libraries!!)

The author (the science editor for MSNBC) told Pluto's story. I didn't know it had been discovered here in Arizona! He filled out the story behind the International Astronomical Union's decision to define planets and dwarf planets, explaining the difference between dynamicists (they study the way Solar System objects interact) and geophysicists (they study the composition and other physical characteristics of the objects themselves), and placing the debate within the larger context of the planets being discovered around other stars. My takeaways included:

On a deeper level, it's a case study that shows how politics and personalities can affect the scientific process, and how the scientific process can in turn affect popular culture....Ultimately it's up to the scientific community and the general public to decide how planets will be classified. Sometimes these two constituencies will go in different directions. For example, ask a botanist whether tomatoes, corn, and green beans are vegetables. Then go ask a cook.

In the end I came to the conclusion that "planet" should probably refer to round objects that orbit the sun, and the category should then be broken down further into terrestrial planets, gas giants, dwarf planets, etc. That is how I am trying to explain things to my oldest son, who is now fascinated by planets, too.

His fascination began when I was in the middle of Mike Brown's book. We went on a family walk at twilight, much later than intended. The sun was mostly down and I noticed a really bright star in the western sky. I wondered if it was a planet. I pulled out my phone and opened Google Sky Map and discovered that it was not one, but two planets--Uranus and Venus! I pointed the "star" out to our four-year-old and explained that it was two planets. On the way home, we saw another bright star. Google Sky Map revealed that it was Jupiter. Again I pointed it out, and we told him about how huge Jupiter is, and about its big storm. He was hooked.

After that night, he started talking about planets, drawing planets (previously he had hated drawing), making up stories about planets, and trying to remember their names (he has them all except Uranus now). We watched documentaries about the Solar System, and on our next trip to the library we picked up several books on planets. I kept expecting his interest to fade, but so far it has not. I don't know if this will develop into a life-long love that guides his career choices, but for now it is encouraging and pushing us both along the path of learning, for which I am thankful.

What is really cool to me is that the timing of that walk was so perfect. At the time I was frustrated by plans falling through and messes and delays. But if we had left any earlier we might not have seen the planets. And if I hadn't been reading that book, I probably wouldn't have noticed them at all. What an amazing "coincidence!" I guess that random topic wasn't so random after all.

Brown writes about the many coincidences that led to his discovery of Eris. First, his interest in planets began when he noticed Jupiter's movements in the sky. On a much bigger scale than my story, the timing was perfect in that he happened to look up just when Jupiter was doing something interesting that only took place that year. If he'd been born a few years earlier or later he likely never would've noticed it and become interested in planets.

Then, when he was trying to think of a research project, he got snowed in at an observatory over Thanksgiving and was completely cut off from the outside world for three days. One of the scientists there made an offhand remark that started him down the path of his lifelong search for large objects in the solar system.

Of course, Brown attributes these and other coincidences in his story to chance, or maybe the universe: "I sat down and wondered...whether or not there was some sort of cosmic force governing the stars and planets, and even the dwarf planets, after all. Maybe there was some sort of fate...That idea is, of course, crazy. But it's hard not to think crazy thoughts now and then."

But me? I grew up listening to Adventures in Odyssey and I keep remembering one of Mr. Whitaker's favorite sayings: "There is no such thing as a coincidence." Often the delays and roadblocks which we find so frustrating are actually God working in our lives to lead us to accomplish his plans! For example, I recently read 1 Corinthians 4:19, where Paul talks about being delayed from visiting the church at Corinth. I'm so thankful for that delay because it meant he had to write them a letter which today gives us so much instruction and guidance!

And I'm very thankful for this new appetite God has given me for non-fiction. I wonder what I'll learn about next?