Saturday, June 20, 2015

Time and Space

A couple of very good books read recently.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North is near-on impossible to put down. It's about a bloke called Harry August who, when he dies, lives his life over again - but remembering everything that happened before. He can change small things - such as going into different professions or marrying different people - but the big stuff like the Second World War or his mum dying young from cancer is rather set in stone. And Harry's not alone, either - there's a whole network or "oroborans", looking out for each other and passing messages to one another forward and backward in time. Including a message from the future that the end is coming, and increasingly quickly...

It's one of those books that starts with a brilliant, ridiculous idea and plays it out perfectly logically, but then adds ever more thrilling developments. To say more would only spoil it, but gosh it is good.

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield is packed full of fascinating detail about the counter-intuitive nature of working in Earth orbit. For example, there's this moment in November 1995, when Hadfield was on a space shuttle that docked with the Russian Mir space station. It was an extremely complicated bit of orbital mechanics, but they docked successfully - and three seconds early.
"Only we couldn't get the hatch open. On the other side, they were kicking it with all their might. But the Russian engineers had taped, strapped and sealed our docking module's hatch just a little too enthusiastically, with multiple layers. So we did the true space-age thing: we broke into Mir using a Swiss Army knife. Never leave the planet without one."
Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth (2015 [2013]), p. 191.
But the book aims to find life lessons from Hadfield's experience that we can all benefit from, so there's lots of home-spun advice about why it's good to sweat the small stuff and to be prepared. An example is Hadfield learning "Rocket Man" on the guitar on the off-chance that he met Elton John (which he did) and was invited to play something with him (which he wasn't).

I found Hadfield's drive and goal-orientation a bit wearying, but he's an extremely amiable, likable guy - and quick to recount his own failures and mistakes, such as that time one of his colleagues got a face-full of his nail clippings. He's also got a very accessible style, coolly acknowledging the weirdness and danger and randomness of his day job. And it's hard to not like the guy responsible for the first ever music video recorded in space.

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