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Updated: 14 hours 53 min ago

2018 Spark Science Reading List!

Wed, 05/09/2018 - 2:00am

Written by Jonathan Flynn

Science communication as a career and hobby as we see it today would be nothing were it not for the journalists, scientists and researchers who took it upon themselves to bring the news and happenings of the scientific community, often seen as technical and inaccessible to outsiders, to the world at large. For many of us here at Spark Science, the works of these authors are what inspired us to go into science in the first place. That is why I have decided to deviate from the usual opinion piece you read every week and pay a small tribute to these writers by sharing with you the top science fiction and nonfiction books as chosen by the Spark Science audio and writing team!


  • The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood by Dr. David Montgomery. “I love this book because it applies geology to lore and mythology. It is astounding how many natural phenomena are not only intertwined in religion and mythology, but are explained by modern geologic events or processes we witness today.” -Andra Nordin, Audio Engineer.
  • Cosmos by Carl Sagan. “Beautifully written and poetic approach to the wonders of the universe. Scientifically accurate and hopeful about the future, for once.” – Natalie Moore, Chief Audio Engineer and Assistant Producer.
  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. “Carson basically began science communication with her writing. This book is so compelling and accessible, and it really allows the everyday reader to understand the consequences of our impact on the environment.” -Tori Highley, Scheduling and Production Assistant
  • Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. “It’s a historical account of Mary Anning, who discovered some amazing fossils in the UK in the early 1800s.” -Sarah Francis, Graduate Student Blogger. She also says that anything by Jane Goodall is a must!
  • Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly. I can’t recommend this story enough, and the movie is just as good. It tells the story of three “human computers” named Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson who, amidst many other incredible feats of mathematics, worked on calculating John Glenn’s flight path by hand. Recommended by our host Dr. Regina Barber-DeGraaff!
Katherine Johnson, one of the human computers that worked for NASA in the 1960s. She was profiled in Hidden Figures.
  • For our last nonfiction book, I’d have to say that Carl Sagan’s Billions and Billions is my personal favorite. It helped me come to terms with my departure from Catholicism when I was in high school, and Carl Sagan’s elegance, passion and optimism for the universe ultimately pushed me to become a student of science. It is my go-to recommendation for anyone looking to have their worldview challenged while learning a lot about the philosophy of science.

Honorable mentions from the author: Failure Is Not An Option by Gene Kranz (the flight director of Apollo 13); A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

A view of the moon from the damaged Apollo 13 lunar excursion module Aquarius.

Science Fiction

  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. It’s probable that most of you have read it already, but nonetheless, it deserves a mention here. It tells the story of a young genius named Ender who is sent to a zero-G battle school to help defend Earth against the next attack from “the buggers”, a mysterious insectoid species from beyond the solar system. “Page-turning, quick read, and interesting character study in an alien warfare setting.” -Natalie
  • The Last Questiona short story by Isaac Asimov. “This short story presents basically the coolest science fiction explanation for the birth of the universe. It throws a lot of wrenches at you and then quickly starts to tie together. You just have to read it to find out.” -Andra
  • A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony. “This book starts a fantastic sci-fi/fantasy series. It puts a scientist in a fantasy world and shows what this looks like to the fantasy creatures. It’s also full of puns and great observations about the world, and later books in the series are just as great.” – Tori
  • Tori also recommends A Wrinkle In Time by Madeline L’Engle. “This book opened my eyes to physics and the wonders of the universe. It brings fascinating ideas to life, and it shows how including different kinds of people can really be important in doing great and vitally important things. The entire series is a great read.”
The cover of A Wrinkle In Time from the 1970’s.
  • Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Robot series. These were recommended by Dr. Regina Barber-DeGraff, and I have to say, these are two of the best out there. If you are just beginning your foray into science fiction and space operas, Asimov is the perfect place to start.
Three of the book covers from the original Foundation Trilogy.
  • Last but certainly not least, my pick is The Martian by Andy Weir. It is an incredible story of isolation, problem solving and survival that changed the way I approach challenges in science and beyond. The audiobook is great for long car rides, and the movie is just as good!
Matt Damon as Mark Watney in the movie adaptation of The Martian.

Special mention: the Dune series by Frank Herbert. I’m also going to plug his son’s work, which has filled the gaps that his father left after his death. Like Foundation, it is a galaxy-wide story filled with political intrigue, backroom assassinations and planetary domination. I’m currently working my way through the entire series, which constitutes 23(!) books intertwined with short stories that give even more depth to an incredible universe.

Where Outer Space Meets the Mountain: How I am using cosmic energy to learn about glacial erosion

Tue, 05/01/2018 - 11:00pm

This place was very different from my familiar Midwestern home. I stared out the car window, squished in the backseat of our Subaru hatchback. I had camping gear piled up on the seat next to me, spilling over onto my lap as we wound around sharp curves, descended into wide valleys, and climbed up and over steep hills. Sharp mountain peaks loomed above. I was captivated. Never in my life had I seen a landscape so steep and so majestic.

We parked our car at the trailhead, and I huffed and puffed, forcing my body up, and up, and up towards the overlook. The view was stunning. In front of me, I saw the tallest mountain in New Zealand, with sharp, grey peaks jutting out of its snowy blanket. I saw an enormous river of glacial ice filling the valley below, and a lake colored like milk with small icebergs bobbing up and down.

Can you tell I’m having fun?

After that, I never looked back. I was hooked. The steep descent back to the car left my knees trembling and my feet blistered, but the next weekend, I came back for more. I knew that this was where I wanted to be: I wanted to explore this incredible landscape and learn more about the forces of ice that had shaped it.

Fast-forward four years, and I am pursuing a master’s degree in glacial geology. My fascination with glaciers and mountain landscapes morphed into a passionate dedication to pursue a challenging research project in a remote, mountainous field area: The Twin Sisters Mountains, just across the valley from Mount Baker in the North Cascades. I wanted to learn more about how the Sisters Glacier had shaped this stunning landscape. To do this, I searched for a special type of helium called “helium 3” in the mountainside. Helium 3 is created by energy called “cosmic rays” that come from exploding supernovas in outer space. These cosmic rays fly through our atmosphere and strike the surface of the Earth, jumbling chemical structures and creating helium 3 in rocks.

A beautiful conceptual image of cosmic rays cascading through the atmosphere.

Think of the cosmic rays like lasers from outer space, that strike the surface and “burn” the rock, creating helium 3. As the rock sits at the surface, it gets struck by more and more lasers, creating more and more helium 3. Most of the lasers just strike the outer surface of the rocks, but some move faster and are able to penetrate a few inches below the surface. Some move so fast that they can create helium 3 up to six feet below the surface. The result is a gradient of helium 3 accumulation, with the majority of helium 3 concentrated at the surface, and less and less, deeper into the rock.

A cross-section gif of a mountainside where helium 3 (red dots) are being created by cosmic rays (red squiggles).

After being struck by cosmic rays for thousands of years, the mountainside was covered by the growing Sisters Glacier that moved and ground away at the rock beneath for about 2,000 years. Within the last few centuries, the glacier melted away, leaving behind rocks that were once below the surface. These rocks should have less helium 3 than expected, based on the fact that they were exposed to cosmic rays for about 9,000 years. Measuring the amount of helium 3 in these rocks will tell me how much rock the glacier eroded away.

A cross-section gif of a mountainside where the glacier is eroding away at rock with accumulated helium 3.

Collecting rock samples from this area was quite a challenge, to say the least. The terrain was extremely rugged. Just getting to the field area required eight hours of bushwhacking: climbing over rotting logs, splashing through cold streams, and scrambling up steep scree. When we finally made it, we were rewarded with stunning scenery. I made three separate trips out there with my field team. We scrambled around the steep, rocky slopes, hammered out precious rock samples, took detailed notes, showered in frigid snowmelt waterfalls, and cooked some delicious homemade pizza over our camp stove.

Here’s me hammering out a rock sample An iconic view of glacially-scoured bedrock in the Twin Sisters, with Mount Baker looming in the background Me with my field team, taking notes as we hammer away to extract a rock sample. Here we are cooking up some delicious backcountry pizza over a camp stove.

My question remains unanswered. I am currently crushing up my rock samples for analysis and sifting through a pile of data. It’s a fascinating puzzle, and I hope to soon unlock the secrets that the mountain holds. Only then will we discover how the forces of ice morph and shape this stunning mountain environment in the North Cascades.