Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space RaceHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

Katherine Johnson is one hundred years old as of this writing. Hidden Figures tells her story, as well as that of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three of the African-American women who were known as computers in the organization that is known today as the National Aerospace Administration (NASA). Their skills as mathematicians were needed to help design and build the airplanes that the U.S. needed to fight in World War II and the Korean conflict. Later the aircraft and rockets they helped design enabled the U.S. to enter and compete successfully in the space race, from the flight of the first Mercury capsule to the Apollo program that put astronauts on the moon and returned them safely to earth.

A movie with the same title was released in 2016. The movie dramatizes the events of several years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the climax coming as Katherine Johnson is asked to check once more the calculations for the trajectory that would put John Glenn into orbit. I saw the movie during its original run in the theaters. It’s a great movie to watch with children or grandchildren.

Margot Lee Shetterly tells Johnson’s, Vaughan’s, and Jackson’s stories, and many others, with admiration that approaches but doesn’t cross over into hagiography. Her writing is clean, polished, and unpretentious. I must admit that, having seen the movie first, I was expecting a bit more drama, and it took me a few pages to adjust to the the author’s pace. By the end, though, I was sorry not to have any more of the story to read (so I read the acknowledgments).

In telling the stories of these women, Margot Lee Shetterly also tells the story of segregation and the mistreatment of blacks in the U.S. in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. I can’t help wondering how many more Katherine Johnsons, Dorothy Vaughans, and Mary Jacksons there were in Virginia, West Virginia, and elsewhere who would have made equal or greater contributions to many fields of knowledge were it not for the lack of opportunity, resources, and respect they encountered.

The contribution of these women has been acknowledged as the U.S. has moved through the Civil Rights era. In September 2017 NASA named a new facility the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. Unfortunately, opportunities and rewards for women and people of color still lag behind those available for white men. I hope that Hidden Figures—a thoroughly enjoyable, rewarding, and thought-provoking book—has started some conversations and actions that will help to close the remaining gaps.

Thanks for stopping by.




Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the ChurchSearching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans

When I tweeted that I had started reading Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday, my son asked if a review would be forthcoming. A friend of his, another scientist, liked that tweet. I said that I would try, but that I was not sure I could do it justice. I don’t have any credentials to write a legitimate review. If I enjoy reading a book, or if I find it helpful or instructive, I will write a brief piece describing what I found enjoyable or helpful about the book and post it to Goodreads and to my blog. To borrow a metaphor that is sometimes used to describe evangelism, it’s more like one beggar telling another where to find bread. With that said, here are some observations about Searching for Sunday.

Rachel Held Evans is a gifted writer. Searching for Sunday is written in such a way that it could be read aloud and understood by many, if not most English speakers. She is smart. She is honest about her fallibility and vulnerability. A reader who is looking to engage with her and not pick apart her arguments—and there are many who delight in picking apart her arguments—will appreciate her telling of her story. Unlike other progressive Christian writers, Rachel Held Evans does not infuse her writing with profanity. She may cuss up a storm in her private communication. In her writing for publication she refrains. May her tribe increase in that respect.

The structure of Searching for Sunday is “part-memoir, part-meditation on the seven sacraments of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.” (…) Those sacraments are baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage. Rachel Held Evans uses the sacraments as a framework for the story of her early devotion to Evangelical Christianity, her disillusionment with it, her search for a new home for her faith, and her finding or building several homes in online communities and a physical congregation. As she says in a chapter entitled “Epic Fail,” church “is a moment in time when the kingdom of God draws near, when a meal, a story, a song, an apology, and even a failure is made holy by the presence of Jesus among us and within us.” (p. 113)

Readers with limited time (although a serious reader could finish Searching for Sunday in one sitting) would do well to spend that time in the section on communion. That is where we see the author’s passion for the Church, the body of Christ, most clearly.

Anyone who reads the news or listens to NPR knows that American Christianity, maybe all of Western Christianity, is struggling with questions of identity. Searching for Sunday gives a view into that struggle through the eyes of one who is living it every day. Someone reading this might think the struggle has been lost, that Western Christianity is the dying relic of ancient superstitions. Someone reading this might also be struggling with their own faith or might be curious about how people of faith can still cling to theirs. One of the important messages of Searching for Sunday is that God cares for us and meets us in our struggles, in our brokenness, and in our need. We can’t and won’t know the answers to all of the questions and objections that we and others might raise, but we can know that God won’t turn us away for having raised them, and we can know that we do well to raise them in community.

Thanks for stopping by.


Saturday in the Soil

The soil is finally warm enough to be worked. It’s also not muddy, unlike in past years. So a mild Saturday provided a great opportunity to start preparing the garden, all one hundred square feet of it, for planting.

We sowed winter rye in the fall. Winter rye is one of several plants that local garden experts recommend as cover crops. Cover crops grow quickly, protect the soil from erosion, and pull carbon from the atmosphere. Because they grow later into the fall they provide these benefits when all the other annual plants have died from the cold. In the spring it’s a simple matter of turning the soil, plants and all, to keep the carbon and other organic matter safely in the ground and available for new crops.

Winter rye grass
Winter rye grass in late winter.

We compost all year long. Several times a week we take a repurposed cookie jar filled with egg shells; vegetable and fruit cores, stems, peels, and rinds; coffee grounds; and tea bags out to a large beehive-shaped composting bin. Once or twice a month, maybe more frequently in some months, this hash of rotting vegetable matter gets mixed up to help even out and accelerate the process. Several buckets of compost came out of the bottom of the bin this year. After sifting, the yield was about a cubic foot of humus, which was supplemented with some commercially produced compost and manure and dug into the garden.

Composting has the added benefit of reducing the municipal waste stream. A conservative estimate puts the amount of vegetable matter that goes into our compost bin at over two hundred pounds per year. It includes approximately 300 egg shells, 200 banana peels, 500 tea bags, and enough grounds for 300 cups of coffee. If ten percent of the households in our city kept 200 pounds of vegetable matter out of the garbage every year, that would reduce the amount hauled to landfills by several truckloads every year. My approach to food and food waste is not entirely consistent with sustainable consumption practice, however. Bananas, for example, are never in season in New Jersey. Neither are oranges, coffee, or tea, but that doesn‘t stop me from consuming them. I have some work to do.

There’s a lot of good, interesting (yes, really!) reading available about soil health and its relationship to food security and the environment. Below are some suggestions for your reading pleasure. If you have read something else and would like to recommend it, please leave a comment.

Meanwhile the garden, with its seedlings and seeds, compost and mulch, is an exercise in hope. In a few weeks, God willing, we will have salad greens and more. In a few years, God willing, a larger “we” will see the results of our efforts to keep additional carbon out of the atmosphere. The effort we put into our hundred-square-foot garden will bear infinitesimal results toward that end, but we hope that others will make a similar effort toward sustainable food production and consumption and add their infinitesimal results to a larger total.

Meanwhile, I wish you God’s blessing, abundance, and peace this spring and for the balance of the Lenten and Easter seasons.

Thanks for stopping by.


Annie Dillard, THE ABUNDANCE

The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and NewThe Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New by Annie Dillard

A photograph of Annie Dillard appears on the back flap of the dust jacket for The Abundance. Annie Dillard has a Pulitzer Prize. The photograph should show her with a contemplative expression on her face as she stares off into the distance. Instead, the photograph shows a woman with a broad, toothy smile and twinkling eyes that are looking directly into the camera lens.

If you met that woman at a social gathering or at coffee hour after a church service you might think even before she speaks that she has something wonderful that she wants to share with you. We meet that woman in The Abundance. She has many wonderful things to share, an abundance of wonderful things, if you will.

The Abundance is a collection of previously published essays. They display the gift that Annie Dillard has for being present and observant in the midst of the most mundane and the most stimulating events, then relating those events in language that makes us want to experience them for ourselves. Well, maybe we don’t want to experience all of them; some are harsh and tragic. But some are laugh-out-loud funny. Some are described as if they were hallucinations. Some indeed may be hallucinations.

Two essays in particular are worth the price of admission. “Total Eclipse” from Teaching a Stone to Talk is the first essay in this collection. It was reprinted in Summer 2017 in The Atlantic Monthly as the United States awaited an eclipse whose totality traversed much of the country. “Being Chased” from An American Childhood is reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”

The foreword by Goeff Dyer is also worth reading even if you never read forewords. Dyer mentions Eudora Welty, who reviewed Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Welty admitted occasionally not knowing what Annie Dillard was talking about. (p. xix) Dyer writes “On the humor front it helps, also, that Dillard’s pretty much a fruitcake.” (p. xviii) This comes after he quotes “Total Eclipse”: “The mind wants the world to return its love, or its awareness; the mind wants to know all the world, and all eternity, even God. The mind’s sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy.” (p. xviii)

Finally, from “A Writer in the World,” which originally appeared in The Writer’s Life, we get this glimpse into the generous, brilliant, eccentric mind of the smiling woman on the back dust jacket flap.

One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Don’t hoard what seems to be good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The very impulse to save something good for a better place is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” (p. 115)

Thanks for stopping by!



Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well

On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great BooksOn Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior

This post might amount to virtue signaling. It is not intended to be, but Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well is too good to keep to one’s self. And the word virtue is hard to escape in any discussion of this book, which applies literary criticism to ten books and three short stories as it pursues its goal.

As the subtitle indicates, On Reading Well is about “finding the good life through great books.” By good life, the author means a virtuous life, but not a holy, pious, or sanctified life. While each chapter opens with a brief Bible passage, and Karen Swallow Prior is a practicing Christian (see below), On Reading Well does not attempt to set a standard for virtuous living. Its goal is to encouraging a habit of reading that will enable the reader to see virtues being modeled by the characters in classic literature. In a few of the selections the virtue being discussed is not modeled by the central character, but it is dismissed or trampled upon by that person. Even that behavior is instructive, though.

The brief biography on the publisher’s website will tell you about Karen Swallow Prior’s credentials and career. If you want to know where she stands in relation to the Evangelical Christianity that you read or hear about in the news, an article about her in The New Yorker should satisfy that desire.

Before reading this book I had little hope of getting to all of the books on my to-read list in my lifetime. Between the six books and stories that On Reading Well discusses that I haven’t already read on my own and the books mentioned in the 600+ endnotes, that hope is now completely gone. Here, in the order in which they are discussed, are the books and stories that Karen Swallow Prior chose to discuss in this volume. The virtue associated with each is in parentheses after the title.

In the summer of 2018 I read Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Karen Swallow Prior cites Jacobs’ book in her introduction: “Practice makes perfect, but pleasure makes practice more likely, so read something enjoyable. If a book is so agonizing that you avoid reading it, put it down and pick up one that brings you pleasure. Life is too short and books are too plentiful not to. Besides, one can’t read well without enjoying reading.” (pp. 16–17) Alan Jacob’s book and Karen Swallow Prior’s book together make a great contribution at a time when reading is popular but it is often challenging to decide what to read.

Finally, On Reading Well includes several discussion questions for each chapter. Book clubs and teachers of literature will appreciate this feature. For that reason I also want to mention C. Christopher Smith’s Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish as a third book to consider if you are looking for your next read.

Thanks for stopping by.


Book Read: The Making of an Ordinary Saint

The Making of an Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual DisciplinesThe Making of an Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual Disciplines by Nathan Foster

What at first seems to be a recasting of Richard J. Foster’s twelve spiritual disciplines for late Gen-Xers and Millennials is actually a memoir. In The Making of an Ordinary Saint Nathan Foster traces his attempts through the course of year not only to put the spiritual disciplines into practice but to confront the struggles and failures of his past, which have included substance abuse among other destructive practices. Having read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth recently, I was surprised to learn that the elder Foster has a son who has struggled so greatly with human frailty.

Having also read Florence Williams’s The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative recently, I was encouraged to read Nathan Foster’s discussion of the therapeutic value of spending time in nature in his chapter on meditation. The Making of an Ordinary Saint is filled with connections like that, simple everyday connections that can help us frail humans find the spiritual resources we need to overcome some of that frailty.

When I read Celebration of Discipline I thought of an acquaintance who attended a private Christian elementary and high school, then went on to an elite Christian college, graduate school, and a career that reflects his own discipline and intelligence. He is comfortable worshiping in churches that draw their members from Manhattan’s most exclusive neighborhoods. Reading The Making of an Ordinary Saint, I can’t help but think of the people who might feel comfortable in Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints.

If you’re like me, your reading list has gotten filled recently with books and articles analyzing America’s polarized religious and political cultures. If, like me, you’re also looking for some reading that will help you put all of that aside for a moment and figure out how to deal with your own personal baggage and get back in touch with the God who made you, then consider The Making of an Ordinary Saint.

Thanks for stopping by.


Book Read: Reason for Hope

Reason for Hope: A Spiritual JourneyReason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey by Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall is arguably the world’s leading authority on chimpanzees. She has been studying them for almost sixty years as of this writing. Through the Jane Goodall Institute she continues her work of seeking to protect chimpanzees and their habitat, advocating globally for humane treatment of all animals, and mobilizing resources for conservation of the natural world.

Reason for Hope, written in the late 1990s, is a memoir. As the subtitle indicates, it traces Goodall’s exploration of her own spirituality and her relationship with spiritual forces or entities. It does so by relating events in her life and career to spiritual principles or concepts. She ends many chapters, early chapters in particular, with a reflection on a spiritual concept that arises in the narrative of that chapter. She uses the word “God” to describe a universal spiritual force or entity, but her theology draws from many spiritual traditions, and is not limited to a monotheistic or trinitarian understanding of God.

Jane Goodall was raised in the Anglican tradition, which gives her some of the language she uses to describe her spiritual experiences. She experiences awe, for example, in natural settings both in her homeland of England and in her adopted homes in East Africa. That awe leads her to conclude that a force either outside of or permeating the natural world is responsible for the wonders and beauties one sees in that world.

Early in the narrative, on pages 50–51, Goodall argues that science and faith are not incompatible. Through her relationship with Louis Leakey she was schooled in the principles of human evolution. Honoring her Anglican upbringing, she concludes that God set humans apart at a certain point in evolution by sending the Holy Ghost on them.

In spite of this special relationship with God, humans are prone to great evil. Having lived in England through Second World War, Goodall has seen that evil at close range. She also describes a visit to Auschwitz and visits to laboratories where primates and other creatures lived in unbelievably cruel conditions. She cites further stories she has read or heard that demonstrate human beings’ cruelty to fellow humans. Finally, she cites example after example of humanity’s despoiling of the natural world.

Despite humans’ seeming inability to act responsibly toward one another or toward the natural world, Jane Goodall sees human intelligence and ingenuity as reasons for hope. She sees the natural world as being highly resilient. As do many who hold out hope for humanity and the environment, she also sees the passions, energy, and idealism of young people as providing the greatest source of hope. It has been over twenty years since the writing of Reason for Hope. Is Jane Goodall still optimistic about humanity’s chances for reversing some of the evils we have inflicted on the natural world? The publication of Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants in 2013 would seem to suggest that she is still optimistic. I hope that’s true.

Thanks as always for stopping by.


Book Read: The Nature Fix

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More CreativeThe Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams

If reading more books is one of your goals for 2019, consider adding The Nature Fix to the list of books that will be part of that goal. Read it early in the year, because it may affect your other goals and pursuits for the year. At just under 260 pages, it could easily be read in one snowbound day.

A blurb on the back cover calls Florence Williams a deft writer, and it would be hard to improve on that description. Williams is a journalist and a contributing editor to Outside magazine. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times and National Geographic.

The Nature Fix is all about how increasing our exposure to the natural world, even by small amounts, benefits us physically, intellectually, and emotionally. Florence Williams describes these benefits through engaging accounts of her investigations of scientific experiments and social and educational programs. These experiments and programs attempt to measure the benefits and apply them to specific populations. The populations include city dwellers in Japan and South Korea, military veteran women who are suffering from PTSD, and teenagers whose ADHD puts them at a severe disadvantage in a traditional classroom.

An especially good chapter is chapter 3, entitled “The Smell of Survival,” which discusses so-called healing forests, and the programs that make use of them, in South Korea. Quoting Park Hyun-Soo, who Williams says is “more of a ranger-slash-shaman,” Williams writes “‘The soil is also good for healing. It is antiviral and the geosmin is good for cancer.’ Geosmin, I learned, causes the funky-great smell of earth after a rain.” Looking back at some recent books on soil, Courtney White’s Grass, Soil, and Hope and Ragan Sutterfield’s Cultivating Reality, it looks like the soil can help us in many ways, including some that are much less obvious.

Who would benefit from reading The Nature Fix? Parents and grandparents, educators, health-care professionals, counselors and other mental-health professionals, city planners, retirees and soon-to-be retirees, and just about any other persons who are themselves stressed by urban or suburban life or who want to help people in that situation.

Thank you as always for stopping by!


Book Read: The Good Neighbor

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred RogersThe Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King

At the time of this writing, George H.W. Bush, the forty-first president of the United States, has just been laid to rest. News coverage of his passing began, fittingly, with tributes, interviews, and video and audio clips that shed a positive light on his career and presidency. As the days of mourning passed, even before Mr. Bush’s remains were brought to his final resting place, news outlets began to air stories and commentary that shed light on some of the more questionable aspects of his career, especially his presidency. Being close to finishing The Good Neighbor, Maxwell King’s biography of Fred Rogers, I found myself comparing Mr. King’s treatment of his subject and the news coverage of George H.W. Bush’s memorial events.

Fred Rogers is a national hero. A third generation of American children now has access to his original programs and to new programs based on the characters he created. My children watched “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” in the 1980s; I watched it with them more than a few times. The older child married a distant relative of Fred Rogers, so two of my grandchildren are also distant relatives. One of the few television programs my four-year-old granddaughter watches is “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”

Maxwell King’s biography, The Good Neighbor, does justice to the person, personality, and legacy of Fred Rogers. It borders on hagiography, but does not cross the frontier. As Fred Rogers himself would acknowledge, he was a complex, imperfect individual. Like George H.W. Bush, Fred Rogers has his detractors, and The Good Neighbor discusses some of the features of Fred Rogers’s work that his detractors find troubling. It doesn’t minimize or gloss over those features, but it doesn’t dwell on them.

The Good Neighbor is rich with stories that explore the private life of Fred Rogers, beginning with his childhood in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The amount of detail in those stories is substantial but not overwhelming. Some of those details are surprising, but I will leave it to readers to discover those surprises for themselves. Maxwell King describes Fred Rogers’s family, friends, and associates, and his relationships with them, with candor, grace, and generosity.

Given the time of year in which I am writing this, The Good Neighbor would be a good gift for anyone who enjoys biographies and who grew up in the second half of the twentieth century. It is an enjoyable read and well worth the time invested in that effort.

Thanks as always for stopping by!


Book Read: Titans

TitansTitans by Armond Boudreaux

Andy Walsh’s book Faith Across the Multiverse carries this dedication: “To Ronnie Simon, who introduced me to X-Men comics in the 7th grade and changed my life.” Unlike Andy’s, my life is largely untouched by comics. I knew about comics when I was growing up, but I didn’t read or collect them. I can’t explain why except that I don’t recall seeing them in the stores I was likely to visit as a child. As I grew into into adulthood I probably adopted the attitude that comic books are for children. Andy’s book, and now Armond Boudreaux’s Titans, suggest that attitude might be shortsighted.

Knowing as little as I do about comic books I can’t really review Titans. It is an engaging book, but readers will benefit from a knowledge of superhero stories. Some chapters, especially the chapters on Marvel’s Civil War, are dense with references to characters and their actions. Others focus more on the conflicts that the characters face and the parallels in contemporary America. What is clear in all chapters is that superheroes are complex and often conflicted characters. What’s also clear in Boudreaux’s consideration of these characters is that these complexities and conflicts have parallels in real people in our time.

Even for someone who is comics- and superhero-illiterate, getting to the afterword on page 151 is worth the effort. With its subtitle “Where Do We Go from Here,” and section headings such as “What It Means to Be Reasonable,” it deserves to be read more than once. Karl Popper’s definition of rationalism, presented on page 151, is an important contribution to the discussion.

Titans is published by Wipf and Stock Publishers in Eugene, Oregon under their Cascade Books imprint. Wipf and Stock publishes a diverse list of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and academic titles. I have enjoyed Daniel Taylor’s Death Comes for the Deconstructionist (Slant Books) and Ragan Sutterfield’s Cultivating Reality (Cascade Books) from Wipf and Stock. Cultivating Reality in particular strikes me as a book that mainstream publishers might overlook.

If you dabble in comics, or if you are the first in line when a new Marvel Comics print issue or movie is released, consider reading Titans.

Thanks as always for stopping by.