but not a drop to drink

The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Childs (Back Bay Books, 2000)

The first time I went to the Grand Canyon I disobeyed all the warning signs.

If you’ve ever hiked in the Grand Canyon, you know that not very far down whatever trail you choose, you will pass a sign telling you not to attempt to hike all the way to the bottom and back up in a single day. Don’t do it. You won’t make it. You will perish. Certain doom. The words are accompanied by delightful little illustrations of a swooning fool moments from dying of dehydration or exposure.

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the desert cities

House of Rain by Craig Childs (Back Bay Books, 2006)

A few years ago my sister Alia and I took a road trip to visit some archaeological sites in the southwestern United States. I used to be a geologist and she’s an archaeologist (although her area of expertise is considerably more Roman and more volcanic), so driving around the desert looking at ruins sounded like a good time to us. We went to Mesa Verde to tour the cliff houses (with—I kid you not—the most ill-informed volunteer ranger in the entire National Park Service), to Hovenweep to wander around among the towers, to Chaco Canyon to cling desperately to the barren rock with our fingernails while a windstorm tried to blow us away. Look, it was a really powerful windstorm. We couldn’t even sit outside at our campsite because the wind kept blowing our beer bottles over, and that was beer we had backtracked twenty miles to buy at a lonely gas station on US 550.

But we braved the wind to see all the ruins we could see and did manage to visit most of the great houses of Chaco. I bought this book in the visitor center during one of our breaks from all that blowing. It’s been on my bookshelf ever since; I more or less forgot about it after I got home. Now that I’ve read it I wish I had done so when the places we visited were fresh in my mind.

Southwest Ruins April 2010 192

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the jungle devours

The Lost City of Z by David Grann (Doubleday, 2009)

Before I talk about this book, I have to talk about the maggots.

I read nonfiction books about interesting things that strike my fancy because I like learning everything I can about our world, and I write about them here because I figure there’s a chance somebody else might want to learn those interesting things too. Knowledge is a good thing! There is no bliss in ignorance; there is only ignorance.


I really, really, really could have done without learning in gruesome detail how maggots can infest living flesh and the fine details of how the afflicted person has to pick them one by one out of their own rotting wounds to survive.

I didn’t need to know that.

On that note: the Amazon.

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i watched a lot of unsolved mysteries as a child

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar (Chronicle Books, 2013)

In February 1959, nine hikers died in the Ural Mountains. Seven men and two women, all except one were university students, and all were young, fit, experienced and well-prepared mountaineers. There is a bit of a mystery surrounding their deaths, the sort of thing that shows up from time to time in creepypasta forums or conspiracy theories, but the mystery isn’t about what happened to them. The what is simple: injuries and cold killed them. It took a while for the search teams to find them, but all nine bodies were eventually recovered and identified, the causes of death determined. Death by exposure and hypothermia in the Ural Mountains in winter is commonplace, not mysterious, but the story has endured.

Even the landscape carries a reminder now: The pass was later renamed after Igor Dyatlov, the young engineering student who led the trek. The original name of the location is, in fact, Dead Mountain, in the language of the indigenous Mansi people, but it’s only called that because it’s a barren peak with nothing growing on it.

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two books about one infamous failure

A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke by James Horn (Basic Books, 2010)

Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony by Lee Miller (Penguin, 2000)

The story of what happened to the colony of Roanoke is one of those odd enduring myths in American history. Roanoke certainly wasn’t the first or the last colony in the Americas to fail miserably. (Both the French Huguenots and the Spanish Jesuits beat the English “planters” in the “Establish A Colony, Everybody Dies” game by more than a decade.) Roanoke stands out in American lore because its 115 people supposedly vanished without a trace (if by “without a trace” we mean “actually there were all kinds of traces, some of them literally carved into trees”). That mystery allows for all kinds of interpretations, ranging from the mundane to the (hilariously) supernatural, often with a focus on the colony itself rather than the context in which it failed. Understandable, from a narrative perspective, but not terribly robust from a historical perspective.

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a book, a universe, several potential band names, and all the zeros

10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 is a very large number.

An observation from the Obvious Things Are Obvious Department, but it’s an interesting one to think about, if you’re the sort of person who finds massively incomprehensible things interesting to think about. (You should be.) That’s 10^100, a 1 followed by 100 zeros, a number so many times bigger than our usual yardsticks for very large numbers that we have a hard time conceptualizing how big it is:

For example, the number of grains of sand on all the beaches in the world is often trotted out as an example of an incomprehensibly large number. However, a rough estimate shows that the total number of sand grains is about 10^23, a 1 followed by 23 zeros, a big number but still hopelessly inadequate to the task. How about the number of stars in the sky? The number of stars in our galaxy is close to one hundred billion, again a relatively small number. The number of stars in all the galaxies in our observable universe is about 10^22, still far too small. In fact, in the entire visible universe, the total number of protons, the fundamental building blocks of ordinary matter, is only 10^78, still a factor of ten billion trillion times too small!

From the introduction to The Five Ages of the Universe by Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin (Touchstone, 1999). It is the authors’ first attempt at explaining the scale of their chosen topic: the past, present, and future evolution of our universe, all the way from its beginning 14 billion years ago to a distant era 10^100 years in the future, the point at which, while the universe may still exist, “interesting” things will stop happening. In that context, as big and weird as it is to us now, the universe is still in its infancy. It has a long way to go.

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two protons walk into a black hole

I suspect most of us who have given it any thought have a favorite method of destroying the world. My favorite is a gamma-ray burst, because it’s a death ray from outer space. Death ray from outer space! What’s not to love? It’s so unlikely it might as well be impossible, but it’s so gloriously, stupendously inescapable and cosmic, the statistics don’t concern me. I don’t really want a death ray from outer space to obliterate the Earth’s ozone layer and inundate every living thing on the planet with lethal radiation while turning the sky brown and plummeting the planet into a catastrophic ice age, but I love thinking about what a vast and unpredictable place the universe is, and how vulnerable we are as fleshy little blobs living here.

If you do have a favorite method of destroying the world, or would like to acquire one for a conversational topic at cocktail parties, this book might be relevant to your interests:

Death from the Skies! The Science Behind the End of the World by Philip Plait

Phil Plait is probably best known as the author of the Bad Astronomy blog, source of wonderful astronomy information and news combined with ongoing, tireless criticism of creationists, climate change deniers, anti-vaccination crusaders, and many other species of anti-science idiots and their propaganda, of which the modern world has no shortage. (I considered and discarded several less kind words before settling on “idiots.” We’ll go with “idiots.”) I enjoy reading Bad Astronomy, so I figured I would enjoy this book too, as it is on one of my favorite topics: how the universe is trying to kill us.

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