History’s Hidden Heroes: Nilakantha Somayaji

illustration of children holding hands around the worldThe first step in educating yourself is to admit ignorance – and I am woefully, horribly ignorant.  This was made abundantly clear to me today when I was googling stuff and came across the name, “Nilakantha Somayaji, Indian Astronomer”.

It was then that I realized that, although if pressed I would probably assume that there must have been astronomers in India’s extremely lengthy history, I could not name a single one.  This is embarrassing.  However, I hate to waste a good case of embarrassment when I can turn it to a greater good, so watch for this blog’s new monthly feature on scientists and others who were been neglected by my Californian high school text-book.  I’m calling this feature “History’s Hidden Heroes”, but I’m aware that just because a person’s history isn’t well-known in the United States doesn’t mean it’s not well-known elsewhere.  It’s been hidden from me, specifically, and I want to un-hide it.

So, who was Nilakantha Somayaji?  He was born on this date, in 1444, and he seems to have lived about a hundred years – impressive!  He was a mathematician and astronomer of the Kerala School of Mathematics and Astronomy.  As the name suggests, this school was located in Kerala, India, and was at its greatest between the 14th and 16th centuries.  Nilakantha Somayaji wrote a treatise on astronomy called Tantrasamgraha.  This treatise also contains many of his mathematical equations.  A more detailed description of the contents of Tantrasamgraha can be found at this article by J.J. O’Connor and E.F. Robertson.

As a layperson and as someone who is math-phobic, it’s difficult for me to grasp or sum up the work that Nilakantha Somayaji was doing, but I think I can safely describe him as having done considerable work towards deepening understanding of how the solar system was organized and how it moved.  He also made significant contributions to algebra, geometry, and calculus.  Certainly his life shows us what amazing intellectual work was being done in India during his lifetime.

Who shall we talk about next month?  Got a favorite hidden hero?

Best Genre Summer Reading for Grown-Ups

book on beackNow that we’ve lined up summer reading for the kids, it’s time for the adults to have a turn.  Here’s a handful of the best genre summer reading books.  I’m leaving off a few of my very favorites for a post on great romance books later in June – so stay tuned for that.

I feel strongly that a summer reading book must be:

  • light
  • entertaining
  • smart but not jargonistic or pretentious

I’m also fond of reading about summer during summer – until I get so hot that I have to read about Arctic exploration.  Here’s a few of my favorites:

The Sookie Stackhouse Novels, by Charlaine Harris

I just started reading the final book in the series – for God’s sake, no one tell me how it ends.  This series is best known for inspiring the HBO series, True Blood.  However, although it is sexy and mysterious and frequently violent, it’s nowhere near as dark or graphic as the HBO series.  I’d say the books would be rated PG-13, occasionally veering into R, while the HBO series is more of an NC-17.  The books are light yet smart and exciting, and they involve hot days and nights, cold beer, sweet iced tea, and pretty people doing dangerous and sexy things.  Perfect for the beach.

Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson

This book takes hacking, cypberpunk, 1001 Nights, The Arab Spring, and an incredibly sweet love story, and combines these ingredients to make a modern fairy tale that feels both utterly real and completely fantastic.  Its appeal reaches beyond fans of fantasy, because it is so inventive and grounded.  It’s a book that stays in the mind long after you read it.

Evil Under the Sun, and Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie

I don’t know what it is about summer that makes me get my Agatha on, but out of her dozens of books, these are my two favorites for a lazy summer day.  Evil Under the Sun takes place at a beach resort, and Death on the Nile involves a group of tourists in Egypt.  Both feature my favorite detective, Hercule Poirot.

Redshirts, by John Scalzi, Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, and Libriomancer, by Jim C. Hines

I list these three together because they are both very meta (also, I read them all within a two-week period so they are permanently linked in my brain).  Redshirts tends to be filed under science fiction, although it’s more accurate to describe it as a fantasy novel about science fiction.  Ready Player One is science fiction, and Libriomancer is fantasy.

All three of these books are very much about the love fans have for their favorite things – their favorite shows (Redshirts) their favorite games and movies (Ready Player One) and books (Libriomancer).  They are love letters for geeks.  They are touching, exciting, ferociously intelligent but instantly approachable, and wildly entertaining.

Children’s Fantasy:  Wrinkle in Time, Narnia, and Harry Potter

You can’t go wrong with the classics (by Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, and J.K. Rowling, respectively).  These three series were ostensibly written for children and teens, but the older one becomes the more layers appear.  I’d have to add a few other favorites to this list:  Secret Garden and A Little Princess (by Frances Hodgson Burnett), and Wind in the Willows (by Kenneth Grahame).  And it wouldn’t kill you to re-read Winnie the Pooh – a book that gets funnier every year.  I realize to my horror that some people only know Winnie the Pooh from the Disney cartoon.  If this is you, then run, do not walk, to your library and read the original, by A.A. Milne.  You’ll be amazed by the poetic wit of this lovely book.

The Little Things That Make A Difference

article-new-ehow-images-a07-ic-ep-grow-tree-seedlings-800x800This quote landed on my Facebook page today, and I can’t stop thinking about it.  It’s from Wangari Maathai:

It’s the little things citizens do.  That’s what will make the difference.  My little thing is planting trees.

Now, planting trees was hardly a “little thing” for Wangari Maathai.  She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work on behalf of the environment and on behalf of human rights.  With the Green Belt Movement, she assisted women in planting over 20 million trees.  Her full biography is here, at Nobelprize.org.

Still, her words reminded me of what an impact small things can have.  I believe that lives of great and public heroism and leadership are wonderful and amazing.  But I also see value in the accumulation of little things – small acts of kindness and responsibility woven into our daily lives.   As Eleanor Roosevelt said,

Where, after all, do human rights begin?  In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world.  Yet they are the world of the individual person:  the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works.  such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, and equal dignity without discrimination.  Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.

What are some of the little things you do?  What small acts of kindness have made your own life better?

Mini Review: Her Sky Cowboy, by Beth Ciotta

Cover of Her Sky CowboyHer Sky Cowboy is a fun steampunk romance that takes as many crazy elements as possible and throws them all together.  It’s hard to get emotionally invested in the book, because the characters, while they have many merits, are pretty much stock characters.  Still, it’s a fun ride.  If you are a steampunk fan, you’ll get a kick out of this book.  If you’re not a steampunk fan, you won’t find much in the way of depth or emotional content to hold your interest.  It’s the first in a trilogy.

Not sure if it’s for you?  Here’s a partial list of some of the elements in the book:

  • Airships
  • Time travelling hippies
  • Victorians
  • Janis Joplin singing “Piece of my Heart” on a zeppelin
  • A mechanical Pegasus
  • Pirates

A full-length review is available at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

Hilarious Shakespeare for Your Viewing Pleasure

WednesdayVideoJoss Whedon’s new movie, Much Ado About Nothing, opens on Friday, which of course means that I am mad with excitement.  As a long-time Whedon fan, I know most of these actors from their other work on Whedon shows.  I have no idea whether or not this movie will be a good movie, but I do hope that it will be just like going to a party with my best friends. Anyway, in my quest for a suitable pre-movie video, I found this gem, in which Christopher Reeve and the Muppets put on Hamlet. Then, just when I thought my life could not possibly improve, I discovered another clip featuring my hero, The Swedish Chef.  So without further ado…THE MUPPETS!

Kid-Friendly Comic (and Other) Books For Summer

Got kids who are looking for summer reading?  My daughter, who insists on being called “Black Widow” in this blog, is an avid comic book reader and she is here to share her summer reading recommendations.  Black Widow is a nine-year old girl, about to start fourth grade.  Here’s what she recommends for young comics fans:

Rapunzel’s Revenge

By Shannon and Dean Hale

By Shannon and Dean Hale, Published by Bloomsbury USA Children’s

Black Widow says:

It’s exciting!  It’s about a girl who wants to get her mother back, and doesn’t like it when people steal stuff.  I like her.

Mom (that would be me) says:

This is an exciting, funny, and at times heart-rending and heart-warming story of Rapunzel’s quest to escape from her tower, save her mother, and defeat the woman who not only imprisoned her but has also oppressed the country.  This re-telling effectively mixes fairy tale tropes with those of the Old West, and Rapunzel is a great heroine – smart, determined, and brave.

The Adventures of Tintin

Written by Georges Remi, Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Written by Georges Remi, Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Black Widow says:  Parts of it are funny, and it has mystery.

Mom says:  Tintin is as exciting and fresh now as when it came out, but watch out for horribly dated prejudices.  Pick your stories with care and your kids will have a great time watching Tintin and his dog use brains and bravery to solve mysteries and get the bad guys.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Written by Jeff, Kinney, Published by Amulet books

Written by Jeff, Kinney, Published by Amulet books

Black Widow says:  This is not a comic, exactly, but it has comics in it.  I like it cause it’s really funny.

Mom says:  I haven’t read this myself (and what a strange feeling to know that my daughter is old enough now that she reads things that I haven’t read to her!).  I can’t say personally how good these books are, but this series seems to be pure reading crack for the third grade set.

Girl Genius

By Phil and Kaja Folio, Published by TOR

By Phil and Kaja Folio, Published by TOR

Black Widow says:  She’s a girl, and she’s a genius!  Also I like the art.

Mom says:  This is definitely PG stuff.  It’s written for adults, and Agatha spends a lot of time in Victorian underwear.  I’d recommend it for ages nine and up, depending on your comfort level with the material.  Girl Genius is available in print or as a free online web comic, and it is one of my favorites.  At our house, we never get enough of Agatha’s brains, the steampunk insanity, the madcap humor and non-stop action, and above all the copious amounts of Mad Science.  Read it your self, and then show it to your kids if you think it’s appropriate.

And here’s a couple of bonus reviews from kids who happened to be hanging out at my house while I was typing.  Mickey Mouse, age 10, recommends:

The Mysterious Benedict Society Series

Mysterious Benedict Society

Written by Trevor Stewart, published by Little, Brown and Company

She says, “They’re long and interesting.  The kids are prodigies and they go on such crazy adventures and its fun to put yourself in their place and think of what I would do in their place.”

Flowergirl , age six, likes:

The Magic Tree House Series

Magic Treehouse Series covers

Written by Mary Pope Osborne, Published by Random House

Flower girl says, “they are fun and exciting.  Like, they go on adventures most of the time and they go to places in books.  It’s cool and that’s why I like them.”