The Science Of “Hangover Cures”

Here’s some useful information to keep in mind as we head into the weekend: according to a study published in the journal Addiction, researchers have concluded that that there is no convincing scientific evidence that hangover cures actually work— so plan your activities accordingly.

Everyone who has ever overindulged, or knows someone who did, has heard of one purported “hangover cure” or another. One of my college friends swore that chewing and then swallowing multiple dry Excedrin tablets, without water, was a sure-fire remedy; another touted the consumption of a platter of french fries covered with rich brown gravy to soak up and counteract the evil alcoholic juices still working in the stomach. Other claimed remedies of my college days involved concoctions made with raw eggs, hot sauce, and other random ingredients that you would never consume if you weren’t desperately dealing with a pounding headache, cotton mouth, sour stomach, and generally impaired senses caused by your foolish activities of the night before. And, of course, some inveterate partiers simply turned to the hair of the dog that bit them.

Scientists, being scientists, recognize that hangovers aren’t pleasant. The lead author of the study, Dr. Emmert Roberts, says, with admirable, clinical understatement: “Hangover symptoms can cause significant distress and affect people’s employment and academic performance.” So the researchers looked at studies of items like clove extract, red ginseng, Korean pear juice, artichoke extract, prickly pear, and other claimed hangover cures. They found that the studies either didn’t show statistically significant improvements in hangover symptoms or, if they did show such results, involved various kinds of methodological limitations or imprecise measurements. And the results of the studies haven’t been independently replicated, either.

But take heart! Scientists recognize that hangovers suck, and that remedies deserve more careful and rigorous study. Until that happens, though, Dr. Roberts offers this advice: “For now, the surest way of preventing hangover symptoms is to abstain from alcohol or drink in moderation.” And if you just can’t follow his advice this weekend, be sure to drink lots of water and have a bottle of Excedrin and some french fries and gravy on hand, just in case.

Bird, Undeterred

Here’s what I consider to be pretty much conclusive evidence that the behavior of creatures is not solely determined by genetics, and that environment has an impact: Caribbean birds. St. Lucia, the southern Caribbean island we are visiting, has many familiar bird species, but the conduct of the birds is definitely different from the conduct of the birds of the Midwest.

This pigeon-like bird rested on the guardrail of our cottage, about a foot away from me, for a long time this morning. Unlike jumpy central Ohio birds, he didn’t flutter off at any movement on my part. Instead, he confidently strutted up and down the railing, eyeing me with apparent disdain because I wasn’t eating anything that would yield a crumb or two for him to seize. His pugnacious attitude reminded me of the tough-guy pigeon gangs you see in New York City, or Paris.

The pigeon’s haughty ‘tude, however, was nothing compared to the sparrow-like birds that hang around the breakfast patio. Those little guys hop closer and closer to the food on the plate, undeterred by repeated shooing, until they finally dare to perch on the side of the plate and take a nibble of a half-eaten pastry. And when guest rise from their table, the birds descend in force and tear away every scrap of food they can get in their beaks like they own the place.

In the Midwest, birds are timid creatures who don’t want any part of interaction with humans. In the Caribbean, birds are aggressive in taking what they want, whether humans are nearby or not. And I have no doubt that if you transported Columbus birds to St. Lucia, they’d get roughed up a bit by the natives at first, but then would quickly learn that if they want to rule the roost, they’d better adopt the Caribbean approach and take what they want.

Einstein’s Latest Test

One of the greatest things about true science is the constant skepticism about accepted truths. Scientific theories are adopted, then are disproven by data gathered from experiments designed to test them, new theories to fit the data are developed, and the general understanding about how the world works is advanced, step by step.

So it is not surprising that scientific researchers continue to test everything: even Albert Einstein’s famous theory of general relativity. In this case, however, Einstein’s theory passed the test . . . again.

The latest experiment involved using deep space telescopes to look at the effects of gravity on space-time in the area around distant pulsars–dense, highly magnetized objects that rotate rapidly and emit beams of electromagnetic out of their poles. The pulsars being examined were part of a double-pulsar system that was discovered in 2003. The amount of energy emitted from the two pulsars is enormous and the two stars generate very strong gravitational fields, allowing scientists on Earth to precisely study the energy carried by gravitational waves, even though the pulsars are 3,000 light years away. And their analysis of the data they gathered confirmed one of the cornerstones of Einstein’s theory.

When you think about it, Albert Einstein must be ranked as one of the most extraordinary human beings in history. He developed his sweeping theories of special and general relativity largely through the use of abstract “thought experiments,” and those theories have since been repeatedly confirmed by real-world data that did not exist when Einstein first developed the theories. Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which addressed the effect of gravity on space-time, was published in 1915–before objects like pulsars were even discovered or sophisticated deep space telescopes that could gather data from dense celestial objects like pulsars were created.

How did he do it, and will we ever see such rare genius again? Those questions may never be answered, but in the meantime Einstein’s theories are ready to face the next test.

The Scientific Pursuit Of Happiness

Scientists have been analyzing happiness for a long time–probably for as long as “science” has existed as a discipline separate from philosophy or religion. The basic questions being explored are straightforward: Why do some people seem to be happier than others? How much personal happiness is genetic, and how much is the product of environment or intentional activity? These age-old questions have taken on added urgency recently, with so many people in the modern world struggling with depression, stress, and anxiety–and COVID isn’t exactly helping, either.

A recent article summarized the current scientific landscape on the analysis of happiness. It notes that the modern framework for the analysis was set by a 2005 article in General Psychology called “Pursuing Happiness: The Structure of Sustainable Change.” The summary of that article describes its analysis as follows: “surprisingly little scientific research has focused on the question of how happiness can be increased and then sustained, probably because of pessimism engendered by the concepts of genetic determinism and hedonic adaptation. Nevertheless, emerging sources of optimism exist regarding the possibility of permanent increases in happiness. Drawing on the past well-being literature, the authors propose that a person’s chronic happiness level is governed by 3 major factors: a genetically determined set point for happiness, happiness-relevant circumstantial factors, and happiness-relevant activities and practices.”

Only scientists would use a phrase like “chronic happiness level.” But stripped of the scientific verbiage, the article posited that some element of individual happiness is determined by genetics and therefore beyond your control, another element is based on your environment, and yet another element is based on activities and practices that affect your happiness–activities and practices that you can control. The 2005 article even attributed percentages to each of the three elements, with 50 percent of the variance in happiness attributed to genetics, 10 percent to environment, and 40 percent to activities and practices. This 50-10-40 hypothesis was seen by some as a “happiness pie.”

As with any scientific hypothesis, the “happiness pie” analysis has been criticized, primarily on the ground that it is pretty hard to distinguish genetic factors from environmental factors. One 2019 article in the Journal of Happiness Studies (yes, there evidently is such a publication) noted: “We conclude that there is little empirical evidence for the variance decomposition suggested by the “happiness pie,” and that even if it were valid, it is not necessarily informative with respect to the question of whether individuals can truly exert substantial infuence over their own chronic happiness level.”

It’s the scientific equivalent of the theological argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But there does seem to be consensus on three basic propositions: (1) genetics play a role, and some people are genetically disposed to be in a happier frame of mind than others; (2) your environment has an impact on happiness; and (3) what you are doing at a particular point in time–such as running through a sprinkler on a hot summer day, like the happy kid in the photo above–can affect your happiness.

In view of that, what’s the point of arguing about what percentage of happiness should be assigned to each of those three factors? You can’t control your genes, and you can’t control how your environment shaped you when you were growing up. But you can identify what you enjoy–whether it is exercising, listening to your favorite music, spending time with friends and loved ones, volunteering, or some other activity–and try to work those activities into your day. And, in big-picture terms, you might be able to change your environment going forward to a place or setting that is more likely to make you happy, too. And part of changing your environment is identifying what makes you unhappy–like jerky behavior on social media, for example–and trying to change or avoid it.

So why debate percentages? If trying to structure your day to maximize the conduct and activities that you really like can make you happier–even if it is only an incremental increase–why not do it? What have you got to lose?

Another Month, Another Variant

The world is up in arms about the latest COVID-19 variant. The new variant, named “Omicron” by the World Health Organization, emerged in South Africa and in only a few days has traveled across the world. Dr. Anthony Fauci says he wouldn’t be surprised if the Omicron variant is already in the United States.

“Omicron” seems like an odd name for a virus, at least to me. It sounds like one of those anonymous planets visited by the Starship Enterprise where one or two guys in red shirts met an untimely death, or the name of one of the Transformers. But there is a rational basis for the choice. The WHO started naming the variants after letters in the Greek alphabet, and “omicron” is the 15th letter. That means we’ve cycled through 13 prior named variants. (The WHO skipped “nu” and “xi,” purportedly because “nu” could be confused with “new” and “xi” is a common last name–which just happens to be the name of the Chinese president). Of the 13 variants, the WHO has designated five as “variants of concern”: alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and omicron.

The emergence of the new variant has produced the by-now-familiar scenes of government officials scrambling to determine their responses, because “Omicron” is seen as having the “potential” to be more resistant to vaccination protection. Some governments, including the U.S., have imposed travel restrictions in an effort to allow time to determine whether the new variant is more transmissible than the “delta” variant that we’ve heard so much about. The U.S. has restricted entry by non-U.S. citizens traveling from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. Other countries have gone farther; Israel, for example, has closed its borders to all foreign travelers.

Brace yourself, folks: we may be in for another round of government-mandated restrictions, closures, and mandates. This time, however, the surrounding circumstances are likely to be different: regulators will be dealing with a population that includes a lot of mask-weary, restriction-fatigued people that might not be as willing to comply with new edicts. In addition, the legality of the prior COVID-related orders, such as President Biden’s vaccination mandate, are working their way through our court systems, and some state courts have struck down such orders on state constitutional grounds. The legal challenges and prior court rulings are likely to complicate the issuance of new, sweeping mandates by federal, state, and local governments.

So now we’ve got “Omicron” to deal with. In case you’re interested, the upcoming letters in the Greek alphabet that could become the names of newly emerging COVID variants are pi, rho, and sigma. I guess we should all be grateful that the “pi” variant didn’t show up before Thanksgiving, our greatest pie holiday.

The Year Of The UFO

Some people have dubbed 2021 “The Year Of The UFO.” A Forbes article published this week recounts some of the UFO-related event that have occurred this year. They include a spike in UFO sightings, as well as the release of UFO-related reports and documents by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Forbes summarizes the latter report as addressing “144 UFO sightings by Navy pilots since 2004, with intelligence officials unable to explain 143 of the sightings, but concluding they are likely real objects that could pose a threat to national security.”

The most recent milestone in “The Year Of The UFO” came just a few days ago, when the Pentagon issued a press release announcing the creation of a new program called the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group. The AOIMSG will collect and review reports of UFOs in special use airspace, like the areas around military bases, to “assess and mitigate any associated threats to safety of flight and national security.” The new initiative suggests that the U.S. military is taking the issue of UFOs seriously–which is quite a difference from the days when UFO sightings were routinely dismissed as reflections from “swamp gas” or other figments of overactive imaginations.

Of course, UFOs don’t necessarily mean we’ve been visited by technologically advanced extraterrestrial beings. But if other life out there wanted to visit Earth, it’s worth noting that our little planet wouldn’t be especially hard to find–as an interesting article published earlier this year points out. An Austrian astrophysicist considered whether other nearby star systems would be in a position to see our planet transiting the Sun, which is one of the techniques that our scientists currently use to identify planets in other star systems. She concluded that hundreds of star systems could have used that method to spot Earth since the dawn of recorded human history, and hundreds more could do so in the future.

Who knows? If there is life in those other star systems, maybe they’ve decided to pay us a visit. Let’s face it: as weird as 2021 has been, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.

White Paint, Squared

Scientists at Purdue University have created the whitest white paint ever made–a paint so white it has been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the whitest paint in history. (Who would have thought there was even such a category?)

This isn’t of interest to only those people who like to go to paint stores to get those little paint squares and then debate whether their ceilings should be painted in eggshell, or pearl, or alabaster. The whole point of the whitest paint invention process was to try to develop a paint that could actually conserve energy, and thereby address climate change, by making a paint that is as reflective of sunlight as possible. As scientists worked on the problem, they discovered that sunlight reflection and dazzling whiteness went hand in hand.

The new paint is much more reflective than commercially available white paint–bouncing back 98.1 percent of solar radiation–and it also emits infrared heat. As a result, a surface coated with the paint, such as a roof, or the walls of a house, becomes cooler than the surrounding temperature. Using the paint therefore could help to cool buildings and reduce the need for air conditioners and their power consumption, which could relieve the pressure on the nation’s already taxed power grid and the environmental effects associated with generation of electric power.

It’s a pretty ingenious, and painless, way of conserving energy. And who knew? It turns out that inventing a brilliant new white paint is a lot more exciting than watching paint dry.

The Dangers Of Debris

On November 11, the International Space Station (“ISS”) had to make an unplanned course correction. A supply ship docked to the station had to fire its rockets for about six minutes to change the station’s speed and raise its orbit slightly so the ISS could avoid striking a large piece of space debris that could have damaged the ISS and imperiled the crew of astronauts and cosmonauts on board.

Unfortunately, the space around the Earth is getting increasingly crowded. In fact, it has become a kind of junkyard up there. In the November 11 incident, the ISS dodged a part of a Chinese weather satellite that was destroyed in 2007 by a Chinese anti-satellite missile test.  It doesn’t help that governments are blasting their own satellites into smithereens, adding to the existing debris fields. The article linked above notes that the 2007 missile test smashed the Chinese weather satellite “into more than 3,500 pieces of debris, most of which are still orbiting” and many of which “have now fallen into the ISS’s orbital region.”

And governments are continuing to use their satellites for target practice, notwithstanding the risks. Just this week, the Russian government conducted a missile tests on one of its old satellites that created more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris that required the crew of the ISS to take shelter in their return ships. When the United States protested what it called a “dangerous and irresponsible” missile test, the Russians blithely replied that they were tracking the debris it created and claimed that the safety of the ISS crew was their “main priority.” Of course, in this case actions speak a lot louder than words.

Incidentally, the target for the Russian missile strike was an intelligence satellite that the now-defunct Soviet Union launched in 1982 that has been inoperative for decades. When you consider all of the old satellites that are in orbit around Earth, you realize it’s a target-rich environment for trigger-happy governments. And the overcrowding and debris problem gets worse with every new launch of a communications satellite to support cellphone and internet services.

We’ve got to figure out a way to address the space debris problem so the ISS, and the space stations to come, aren’t unnecessarily put in danger. Step one would be to get governments to address to stop blasting their own old satellites and littering the orbital pathways with dangerous junk. Step two would be to reach agreement on an approach to retrieving the junk and defunct satellites and safely returning them to Earth. With all of the space-related activity that has been occurring recently, you’d think that governments could put their missiles aside for a while and reach agreement on a way to clear the near-Earth space and allow everyone to use it.

Confirming The Obvious

Sometimes you have to wonder why certain medical studies get done in the first place. They don’t seem to do anything but confirm what should be obvious truths about personal health and well-being.

For example, you’ve known since you were a kid that going outside and getting some exercise is good for you. You probably first learned that when your Mom walked past the family room, saw you and your brother sitting cross-legged on the floor watching cartoons, and marched in, turned off the TV, and told the two of you in no uncertain terms to go outside, “get some fresh air,” and play with your neighborhood friends for a while. And in this, as in all things, motherly wisdom was unerring: cartoons were great, but messing around outside with your friends and playing football or riding bikes or exploring the neighborhood was even more fun.

And. not surprisingly, Mom was right about the benefits of getting that “fresh air” and exercise, too–as a new medical study confirms. The study looked at the impact of the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when stay at home orders first took effect. It found that people who spent more time sitting during that time period–because they weren’t walking to their workplaces, or their cars, or conference rooms for in-person meetings, or to lunch with their officemates–were more likely to have higher symptoms of depression. And, of course, the depressive effect is in addition to (although possibly correlated with) the rise in obesity during the more sedentary work from home days of the pandemic.

The researchers of this latest “confirming the obvious” health study recommend that people working from home focus on getting off their duffs and finding ways to build some walking and outdoor time into their days, such as by taking walks before their workday starts, at a designated lunch hour, and after the workday has ended. It’s exactly the kind of instruction your Mom would have given.

An Old Crab

From time to time–typically after I’ve made a curmudgeonly comment about some regrettable modern development–I’ve been accused of being an “old crab.” A recently announced scientific discovery allows me to respond that if such naysayers want to see a really old crab, they need look no farther than the ancient crab, pictured above, that was discovered trapped in amber.

It’s an old crab, for sure. In fact, it’s 100 million years old, which means that this little guy was scuttling around during the Cretaceous period, while dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, when he had the misfortune of becoming trapped in tree resin that later became amber. The crab, called Cretapsara athanata, is the oldest modern-looking crab and the most complete fossil crab ever discovered.

The remarkable specimen is so complete that scientists could examine the crab’s entire body, including delicate tissues, like the antennae and mouthparts lined with fine hairs. And when they examined the crab, researchers got a surprise: they discovered the animal also had gills, but no lungs. That indicates that Cretapsara athanata lived an aquatic or semi-aquatic life, which makes the specimen even rarer, because most fossilized crabs are land or tree-dwelling crabs.

And if you are ever called an “old crab,” bear in mind that there are many things to admire about crabs as a species. As the article linked above points out: “True crabs, or Brachyura, are an iconic group of crustaceans whose remarkable diversity of forms, species richness, and economic importance have inspired celebrations and festivals worldwide. They’ve even earned a special role in the pantheon of social media. True crabs are found all around the world, from the depths of the oceans, to coral reefs, beaches, rivers, caves, and even in trees as true crabs are among the few animal groups that have conquered land and freshwater multiple times.”

So there!

Beer And Cheese

I enjoy a meal of beer and cheese every now and then. And in that regard, I’m part of a long line of human beer-and-cheese fanciers–a line that, as a recent discovery shows, dates back thousands of years.

A study published in Modern Biology focused on well-preserved human droppings found in salt mines near Hallstatt, Austria–salt mines that have been existed for thousands of years. People who worked deep in the salt mines over the millennia took their food to work, and they weren’t shy about answering the call of nature in the mines rather than journeying back to the surface. The dehydrating salt in the soil had the effect of turning the solid human waste deposits from days of yore into desiccated samples (non-smelly, the article linked above daintily points out) that have their biomolecules still intact. That means scientists can analyze the dried-out dung to see what the humans were eating over the years.

Ah, the romance of science!

The study of the fecal remains from the Iron Age, 2,700 years ago, showed traces of brewers’ yeast–the kind that produces traditional beers like pale ales. The paleofeces also showed lots of whole grains and fibers, as well as traces of blue cheese. And the study’s authors note that the ancient working man’s diet produced healthier, and more biodiverse, gut microbes for the ancient salt miners than are seen in most modern humans because none of the food was processed.

So there you have it: beer, bread, and cheese have a long history and are healthy, to boot. And those of us who still enjoy those long-term human dietary staples, 2,700 years later, get to use modern amenities like bathrooms, too.

Does The “Diet” Belong in “Diet Sodas”?

Let’s say that you–like me, and about 99 percent of the rest of the population of the United States–are always trying to lose a few pounds. Should “diet sodas” be part of your weight loss regimen? It’s a good question, and one that has produced lots of conflicting data. Some studies indicate that diet drinks are helpful, while others show the opposite.

The most recent study looked at the effect of diet sodas sweetened with sucralose on appetite. It concluded that, for women and people who are struggling with obesity, those beverages caused increased activity in the parts of the brain that control appetite and food cravings and also caused a decline in the level of hormones that communicate that “full stomach” feeling. Participants in the study consumed the same quantities of fluids–plain water, diet soda with sucralose, and beverages sweetened with sugar–and then had their brains scanned by MRIs to gather the brain activity data while they were being shown photos of enticing foods like donuts and juicy cheeseburgers (which really seems like unfair entrapment, when you think about it).

One of the researchers concluded: “By studying different groups we were able to show that females and people with obesity may be more sensitive to artificial sweeteners. For these groups, drinking artificially sweetened drinks may trick the brain into feeling hungry, which may in turn result in more calories being consumed.”

I used to be a regular consumer of diet drinks, but I’ve pretty much stopped–mostly because my tastes changed and I’m a cheapskate, besides. I try to stick to water and coffee, and if I really feel like I want something with a more distinctive flavor I’ll put a few drops of lemon or lime juice into my water glass. A cold glass of tap water or a cup of hot coffee are pretty satisfying, when you get right down to it.

Not Forgetful, But Efficiently Brainy

In A Study In Scarlet, Doctor Watson was astonished to learn that Sherlock Holmes did not profess to know whether the sun revolved around the earth, or the earth revolved around the sun. Holmes, unembarrassed by his unfamiliarity with basic astronomy, responded to Watson with a famous analogy:

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

I thought about Holmes’ notion when I ran across this article about the relationship of intelligence and forgetfulness. It reports on a study that concludes that forgetfulness is important to “intelligent decision-making in dynamic, noisy environments.” As one of the researchers explained, the study demonstrates that “[t]he real goal of memory is to optimize decision-making. It’s important that the brain forgets irrelevant details and instead focuses on the stuff that’s going to help make decisions in the real world.”

Intelligent brains therefore are quick to jettison memory of irrelevant or unnecessary information–which might be things like the names of people you haven’t seen in months, the details of a conversation that happened some time ago, or whether the sun revolves around the earth–to ensure there is space for relevant information that will actually be needed in your daily decision-making. And here’s some good news for those of us who have been around for a while: the study indicates that older brains forget accumulated older information in order to make room for newer information. So those “senior moments” aren’t a sign of approaching mental feebleness, they are just your brain efficiently sifting through the pile of debris and trying to get the limited space in your mental attic in order.

So Sherlock Holmes was right, and the study confirms the ultimate accuracy of his analysis of the human brain as like an attic with limited storage space. Of course, being Holmes, he probably wouldn’t read about the study in the first place.

The Nature Prescription

I ran across an interesting article recently about a new kind of prescription that some doctors are issuing. According to the article, rather than prescribing drugs, the doctors are prescribing . . . nature. In order to treat conditions like stress, asthma, obesity, and anxiety, doctors are instructing patients to get off their duffs, get out of their houses, and enjoy hiking, walking, or other activities in specific parks and green spaces. The “nature prescription” is apparently particularly popular with pediatricians who are concerned about the spike in childhood anxiety, inactivity, and increasing obesity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Studies show that time spent in nature is effective in reducing stress and addressing obesity. Neither of those results should be surprising; parks are quiet, less crowded, and far away from stress inducers like rude people, news broadcasts, and angry social media posts. And while you can’t be out in nature without getting at least some exercise, you also aren’t near the refrigerator, the snack drawer, or the jug of sugary soda that might otherwise tempt you.

Doctors who are using the nature prescription approach try to be specific with their patients. They identify a park or green space near the patient, and then discuss how often the patient should go to the park and the activities they should follow for a specific period of time–say, walking briskly for 30 minutes every other day. The doctors report that a specific instruction on what to do, and for how long, is more likely to be followed by the patient than a general admonition that the patient “get more exercise.”

There are obvious challenges with “nature prescriptions”–parks to hike in are a lot easier to find in Maine than in Manhattan, for example–but I think the notion of “nature prescriptions” is a great initiative. We need to get away from the idea that every condition can be addressed with a pill, and encourage people to be more active and to exercise more control over their health and their mindsets. I’ve been following my own “nature prescription” for years, and my experience with morning walks is that fresh air, exercise, and some quiet time to think can work wonders.

Project Hail Mary

Over the weekend I finished reading Project Hail Mary, the latest book by author Andy Weir. Actually, saying I read the book really doesn’t capture the process; you might say instead that I devoured it. Weir also wrote The Martian, and if you enjoyed that book (or even just the enjoyable Matt Damon movie version of that story, although I thought the book was better), I’m pretty sure that you’ll also enjoy Project Hail Mary.

The plot of the book grabs your attention from the very first page. The main character, Ryland Grace, wakes up from an enforced multi-year coma that has left him mentally sluggish and forgetful about pretty much everything. As he slowly regains his memory, he realizes that he is on a spacecraft and was part of a three-person crew that has been sent to a faraway star system. Unfortunately, his two crewmates didn’t survive the prolonged coma, and he is alone except for his robot caretaker. As his memories gradually return, he not only realizes things about himself, he also recalls that the purpose of the mission was to try to save the Earth by figuring out a way to eliminate the threat of astrophages–tiny organisms that are consuming the Sun’s energy and threatening to convert the Earth into a frozen waste that humans and other creatures cannot survive. His crew was sent on a one-way suicide mission to the Tau Ceti system because that star–alone among the stars in our solar system’s neighborhood–isn’t showing signs of its output being affected by astrophages.

I won’t spoil the book for those who might wish to read it; obviously, I thought it was well worth the read. I do want to say two general things about the book, however. First, the book–like The Martian–makes me wish I had paid more attention to science and math courses in high school, and actually taken some more math and science classes in college. In both books, Weir’s characters routinely use their scientific knowledge, and their deftness with math, to solve imponderable problems and develop practical solutions to fend off one potential disaster after another. If school boards are looking to incentivize kids to take more math and science courses, assigning the kids to read The Martian and Project Hail Mary would be a good first step.

Second, and despite the fact that the plot of the book has the Earth and the human species teetering on the brink of extinction thanks to the astrophages ravaging the Sun, the book presents a fundamentally optimistic view. The nations of Earth manage to come together to address the astrophage blight, and Ryland Grace, like Mark Watney in The Martian, also takes a positive, cheerful approach to his impossible situation and the immense challenges he encounters. As he remembers more and more about how he got to where he is, works to overcome every challenge thrown his way, and maintains his sense of humor in the face of unimaginable circumstances, it’s hard not to come to like the guy.

It was a pleasure to read a book that projected such optimism about the future, and human beings. It was a special treat to read the book right now, when positive news and cause for optimism can sometimes be hard to find.