Grandpa, tell us the story about the time you sank your dad’s speedboat

When we were kids we heard the same stories many times. Some were family yarns and some were the storybooks we were being read to just before falling asleep. We found delight in re-hearing the stories we already knew. Perhaps there was a comfort in knowing how they turned out. Perhaps it was the way grandparents and other relatives told (re-enacted) the family stories every time Thanksgiving or Christmas rolled around.

As adults, some of us still do that. We watch movies multiple times. We re-read books multiple times. Each time that happens, we learn or notice something new. Right now, I’m re-reading Jeff Shaara’s A Chain of Thunder about Grant’s siege of Vicksburg and George Wald’s Therefore Choose Life (first mentioned in my blog here.) Some say that the fall of Vicksburg was more instrumental in the Union victory than the fall of Gettysburg and that Gettysburg got more press and public attention because it was closer to Washington, D.C., and other major cities. I have no idea whether or not that notion is true, though historians will probably always be debating the issue.

Nobel laureate George Wald gave an elegant lecture in 1970 as part of the Canadian Broadcasting  Corporation’s Massey Lectures series. The resulting book is a short course on how life arose on our planet. I love it because it’s clear and meant for general readers rather than scientists, and that means it goes a long way in explaining the unbroken chain of life that’s responsible for all of us on the planet.

One interesting point in the book is that man has no specifications and continues to evolve. Technological creations always have specifications and–not counting where AI might take us– technology is engraved in stone once it’s become a product. That is, it cannot evolve. Wald was well-known outside of scientific circles during the 60s and 70s because he was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War.

He tells the story of life on earth the way grandpa might tell how and why the family’s speedboat sank near Alligator Point, Florida. It’s accessible. It’s interesting. And perhaps it explains why we’re here. As Wald would say, atoms, molecules, and the universe itself know themselves because man has seen them, thought about them, and written about them. What a magnificent story.

As for Jeff Sharra, I’ve read all of his books because he took his father’s book, The Killer Angels, about the battle of Gettysburg, and wrote novels about what happened before and after that battle. Then he began writing about other wars and other battles. These books tell me stories I did not hear in history class. Like the stories I heard as a child, I know how these stories will end, but the telling has a lot of spirit and spunk and draws me back to them. Wald’s story is more open-ended, in many ways dependent on what we do not about climate change and other issues of the day.


P.S. We did sink the speedboat.