New Books and ARCs, 3/25/16

To send us off into the Easter weekend, please see this fine stack of new books and ARCs that have arrived at the Scalzi Compound. Do you see anything you’d like to have the Easter Bunny deliver to you? Let us know in the comments!

Nikon D750 First Impressions

I’ve had my new Nikon D750 for a couple of days now, which is enough time to offer up my first impressions of it for those of you who have an interest in such things.

Not entirely surprisingly, I like it a lot. It’s a definite improvement over my previous DSLR, the Nikon 5100, which, to be clear, is a perfectly capable camera, which is why I gifted it to Athena. But the D750 offers a larger and more sensitive sensor and also 50% more resolution, among other improvements including wider effective ISO range and a faster shutter. What I notice mostly after a few days with the camera is that it’s more responsive in low light than the 5100, which is great because I hate using flash, and that the sensor picks up more data so its easier to tease out a useful picture. As an example, see the pictures above; the first one was the picture as it came out of the camera; the second was what what I was able to pull out of it using Photoshop on the RAW format file. That’s not bad!

I noted that I decided against the “kit” lens for the D750 and instead bought a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens, as well as a 28-300mm f/3.5 – 5.6 zoom lens with vibration control. Of the two the zoom lens is the easier one for me to use so far because it’s operable like the kit lens on the 5100 and also offers a lot of flexibility, in terms of being able to zoom in on a subject, and the vibration control means somewhat fewer fuzzy pictures. The prime lens is a little bit tricker for me, at least right now — you pretty much have to take it on its own terms. The photos I’m getting from it are great, but I’m also having to take a lot more pictures to get to that one great one. This is not a complaint, just a recognition there’s a learning curve going on with that lens.

And with the camera generally, I have to say. The D750 is more camera than I necessarily know what to do with yet, which is, mind you, one of the reasons I bought it; I want to be able to explore its capabilities. That said, most of the time what I end up doing with DSLRs is setting them to take pictures in RAW format and then use Photoshop and other software to do what other photographers do in camera, through settings. I don’t think this is a problem — the camera doesn’t care, and I’m not worried about impressing other photographers — but I am constantly reminded that the camera offers more than I use, and it’s up to me to follow up on that.

All told, however, I’m very pleased with my purchase. I’ll probably take it along with me to the next couple of conventions I’m at, so if I see you there, come over and take a look.

Reader Request Week 2016 #8: STEM and STEAM

Andy Farke asks:

For decades now, various think-pieces have commented on a divide between sciences and humanities. “The Two Cultures” by C.P. Snow is an early version of this, but it is manifested today in discussions about STEM and STEAM, the value of liberal arts, and discussions on the purpose of a college education. To some extent, science fiction writers inhabit multiple worlds. Do you think that a science/humanities divide is real, and if it is, how could it it be bridged? Or is it necessarily something that needs to be bridged? I’ve often seen the issue framed as how scientists can learn something from those in the humanities, and would be interested in your thoughts on that; but what about the reverse situation?

I don’t think it would come as a surprise to anyone that I am a proponent of the classical idea of a liberal education, in which the aim of the education is to create independently acting and thinking human beings who are well educated on a broad number of subjects, so these people are able to meaningfully contribute to the development, maintenance and governance of their nation and world.

To that end, a broad education for everyone includes not only science but humanities; not just humanities but science. A scientist should through her education be able to understand and appreciate a sonnet or a symphony or a painting; a writer should be able through education to understand paleontology or astronomy or physics.

Indeed, I think what probably needs to be chucked entirely is the idea that science and humanities are on either side of the fence from each other. Music is based in science, as an example; acoustics, mathematics, psychology and biology all play a role in how music is made and appreciated. The musician who knows about these topics (among others) has potentially better control of their instrument — not just the one they play, but the one in their head. Blocking yourself off from any knowledge because you perceive it as being on “the other side of the fence” is intentionally hobbling yourself and your creativity. The more complete your knowledge, and the better your education prepares you to synthesize knowledge from disparate sources, the more you can do with the talents you have.

Here’s a fun fact about me: when I was a kid, I wanted to be scientist. In point of fact, I wanted to be an astronomer. That was what I wanted to be until I got into junior high and then all of a sudden math became something that was really difficult for me. Fortunately around that time I started to realize that writing was something I was good at, and so my ambitions shifted. But when I decided to write instead of going into science, I didn’t throw away my love for astronomy or other branches of science. It was still great stuff even if I bumped up against the limits of my mathematical talent. My education in science continued, commensurate to my level of understanding.

Decades later that education keeps paying off, and not just in the sense of my job. Although it has in that, certainly — I’m a science fiction writer who uses the contemporary understanding of science as the springboard for fictional speculation about the universe. I’ve also written about science as well, in newspaper and magazine articles over the years as well as in books, including my own astronomy book, which was widely-praised and which went through two editions. Science has been good for my mortgage.

But as I noted above, I don’t think you get an education for your job (or just for a job). That science education also keeps paying off in how I’m able to understand what’s going on in the world in general, which matters for how I think and how I live and (importantly, especially these days) how I vote. Knowing science in addition to all the things I know about the humanities makes me a more engaged citizen and human.

Of course, not everyone is interested in science, or literature, or math, or whatever, and that’s totally fair. But here’s a thing I believe: 80% of every possible subject is understandable to the average human being — it’s that end 20% where you start getting into specialized knowledge which requires real commitment to the subject. I’m not worried about that last 20%; I’m more interested in that 80% most people can follow. If we can manage educating people on that part, we’re good.

This thinking is also, not entirely surprisingly, why I decided to go to the University of Chicago, which had (and has) a “core curriculum” which every student has to take. The core curriculum of the school has expanded a bit since I was there — it is not so insistent on the dead white guys, as I understand it — but what remains is the important part of a liberal education: The idea of a broad-based, wide-ranging education across disciplines, designed to impart knowledge but also designed to teach one how to learn, and how to cross-pollinate concepts and ideas across many different fields.

Mind you, there are a lot of people who don’t feel this sort of education is important, i.e., “shut up I’m just here to learn how to code/write/diagnose/whatever” and ask why, especially on the college level, they should spend tens of thousands of dollars to learn things that they don’t find important. Well, again, it depends on what you think education is for. If it’s just for a job, fair enough. But if it’s for more than a job — and I think it is — then you’re doing yourself a disservice not getting a wide education, and you’re doing the rest of us a disservice while you’re at it. These days in particular we have enough of people who only know a little and don’t care to know anything else.

So, yes: The division between science and humanities is more artificial than not, and everyone could stand having a wide-ranging education on a number of subjects, no matter what they currently do or what they want to be when they grow up. What I want everyone to be when they grow up is well-educated and able to reason adequately. It’s not guaranteed that this will make for a better world, but again, going in the other direction doesn’t seem to be doing us any favors these days.