Five Billion Vodka Bottles to the Moon: Tales of a Soviet Scientist, by Iosif Shklovsky
Look! It's my first book of 2013, and it only took me 3 weeks into the new year! I found this book at Dwight's excellent A Common Reader blog, and I knew I had to have it. Unlike many books I have to have, the library owns a copy of this one, so I got to read it almost right away.
Iosif Shklovsky was a Soviet astronomer who made great strides in radio astronomy, became a leader in the space program, and helped to start the group SETI, which searches for life in the universe. Because he was Jewish, and because he was an outspoken sort of person who did not always go along with the Soviet regime, he was never really accepted into the inner circle of Soviet science.
In 1981, about 4 years before he died, Shklovsky thought he ought to write down some stories from his life--personal anecdotes, his thoughts about science in Russia, all sorts of things. He didn't expect them to be published in his lifetime or (in Russia at least) as long as the USSR endured. The English edition was published in 1991--and this is a somewhat pared-down version--and the Russian edition was not published until after that (I'm not sure when).
I had high hopes for this book when I started, and I was vindicated. Shklovsky tells great stories. He experienced World War II as a graduate student, he lived through the worst of the Stalin regime, and all sorts of things. He went to Brazil to observe a full solar eclipse, but after that, travel ceased for years as he was not allowed to travel outside the country for scientific conferences. He talks about friends and colleagues and enemies.
It's very much like reading a Soviet counterpart to Richard Feynman's stories. Shklovsky has the same overload of personality, love of practical jokes, and blunt opinion. If you have read and enjoyed Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! then this is a must-read. Or, if you are interested in Soviet history or in astronomy, it's also a must-read. I enjoyed it very much and it was just my kind of book.
The strange title comes from a neat chapter where Shklovsky plays around with numbers and talks about how you can extrapolate general statistical estimates with smaller samples of information. He figures that Soviet families spend, on average, about 10% of their income on alcohol, and estimates that the amount of alcohol consumed in Russia every year must be about 5 billion half-liter vodka bottles--enough to reach to the Moon.
This counts as my first Wishlist title! I guess I can also count it towards the Euro challenge--Shklovsky was Ukrainian so I guess I'd better put it there?