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Hidden Gems -- Copenhagen

Everyone recognizes the name Albert Einstein, but the 20th century was "the century of physics," and we have many other brilliant people who made enormous contributions to our understanding of the universe at the atomic, or quantum, level. Here, we have a play about two of them: Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.  Although only about 16 years apart in age, many referred to Heisenberg as "Niels Bohr's eldest son." 

They met in Göttingen in 1922. According to one anecdote, after Bohr finished a lecture Heisenberg had a contentious exchange with him during the question and answer session, perhaps a case of a young man trying to show off. Bohr looked past the youthful hubris, realizing that the young scientist had demonstrated an understanding of the higher level physics Bohr pioneered in order to be able to ask sharp questions. Bohr approached Heisenberg afterwards and asked if they could talk more. From that day forward, the two men spent much time together, mostly taking hours long walks, talking about concepts in physics that only they and about a hundred other people in the world understood. 

Then World War II started. Heisenberg belonged to a non-observant German Lutheran family, while Bohr was a Danish Jew. Although not a Nazi, Heisenberg headed Germany's atomic energy program. The two met for the last time in Bohr's home in Copenhagen in 1941. Heisenberg left very soon after arriving. Neither of them nor Bohr's wife gave a clear account of what transpired between them. Playwright Michael Frayn created a fascinating speculative history dramatizing this last encounter that I found at once engaging, suspenseful and  educational. In addition to the drama of an old friendship disintegrating and the frightening prospect of Nazi Germany acquiring the atomic bomb, you also come away from this play with a pretty good lay person's understanding of quantum physics and the construction of the atomic bomb. Frayn even covers the speculation over the years that Heisenberg secretly sabotaged the Nazi atomic program.  

The Mechanics Institute Library has three versions of Michael Frayn's brilliant play, Copenhagen:

The original script in our book collection: Copenhagen 822 F847c

The TV adaptation of the play starring Daniel Craig and Stephen Rea DVD

The Radio play adaptation by L. A. Theatre Works as an eAudiobook

Posted on May. 23, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

What book(s) are you reading right now?

A few months ago, I read a quote from Carl Sagan's book, The Demon-haunted World, that the writer Paul Ratner claimed predicted, back in 1995, our present-day social, technological and political conditions. 

“Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”

(From p. 25 in A Demon-Haunted World, quoted in A disturbing 1995 prediction by Carl Sagan accurately describes America today)

This led me to check out the book from our collection. As of this writing, I have read about three quarters and find Sagan's prescience quite inspiring. He also shares insights into human behavior I never encountered before. He starts out tracing superstition in Western culture as far back as Europe of the Middle Ages to the present - one could probably go back further, but Sagan limits the beginning of his overview to that place and point in time. Among the fascinating insights he shares along the way comes when he neatly "connects the dots" from medieval sightings of saints, angels and the Virgin Mary to contemporary UFO abductees. He also quoted, of all people, Leon Trotsky, "Not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside the 20th century the 13th." (p.16). 

In the middle of the book, various forms of pseudoscience come under his scrutiny. He recounts corresponding with people claiming they are in contact with extraterrestrials. The people making such claims invite Sagan to "ask them anything, they'll relay the answer back to him." Sagan always asked for the proof for Fermat's last theorem. No one ever relayed E.T.'s answer.  (Fermat's last theorem is a mathematical challenge solved while Sagan was writing this book. He described it as a question we have not yet answered but would recognize a correct answer should we see one). 

By far my favorite chapter I have read so far is "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection." This chapter has proven so popular that many blogs and web publications have excerpted the list of "tools" in his baloney detection kit. (The one in The Marginalian gives the best rendering of this that I can find outside of the book itself). 

Sagan stands as one of the most impressive thinkers and writers of the 20th century.  I also find myself impressed by the clarity and honesty of his writing. He readily admits to having believed in the supernatural and falling for pseudoscientific claims during his pre-college youth. He explains how he out-grew believing nonsense. He developed a keen and perceptive mind, and most importantly, the key attribute of science and scientific thought is verification; and prediction stands as the most powerful form of verification. Reading the passage quoted above, we can see his prediction, made the year before his death in 1996, and judge for ourselves the truth of what he saw coming.  


Posted on May. 19, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Hidden Gems - The Music of Bela Bartok

In the 1920s, when he was in his 40s, no less, Bela Bartok and a friend carried a reel to reel tape recorder, and big heavy batteries to power it, into the Carpathian Mountains! Among the first of what we now call ethnomusicologists, Bartok recorded Hungarian peasants playing their traditional instruments and singing songs passed down through generations. Whenever I think of what Bartok accomplished, a line from an old Jane Sibbery song, The Empty City, runs through my head: 

Because if no one gets this down -- then it's gone forever. 

Bartok saved an enormous body of music from loss through industrialization and modernity. Because the people creating the music were not educated in a music conservatory, they also did not have the limits a formal education could impose. What we called "modern" in the 20th century -- dissonance, atypical rhythms and meters, deviations from the Western standard diatonic scale -- we can hear in Bartok's music, inspired by and borrowed from the music that Bartok recorded on that heavy, cumbersome reel-to-reel tape recorder in the 1920s. He did similar research in Turkey in the 1930s and later worked at Columbia University Libraries with his wife classifying Serbian and Croatian folk music. 

Bartok immigrated to the United States in 1940, having antagonized the Hungarian government with his outspoken anti-fascist views. In the last 5 years of his life, his music did not enjoy much popularity, although he did earn some money from concerts. He died of leukemia in 1945. 

In the 1950s, another Hungarian-American, the comedian Ernie Kovacs, in an episode of his innovative television show, staged a wordless New York City street scene to Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. This segment, so unusual and wonderful, came out of that period of television programming in which brilliant people explored the possibilities of the new medium.  

Ernie Kovacs' Street Scene / Béla Bartók "Concerto for Orchestra"

In the 21st century, Bartok's music continues to appear on concert programs and new recordings and interpretations of his works have come out on CD and on classical music streaming services. Mechanics Institute Library has 13 Music CDs of Bartok's compositions.

Posted on May. 17, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

New and Improved Online Catalog

The Mechanics’ Institute Library has implemented an improved online catalog, providing members with a new and better way to find the materials they seek. This new version lets users narrow their searches interactively and intuitively. Our staff will be happy to assist you - you can call the reference desk (415-393-0102), and we can walk you through the various ways you can now search our catalog. 

The old "Classic" catalog will not go away -- you will see links to the Classic catalog throughout the new one. 


New Features 

You can check out eBooks and eAudiobooks from the catalog directly and see the electronic books you borrowed listed in your account. 

Fiction readers can explore what books we have by the various genres -- see what combinations you can find! Maybe you are looking for a mash-up of historical fiction and detective and mystery fiction?

You can narrow your search by "Place" -- The geographic area related to the book (e.g.: where a story takes place, or the geographic attribute of a given nonfiction book).

Other advanced searches available in the Classic catalog are also included in the new one. 


Mobile Devices

Please keep in mind that our new catalog does not work on mobile devices. If you have not already, we suggest that you bookmark (favorite) the URL for our "Classic" catalog:

We would like to thank everyone who volunteered to beta test this new interface, and we did our best to act on your suggestions.

Posted on May. 17, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

New Chess books for March & April 2023

Nathan Rose Chess opening names : the fascinating & entertaining history behind the first few moves 794.1 R79

Impress new people you meet at cocktail parties! Well, maybe not. But definitely worth reading if you're a chess player and a "student of the game." Rose writes whimsical and amusing short histories of the best known openings. The Catalan opening resulted from a contest. The Scandinavian defense did not come from Scandinavia. And who was Ruy Lopez anyway?  Rose takes more than a "just the facts" approach. For example, he tells a rather unusual story in his introduction about a wife's growing suspicions after overhearing her husband speaking in a strange, coded language. Then, in one of his chapters, he makes a more-or-less cogent comparison between the Sicilian defense and the Godfather movies. (Is it really that cogent? You decide). 

Vladimir Barsky Korchnoi and his chess grandchildren 794.15 K84ba

This is a collection of 25 of Viktor Korchnoi's best games, annotated by him and others, interspersed with numerous interviews with top players -- his chess "grandchildren" -- sharing personal anecdotes and talking about his influence.

Mihail Marin Learn from Bent Larsen 794.15 L33m

Selected and annotated games of the famous Danish Grandmaster. He earned a reputation for creativity and turning around "drawish" games. 

Junior Tay Ivanchuk, move by move 794.15 I932t

Another in the "Move by move" series examines selected games of the Grandmaster in minute detail.

Steve Giddins Nimzowitsch, move by move 794.15 N71g

Although sometimes derided by 21st century players, Aaron Nimzowitsch broke new ground in his day and most consider him the founder of the "hypermodern" school of chess. Hypermodern chess developed after World War I by challenging some of the assumptions of the 19th century masters, demonstrating new ways to control the center of the board. 

Savielly Tartakower The hypermodern game of chess 794.12 T19

The first English translation of the second edition of this seminal work in chess theory (revised to algebraic notation). As a result of the popularity of the first edition published in 1924, the second edition soon followed with corrections and additional material. This second edition stands as Tartakower's major contribution to chess theory of the early 20th century, and, according to the forward by Has Ree, "It is also a light-hearted book; a treasure of aphorisms, photos and brief biographical sketches of the great players, and contemplations about the world outside chess."

Tigran Petrosian. Python strategy 794.15 P49q

During one of his Tuesday Night Marathon lectures our Grandmaster in Residence, Nick de Firmian, told the story of his post-game discussion with World Champion Gary Kasparov. While reviewing the game and looking at a particularly bad position Kasparov had managed to get himself into, he said to Nick, "Well, I was glad that at least I wasn't playing this position against Petrosian." Nick continued, somewhat plaintively, "But I won the game!" Kasparov would still rather not play that position against Petrosian -- get into a bad position against Petrosian and there was no getting out. Although the title of his classic book translates directly from the Russian as "The Strategy of Soundness," this new English translation takes its title from the more evocative quote from Grandmaster and World Champion Max Euwe: "Petrosian is not a tiger that pounces on its prey, but rather a python that smothers its victim." 

Karsten Mueller Chess endgames 1 : basic knowledge for beginners 794.124 M95fr v.1

One of the FritzTrainer series, a 5 hour instructional DVD to teach beginners how to use the pawn in endgames. 

Judit Polgar and Andras Toth Master your chess with Judit Polgar : inspirational lessons from the all-time best female chess player 794.1 P769

The youngest of the 3 Polgar sisters, her father gave all of them chess lessons in early childhood as part of a years long experiment in child development and education. Judit Polgar was the first child to beat Bobby Fischer's record as the youngest person to become a Grandmaster then she had a 26 year-long career in competitive chess. Together with prize-winning coach, International Master Andras Toth, she has created a course based on the training she received growing up. 

Lubomir Kavalek Life at play : a chess memoir 794.1092 K21

The life of a Czech Grandmaster won two national championships before fleeing Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion that ended the "Prague Spring" of 1968. This posthumously published memoir includes over 50 games as well as his account of his experiences during the cold war.

Posted on May. 2, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Noteworthly new books and DVDs April 2023

The Mechanics Institute Library acquires new books each week. You will find some on the new books tables, but members often check out some of the most popular books right away. If you do not know how to place a hold on a book, please call us at 415-393-0102 (or send a message to [email protected]). 




Jeffrey Lieberman Malady of the mind : schizophrenia and the path to prevention


With his first book, Shrinks, Lieberman established that he can write a very engaging book that explains science to the non-scientist. In Malady of the mind he gives a broad historical overview of schizophrenia then describes some of the present-day complexities that make diagnosis and treatment rather challenging. We've come a long way since medieval belief in demonic possession, but still have a long way to go. Among the recent discoveries we now understand the vital importance of early detection because (from the review in Kirkus) "schizophrenia is progressive, and once it reaches a certain stage, permanent brain damage is almost inevitable. Lieberman provides a list of symptoms to watch for, and a program that he has developed has had a good success rate." 


Brian Cox Black holes : the key to understanding the universe


Another of the best science writers presently living, Brian Cox's books do very well with MI members. Some may recall Why does E=mc2 (and why should we care?) and his other books in our collection. His latest work updates our astronomy collection with new and fascinating information about black holes. Werner Heisenberg once remarked that "The universe is not just stranger than we imagine -- it's stranger than we can imagine."  Find out why. 


Mike Brown How I killed Pluto and why it had it coming


Whimsically humorous account by the astronomer who inadvertently triggered the "demotion" of Pluto in his effort to officially recognize the solar system's tenth planet. A good, readable description of how science is done. 


New Magazine subscription




Catamaran Literary Reader, founded in 2012, is located in the Tannery Art Center in Santa Cruz. This beautiful, high quality, full-color quarterly magazine features fine art, poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. The contributing artists and writers come from California and beyond. It has a loyal following of readers who celebrate culture, arts, books and museums. Catamaran also features a poetry prize for West Coast poets and an annual Catamaran Writing Conference during the summer. Visit the website at




Aaron Becker The tree and the river


A strange and wonderful book. No text, only a series of paintings of the same spot along a river stretching across each pair of pages. If you only casually thumb through it then you'll be done in a minute. But you need to look. Notice. Think. With each turn of the page you see the same place differently, moving through time. As you progress through the ages you see a civilization rise, technology advance, the river's course altered. But the civilization does not resemble anything on Earth -- not exactly, anyway. Each picture has rich detail and stunningly beautiful colors. In 2021 the Library started to class such books in "U" (for "Universal") to replace  "children's." Some books are for everyone, not just for children. This book shows you why. 




C.J. Box Storm Watch  


All of C.J. Box's novels have a high number of checkouts, indicating that he is among the most popular authors with our fiction readers. The 23rd "Joe Pickett" novel has the title character and his best friend Nate Romanowski, dealing with a murder, extremists, government agents and possibly finding themselves on opposite sides for the first time. 


Walter Mosley  Every man a king 


Another very popular author with our members, Mosley's mysteries have proven very entertaining with numerous colorful characters. This is the second novel featuring his newly created main character: private investigator Joe King Oliver. "When friend of the family and multi-billionaire Roger Ferris comes to Joe with an assignment, he's got no choice but to accept, even if the case is a tough one to stomach. White nationalist Alfred Xavier Quiller has been accused of murder and the sale of sensitive information to the Russians. Ferris has reason to believe Quiller's been set up and he needs King to see if the charges hold. Even with the help of bodyguard and mercenary Oliya Ruez, the machine King is up against proves relentless and unsparing. As King gets closer to exposing the truth, he and his loved ones barrel towards grave danger."  -- Publisher description.


Zadie Smith  The wife of Willesden


A prolific author and essayist, Smith "brings to life a comedic and cutting twenty-first century translation of Geoffrey Chaucer's classic The Wife of Bath. The Wife of Willesden follows Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her mid-50s, as she tells her life story to a band of strangers in a small pub on the Kilburn High Road. Wearing fake gold chains, dressed in knock-off designer clothes, and speaking in a mixture of London slang and patois, Alvita recalls her five marriages in outrageous, bawdy detail, rewrites her mistakes as triumphs, and shares her beliefs on femininity, sexuality, and misogyny with anyone willing to listen."  -- Publisher’s description.




Father Ted Seasons 1,2, and 3. 


OMG! Father Ted! In the Library! If you have never heard of this TV show before you're in for a treat. Three Catholic priests live together in a crumbling old house on an Island off the coast of Ireland. One priest, old and senile, another young and, well, if not also senile then pretty close, and the third, Father Ted, has to keep the other two from wrecking the place or wreaking havoc. Sounds pretty silly and it is -- and also hilarious. 


Taxi Seasons 1 and 2


The great comedy show of the 70s and 80s launched the careers of beloved comedic actors such as Danny DeVito, Marilu Henner, Tony Danza, Christopher Lloyd, and Andy Kaufman. Season 2 has my favorite episode (Reverend Jim : a space odyssey) in which Reverend Jim takes his driving test. 

Posted on Apr. 27, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Hidden Gems - Russian Ark (movie on DVD and Kanopy)

Do you like art? History? Cinema? This unclassifiable film takes you on a trip through Russian history by following historical figures from one gallery to another in the Hermitage Museum -- and all in one continuous 96 minute take! (the first feature film ever created in a single take). 


The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia is, after the Louvre in Paris, the 2nd largest museum in the world. Its collection has millions of items including an enormous number of masterpieces of Western European art from the Middle Ages to the present. 


Alexander Sokurov, the writer/director, has worked in films and television since 1979. Although he has directed over 20 documentaries to date, Russian Ark remains his great masterwork. 


Via Kanopy.

Posted on Apr. 27, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Hidden Gems - Fortunes of War (Mini-Series)

In olden times when we watched videos at home using these strange, now antiquated, machines called "VHS players," I decided to rent this mini-series to give me something to do on a long, rainy weekend. I planned to watch it over the course of 2-3 days. Instead, I binge-watched it continuously, one episode after another, straight through until well after midnight on the first night. I could not stop watching. 


Contrary to the title, this is not a war movie, at least not in the typical sense. You would also not think that this story would prove so engaging either. Kenneth Brannagh and Emma Thomson portray a rather ordinary British married couple, Guy and Harriet Pringle, living in Romania in 1939. Guy starts out as a lecturer in English Literature at a university in Bucharest. But when the war starts and the Germans advance, they have to flee – first to Athens, then to Cairo. Guy's gregarious nature leads him to make friends with a motley assortment of expats: White Russians, displaced royals, diplomats, writers, journalists, literary types, dissidents, grifters and spies. 


You never see any battle scenes – the Second World War serves as a background, the political upheaval in Romania and its subsequent alliance with Nazi Germany imposing extraordinary situations and circumstances on the Pringles and their friends. Lacking action sequences, shoot-outs, chase scenes or other loudness, Fortunes of War above all else embodies the best elements of character drama. The mini-series format gives us more time than a movie ever could to get to know the characters, flesh out their personalities and motivations, show where the fractures form in marriages, friendships, and in some cases, ever shifting loyalties. 

The script starts out with excellent source material in the books by Olivia Manning: The Balkan and Levant trilogies.

Posted on Apr. 21, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Hidden Gems - A month in the country

Do not look for a plot in this movie – you will not find one. Do not look for excitement either. You will not find any in this quietly beautiful, slow-paced, and thoughtful film. Disregard all summaries or descriptions, you find on the DVD container (or online). I have no idea what they're talking about or if the people who wrote these even saw the movie. 

Two survivors of the battlefields of the First World War meet in a small, quiet English town, then fall into a friendship. They interact with the townspeople as best they can, they struggle to fit into the new, alien (for them) environment and to re-enter a society in which no one but each other can understand their experience. One of them spends his days restoring a 500-year-old mural in the town's church. This mural restoration acts as a metaphor for the peeling back of layers to reveal what's hidden beneath – perhaps the rediscovery of their pre-war selves and the reintegration of these earlier personas into their present day lives?  No high drama, no heavy interpersonal conflicts, the title of the film says it all.  A Month in the Country is about precisely that – a month in a small English countryside community. It's about life, death, art, history, beauty, hope, recovery and change. 

Posted on Apr. 17, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Hidden Gems - The Frisco Kid

At the beginning of The Frisco Kid, a small Jewish community in 1850 San Francisco writes to a rabbinical school in Poland asking for a rabbi. They send Gene Wilder. Along the way he meets some of the best and worst kinds of people: thieves and liars, but also many who help him out of kindness. He needs the help of an outlaw (played by Harrison Ford) to go through dangerous territory. Fans of the Marx Brothers will no doubt see their influence, and most will appreciate this buddy movie for its cross between borscht-belt humor and a parody of movie Westerns.  


Greatly overshadowed by the earlier films of its co-stars (Ford in Star Wars and Wilder in Blazing Saddles), many people do not seem to even know about this gem. Wilder can play straight drama when called upon, and Ford reveals himself as a far more gifted comedic actor than most realize. You would not think at first glance that the two would work so well together, but put both of them on camera, and you get this kind-hearted, whimsical and often hilarious movie. 


This movie is so entertaining, perhaps even locals can forgive them for calling the city "Frisco."

Posted on Apr. 14, 2023 by Steven Dunlap