Author: Marcelo Gleiser
Title: A Tear at the Edge of Creation
Publication Info: New York, NY : Free Press, 2010.
Gleiser’s work is an attempt to offer an alternate route to the scientific notions of Grand Unifying Theories and symmetry in nature with the idea that the truth may be found in an asymmetric universe. Gleiser sums up the history of cosmology (bringing me up to date since it’s been 20 years since my college course in cosmology) in easy-to-understand language. It’s a good accessible primer in physics (with some chemistry and biology as well) with an interesting central thesis on the manner in which humans will continue to learn about the universe.
“The loss of elegance is the gain of generality. Our cosmos does not need perfection to exist.”
“If we can never know all there is to know, we will always have an element of uncertainty about the natural world. There is no final unification to be attained, only better models to describe the physical reality we can measure. Even as we improve our tools and increase our knowledge, we also expand the base of our ignorance: the farther we can see the more there is to see. As a consequence, it is impossible to contemplate a point in history when we will know all there is to know.”
Recommended books: The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra, Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman, and 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks
A few photos from a visit to Boston’s Museum of Science with my son this weekend.
- Escalator innards.
There’s no app for that.
World’s largest collection of barf bags (many of which are politically-themed)
The ever so elusive Plastic Pink Lawn Flamingo (Pseudamingoflay plasticus)
Author: John F. Haught
Title: God After Darwin
Publication Info: Boulder, Colo. : Westview Press, 2000.
Summary/Review: This is a complicated book which I didn’t thoroughly comprehend so I may not be able to justice to it in a review. Nevertheless, it tackles an issue near and dear to me that is how to reconcile the theory of evolution with belief in God. I like the approach that puts aside the false dichotomy of science versus religion even if I don’t understand the science and biology behind it. There’s definitely a core idea that faith should be challenged to be deeper by the truth of evolution rather than denying the science or creating something like intelligent design. Definitely a work worth rereading.
Recommended books: Quarks, Chaos & Christianity: Questions to Science And Religion by John Polkinghorne and Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey by Jane Goodall.
Author: Geoff Nicholson
Title: The lost art of walking : the history, science, philosophy, and literature of pedestrianism
Publication Info: New York : Riverhead Books, 2008
Geoff Nicholson takes on the quotidian topic of walking, something just about everyone can do, although there who some who can who fail to exercise the ability regularly. At the heart of this work are Nicholson’s own walks. At the time of writing, Nicholson lived in Los Angeles a place generally seen to be hostile to walking although it is possible as I’ve experienced myself
. Nicholson walks in the various places he lives – London, New York, Los Angeles, and in a bittersweet final chapter he returns to walk through his childhood home of Sheffield. In between he explores the history of walking (particularly sport walkers who performed feats of endurance such as walking 1 mile an hour for 1000 consecutive hours), walks in music and movies, psychogeography, walks in the desert, and street photography. There are also walking tours, which are near and dear to my heart, including such oddities as walking tours of parking lots
. Nicholson seems to be a cranky person and that crankiness kind of sucks the joy out of his writing. Still this is an interesting book with some intriguing insights into the topic.
“Walking for peace may certainly strike you and me as futile and useless, but if a person believes it works, then it’s the most logical and rational thing in the world. To walk for a reason, any reason, however personal or obscure, is surely a mark of rationality. Money, art, self-knowledge, world peace, these are not eccentric motivations for walking; they’re damn good ones, regardless of whether or not they succeed. I find myself coming to the conclusion that perhaps the only truly eccentric walker is the one who walks for no reason whatsover. However, I’m no longer sure if that’s even possible.” – p. 85
“We walked on, not very far and not very fast. It gradually became obvious, and it was not exactly a surprise, that two hours standing around listening to stories, interspersed with rather short walks, of no more than a couple of hundred yards each, was actually very hard work, much harder than walking continuously for two hours. As the tour ended twenty people were rubbing their backs, complaining about their feet, and saying they needed to sit down. I checked my GPS: in those two hours we’d walked just under a mile.” – p. 90
Author: Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman
Title: Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us
Publication Info: HighBridge Company (2011)
Summary/Review: This Library Thing Early Reviewers audiobook ask what the following things have in common: listening to someone else’s cell phone conversation, Zinedine Zidane’s World Cup Final, Huntington’s chorea, Joba Chamberlain & midges, chili peppers and skunks. They all involve annoyances, and what annoys is apparently something scientists are only beginning to study. There’s a basic 3-step process to annoyance: 1. something is unpleasant or distracting, 2. it’s hard to predict when it will end, and 3. it’s impossible to ignore. The stories illustrating annoying things and the scientific studies are entertaining. The authors make pleasant if not professional readers and I like that they alternate voices. The book reads like a long episode of Radiolab and is a good bit of popular science.
Recommended books: Thumbs, Toes, and Tears: And Other Traits That Make Us Human by Chip Walter, Packing for Mars by Mary Roach, and Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness, by Alva Noë.
Author: Mary Roach
Title: Packing for Mars
Publication Info: New York : W.W. Norton, c2010.
With plans for long-term space exploration afoot, Mary Roach explores the many challenges of putting human beings in space. This is less the physics of rocket propulsion and more the psychological and cultural problems of human space exploration. Roach is a good investigator in that she asks the questions we always wanted to ask and many more we never even thought to ask. She’s also an amusing writer in that she seems to challenge the mindset of a 12-year old boy. Issues explored in this book include the effects of isolation and working in close quarters with others for long duration, the physical and psychological effects of weightlessness, illness and vomiting in space, personal hygiene, sex in space, evacuating from space disasters, and everyone’s need to eat and thus need to poop. Roach draws upon astronaut memoirs, technical documents, and interviews with people around the world who are directly involved in the fascinating and often absurd work that goes into human space exploration.
Recommended books: The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, Moon Shot by Alan Shepard, A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin, & Lost Moon by Jeffrey Kluger,
Author: Steven Johnson
Title: Where good ideas come from : the natural history of innovation
Publication Info: New York : Riverhead, 2010.
Previously read by the same author: Emergence
I’m pleased I won a copy of this book by one of my favorite science writers through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program. In engaging prose Johnson explores through historical examples and case studies how people come up with great ideas. It’s not the lone genius with a light bulb popping up over their head.
Johnson discusses that innovation is possible within the adjacent possible when a number of factors come together to allow a new idea to work (on the shoulders of giants to speak). Strong networks – whether they be cities, the Web, or universities – inevitably contribute to greater innovation the solitary inventor. Ideas also come over time, the slow hunch, where something in the back of one’s mind only becomes a possibility after years of interactions and research. Error and serendipity play their part as well. Johnson also discusses the idea of expatation where something built for one purpose is borrowed for an entirely different function. Platforms are also important for the development of further innovations.
In an interesting conclusion, Johnson makes the case against the accepted belief of free-market competition being the greatest source of innovation (although state-controlled command economies are not the solution either). Instead Johnson calls for continued support of research universities where networks are formed and ideas shared. I enjoyed this book and I think it helped me look at innovation in new ways.
Recommended books: Connections by James Burke, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell, Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order by Steven H. Strogatz, How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, and Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath.
Author: Alva Noë
Title: Out of our heads : why you are not your brain, and other lessons from the biology of consciousness
Summary/Review: I thought I’d like this much more, but I was disappointed. Noë’s premise is a philosophical examination of the science of the mind and posits that we should no longer accept the belief that consciousness resides in the brain. Basically he’s arguing the opposite of the Free Will chapter in 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense. While it’s an argument I’d like to accept, I feel that Noë never really shows evidence for his thesis and that a lot of the complex language he uses serves to obfuscate rather than illuminate. It’s just as likely that most of this went over my head though, so maybe I’m not the best person to review this book.
Recommended books: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson and Thumbs, Toes, and Tears: And Other Traits That Make Us Human by Chip Walter.
Author: Michael Brooks
Title: 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time
Publication Info: New York : Doubleday, c2008.
Summary/Review: This book is a collection of essays about scientific anomalies which are currently puzzling the scientific community. I think Brooks is deliberately provocative in choosing these 13 and frequently criticizing scientists for their insularity and claims of unassailability. On other hand, someone needs to say these things.
Here are the 13 things with a short synopsis of each:
- The Missing Universe – the question of dark matter which makes up most of our universe but cannot be found.
- The Pioneer Anomaly – should satellites drifting off course make us reevaluate our understanding of gravity?
- Varying Constants – the only constant in physics is inconstancy.
- Cold Fusion – an experiment so thoroughly debunked its not even to be discussed, but is there some truth to it?
- Life – how did it begin?
- Viking – did the Mars probe find evidence of extraterrestrial life?
- The WOW! Signal – have intelligent extraterrestrial beings already tried to contact us?
- A Giant Virus – the Mimivirus challenges what we think we know about viruses and the definition of life.
- Death – what is the genetic and evolutionary purpose of aging and death?
- Sex – is there really any evolutionary advantage to sexual reproduction over asexual reproduction?
- Free will – does our brain decide things for us before we even have a chance to “think.”
- The Placebo Effect – studies are inconclusive of whether placebos really work and what role they should play in medicine.
- Homeopathy – it’s all a bunch of hooey yet no scientific study has thoroughly discredited it either.
An interesting book, highly recommended if you’re interested in contemporary ideas in science.
Recommended books: What’s Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science by Max Brockman, Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science–From the Babylonians to the Maya by Dick Teresi, and The Day the Universe Changed by James Burke.
Author: Jonah Lehrer
Title: How We Decide
Publication Info: Brilliance Audio on CD Unabridged Lib Ed (2009), Edition: Library, Audio CD
This book is an entertaining summary of the neuroscience behind human decision making. Lehrer fills the book with lots of vivid stories of airline pilots, athletes and military personnel making split-second decisions as well as other examples of people making very poor decisions and even the effects of damaged minds on decision-making (including a chilling chapter on psychopaths). Decisions are examined by what part of the brain they work from and how different areas of the brain can work against one another. Some counterintuitive conclusions are explained such as that one cannot make decisions without emotions and that in some cases the more one examines the options the odds of making the right decision are decreased. A good book for getting to know one’s brain better.
This research can also help explain why we get cranky when we’re hungry and tired: the brain is less able to suppress the negative emotions sparked by small annoyances. A bad mood is really just a run-down prefrontal cortex.
Recommended books: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell and Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath