#TryPod Day 4: The Story Collider


All this month, I’ve heard about the campaign to spread the news of podcasts called TryPod.  As I am a voracious listener of podcasts (you can see the complete list of my current subscriptions and other recommendations on my podcast page), I figured I ought to participate while I can.  So I will post about one of my favorite podcasts every day for the last 9 days of March.

The Story Collider allows scientists to tell the personal stories of their research, discoveries, and personal journeys in a way that allows them to share scientific knowledge with a novice audience as well as give a human face to scientific researchers.  It’s a great project to bridge scientists with the general public, and there are some spectacular stories.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Rochelle Williams: “Potential”
  • Daniel Engber: “Distracting Mark Cuban”
  • Meghan Groome: “Being Brave About Sex-Ed”
  • Layne Jackson Hubbard: “Still Myself”

Movie Review: Dolphins (2000)


Title: Dolphins
Release Date: 14 April 2000
Director: Greg MacGillivray
Summary/Review:

Watched this at the Mugar Omnimax Theater at the Boston Museum of Science.  It kind of falls into every cliche you’d expect of an animal-themed IMAX film, but who can complain  about seeing larger than life dolphins leaping and diving?  Pierce Brosnan provides the narration but often yields to the featured scientists who share their knowledge and passion regarding these aquatic mammals.  On the odd side, the soundtrack is by Sting which makes me wonder what dolphins did to deserve this (especially since most of the music is reggae-tinged instrumental arrangements of Sting’s hit songs which have nothing to do with dolphins).
Rating: ***1/2

Podcast of the Week: “Rochelle Williams: Potential” from The Story Collider


The Story Collider is a storytelling podcast for scientists to tell their stories – a great idea both for getting scientists to communicate and for the general public to learn about science.  In this episode, Rochelle Williams tells the story of her experience studying engineering as a young, black woman.

Book Review: What’s It Like in Space? by Ariel Waldman


Author: Ariel Waldman
TitleWhat’s It Like in Space?: Stories from Astronauts Who’ve Been There
Publication Info: Chronicle Books (2016)
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

One of my favorite science writers, Ariel Waldman, collects anecdotes and quotes from astronauts about their experience in space in a small, illustrated coffee table book. Did you know that one cannot burp in space?  And while farting is possible, it is not possible to propel oneself in microgravity using only flatulence.  There’s a lot of bits about “functions” such as eating, sleeping, and excreting in space.  But there are also more inspirational stories such as an astronaut not wanting to sleep so as to not miss a moment of the mission or the experience of watching the Earth rotate beneath one’s feet while on a spacewalk.  It’s a fun, charming, and colorful that’s a quick read, and especially enjoyable if you’ve ever wanted to go to space.

Recommended booksPacking for Mars by Mary Roach and An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield.

Rating: ***1/2

Podcast of the Week: “Mosquitoes Must Die” from To The Best of Our Knowledge


First, the To the Best of Our Knowledge podcast “Mosquitoes Must Die” makes me think of Caephus from Jesus Christ Superstar.  “Must die, must die, mosquitoes must die!”

Second, to hear this series of experts seriously consider completely eradicating an entire species is astonishing.  There’s just so much hubris to consider that it would not have negative effects on ecosystems.  And I don’t even like mosquitoes.

Still, food for thought.

Book Reviews: Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery by Stephen J. Pyne


Author: Stephen J. Pyne
TitleVoyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery
Publication Info: Viking Adult (2010)
Summary/Review:

I’ve long been fascinated by the Voyager missions to explore the solar system.  I kind of grew up alongside Voyager, with the launches occurring just a few years after my birth and the encounters with Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune happening over the course of my life.  I was eager to read this book and learn more details of the program and its discoveries.  Pyne provides great detail about how the program started in the 1960s to take advantage of a once in a century alignment of the outer planets, funding and development, launch, and the various discoveries along the way.

Unfortunately, the author also has this theory of the Three Ages of Discovery when Western peoples voyaged out to learn what lay beyond their horizons.  The first age is in the 15th-16th century and involves mainly Spanish/Portuguese expeditions to find new sea routes, circumnavigate the Earth and colonize the “New World.”  The second age is the primarily British 18th to early 20th century efforts to seek the sources of rivers, climb the highest peaks, open up continental interiors and reach the poles.  The third age is the 20th-century exploration of space (and to some extent under the oceans).  This framework is problematic due to its Eurocentrism and skimming over the details of colonialism and exploitation of “discovered” places and people who long had lived in these lands, although Pyne does tie this idea into the military and propaganda purposes to the United States of the putative global Voyager mission.

The whole Three Ages idea might make a good introductory chapter to the book, but instead every time things about Voyager get interesting, Pyne keeps popping back to talk about Vasco de Gama or Lewis & Clark or Robert Peary.  This tends to distract rather than support the main narrative. I think a straight history of Voyager would make a more interesting book than the flabby, half-baked philosophical treatise we have here.
Favorite Passages:

Rating: **

Podcast of the Week: “The Fix” – Radiolab


I started listening to podcasts regularly a decade or so ago. I have a running list of podcasts I regularly listen on the Panorama of the Mountains home page and I’ve written about them many times before.  At the time I started subscribing, I thought podcasts were the next big thing and I was just a follower.  But apparently I’m more of a trailblazer than I realize.  A recent article by Matt Baume relates “Only about half of Americans have ever heard of podcasts, according to the Pew Research Center, and only 17 percent have ever listened to one.”

Since I already try to recommend a new song every week I figured I’ll add a new feature where I recommend a podcast episode I think deserves wider listenership.

For the debut POTW post, here’s the most recent of of one of Baume’s favorite (and my favorite) podcasts of the WNYC radio program Radiolab.  The Fix explores addiction and the possibility that it could be treated successfully with medication. The most fascinating part of the show for me is the suggestion that throughout human evolution, the people who responded most to the reward receptors in their brain were the fittest, but in the modern world are the most susceptible to addiction.

If you’re listening to a good podcast, let me know in the comments.

Book Review: What If? by Randall Munroe


Author: Randall Munroe
Title:What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Publication Info: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
Summary/Review:

This book contains the sentence: “Aroldis Chapman could probably throw a golf ball about sixteen giraffes high.” That alone makes it worth reading. The creator of the webcomic xkcd, Randall Munroe uses math and science to investigate cornball questions from his readers.  If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if a baseball were pitched at the speed of light, what would happen if every person in the world jumped at the same place at the same time (say, Rhode Island), or what place on earth would allow for the longest free fall, this book is for you.  In addition to Munroe’s humorous, but mathematically explicit, explanations there are plenty of whimsical illustrations.  There are also a series of questions too weird and worrying for even Munroe to answer.
Favorite Passages:

Our plastic will become shredded and buried, and perhaps some microbes will learn to digest it, but in all likelihood, a million years from now, an out-of-place layer of processed hydrocarbons—transformed fragments of our shampoo bottles and shopping bags—will serve as a chemical monument to civilization.

 

If humans escape the solar system and outlive the Sun, our descendants may someday live on one of these planets. Atoms from Times Square, cycled through the heart of the Sun, will form our new bodies. One day, either we will all be dead, or we will all be New Yorkers.

 

So we shouldn’t worry too much about when computers will catch up with us in complexity. After all, we’ve caught up to ants, and they don’t seem too concerned. Sure, we seem like we’ve taken over the planet, but if I had to bet on which one of us would still be around in a million years—primates, computers, or ants—I know who I’d pick.

 

if an astronaut on the ISS listens to “I’m Gonna Be,” in the time between the first beat of the song and the final lines . . .  . . . they will have traveled just about exactly 1000 miles.

 

Rule of thumb: One person per square meter is a light crowd, four people per square meter is a mosh pit.

 

Al Worden, the Apollo 15 command module pilot, even enjoyed the experience. There’s a thing about being alone and there’s a thing about being lonely, and they’re two different things. I was alone but I was not lonely. My background was as a fighter pilot in the air force, then as a test pilot—and that was mostly in fighter airplanes—so I was very used to being by myself. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn’t have to talk to Dave and Jim any more . . . On the backside of the Moon, I didn’t even have to talk to Houston and that was the best part of the flight. Introverts understand; the loneliest human in history was just happy to have a few minutes of peace and quiet.

Recommended books: 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks, What’s next? : dispatches on the future of science : original essays from a new generation of scientists by Max Brockman, and Feynman by Jim Ottiavani
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Galapagos: The Enchanted Voyage (1999)


Title: Galapagos: The Enchanted Voyage
Release Date: 1999
Director: David Clark, Al Giddings
Production Co: IMAX, Mandalay Media Arts, National Science Foundation
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Documentary | Nature | IMAX
Rating: *** 1/2

Another great IMAX film experience at the Boston Museum of Science.  The film immerses one in the lunar landscape of the Galapagos Islands with it’s many uniquely-evolved creatures and plants.  Then it takes you deep beneath the sea to explore newly-discovered aquatic creatures.  The star of the film is zoologist Carol Baldwin (and fellow William & Mary alum) who among other things takes a submersible into the deep ocean and sucks up specimens of sea life with a nifty vacuum tube.  My 7-year-old son gave the movie a thumbs up as well.

Book Review: The Information by James Gleick


AuthorJames Gleick
TitleThe Information
Publication Info: New York : Books on Tape, 2011
Summary/Review:

The Information is a sweeping historical / scientific / technological account of information across time and disciplines.  From talking drums, language, DNA, telegraphs, and bytes to  Claude Shannon, Charles Babbage, Ada Byron, Samuel Morse, Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins and John Archibald Wheeler.  It’s all very fascinating although it gets more complex for a lay reader (that is, me) to understand as it goes along.

Rating: ***

Book Review: A Tear at the Edge of Creation by Marcelo Gleiser


Author: Marcelo Gleiser
TitleA Tear at the Edge of Creation
Publication Info: New York, NY : Free Press, 2010.
ISBN: 1439108323
Summary/Review:

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.
Favorite Passages:

“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
Rating: ***

Photopost: Museum of Science


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.

 

Freshly-hatched chick.
World’s largest collection of barf bags (many of which are politically-themed)

 

The ever so elusive Plastic Pink Lawn Flamingo (Pseudamingoflay plasticus)

Book Review: God After Darwin by John F. Haught


Author: John F. Haught
Title: God After Darwin
Publication Info: Boulder, Colo. : Westview Press, 2000.
ISBN: 0813367239
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 booksQuarks, Chaos & Christianity: Questions to Science And Religion by John Polkinghorne and Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey by Jane Goodall.
Rating: **

Book Review: The lost art of walking by Geoff Nicholson


Author: Geoff  Nicholson
Title: 
The lost art of walking : the history, science, philosophy, and literature of pedestrianism
Publication Info: 
New York : Riverhead Books, 2008
ISBN:
9781594489983
Summary/Review: 
 
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.

Favorite Passages:
“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

Book Review: Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us by Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman


Author: Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman
Title: Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us
Publication Info: HighBridge Company (2011)
ISBN: 1611744881
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.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Packing for Mars by Mary Roach


Author: Mary Roach
Title: Packing for Mars
Publication Info: New York : W.W. Norton, c2010.
ISBN: 9780393068474

Summary/Review:

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,
Rating: ****

Book Review: Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson


Author: Steven Johnson
Title: Where good ideas come from : the natural history of innovation
Publication Info: New York : Riverhead, 2010.
ISBN: 9781594487712

Previously read by the same author: Emergence

Summary/Review:

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.
Rating:

Book Reviews: Out of our heads by Alva Noë


Author: Alva Noë
Title: Out of our heads : why you are not your brain, and other lessons from the biology of consciousness
Publication Info:
ISBN: 9780809074655

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.
Rating: **

Book Review: 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks


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.
ISBN: 9780385520683

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:

  1. The Missing Universe – the question of dark matter which makes up most of our universe but cannot be found.
  2. The Pioneer Anomaly – should satellites drifting off course make us reevaluate our understanding of gravity?
  3. Varying Constants – the only constant in physics is inconstancy.
  4. Cold Fusion – an experiment so thoroughly debunked its not even to be discussed, but is there some truth to it?
  5. Life – how did it begin?
  6. Viking – did the Mars probe find evidence of extraterrestrial life?
  7. The WOW! Signal – have intelligent extraterrestrial beings already tried to contact us?
  8. A Giant Virus – the Mimivirus challenges what we think we know about viruses and the definition of life.
  9. Death – what is the genetic and evolutionary purpose of aging and death?
  10. Sex – is there really any evolutionary advantage to sexual reproduction over asexual reproduction?
  11. Free will – does our brain decide things for us before we even have a chance to “think.”
  12. The Placebo Effect – studies are inconclusive of whether placebos really work and what role they should play in medicine.
  13. 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.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer


Author: Jonah Lehrer
Title: How We Decide
Publication Info: Brilliance Audio on CD Unabridged Lib Ed (2009), Edition: Library, Audio CD
ISBN: 1423376471

Summary/Review:

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.

Favorite Passages:

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
Rating: ***1/2