Books About Science : The Good, the Bad, the Weird By David Pitt
Stephen Pumfrey's Latitude & The Magnetic Earth (Icon Books, hardcover) is the story of William Gilbert, the sixteenth-century royal physician who coined the word 'electricity' and deduced that our dear planet is, kinda sorta, like a big magnet in space. He was also the first to figure out that you could use latitude to determine a ship's position at sea. This was an immensely important man, and almost no one knows his name these days; perhaps this lively book will change that.
Here are another couple of names that probably don't ring a bell: Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-Francois-Andre-Mechain. In 1792, these French astronomers headed off in opposite directions with identical missions: to measure a part of the planet, and determine, once and for all, a universal standard of length -- the meter, defined as a ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole. As Ken Alder tells us in The Measure of All Things (The Free Press, hardcover), it was a grand plan, and it worked brilliantly: the meter was established, most of the world was united under a common system of measurement, a global economy became possible, science could flourish. There was only one teensy snag: one of the men, Mechain, made a mistake, and covered it up. And no one else knew it, until the meter had been announced and adopted. Thus, one of science's more interesting moral quandaries: do we tell the world the meter s not accurate, and risk halting all this progress, or do we just let it slide? An important question, and an important book.
Speaking of mistakes, here's Galileo's Mistake (Thomas Allen, hardcover), by Wade Rowland. The author puts Galileo's life and work in a historical and philosophical context to demonstrate just how revolutionary he really was (and, in some respects, wasn't). We come to know the many faces of Galileo -- the father, the husband, the music lover, the scientist -- and we come to a greater understanding of the fundamental mistake that got him in so much trouble: his stubborn, unrelenting insistence that science, and only science, reveals the true nature of the world. His refusal to accept, even for the sake of argument, the value of other belief systems (say, religion) is what did him in. And his 1633 trial, at the hands of the Inquisition, was not really about his scientific work; it was about the very nature of truth itself. An excellent mixture of science and philosophy.
In Origins of Existence (The Free Press, hardcover), astrophysicist Fred Adams proposes a new answer to an ancient question: how did life arise in the universe? In this 'scientific glimpse at the face of Creation,' Adams argues that life was the natural consequence of the basic laws of physics -- that, in essence, you and I and everybody else in the universe are here because of physical laws that existed even before the universe itself existed. An almost flamboyantly unorthodox idea, elegantly presented.
Also elegantly presented are the seven mathematical puzzles in The Millennium Problems (Basic Books, hardcover), by Keith Devlin. These aren't just any math problems; these are, according to an international panel of mathematicians, the seven most difficult and important problems in the field. I won't try to explain them here -- that'd be foolish -- but, in case you're familiar with the subject, two of them are the P Versus NP problem and the Hodge Conjecture. In the field, all seven are extremely well-known, and Devlin does an admirable job of making them understandable by even the most mathematically challenged layman (i.e., me).
Similarly, in Universe on a T-Shirt: The Quest for the Theory of Everything (Viking, hardcover), Dan Falk takes an extremely complicated idea -- a Theory of Everything is, or would be if anyone could come up with one that worked, a single theory that explains everything in the physical world -- and makes it not only understandable, but beautiful. He relates the search for the TOE by relating the history of physics itself, from the ancient Greeks' quest for an 'underlying order' to Johannes Kepler's identification of simple patterns in Tycho Brahe's astronomical observations and modern physicists' attempts to unite all the physical world under a single, simple set of rules. A fascinating story, well told.
Anyone interested in contemporary physics will want to have the boxed, two-volume set of Richard P. Feynman's The Pleasure of Finding Out and The Meaning of It All (Perseus, paperback). The first book collects many of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist's short essays, interviews, and lectures; the second reproduces three lectures Feynman gave in April, 1963. Together, the books tackle a wide range of subjects: computers, the nature of science, religion, faith healing, politics, and on and on. There are also plenty of autobiographical episodes that remind us just how brilliant, unusual, and entertaining Feynman was.
Now here's something completely charming: Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein's Letters to and from Children (Prometheus, hardcover), edited by Alice Calaprice. It's just a little book, not much bigger than a paperback novel, but oh what fun it is. There's a short biography of Einstein, an essay about his education, a gallery of photographs, and, of course, the letters, written between 1914 and 1955. They reveal Einstein to be eloquent, curious, patient, funny, and -- at times -- almost painfully forthright (a letter written to a boy begins, 'You are not the most savvy little customer, but it's good that you're at least a curious young fellow'). Here are queries about science, letters written as classroom projects, birthday wishes, and so forth -- a wonderful array of letters that demonstrate just how much this man captured the imagination of the world.
From Einstein to atomic bomb seems an easy segue, so let's take a peek at The Manhattan Project (Icon Books, hardcover), by Jeff Hughes. It's a look at the importance of the Manhattan Project, not just to the U.S. war effort but to the evolution of 'Big Science' (the term used to describe large-scale or government-funded science projects.) The development of the atomic bomb was, Hughes says, not so much a milestone in the history of science, but the natural product of a trend that'd been growing for centuries. Since the Manhattan Project, of course, Big Science has gotten even bigger, with massive-scale research into the nature of matter, the Human Genome Project, and suchlike. Hughes puts the development of the atomic bomb in its historical and scientific context, and changes the way we look at that controversial scientific breakthrough.
The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt (Random House, hardcover), by William Nothdurft with Josh Smith, tells a story that spans most of the twentieth century. In January, 1911, a German paleontologist, Ernst Stromer, discovered, in Egypt, the remains of four dinosaurs that had never before been unearthed. Flash forward eighty-nine years: an American paleontologist (Josh Smith, the book's coauthor), doing further work at Stromer's discovery site, uncovers still another new dinosaur, more than eighty feet long, as big, as another paleontologist jokingly put it, as an entire herd of elephants. This remarkable book, easily as exciting as Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey's classic Lucy (1981), tells the dual story of Smith's awesome find and Stromer's own equally important, but mostly forgotten, discoveries. I love books about paleontology, and this one's just, well, it's thrilling.
Lost Discoveries (Simon & Schuster, hardcover), by Dick Teresi, explores the origins of modern science. Teresi, a veteran science writer, chronicles the largely unknown scientific breakthroughs scattered throughout the ancient world: the mathematical inventions of the Babylonians and Egyptians; the astronomical breakthroughs of the Arabs and Indians; the alchemical discoveries of the Chinese. Rubber was first vulcanized in Peru; potatoes first freeze-dried in the Andes; suspension bridges first built in Kashmir. This history of science takes us to pretty much every country in the world, and it is an eye-opening voyage indeed.
Also eye-opening is Oliver Morton's Mapping Mars (Picador USA, hardcover), the story of the adventurers -- astrophysicists, science-fiction writers, astronomers, geologists, stargazers -- who are on the leading age of mankind's 'next great adventure:' the taming of Mars. It's also the story of mankind's longstanding fascination with the Red Planet, from its mythical 'canals' (actually, Giovanni Schiaparelli, the Italian astronomer, said 'canali,' or channels -- not canals) to H.G. Wells's Martian invaders to NASA's space probes. Will we go to Mars? And, if we go, will it be because we have no other choice? A provocative and enlightening book.
In How to Dunk a Doughnut (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, hardcover), Len Fisher enlightens us about 'the science of everyday life' -- the physics of doughnut-dunking (angled is better than straight in), what our supermarket bills reveal about numerical patterns, how the way we eat reveals the way our body works, and more. It's 'popular science' done the way it ought to be; I've always thought the best way to teach something complicated is to illustrate it with familiar examples, and that's exactly what Fisher does. A smart mixture of science and entertainment.
Another mixture of science and entertainment is IgNobel Prizes (Orion, hardcover), by Marc Abrahams. The Ignobel Prizes are spoofs of the Nobels, given out yearly to a variety of people in recognition of their unusual, bizarre, or just plain ridiculous research. For example, the study of 200 adolescents that revealed that children really do pick their noses; or the report that once and for all vanquished the myth that penile length correlates to foot size (the winners accepted their awards wearing comically oversized shoes); or the invention of the self-perfuming business suit; or the founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society; or the fellow who calculated the odds that Mikhail Gorbachev was the Antichrist. This is a hugely funny book, and it's worth noting that each and every study, experiment, theory, and invention in this book is real: these people actually did this stuff.
Speaking of ridiculous science, here's Roswell: Inconvenient Facts and the Will to Believe (Prometheus, hardcover), by Karl T. Pflock, a UFO investigator noted for his high degree of skepticism. In this well-presented analysis of the Roswell myth -- you know, the one that says an alien ship crash-landed in New Mexico in 1947, that the U.S. government has the ship and its dead alien crew hidden away somewhere -- Pflock reveals the common version of events to be an appealing conglomeration of nonsense, misunderstandings, lies, self-promotion, and blind acceptance of the unacceptable. Pflock, who does believe we have been visited by extraterrestrials, concludes that the Roswell story is, unfortunately, entirely unsupported by the facts. The book probably won't do anything to change the minds of the true believers (who imagine the U.S. government, which can't keep anything a secret, not even how much it pays for military equipment or what its president does with his private parts, has kept alien bodies, and a spacecraft, on ice for five decades), but it's sure to intrigue anyone whose mind is still at least partially open.
Finally, again from Prometheus, here's Don't Get Duped! (paperback), by Dr. Larry M. Forness. This 'consumer s guide to health and fitness' offers tips on evaluating the claims made by manufacturers for fitness equipment, health supplements, and alternate health-care treatments. Using actual print and television ads to illustrate his points, Forness shows us what the ads don't tell us (do the commercials for those abdominal-muscle machines tell you how long you'll need to use the equipment? do they tell you whether the fit people using the machines in the commercial got that way using only their equipment?), the language they use to make unprovable claims and to persuade us that we absolutely must have the products they're hawking, and -- in some cases -- the out-and-out deceptions they perpetrate. He also teaches us how to read an ad, or a product label, critically, and helps us to understand that we, as the consumer, are obligated to ask a whole lot of questions before buying anything. It's a call to arms: cast off your shackles of ignorance and free yourself from the tyranny of misleading ads for products of dubious quality.
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