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Summer Reading Extravaganza : The Science of Summer
By David Pitt

Planning our vacation, are we? That's tricky: you want to relax your body, but you don't want your mind to turn to mush. Here's a buncha books that'll keep the ol' brain active, while you're sitting on the beach.

A Short History of Nearly Everything (Doubleday Canada, hardcover) is, pardon me if I sound a little excited, a new book by Bill Bryson! (Sorry about the exclamation mark.) This is the guy who's given us a handful of magnificently hysterical -- and educational -- travel books, like Lost Continent, Notes from a Small Island, and From Here to There. He's also written two very funny -- and educational -- books about the English language, The Mother Tongue and Made in America. Here, Bryson tackles a vast array of big ideas: the rise of civilization, the Big Bang, the atom, astronomy, and a whole raft of others.

We learn a lot: did you know, for instance, that the planet Pluto is nowhere near the end of our solar system? It's actually only one-fifty-thousandth of the way there. Barely. Did you know the term Big Bang was coined by someone who didn't believe in it? Did you know that the notebooks of Marie Curie are so radioactive that you need to wear special protective clothing to see them? Bryson uses the English language like no other writer: in his acknowledgements, and mind you this is the part of a book that most people don't even read, he writes that he has 'majestically encouraging and tactful notes' from an expert who'd read the book in manuscript form. He uses a phrase as graceful, as memorable as that, in a part of his book most people aren't likely even to glance at. Imagine what wonders lie beyond! Better yet, don't imagine -- just read the darned thing.

Naturally, you can't write a book like Bryson's without talking about Albert Einstein, whose general and special theories of relativity are still changing the way we see the world, and the universe around it. For more about this immensely important man, here's Einstein in Berlin (Bantam, hardcover), by Thomas Levenson. The book focuses on eighteen years in the life of the German-born physicist. The story begins in 1913, when Einstein was offered a rare opportunity: a faculty position at the University Berlin, a highly-paid appointment which carried with it the option to lecture whenever he wanted, about whatever he wanted. It was an intellectual carte blanche, and of course Einstein said yes.

As Levenson makes abundantly clear, Einstein got a lot more than he expected. The book, which combines biography with history (and a touch of social science), shows us an Einstein in transition, a thinking man about to become an international celebrity, a pop idol as big -- no, bigger -- than anyone you could care to name. It's a fascinating story, a tale of Germany between the world wars, and a thinking man forced to leave the country before it was too late for him. There have been some awfully stodgy books written about Albert Einstein, and some awfully frivolous ones, but Levenson does it just right, and he makes this potentially-complicated subject accessible to us all.

Here's another potentially-complicated subject rendered accessible: numbers. As Derrick Niederman and David Boyum point out in What the Numbers Say: A Field Guide to Mastering Our Numerical World (Broadway Books, hardcover), our society is making more numbers than ever before: business reports, surveys, sports statistics, restaurant ratings, and on and on. But, as we make more numbers, we're less and less able to interpret them, to figure out what they're actually saying. (Why? Well, the authors suggest there may be something wrong with the way we're taught mathematics.) Here, the authors, a financial writer and a business consultant respectively, show us how to read numbers, how to find the meaning in statistics and probability and percentages and other absolutely vital things. It's the kind of math book we all wished for in grade school: clear, straightforward, and (yes) exciting.

Similarly, we have DNA: The Secret of Life (Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover), by James D. Watson with Andrew Berry. There's probably no one more qualified to talk about DNA than Watson, who shared a Nobel Prize for discovering its structure half a century ago. But this isn't one of those how-I-did-it books written by scientists to explain how brilliant they are. This is the story of genetics, its past, present, and future. It begins with Gregor Mendel, who wrote about inherited traits in the mid-1800s, and takes us right up to the mapping of the human genome and genetic engineering. These days, with nonsense about cloned humans suckering in so many people, it's clear we need an education in this subject, and Watson and Berry tell this grand story carefully and with just the right amount of flair.

Speaking of getting suckered in, let's talk a moment about crop circles, those weird patterns that turn up, from time to time, in farmers' fields (though not nearly as often as they used to). While the nature of these circles has been known for some time, many people still persist, perhaps out of ignorance, in believing they are perpetrated by extraterrestrials. For the true story, pick up Jim Schnabel's Round in Circles: Poltergeists, Pranksters, and the Secret History of Cropwatchers (Prometheus Books, paperback).

Schnabel takes us back to the beginning of the crop-circle phenomenon: Wiltshire, in Southern England, 1980, where circular patterns appeared in a farmer's fields. Over the years, more circles appeared, in locations around the world. Crop circle aficionados also appeared: groups of people drawn to the circles by some mysterious attraction. It's a shame, and I'm sorry if this comes as a shock but it's the truth, it's a shame the circles are all hoaxes, man-made pranks, simple to create and entirely terrestrial in origin. An absorbing chronicle of a very weird phenomenon.

Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (Prometheus, paperback), by Terence Hines, is a remarkably enlightening discussion of all manner of offbeat wonders: conspiracy theories, psychic readings, demonic possession, ghosts, remote viewing, astrology, the Bermuda Triangle, and much, much more. Why do so many of us believe in so many things that are patently foolish? Why, for instance, do some people still believe Uri Geller has psychic powers, even though his repertoire of tricks have been explained, duplicated, and debunked time and again? Why do people still go to faith healers, even though there is no evidence to support their claims? Why do we believe charlatans who say they can move objects without touching them, when no one has ever -- ever -- been able to do this in a properly controlled test? Because, Hines tells us, many of us are unable to distinguish what is real and what is imaginary. This isn't a book designed to tell us how stupid we are; it's designed to tell us how easy it is to believe in something unbelievable, if it's presented in a properly seductive way. It's designed to show us how we can think more critically, to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, and it succeeds admirably.

More summer reading editions coming soon ...
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