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Holiday Reading 2003 : Science
By David Pitt

For the science buffs on your holiday list, here's a stack o' reading material.

Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time (W.W. Norton), by Peter Galison, chronicles the quest for something that's a little hard to define: simultaneity. Is there such a thing? Or is the idea of two events happening at the same instant more of a conceptual notion? Can time be measured so precisely that we can know it when two events, separated by distance, happen simultaneously? These are the questions that led two men, working independently, to reappraise the very idea of time.

One of them was mathematician Henri Poincare, president of the French Bureau of Longitude, who was occupied with nailing down time coordinates for the purposes of mapping. The other was an unknown physicist, and patent clerk, named Albert Einstein. And, while the question may seem trivial (are simultaneous things really simultaneous? who cares?), what we got was a whole new appreciation of time itself -- oh, and Einstein's theory of relativity, too. Galison, a Harvard history of science professor, takes this potentially mind-numbing subject and makes it thoroughly accessible.

Speaking of Einstein, here's God in the Equation: How Einstein Transformed Religion (Free Press), by Corey S. Powell, an editor at Discover magazine. Sure, we all know that Einstein famously said that God doesn't play dice with the universe, but what the heck was he talking about, anyway? What was the 'cosmological constant,' sometimes called the God factor, that ol' Albert stuck into his relativity equations? Do Einstein's theories suggest a common ground between science and religion? (Yes, as it turns out.) This is really thought-provoking stuff, intelligently presented.

Skipping back in time a handful of decades, we find ourselves in 1851. Jean Bernard Leon Foucault, an amateur physicist, demonstrated, with a large pendulum, that the planet Earth rotates on its axis. It was an amazing demonstration, one that would alter the course of science in a massive way. Pendulum (Atria), Amir D. Aczel's lively account of Foucault's demonstration, and its aftermath, captures the excitement and sheer intellectual adventure of a time when most of science's great discoveries were yet to be made.

If you don't mind, stop reading me for a moment, sit back, and look at the thing you're reading me on. That boxy-looking thing, with its vaguely typewriterish keyboard, is the descendent of something called ABC, completed in 1942 by a math and physics professor named John A. Atanasoff. He was, according to a U.S. federal judge, the inventor of the computer. But, as Alive Rowe Burks make abundantly clear in Who Invented the Computer? The Legal Battle That Changed Computing History (Prometheus), the facts are hardly cut and dried.

The two men generally believed to be the inventors of the computer are John Mauchly and Presper Eckert, whose ENIAC, completed in 1946, was (unlike ABC) actually used for computing. But, according to Atanasoff, Mauchly picked up most of the basic principles of the machine, including such vital stuff as using vacuum tubes to get the computing done, when he visited Atanasoff in 1941. Burks approaches this rather important subject from an unusual point of view, as though she were writing a mystery novel. Who said what, to whom, and when? Who got what idea first? I don't know about you, but I find this stuff downright fascinating.

James Burke, the science writer and television host, makes everything he talks about seem downright fascinating (remember his Connections series? you can't help listening to the guy). Twin Tracks: The Unexpected Origins of the Modern World (Simon & Schuster), billed on its dustjacket as 'a landmark book of real-world stories that investigates the nature of change,' explores the way the outcomes of historical events send out ripples of cause-and-effect that manifest themselves in the modern world. The Falklands War of 1770, for example, and you're probably not going to believe this, led directly, to the invention of television; and we wouldn't have stealth fighters if it weren't for a performance of Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro in 1786. Burke never ceases to educate -- not to mention amaze -- me. (You should also pick up, perhaps as a stocking stuffer, Circles, Burke's similarly-themed excursion into the history of technology. It came out in hardcover a few years ago, but it was just released in a smaller paperback edition.)

If you're looking for something a little more general, the kind of book you can read in bits and pieces, check out Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries? (W.W. Norton), a collection of essays by noted science writer, and investigator of pseudoscience, Martin Gardner. These little gems, which appeared in publications such as Scientific American and The Skeptical Inquirer, discuss such diverse things as time, space, mathematics, religion, poetry, various paranormal nonsense, Ernest Hemingway, exorcism, and the Tin Woodman of Oz. As always Gardner is entertaining, erudite, engaging, and enormously informative.

In The Velocity of Honey and More Science of Everyday Life (Viking Canada), Jay Ingram, the host of television's Daily Planet science magazine, asks some trivial questions that have not-so-trivial answers. Why do we wake up just before our alarm goes off? Is there any validity to the 'six degrees of separation' theory? Why does it take longer to get somewhere than it does to get home from it? How do we know when someone is staring at us? Just like on TV, Ingram is friendly, knowledgeable, and straightforward.

Editor's Note: This is one of a series on for holiday gifts and holiday reading. Find more suggestions in our Holiday Columns.
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