books, books, books galore!

BookishJenLuc A couple of weeks ago, an editor asked me to name my favorite science book from 2010 for a year-end round-up her magazine was putting together. My incredulous response: "You mean you want me to pick just one?" Because let's face it, 2010 has been a banner year for popular science books. Never mind the unstoppable juggernaut that is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (and kudos to Rebecca Skloot for bringing science back to the bestseller lists); 2010 also saw Maryn McKenna's Superbug; Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook; Misha Angrist's Here is a Human Being; Annie Paul's Origins; Jonathan Weiner's Long for This World; and Mary Roach's Packing for Mars. And that's just scratching the surface, based on a quick perusal of my groaning bookshelves. Did I mention the Spousal Unit's From Eternity to Here and my own humble offering, The Calculus Diaries? Consider them mentioned. Heck, Carl Zimmer even ventured into the world of e-publishing with a collection of his Discover columns on neuroscience, aptly titled Brain Cuttings.

The steady stream of science books hasn't stopped, either, so I thought I'd highlight just a few of the new offerings (mostly math and physics related) that came out this fall — just in case you're looking for the perfect gift for the science enthusiast in the family. (Full disclosure: not only did I receive ARCs of most of the books below, I'm personally acquainted with several of the authors. The exception is Connie Willis; I'm a bona fide fangirl in that case.)

Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, by Brian Switek. I get warm and fuzzy just thinking about this book, since I watched Brian struggle with it in the earliest stages of development. So yeah, there's some personal bias at play. But I'm delighted to say that it came together beautifully — it's a commendable work by a promising young science writer with a bright future ahead of him. I write primarily about physics and math, so the subject matter of Brian's book — evidence for evolution in the fossil record — was largely new to me, making me the ideal reader for this insightful introduction to the topic.

IdaFossil He starts off with a bang, opening with the ruckus raised in May 2009 over the unveiling of the ancient and highly photogenic fossil affectionately known as "Ida" — wrongly dubbed a "missing link" in the frenzied press coverage that introduced Ida to the world. That was actually as much the fault of those who discovered her — the whole affair was carefully orchestrated for maximum exposure and, frankly, personal profit — and Brian gives an excellent summation of the events leading to the media circus. (Fortunately for science, the general public probably remembers very little by now, save, "Hey, wasn't Ida that really cool fossil?" And gosh darn it, Ida is still pretty cute.)

But the real significance of Ida — and the reason Brian chose to open Written in Stone with that story — has to do with the "missing link" claims, and the public's misperceptions about evolution. The iconic image of evolution is the March of Progress, showing the progression from early primate to modern man — a notion that Brian rightly points out has its roots in the Renaissance notion of the Great Chain of Being. And while Creationists love to spout off about how ridiculous it is to assume we came from apes, what evolution actually claims is that mankind and apes share a common ancestry. There is a difference between those two statements.

Evolution is far more complicated, and this forms the central thesis of the book. Our journey through the fossil record, and encounters with such fascinating historical figures as Nicholas Steno, the charlatan Albert Koch, and Athanasius Kircher (one of my all-time favorite historical figures), serve to illustrate one basic point: evolution is more of a branching process, often taking many different paths (even if the end result is similar), with one species evolving and another staying largely unchanged — a constantly shifting dance. It's kind of messy, with progress occurring in fits and starts — the furthest thing from the idealized March of Progress. I'll let Brian have the last word:

"For to ask 'What makes us human?' assumes that there was some glorious moment, hidden in the past, in which we transcended some boundary and left the ape part of ourselves behind. We forget that those are labels we have created to help organize and understand nature…. There was never an 'ascent of man,' no matter how desperately we might wish for there to be, just as there has not been a 'descent of man' into degeneracy from a noble ancestor. We are merely a shivering twig that is the last vestige of a richer family tree."

Proofiness: The Dark Art of Mathematical Deception, by Charles Seife. I used to hang out with Charles in the press room at American Physical Society meetings as a budding young science writer, and his classic book, Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea (still in print!) made me realize that the world of numbers could be as fascinating as physics. With Proofiness — and with that title, why has Charles not yet been on Colbert? Why? — he tackles the myriad ways our cultural innumeracy blinds us to the many deceptions perpetrated by a misuse of numbers, particularly statistics and probability. There's a lot about election polling and census results, these being hot topics of the day, but even if you're not particularly interested in those, Charles has such an engaging style and wry wit that his prose is bound to draw you in. Also? The cover design is really cool. In this case, you really can judge the quality of the book by its cover.

The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics, by Jim Kakalios. The author of The Physics of Superheroes is back with another installment, this time exploring how quantum mechanics changed the world and ushered in a future very different from the one envisioned by the classic comics of the 1950s. We were promised jet packs and flying cars, dammit! And I'm still bitter about the lack of progress on human teleportation. I was struck by a comment Jim made this past summer when we were both on a science panel at CONVergence/Skepchicon in Minneapolis. Someone asked what he thought would be the technological breakthroughs of the next 50 years, and he replied that anything requiring huge breakthroughs in energy would probably not transpire — but anything related to the explosion in information? Now that would be something capable of transforming the future.

That's kind of the underlying premise of The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics: we didn't get jet packs or flying cars, or unlimited supplies of free energy, but we got tons of amazing things we weren't expecting at all. We got atomic bombs, nuclear magnetic resonance (and MRI), lasers, death rays, MP3 and DVD players, spintronics, and the World Wide Web. This is a fantastic primer on the intricacies of the quantum world, using entertaining examples from — yes — classic comic books to illustrate his points. Along the way, we are treated to a broad overview of some of the coolest things quantum mechanics has given us, and a sneak peek at what might be in store.

Massive: The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science, by Ian Sample. Good news for fans of objectivity! I don't know Ian Sample personally! So when I tell you that Massive turns the dry-sounding hunt for the Higgs boson into the equivalent of a scientific detective story that you can't put down, you know it's not coming from a biased perspective. Also? There's only one mention of the dreaded "god particle" — a nickname, coined by Leon Lederman (who co-authored the popular book), that is universally loathed in physics circles, and badly misunderstood by the general public as claiming it holds the answer to spirituality. Of course, it has nothing to do with religion, or the existence (or lack thereof) of a god.

In an intriguing side anecdote — one of many — Sample writes that Lederman originally wanted to call his book The Goddamned Particle because it proved so difficult to find, but it was shortened to The God Particle. For Lederman, the name is apt because the Higgs (writes Sample), "is critical to our understanding of matter, yet deeply elusive." (More literal-minded sorts miss the subtlety.) That's the kind of vivid detail and backroom chatter that makes Massive such a compelling read: it's about science as that science is being done, and we don't yet have all the answers — the Higgs continues to elude us. But for anyone curious about the story of the Higgs so far, you're not likely to find a better book than Sample's on the subject.

 How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, by Mike Brown. You might know Mike by his Twitter handle, @PlutoKiller (it's an entertaining feed; you should follow him). Clearly, he takes a certain amount of pleasure in his role demoting this smallest of planets — or, in this case, former planet — even though it means he gets a steady stream of hate mail and a surprising number of obscene phone calls. People have an unusually strong passion for Pluto. But Brown didn't actually set out to cause such a ruckus; he was just going about his business, hunting planets, and what he found was Eris, briefly touted as a "10th planet" before astronomers decided it didn't really meet the criteria — and if Eris didn't qualify, neither did poor Pluto, or any of the large number of similar objects that have come to light in recent years.

Like Sample's Massive, Brown's book gives us that rare glimpse behind the curtain, a peek at how science is actually done. The guy can spin a yarn, that's for sure, and he's got some great material, and a great sense of humor (and perspective!). Even those who champion Pluto's eventual return to planetary status — yes, the debate rages on — will find it pretty difficult to continue hating Brown after reading this book; he's just too damned likeable. As James Kennedy wrote in his Wall Street Journal review, Brown's book presents "the scientist neither as madman nor mystic, but mensch."

Blackout and All Clear, by Connie Willis. Finally, what holiday book list would be complete without a spot of science fiction, specifically of the time travel/chaos theory variety? This is a sprawling, two-book epic, mostly set in London during World War II, when the residents suffered rationing and nightly air raids/bombings at the height of the Blitz, yet still managed to carry on some semblance of a normal life — unsung heroes, every one, and Willis brings them vividly to life. I've been a fan of Willis' work since I first read The Doomsday Book many years ago. It was the first set in her futuristic world of time-traveling historians, following the invention of something called "The Net."

Any lover of history has fantasized about what it would be like to actually visit past eras, and in this world, they can do just that. But there are rules, most notably, the historians can't affect the course of events — or, as Lost's doomed physicist, Daniel Faraday, phrased it, "Whatever happened, happened." The spacetime continuum has a number of ways of protecting itself from such an occurence, including something called "slippage": the Net won't send a historian to a time and place where s/he could affect the outcome, and will basically over-ride the programming, sending the historian to the nearest time and place where s/he can have no impact. Oh, and you also can't take objects from the past through the Net into the future — unless they were destroyed in the past, a twist in Willis' fictional world rules that showed up in her second novel set in this world, To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Blackout and All Clear give us another twist on Willis' rules of time travel, and it's a doozy: the slippage factor is getting progressively worse, and seems to be centered on the critical events in World War II London between 1940 and 1944. Temporal physicists are beginning to worry that perhaps their assumptions about time travel have been wrong, and it is possible to affect the course of historical events — something that would be disastrous for a period like the one in question, where the outcome of the war literally balanced on a knife point at several junctures over that four-year period. Could one of their historians inadvertently have altered the outcome of World War II? When four historians find themselves trapped in the past, everyone's worst fears appear to be realized. And that's as much as I can say without spoiling the fun. Like all Willis' novels, there is humor, pathos, and gut-wrenching suspense, and at some point she will break your heart. There's a lot of disparate threads in these two books (actually one book split into two), but Willis is a master weaver and pulls it all together in the end. 

Of course, even if we can't change the past, who can say what might happen if historical figures showed up in the future:


2 thoughts on “books, books, books galore!”

  1. Hey it never hit the bestsellers, but I found it an excellent read: Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon. A great (re)introduction to the periodic table and the history and development of chemistry. Great explanations, clear writing, fun historical asides charming footnotes.
    ps-After devouring Blackout I’ve been muddling through All Clear, your review convinced me to keep going!

  2. I have Kean’s book, haven’t read it yet, but looked fun…. And stick with All Clear. I got kind of muddled myself while reading that one, but trust Willis; it will all come together and make sense in the end. 🙂

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