"Our sense of wonder grows exponentially; the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery."
-- E.O. Wilson
Friday, July 31, 2009
Thursday, July 30, 2009
"The Canon" by Natalie Angier
I'm always behind in my science reading, though that's still no excuse for waiting 'til now to read Natalie Angier's 2007 volume, "The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science," especially since I'm very much a fan of Angier's writing. I've become a bit jaded about books that try to skim across all manner of science for the layman (there have been several), so skipped over this particular work. We live in a day of specialization, that almost makes these across-the-board volumes seem a bit anachronistic, harkening back to a day when one really could meaningfully study all or most of the sciences at once. But now that basic "science literacy" has become a hot-button issue in many quarters, it seems especially appropriate to re-visit and publicize Angier's book (finding it for $4 on a table at Borders sorta helped too!).
Angier is a master at using imagery and metaphor to communicate ideas in science, and at injecting enthusiasm and delight into her subjects. The writing, as usual, is excellent. Angier probably does as good a job as anyone can of conveying science's basics to the masses, but still I thought this volume just a bit flat, possibly only because my expectations of Angier are so high (it did receive many good reviews when it appeared). I fear she isn't reaching the masses here, but rather preaching to the choir --- those already interested in science may read and enjoy this volume, in many instances as a refresher course of sorts. But those who really NEED to read this book, and who I think she is trying to reach, will simply avoid it, as not their cup of tea, and not engaging enough for their attention-span. For one thing there are no pictures(!) and a book on science with no pictures is not going to attract those who are already phobic of, or little-familiar with, science and who most need to read it. For another, the quality of writing is so good it is primarily going to attract an already-literate audience that will appreciate the composition, and not those who may need a yet simpler approach.
Chapter headings for the book are "Probabilities," "Calibration," "Physics," "Chemistry," "Evolutionary biology," "Molecular biology," "Geology," and "Astronomy." ...A "whirligig tour" indeed (I probably like her "Molecular biology" chapter the best, even though my interest runs more toward physics). Someone truly interested in any one of these topics can no doubt find better treatments of them in other volumes specifically devoted to them. With Angier what you're getting is less depth and thoroughness, but a very readable sort of Cliffs-note version. Nothing at all wrong with that (and truthfully she's much better than Cliff notes); I'm just not sure how wide the audience for it is (hard-core scientists may want more than what we have here, and non-scientists may not want as much as is here). I rate the volume a slightly reluctant "B+;" reluctant, only because I'd like to give it a tad higher, Angier is such a gem of a writer/expositor. Somehow though, the material still has a bit of the feel of a mini-text to study, rather than a presentation to be savored. But it is probably as good an effort in this genre (of introductory multi-science) as is out there.
All of this brings us to what has been a hot topic of late: scientific literacy in America. One book currently making the rounds (which I haven't read yet), apparently argues in part that scientists themselves need to communicate better and more directly to the lay public. Many of us think this is mistaken; scientists often are not good communicators to lay audiences (of course there are exceptions), but even if they were (and had the time to do it), where is that audience??? There were a couple generations post 'sputnik' that seemed to lap up science in this country, but I don't believe that is true of more recent generations, and it simply seems too late (unfortunately) to gain their attention now. As much as I hate saying it, most American adults, who are not already scientifically literate, are likely a lost cause at this point; they are as locked into their boredom, fear, or distaste of science as others are locked into views on abortion or animal rights, where there's little point in discussion because both sides are deaf to the other sides' views. One sign of all this is the tremendous number of high-level science/medical/technology positions in this country now being filled by foreigners/immigrants, as there aren't enough native-born Americans with the requisite skills needed to meet the demand.
If everyone would read and absorb Angier's book, science illiteracy in the country could pretty much be dashed... but in a land of romance novels, Harry Potter, Tom Clancy, and vampire novels (not to mention much religious indoctrination) etc. etc. that ain't gonna happen. At any given time, the source material is out there for the masses to attain scientific literacy, but in the end they must want it; it can't be forced on them, and more scientists preaching the gospels of empiricism to them could even be counter-productive.
The only solution it seems to me is to reach the youngest (still pliable) people coming up through the education system (and, as Angier and others have pointed out, they ought be taught physics first, then chemistry, and then biology, rather than the other way around as is routine --- proceed from the most basic and reductionist, to the most complex); re-instill the wonder, beauty, and magic of science that some of us growing up in the 50's and 60's felt. It is a difficult task, requiring excellent, passionate science teachers (and lots of them) and excellent materials, and we may not be up to it. Heaven help us, though, if we are not. At least Natalie Angier has done her part.
A NY Times review of "The Canon" here:
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
A very comprehensive review of celiac disease (gluten intolerance), a widespread but under-diagnosed and difficult-to-treat ailment here:
Monday, July 27, 2009
"Why Sh*t Happens" by Peter Bentley (computer scientist and college professor in London)
Interestingly, in Britain Peter Bentley's new book on human foibles is titled "The Undercover Scientist," but in America it takes on the title "Why Sh*t Happens," a title that may have been thought to be avant-garde, but I suspect will put off a certain segment of potential readers, and may even cause some public libraries to avoid it. And that's ashame, because this is a great and fun read (I'd go so far as to call it the most entertaining science book I've encountered this year; a tour de force in mini-science). Interesting, funny, instructive, clever, well-written, thought-provoking, engaging, and hey, scientific... it squeezes in all the components one might want in a popular science volume, while pulling back the curtain, in wizard-like manner, on routine daily occurrences.
Bentley takes everyday mishaps (think 'Murphy's Laws') that most of us can relate to, and delightfully turns them into miniature-science lessons for the reader. He almost seems to pull the various topics randomly out of a hat, for his 39 chapters, or vignettes. The brief introduction to each chapter does cleverly try to give some linkage and order to the otherwise disparate chapters. Each chapter is interesting and chock-full of informational tidbits ranging from science/technology trivia to practical pieces of knowledge (...even the trivia could prove useful, to impress, at your next cocktail party). His array of mundane topics (turned into science treats) include soap, razors, bird poop, sleep, toasters, sour milk, bees, ink pens, superglue, tires, chewing gum, computer viruses and hard drives, pain, lightning, teeth, glass, and food, to name a sampling ...yes, incredibly, all in one book; topics running the gamut across physics, biology, engineering, chemistry, computer science, physiology....
This was my first introduction to Bentley; now I'm interested in checking out his two other popular science books: "Digital Biology" and "The Book of Numbers." In short, an "A" book for me. and maybe even a good summer beach read for all you nonfiction lovers. Having said that, I do have a special penchant for the essay form of writing --- those readers who want a book to have a beginning, middle, and an end though, with development and thoroughness and a big helping of cutting-edge science, may find this volume lacking, and more like eating popcorn than the full meal they seek. This isn't Carl Sagan, or Richard Dawkins, or Brian Greene, or any of the other heavy hitters. But then popcorn is actually a fairly nutritious snack and sometimes just hits the spot.
Friday, July 24, 2009
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Just a simple fun math diversion today that I've adapted from another blog:
-- Proof --
a + b = c.
This can then be equivalently written as:
(4a – 3a) + (4b – 3b) = 4c – 3c
After reorganizing (adding/subtracting from both sides):
4a + 4b – 4c = 3a + 3b – 3c
Take the constants out of the brackets:
4(a + b – c) = 3(a + b – c)
Remove the same term left and right:
4 = 3
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Just a li'l essay of my own today....
Instinctively, I'm one of the most skeptical people I know (...assuming of course that I and other people actually exist, that is ;-)) Having said that, I'm also VERY open to all genuine ideas put forward by sincere, intelligent people --- in part because of the many bizarre notions in math and physics that are completely beyond my logic and comprehension (yet accepted by reputable people), I feel compelled to maintain an open-mind about other sorts of "crazy" ideas.
Even upon settling on a given view or belief with a high level of confidence, I'll leave the door cracked open a sliver for anything that might come along to alter that opinion (especially since science does have some history of crackpot-ish notions becoming mainstream.)
I'm not comfortable with the label "skeptic," because of connotations it has in some quarters ("close-minded," "sterile," "nerdy," "hyper-critical," etc.), but in fact am probably MORE of a skeptic than most of those who proudly wear that label --- because I'm skeptical across the board (while also "open" to things across the scientific landscape, as well) --- as much as I love it, I'm skeptical of science and its applications (it DOES get misused, and does get things very wrong sometimes, injuriously so); and skeptical of skeptics themselves --- of their motives, their biases and objectivity, skeptical of their real understanding of the underlying nature of science and knowledge. ...Hell, I s'pose I'm skeptical of my own skepticism at times, knowing it may be overwrought --- annoyingly, I see a broad landscape in shades of gray where others see patches of black-and-white ( -- an old bumper sticker reads "Question Authority;" my own dictum tends toward "Question Everything").
Compared to the comfort that "certainty" provides, being a tad scientifically skeptical of all things all the time is difficult, but it is made palatable by simultaneously remaining open to most things most of the time. 'Remaining open' does not mean 'believing in;' it merely means recognizing that limitations of human rationality make complete dismissiveness inadvisable.
Both skepticism and open-mindedness are needed in science, and perhaps even in equal doses. But if I was forced at gunpoint to choose between an emphasis on one or the other (not that it could even be that black-and-white), without a blink I'd choose in favor of openness. Skepticism helps keep science kosher and unpolluted, but in its essence, openness (to new, unconventional, and even controversial ideas), and not skepticism, is what generally propels science forward.
Monday, July 20, 2009
fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging, analyzing brain activity by measuring blood flow) seems to be showing up everywhere in neuroscience these days, as scientists study brain activity under a number of circumstances. In this Discover Magazine article science writer David Duncan undergoes the procedure (as well as regular MRI) as part of his overall submission to tests during the writing of his book "Experimental Man."
As its usage has become widespread many criticisms of fMRI have been leveled. See HERE and HERE. Some controversy continues, but use of the procedure seems ever-expanding.
Amazon link HERE to "Experimental Man." Review of the book HERE.
And lastly, Duncan runs an "Experimental Man" Blog HERE.
Friday, July 17, 2009
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
An impossible gadget:
"Thomson's Lamp" is an example of a "supertask," a category of paradox that involves an infinitely-divisible task. One form of the paradox runs as follows:
You have a lamp that can be turned on and off using a toggle switch. At the start the lamp is turned on for exactly one minute, at which point it is turned off for 0.5 mins., and then turned on for .25 mins., and then off for .125 mins.... and so on. The question is, at the two-minute mark is the lamp on or off? Also, does the answer change if the lamp begins in the off position for the first minute rather than the on position?
Common-sensically and practically it would seem there ought be a simple, or at least a mathematically-calculable solution, to these questions --- afterall, at the two minute mark the lamp MUST be either on or off! But in fact, we are dealing with an infinite sequence (1 + 1/2 + 1/4 +1/8 +1/16 +....), and as such there is no one single right answer --- different arguments/solutions can be logically made, and even semantically the problem is unsettled. In part the answer depends on how fast one assumes the (undetailed) turning on and turning off action itself takes --- is it 'instantaneous' (eating up no amount of time), or does it take some finite amount of time (say perhaps, with the speed of light as a limiting factor)? In short, Thomson's Lamp is a fun thought exercise that oddly evades any proven solution.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Author blurb today: Martin Gardner....
In the view of many, Martin Gardner is easily one of the greatest science/philosophy essayists of all time, and still with us occasionally writing in his nineties. He has been called "a national treasure." Some readers know him only from his recreational math writings, which while outstanding, represent only a portion of his incredible, insightful production. Gardner's breadth and depth of knowledge is phenomenal, and his ability to cut through verbiage to focus on essential points and ideas unsurpassed (and all the more remarkable given that he attained a bachelor's degree in philosophy, but never an advanced degree in math or any science). His wit and sense of humor are treats as well.
Two of my very favorite works of his (straight-out "A's") come from the late '90s:
"The Night Is Large" --- a compilation of (philosophical, skeptical, and science) essays he wrote on all manner of topics from 1938 to 1995, that still stand up well today. A GREAT introduction to Gardner if you've not read him before. A great re-read if you are familiar with Gardner.
"The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener" --- possibly the most under-appreciated, even little-known, and yet among the best (though most poorly-titled), works he ever produced, laying out his own philosophical underpinnings (the postscript and notes are almost as interesting as the text, which is admittedly dry in parts). He surprised many here by revealing himself as a "fideist" --- a theist who believes in God while admitting there is no basis in reason or logic for doing so; the only basis stirs from other non-rational parts of the human psyche.
Gardner is also a self-proclaimed adherent of the "New Mysterianism," asserting that an understanding of "consciousness" is likely forever beyond the human brain (versus the more reductionist view that consciousness can ultimately be explained by the actions of firing neurons). I concur with this basic notion that the brain cannot understand itself ("if the brain was so simple that we could understand it, than we would be so simple that we couldn't," as one aphorism puts it). Although many of Gardner's critical views are well-known, others of his views are unpredictable and surprising.
I sometimes find Gardner's stated criticisms in certain areas to be overwrought (much of his criticism of the "General Semantics" movement for example, I think is off-base), yet there is no writer that I might disagree with who I'd more anxiously read and respect than Martin Gardner. Any volume of his essays is a rich and thought-provoking delight. In my view, forget Shakespeare, Gardner ought be required reading for every high-schooler in America!
Wikipedia entry HERE.
Older online interview HERE.
Addendum: HERE, I've reviewed his book "The Jinn From Hyperspace."
Monday, July 13, 2009
Friday, July 10, 2009
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Research reported HERE indicating that the so-called "smell" of fear is more than a metaphor, and indeed has a reality in our brain structure/functioning. This has long seemed to be the case for both wild and domestic animals, but we still have much to learn about the full capabilities and effects of the human olfactory system.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Randomness in our lives...
I generally like Leonard Mlodinow's writing (previous volumes include "Feynman's Rainbow" and "Euclid's Window"), and his 2008 offering, "The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives," is no exception. I read it over a year ago, but it is newly out in paperback and making the bookstore rounds again, so worth a mention.
Several books in recent years, like this one, have made the point that despite our intuitive notions of order and scientific predictability in our lives, randomness actually plays a far more significant role. Mlodinow, a former Cal Tech physicist/mathematician is skilled at explaining probability and statistics to a lay audience in an engaging, even humorous manner. The author shows how our basic instinct to perceive patterns and order in the world around us often leads us astray, while a more clear understanding of statistics will often account for seeming anomalies. He covers most of the popular and entertaining topics in this arena, as well as some less-widely covered ones, with clear explanations that can be readily followed by even the non-mathematically-inclined. Again, I won't do a full review here, but pass along an "A-" rating, and refer readers to these other reviews on the Web:
NY Times review
The Guardian review
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Just a blurb today on the recent memoir "The Art and Politics of Science" by Harold Varmus, English major turned cancer research scientist and Nobel laureate, eventual head of NIH, and now President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, as well as a science adviser to President Obama. I give this volume a "B" though those particularly interested in the 'process' of medical science in this country may readily find it to be an "A" read. I might have preferred a tad more science and a tad less of the art and politics, but that would defeat the very purpose Varmus had in mind. Even with that said, plenty of interesting passages here about the evolution of cancer/oncology research in this country, and the interaction (trials and travails?) of medicine and government/bureaucracy.
For those not involved in science, who may imagine science as a smooth, meticulous, step-by-step advancing process, this volume will help rectify that false image. Science is, and always has been, a bumpy, non-pristine road, 4 steps forward, 3 steps back, with large elements of art and politics intervening, for good or ill. For those concerned with science communication, the last chapter, in which Varmus details his advocacy of "open access publishing" and his role in the founding of the Public Library of Science (PLoS), will also be of great interest.
Fuller reviews from The Washington Post HERE and from the NY Times HERE.