"Our sense of wonder grows exponentially; the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery."

-- E.O. Wilson

Web scienceontap.blogspot.com

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Martin Gardner 1914 - 2010

Feel it necessary to report that Martin Gardner died of natural causes this weekend in Norman, OK., at the age of 95. One of my favorite writers/essayists/thinkers who I blogged on a few occasions here:




He will be missed, but had an incredible and productive life, leaving behind a treasure-trove of both rich and entertaining writings. He was so much more than a mathematician, but still I'll repeat here a favorite quote (from mathematician Ronald Graham), about him:

“Many have tried to emulate him; no one has succeeded. Martin has turned thousands of children into mathematicians, and thousands of mathematicians into children.”

Lengthy Scientific American profile here:


...here another good obituary:


And here a video on Gardner from David Suzuki's "The Nature of Things" (which focuses on his math and magic interests, but unfortunately leaves out his forays into philosophy and literature):


Worth noting that, unlike many of his fellow skeptics, Gardner labeled himself a "Mysterian;" one who believes that certain deep scientific problems can never be solved or fully comprehended by the human brain. See more here:


Finally, if by any chance you're unfamiliar with Gardner I especially recommend his essay volume "The Night Is Large" as one great place to become acquainted.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Yeah, But We Ain't So Good At Sonar Ourselves

Friday Fun....

 Leave it to The Onion to scoop The Journal of Marine Biology:


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

3 For Your Money

Synchronicity of sorts: I've been reading several books simultaneously lately, including Dr. Francis Collins' most recent offering, "The Language of Life." Then yesterday while in the halls of a local Federal Government research lab I looked up and THERE was Francis Collins walking through on a site visit!

Because three of the disparate books (they have nothing in common) I'm reading are SO good (all in the "A" to "B" range) I think I'll just go ahead and mention them now, possibly doing fuller reviews later:

1. "From Eternity To Here" is Caltech physicist Sean Carroll's 2010 book on cosmology, and specifically the nature of time (this is not BTW Sean B. Carroll, the biologist of same name and popular writer of evolutionary biology books). Carroll writes one of the most popular science blogs on the Web ("Cosmic Variance"), and if you know and enjoy his writing there, you will almost certainly enjoy this volume. I had actually read some mixed reviews of the book on the internet so have been pleasantly surprised at just how good it is. I think the more negative reviewers may simply disagree with the theoretical positions Carroll is staking out; I am more interested in how well he communicates complex but interesting notions to a lay audience (whether or not one agrees with those notions) and think he does a very admirable job of that (but this is not a book for newbies to cosmology; you do need some background). Of the three books I'm mentioning in this post this is the most technical and hardest read, but it looks to be worth it, assuming some interest in cosmology, and the focus on time is a different slant than a number of other similar works.

2. "The Language of Life" is Francis Collins' (head of the Human Genome Project, and now Director of NIH) 2010 account of the current state of human genetics' knowledge and application, and it is as good and balanced an introduction for the interested lay reader as I've seen to one of the most important, life-altering arenas of science today. Collins mixes scientific explication with instructive anecdotal examples to yield a very understandable, readable review of current day genetics (spelling out both the hopes and serious issues at-hand, and without the frequent hype, nor alarm, of some other writers); again, a book I was pleasantly surprised by. This volume will have the widest audience of the three I am mentioning here, and I especially recommend it to those who haven't paid much attention to what is happening in the field of human genetics, and what the (very near) future may bring (...and with the recent announcement that personal DNA kits will go on sale at Walgreens Drugstores, possibly the timing for reading Collins' book couldn't be better).

3. "Beyond the Hoax" is physicist Alan Sokal's 2008 follow-up (a compendium of various pieces he had written or delivered) to the famous hoax he pulled off in 1996, submitting a spoof/parody paper (of nonsense) to a professional journal "Social Text" and having it accepted for publication! (to the later chagrin of the editors). This was a fascinating, scandalous academic story at the time, and his rich followup to all that transpired, and what it means, is both deep and intense... this is actually MY favorite of the three volumes mentioned here, BUT it is definitely NOT for everyone... in fact I dare say most readers will find it a yawner of sorts, as it reads more like a college textbook than an offering for the lay reader. It deals with the underpinnings of science, knowledge, epistemology, and philosophy, all of which are of particular interest to me, but probably not to most readers, who prefer reading about the application of science, as in the other two works above. Among Sokal's topics are "postmodernism," "social constructionism of science," scientific methodology, "cognitive relativism," pseudoscience, and religion, and though there is a fair amount of repetitiveness in the pages, there are also rich and subtle ideas that may only be appreciated upon careful re-reading. I actually think Sokal's own support for scientific empiricism may be just a tad over-stretched, but still enjoy seeing him argue the case for it anyway, while relentlessly trying to put some of the fuzzy thinking that attempts to pass for science in its place.

In short, for the general lay science reader I most recommend the Collins book which deals with issues/concerns more directly pertinent to a great many readers' lives, but if you have an especial cerebral penchant for either physics or philosophy than the Carroll or Sokal books (respectively) look to be excellent... though to-be-sure, none of these are summer beach-reading material.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Best of...?

  "The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009" edited by Elizabeth Kolbert

I've mentioned before enjoying anthologies, but one somewhat notable exception to that has been the "Best American Series" put out yearly on a wide variety of subjects. These volumes (selecting some of the very best writing of the previous year from a variety of authors, subjects, and publications) tend to be very disjointed, no doubt selecting their varying pieces to appeal to a wide variety of readers. While I don't dislike these volumes, I don't find them as satisfying as other anthologies built around a single theme or by a single writer. The latest  "The Best of Science and Nature Writing 2009" edited by Elizabeth Kolbert (the editor changes each year) is no exception; if anything, I think it a little better than some of the previous editions and certainly an ok-read, but still just a "B-" for my tastes.

The writing is invariably good with plenty of familiar names (Wendell Berry, Walter Isaacson, David Quammen, Atul Gawande, Oliver Sacks to name a few) selected, as well as some less familiar writers and publications. Each draws the reader into their subject effectively and carries them along for the ride. If I were reading any of these pieces in a newspaper or magazine I would undoubtedly enjoy them, but somehow perusing them back-to-back in book form is a less engaging experience, although it's difficult to say exactly why they don't gel better in this form. Just a couple weeks back I reviewed (much more favorably) Martin Gardner's "When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish," an anthology of pieces from him that are easily as disparate as this "Best of" collection. The difference is that the Gardner volume has a certain style throughout, and reflects back very engagingly on the thinking of a single individual. It has a unity or 'wholeness,' despite the 'hopscotchiness,' that the Kolbert volume lacks.

The "Best" series actually puts out separate "Best of Nature Writing" and "Best of Science Writing" volumes, and because science and nature writing are slightly different genres, I think this combined work is a tad more disjointed than those separate works. Each piece is a fine example of writing, but the styles and subject matter and themes are so unrelated that they just don't hang together well (for me) in a single volume. It's the sort of book I'll read once, semi-enjoy, and then pass off to a used bookstore, rather than put on my shelf to reference or savor again in the future.

Some will no doubt be more enamored of the volume though than me (especially if you've liked this series in the past), and below is a more positive Web review of it:


Friday, May 7, 2010

Men... Women... Explained

Clifford Pickover explicates the differences between men and women here:

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Wiseman Entertains...

A card trick... and more:

I won't say what this video is concerning, so as not to take away from the effect, but it is another wonderful demonstration previously-posted by the always interesting British psychologist Richard Wiseman (for some reason, the audio doesn't seem to work on it, but it isn't necessary):

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"Darwinian Evolution In Fast-forward"

Good piece here from the always incisive Carl Zimmer on the recent (not-very-surprising) news of weeds developing resistance to Monsanto's widely-used Roundup herbicide (so-called "superweeds"):


In turn he links to this NY Times piece on the same subject:


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Gleiser's Latest

For the cosmology readers out there, a couple of Web reviews of physicist Marcelo Gleiser's latest book, "A Tear At the Edge of Creation" below.

(This is Gleiser's account of his journey from string theorist and unification seeker to a totally different and "radical" view of the nature of the Universe, wherein a "Theory of Everything" is likely not achievable.)



Saturday, May 1, 2010

Pollan Rules

"Food Rules: An Eater's Manual" by Michael Pollan

Pretty much anything Michael Pollan writes these days is an automatic NY Times bestseller... and rightfully so, given his skills of exposition, especially on the food-related concerns he has now made a career from.  You could probably condense all the writing and text in his latest (2009) volume, "Food Rules," into about 25 pages if you chose to (even though there are 64 rules covered), but using white space and large print the publisher has stretched it into 140 pages, that I think may be the best practical bang-for-your-buck currently in bookstores --- the slender volume is $11 (with a coupon I got it for $7, and still less online).

Stripped of science, gobbledygook, and intimidating biochemical terminology, Pollan spells out a straightforward, common-sense, distilled treatise on "rules" for eating soundly, for all concerned with food and nutrition. He boils it down to this: "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much," and then spends a chapter explicating each of these basic concepts in more (but very simple) detail.
Without being preachy or overbearing, nor too technical or wordy, Pollan offers up common-sensical, easy-to-remember notions that most folks have already heard along the way somewhere, but puts them in an order and format readily digestable by any reader.

Everyone will have their own favorites among his 64 rules; just a few of mine:

"Avoid food products containing words a third-grader cannot pronounce."
"Avoid food products that make health claims." (you'll have to read the volume to hear the explanation)
"Eat only foods that will eventually rot."
"It's not food if it arrived through the window of your car."
"It's not food if it's called the same name in every language. (Think Big Mac, Cheetos, or Pringles.)"

And you don't need to obsess over Pollan's rules; that would go against the spirit of this treatise. In fact he closes out the volume, exhorting the reader to break the rules once in awhile; 'moderation in all things... including moderation.'
Pollan is not a scientist, but a journalist and a teacher, and this little volume communicates and teaches, with a minimal investment of time from the reader. So buy this book, read it, give it to a friend or family member, and I predict that without even trying, at least some of these "rules" will become a part of your routine... to your betterment! 

Pollan's Amazon page is here:


Two NY Times reviews of "Food Rules" and interview with Pollan here: