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

-- E.O. Wilson

Web scienceontap.blogspot.com

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.

No comments: