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

-- E.O. Wilson

Web scienceontap.blogspot.com

Thursday, July 1, 2010


This blog is on (likely permanent) hiatus while I turn my energy to a new blog on my first love, mathematics:


(...mathematics for a non-technical lay audience)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Science Books From Bloggers

A recent compendium here:


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Quote... Unquote

“If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to believe that my beliefs are true… and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”
–- J.B.S. Haldane, "Possible Worlds" (1927)

Monday, June 7, 2010

"What Is Information?"

Stuart Kauffman on "information" here:


Saturday, June 5, 2010


Check out this little example of human perception/face recognition:


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:



Saturday, April 24, 2010

Martin Gardner, Again

Vintage Martin Gardner....

Recently finished reading Martin Gardner's last book (2009), another one of his compendiums of previously-published essays entitled, "When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish." I won't do a full review, because readers here already know that any Gardner volume is in my view "A" material, and his essay anthologies, in particular, are slam-dunks (I consider them desserts for the lay science reader, from one of the greatest 20th century thinkers and essayists America has produced). And this volume delights as well, even if one has already previously read most of these pieces in their prior venues.

My one and only teensy beef with Gardner's works are that his book and essay titles are often poorly/weakly chosen, very uninspiring, and even (unfortunately) I think a potential turn-off to new readers! In this particular case the odd title comes from the title of one of the essays in the volume, which in turn comes from a line in a famous piece of poetry/verse, but hardly a title I think that will attract fresh audience.

For anyone who has never read Martin Gardner this is not a bad volume to start with, as in typical fashion he criss-crosses a wide range of subjects in his unpredictable manner (from reading one essay, you can never guess what might be coming in the next essay). There is one chapter of essays on mathematical topics and another on logic, but for readers phobic of such subjects, they are not too heavy, and the other chapters are on politics, religion, literature, and science, exhibiting as always Gardner's amazing breadth of thought and erudition, in short, highly-readable and insightful prose.

Subject matter ranges from Anne Coulter to Isaac Newton (where else in publishing might you find that range!), from G.K. Chesterton to Richard Roberts (evangelist) to Frank Tipler (physicist), to Immanuel Kant, to poetry, the Fibonacci sequence, and the Wizard of Oz. Gardner's forthright (blunt?) opinions on those thinkers or thoughts he finds insufferable are entertaining to read. And as one of the most vocal and incisive "skeptics" of the 20th century (who was often presumed to be a secular humanist), many will find Gardner's 'confessional' chapter, "Why I am Not an Atheist," (originally written almost 30 years ago) on theism or fideism especially intriguing in this day of best-selling non-belief treatises.

This would not be among my favorite anthologies of Gardner's output, but it is a perfectly enjoyable one, and as I say, a straightforward introduction to Gardner's style and approach for anyone unfamiliar with him... and truly, no thinking person should be unfamiliar with him. He is an American gem.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Recent article from NPR on "randomness" here:


Monday, April 12, 2010


I haven't read it myself as yet, but "Flyaway" is a highly-rated 2009 volume about the life and times and experiences of a wild bird rehabililtator, Suzie Gilbert. Newly-out in paperback.

a Web review of it here:


and some more on Suzie Gilbert here:


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday Morning Passages

A few more of Chet Raymo's musings for a Sunday morning, on 'pattern' and 'order' and woolly bear caterpillars:




Saturday, March 20, 2010

"The Genius In All of Us"

"The Genius In All of Us" by David Shenk

Certain thematic conflicts in biology arise over and over in popular writing, the most obvious or frequent one being, evolution versus intelligent design. But right behind it, and slightly related, is "nature versus nurture"... are we humans more the product of our genes or of our environment? And unlike scientific controversies that tend to move toward resolution, this one just seems to fluctuate back and forth over time.

Into that controversy steps journalist David Shenk with his new book, "The Genius In All of Us." The book cover's subheading, "Why everything you've been told about genetics, talent and IQ is wrong," somewhat annoys me. Of course some things we know are wrong, but plenty we've been told is no doubt right, and much else, while debatable is not necessarily "wrong." I won't make too much out of this, since such hyperbole is commonplace in publishing these days, but it does I think detract a tad from one's initial impression of the book's credibility.

In some ways Shenk's book is a sort of counterbalance to Steven Pinker's popular "The Blank Slate" from some years back, which argued forcefully for the influence of genes. Shenk contends that the sort of genetic influence postulated by Pinker and others " is easily -- and perilously -- misinterpreted." He calls the whole "nature versus nurture" dichotomy "bankrupt," and I'm not so sure many scientists wouldn't, at some level, agree with that, in the sense that it tends to be too simplistic or black-and-white a distinction. The interplay of nature and nurture is hugely complex and variable from person-to-person. It is what Shenk calls a "dynamic" process, not some set-in-stone static effect, as some may be led to believe.

Shenk is not himself a geneticist or scientist, but does make reference to many scientific studies throughout the volume to state his case. And the book is a bit quirky in that the main text (called "The Argument") is less than 140 pages long, but then followed by almost 140 pages (called "The Evidence") of "Sources, Notes, Clarifications and Amplifications." Many of these endnotes are indeed just brief clarifications of earlier material, but several are extensive and interesting enough that one wonders why they weren't incorporated into the main text, rather than being slapped on at the end, where they may get missed. The author seems to use the main body to paint his thesis with a very broad brush for a general audience, and leave more detailed or technical information for the last half, but I'm not sure this was the most effective use of material. The book does not include much molecular biology, so most of the more technical endnotes could have been easily/appropriately worked in earlier to good effect.

The book starts off (and ends) using great baseball icon Ted Williams as an example of someone who many pointed to as a person with super innate talents, but who in fact (Shenk argues) developed his skills through assiduous practice and hard work.
Shenk calls the old model of development "G + E," for genetics plus environment, and the new model "G x E," for genetics times environment, or the idea that the two components, rather than being additive, are eternally dynamic, constantly playing off one another. As he writes at one point:
"The reality of G x E assures that each person's genes interact with his climate, altitude, culture, meals, language, custom, and spirituality -- everything -- to produce unique life trajectories. Genes play a critical role, but as dynamic instruments, not a fixed blueprint."
So while acknowledging that genes may set certain limits for individuals, Shenk stresses that no one is "doomed to mediocrity" by their genes, and that we all have potential for greatness. That is the hopeful take-home message of Shenk's treatise, that readers will like.

Many interesting topics are overviewed in the book, including intelligence and IQ-testing, the famous "twin studies" (usually used to argue for the influence of genes, but here used to argue for the input of environment), mental savants and "giftedness" more generally, the Suzuki teaching method, and the controversial subject of innate differences in sports abilities between ethnic groups, and also practical suggestions for improving one's environment. Epigenetics and Lamarckianism are other key topics coming up here. The treatments are a bit superficial (intended for a general audience), and spun by Shenk to bolster his case, but no harm in that.

When all is said-and-done, nativists often figure that 60% or more of who we are is determined by genetics or "inheritability" while 40% comes from environmental factors. Shenk might want to reverse those figures, to the limited degree that one can even slap such percentages on the data at all. It all remains grist for debate because to some degree one is comparing apples and oranges when discussing nature and nurture in the same breath: genes (nature) are somewhat discrete, though highly-complicated, biochemical entities, whereas environment (nurture) can include a broad, amorphous, and ill-defined array of factors --- psychological, physical, chemical, biological in nature. How all these interact will indeed be difficult/impossible to tease apart. Shenk also notes that even in the first 9 months of life a human child (and their genes) is bombarded by powerful environmental influences within the womb.

Overall, I rate the book a "B," a good enough read for lay people who may enjoy a different slant on genetics than they're accustomed to. Scientists may not find that much new here; moreover, by now most scientists are entrenched enough in their own view of the nature/nurture spectrum, that this material may not move them.
The particular value of the volume, I believe, is in helping put the daily headlines of human (and other) genome research somewhat in its place, as less precise, advanced, and deterministic than it's often perceived to be. The headlines tend to oversell. We are still in the very primitive, early stages of truly understanding genetics, and the public needs to know that. Shenk has done his part to tell them.

More here:


And a recent hour-long interview with David Shenk here:


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Not For Math-Phobes

First, an interesting (lengthy) article on problems with statistics in research here:


On a related and slightly less-technical note, just finished reading Jason Rosenhouse's wonderful 2009 volume, "The Monty Hall Problem," devoted entirely to the "Monty Hall" problem from mathematics (one of the most intriguing, well-covered/debated probability problems oft-presented to lay audiences), and highly recommend it to all who have a general interest in mathematics or probability theory. I think the first 3 chapters, that cover the meat of the problem, and last 3 chapters that delve into more philosophical or epistemological elements, are especially good; in-between are some more over-the-top chapters dealing with variations on the basic problem, that require more mathematics and won't suit everyone's taste. Still, the complexities and intricacies of the deceptively-simple dilemma are really quite fascinating, and Rosenhouse admits at the end he has enough material left over to write yet a 2nd book on the topic!

Finally, a new volume I haven't read yet but that looks interesting, is "Dude, Can You Count," from Christian Constanda. More on it here:


Meanwhile, I've received a copy of the new book, "The Genius In All of Us" (by David Shenk) from the publisher, and it will be next up for a fuller review here.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Supernormal Stimuli"

"Supernormal Stimuli"  is Harvard psychologist's Deirdre Barrett latest book, focusing on how our modern technology plays upon and overwhelms our primitive instincts to ill effect.

Review here:


Sunday, March 7, 2010

"Thinking About Thinking"

A meditation for a Sunday morning:


Thursday, March 4, 2010

"You Are Not a Gadget"

Some reviews of "You Are Not a Gadget" the controversial "manifesto" by long-time Web guru and now critic of Web 2.0, Jaron Lanier:




Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"Inside the Human Genome"

Below, a review of evolutionary geneticist John Avise's  "Inside the Human Genome" (a book which notes that in studying the human genome one is struck more by its UNintelligent design, than the intelligent design so heavily touted):


An interview with John Avise here:


Saturday, February 27, 2010

"The Wauchula Woods Accord"

Primates 'R Us...

Washington Post review of "The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals" by Charles Siebert, a book exploring the human/great ape borderland, here:


Interview with author Siebert here:


A recent moving WNYC RadioLab podcast about the life of captive chimp "Lucy" based in part on Siebert's book is here:


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Science of Life and Liberty

NY Times review of popular science writer Timothy Ferris's latest, "The Science of Liberty," in which he explores the underlying connection between science and "liberal democracy," here:


....and a review below of the last offering from Dr. Francis Collins (of human genome fame), "The Language of Life":


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Back To Roots

The original intention when I started "Science On Tap" was to write science book reviews and link to other book reviews and science essays on the Web. Alas, lack of time, and the sparsity of good science reviews and writing on the Web, quickly made that difficult, so I reverted to linking to current science stories in the news, just to have daily posts.
At least for now though, with other projects gobbling time, I'll be reverting to a focus on reviews and science essays, and thus posting will be far less frequent for the near future.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Fear of spiders may develop in the womb (at least for crickets!):


(interesting study)

Placebo Effects

Duhhh... not quite sure why this is still surprising to some:


Friday, February 19, 2010


For a Friday video take your pick from any of these 100 TED talks on engineering:


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ocean Acidification

The degradation of the oceans, i.e. most of the Earth, by us land dwellers... in case you haven't had your full dose of foreboding news this week, this from Carl Zimmer:


The View From Space

A window on the world (literally):