Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Holiday Christmas Shopping - Scienterrific Books!!!

I mentioned previously that I was going to be a guest on Skeptically Speaking again.  The live show was Friday, and is now available for download with links to all the many books discussed.

As always the show was fun to be on.  I wish we could have got more discussion in than we did, but it was a very full show as it was.

I often come out the other end of these events feeling like I was at best a shotgun of information.  Perhaps I had some impact if I was aimed at the appropriate target, but even then I was all over the place.  So I figured I'd take a little bit of time to mention my books (as well as the books I had on my shortlist that other guests spoke about.

When I was asked to be on the show I polled some friends as to what books I should talk about.  Only one made the final list, but several appeared on my shortlist and I'll touch on them below.  I automatically nixed all Sagan books.  I figured he was a shoe in - and sure enough two Sagan books were mentioned by other guests.  Contact and Demon Haunted World.  I also considered the Cosmos companion, and Broca's Brain.

First up, my actual four picks for the show:

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

I mentioned on the show that when I was asked to do the show I polled a few friends to see what they came up with.  I actually didn't use a single one of their suggestions except this one - which I had already thought of.  But every single one of them included this in their list.  I was actually surprised that none of the other guests mentioned it.
This is totally gateway-drug territory.  I don't think I've ever read a science book that covers so much in such an enjoyable fashion.  It's very much 'sci-light' but that is it's charm.  Since it's publication it has gone slightly out of date - as I mentioned on the show the first two chapters alone have information that has changed since the book was written, but errata for that and other mistakes is easily available on-line.
While Bryson does get into a patina of explanation of science that ranges from the beginnong of the universe to the evolution of man, the heart of this book is really the stories behind the discoveries.  He delves deep into the quirks of the scientists and the history behind those who made parallel yet unheralded discoveries or those upon whose gigantic shoulders the heros of science stood upon.
It is at the same time funny and fascinating... something I'm informed that Bryson fans find to be his stock-in-trade, though I must admit that after trying several of his other books based on the promise of this one, I haven't found a single other one of his books that I've been able to finish.

The Transparent Society by Dr. David Brin

David Brin is serious man-crush territory for me.  I think he is the greatest living science fiction writer, he maintains an excellent blog, and YouTube channel, has a resume that includes CalTech and the JPL, had the jam to follow in Asimov's shoes and (ulp!) contribute to the Foundation series, and building upon the thinking in the Transparent Society has become one of the world's leading voices in the on-going discussion about privacy, transparency and freedom.

I hardly know where to begin with this book. It covers a lot of territory and it's hard for me to talk about it without drifting into my own feelings about the issues herein.  Some of it is scary - but that is exactly why it is important.  Being over 12 years old by now there are parts of this book that are self-evident - but that is part of it's strength.  You find yourself looking at the things he has got right and considering the portions that most rub you the wrong way with greater gravity.

I think this book is important to a world that is filled with citizens in denial and/or paranoia and not enough in a well reasoned middle.

Wikipedia sums it up with quotes from Brin, that the book is ultimately a proponent of a world where:
"most of the people, knowing most of what's going on, most of the time," would only be an extension of what already gave us the Enlightenment, freedom and privacy. By comparison, he asks what the alternative would be: "To pass privacy laws that will be enforced by elites, and trust them to refrain from looking at us?"
Brin is also the originator of the term "citokate" (I've lost track of whether it came from Trasparent Society or his blog first.) Which every skeptic should have in their vocabulary.

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

The thing about Arcadia that I most failed to illuminate on the show is that it is a work of such rich complexity that subsequent readings (or viewings - it is a play, after all) never fail to open up new layers of understanding.
Tom Stoppard is one of the truly most amazing playwrights of our time.  While the average Jane may not be familiar with his name, they more than likely know of a film he won an Academy Award for - Shakespeare in Love.  The whimsical, multi-faceted treatment he gives the Bard is akin to the reverence he gives mathematics (and thermo-dynamics, and chaos, and fluid-dynamics, and determinism, and and and....) in Arcadia.
The play actually takes place in two times (but the same place) simultaneously at a country house in Derbyshire, as a set of modern academics attempt to untie the events of roughly a 180 years previously which the audience is also party to and see unfold in tandem.  All kinds of clever elements connect both times, but the favourite has got to be one of the simplest - a live pet turtle who roams freely on the desk that makes up the primary set-piece.  The turtle is the same one in each time-period, simply 180 years difference in it's age.
No real spoilers here - this is a play that needs to be discovered.  And should it coax you to explore the nature of re-iterative mathematics in the process, so much the better.

The Physics of the Buffyverse - by Jennifer Ouellette

Here's another excellent gateway-drug book.  I suppose it's rather self-evident that being a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan is a useful prerequisite (though I suppose not entirely necessary - but one would have to ask "why would you bother?") to reading this book.  In fact, a warning is certainly in order.  If you are a Buffy fan who is not complete on the two TV series (the comic books do not factor) then this book will spoil key plot details right through to the final season of each, and it won't waste much time getting around to doing so, so don't even tease yourself it you are serious about not getting spoiled.

I think I may have done this book a disservice on the show.  Like Brief History... it is pretty much sci-light.  But Ouellette does a better job of getting into the finer points of the science science she covers than Bryson does.  I know a fair bit of general science, and I learned from this book.  Sometimes the Buffy-based examples actually give a perspective that helps clarify some details of physics that isn't quite so intuitive, and in other cases I simply learned some basic trivia facts that had previously passed me by - for example, I had no idea that elements above Iron were heavier than their atomic number, while those below were lighter.

In Buffy-speak: This book is big on the easy-learny.

Which brings us to the other books of note...

I included Imagining Head-Smashed-In by Jack Brink in my end-of-show honourable mentions.  Very cool book.  Sort of forensic archeological historic storytelling about the buffalo hunters of the Northern Great Plains - specifically at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump.

My fellow live panellists (as opposed to the pre-recorded ones - the other possible parsing of that phrase is too much to bear) each chose a book I want to single out.

Nicole Gugliucci - the Noisy Astronomer - selected Dr. Phil Plait's Death from the Skies, which is a metric fuck-ton of awesome. It's the book that inspired Dr. Plait's TV show Bad Universe and is one of those rare laugh out loud science books.  He looks at a dozen aspects of astronomy through the lens of a Hollywood conceit - "the world is going to end because of 'X'" - and then looks at the real science behind it.  For a related  but entirely separate taste, check out his analysis of Armageddon. Indeed I had this book on my original four list, but figured the astronomer should get to talk about the astronomy book, so I put up no fight and replaced it with Arcadia.

Dana Blumrosen chose The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which I haven't read, but has been on a long list of "I must get around to reading that" titles since I heard about it and Henrietta Lacks on Radio Lab's (which everyone should listen to) Famous Tumors episode.

One of the pre-recorded bits featured books I had on my short list: Daniel Loxton's Evolution.  It was the first book I bought my daughter.  She's still too young for it at three... months.  But all in good time.  Last week I was in Washington DC and was at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.  And there in the book store was Evolution.  I took a picture and posted it to Facebook.  It was the first that Daniel had heard of it being for sale there.  Good news for him.

Also relating to Daniel, I disqualified one of my orignal short-list picks - Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, in part because it was fiction (Though that didn't stop me from replacing Death from the Skies with Arcadia.) and in part because Daniel recently discussed it in pretty much the same context I felt qualified it.

Once we went off the air I thought of three more books that I wish I had thought of bringing up in my honourable mentions.

As a memorial to Benoit Mandlebrot I could have mentioned Chaos by James Gleick which was pretty much the first hard science book I ever tackled (and loved and was fascinated by) and arguably resulted in me being the science advocate I am today.  Most skeptics get Demon Haunted World.  I get Gleick.  I didn't choose it as I haven't read it in nearly twenty years and that makes me rusty enough that I didn't feel confident in my ability to talk about it for four minutes.
One book several of my polled friends came up with was Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.  This has been on my "I must get around to reading that" list forever and I actually bought a copy in hopes of being able to read it in time for the show... but I only got about a quarter of the way in.  It is fascinating thus far, but I didn't feel like I should champion something I hadn't really grokked.

Lastly, was another book I hadn't read, but was on the "I must get around to reading that" list.  I was reminded about it on my Smithsonian trip, in this case at the Air and Space Museum.  Gene Krantz's Failure is Not an Option.  Krantz is ther Ed Harris character from Apollo 13 - do I need to say more?  Tell me that isn't going to be an amazing auto biography.

So, there you have it.  I doubt that at this late date that'll help anyone make a good Christmas gift-pick for someone... unless you're grabbing me a copy of Failure is Not an Option... but I felt like a bit more effort, detail and illumination was in order.  Not just the scatter-gun effect.

Happy Jesuspalooza, everyone!

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