Chemical Education Resource Shelf

Hal's 2000 Picks of the Month

Hal Harris


This file last modified 2/15/07

Selection for December, 2000:

"The Physics of Gridlock", by Stephen Budiansky in The Atlantic Monthly December, 2000 p. 20

How is automobile traffic like a gas? No, it's not because the collisions are inelastic. Researchers in chaos theory, especially Dirk Helbing and Boris Kerner, both theoretical physicists, have been working on traffic flow, using models similar to those of particle dynamics. Stephen Bodiansky has written a popular article about their results (that you can read online- for awhile, anyway- by clicking on the title above) that predicts that traffic jams can occur without a precipitating event, such as an accident or a mole crossing the road. Disruptions can occur well below the density that represents the traffic capacity of the highway. Interested readers may want to consult some of the original literature, such as Nature 1998 396(6713) 738 or Physical Review E 1995 51(6B) 6243.

Selections for November, 2000:

"The Myth of Fingerprints: A forensic science stands trial", by Simon Cole in Lingua Franca November, 2000

Are fingerprints really unique? Or, more importantly, can fraction of a print from the scene of a crime reliably be used to identify a single suspect? I have wondered about this question, and was pleased to find that I'm not alone. This excerpt from a forthcoming book, "Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Investigation" to be published in spring, 2001 by Harvard University Press discusses the science and the law of fingerprint identification. I found it fascinating, and you can read it online (at least for awhile).

"A Friend of the Earth", by T. C. Boyle Viking Press 0-670-89177-0 2000 $24.95

"A Friend of the Earth" is a novel that alternates in time between the near-present and about twenty-five years in the future, when the worst nightmares of the environmental movement have come to pass. Global warming has turned Southern California into a terrible place to live; violent storms alternate with 130 degree days. The central character, an "eco-terrorist", works to maintain a menagerie that includes the last examples of some of the exotic species of the world, including the last lions. He spends his off-hours sabotaging logging activities and development projects. Some parts of the book are amusing if savage satires, but I found the overall effect to be rather depressing. Boyle reminds us that, while it is possible to find a bright spot here and there in the battle for the environment, the bigger picture includes the pressure of populations and the growing certainty that we will have to cope with the effects of global warming. I became familiar with Boyle when I read his "Road To Wellville", a fictionalization of the bizarre diets and health manias of the early 20th century.

Selection for October, 2000:

Report of the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century (Glenn Commission Report)", US Department of Education October, 2000. (Free)

This report is potentially very important. On the other hand, it could have no impact whatsoever. If Washington reads the Commission findings and recommendations, and funds the five billion dollar programs it recommends, science and mathematics education in the United States could get the "shot in the arm" that it so desperately requires. "A Nation at Risk" was published in 1983. Since then, we've had NSTA's SS&C, AAAS's Project 2061, the National Science Education Standards have been developed, TIMSS has unmistakably shown how far behind our students are, states have developed their own standards and are mandating assessments. But the key to real progress in science education, as this report shows, is teachers. We need more. We need better-educated teachers. Five billion dollars, spent wisely, could begin to make a difference. One cannot but wonder whether any of the candidates for high office, with their "education priorities", have read this report.

Selections for September, 2000:

"The Universal History of Numbers: From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer", by Georges Ifrah. John Wiley & Sons, New York, 2000 $18.36 (paper), 0-965-045501

I have to admit that I haven't finished reading this book. With over six hundred, large-format pages and relatively small type, it would probably not have made "Hal's Picks" until next year if I had waited until I had completed it. However, it is entirely possible to dip in for a chapter here and a chapter there. No matter where you peruse, you will find information about number systems and their history that you didn't know beforehand. This book was instigated by the questions of schoolchildren to their teacher, Georges Ifrah: "Where do numbers come from?" "Who invented zero?" In striving to answer those questions, he found himself on a quest through history and ethnology that resulted in this monumental piece of scholarship. It is a reminder that the frontiers of human knowledge are not far beyond the most naive question.

"False Promise" by Katy Kelly in U. S. News and World Report, September 25 2000 p. 48

Computers play an increasing role in the life of children (along with everyone else). How much is too much? More and more educators, physicians, and child development professionals are beginning to recognize that time in front of CRT (whether on a computer or a TV tuner) is time that is not spent in interaction with the real world. This cover story in US News and World Report is prompted by and largely based on a new report, "Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood" by The Alliance for Childhood, that you can read online. The evidence is not all on one side, however. Some studies show that well-designed software, used in moderation, can encourage reflection and creativity.

Selections for August, 2000:

"High Stakes are for Tomatoes", by Peter Schrag. in The Atlantic Monthly, August 2000 p. 19

We all, and both candidates for President, agree that that our educational systems need to adhere to the highest standards of excellence, that "social promotion" in schools is a bad thing, that students should have to demonstrate basic competences before they receive high school diplomas, and that schools, teachers, and students ought to be rewarded or punished on the basis of judgements rendered via universal testing programs - right? Well, not necessarily. There is developing a significant backlash to the national and state standards movements, with their "high stakes" (and relentless) testing requirements. Peter Schrag describes dissident movements in states and school districts all over the country, and predicts that they will grow both in numbers and intensity.

"The Book on the Bookshelf", by Henry Petroski. Random House (Vintage), 2000 $13.00 (paper), 0-375-70639-9.

Henry Petroski, Professor of Engineering and Professor of History at Duke University, is a master at "humanizing" engineering by writing about the history and development of familiar objects such as paperclips and pencils. He seems to relish the challenges involved in writing engagingly to non-engineers about some of the most mundane objects in everyday life - things that we take for granted. I'll have to admit that the first chapter of this book just about lost me in boredom, but after that, it consistently piqued the interest of this inveterate bibliophile. Petroski traces the history of written materials and their storage from papyrus scrolls of Alexandria to the destruction of the collections in monasteries during the Reformation to Samuel Pepys' personal library to the Library of Congress.

Selections for July, 2000:

"Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud", by Robert L. Park. Oxford University Press, 2000 $25.00, 0-195-13515-6.

I feel that I know Robert Park, who is director of the Washington Office of the American Physical Society because of his weekly "What's New" column [see http://www.aps.org/WN], even though we have never met. "Voodoo Science" distills his thoughts on some of the most important recent examples of pathological science in the news and public life. In these ten chapters, he discusses Congress' perpetual credulity for claims of perpetual motion and "free energy" (not the kind I teach!), the low-frequency EMF scare, the politics of manned space exploration, Roswell and aliens, homeopathy, and Deepak Chopra, among others. While Park sympathizes with some whose lack of technical knowledge and understanding of the methods of science make them susceptible to charlatans, he also has a good theory as to how well-meaning amateurs like Joe Newman get caught up in the process that leads from an experiment in the garage to fraudulent claims of infinite energy. A constant throughout these episodes is the irresponsible behavior of the news media when reporting controversial issues with a scientific or technical component. CBS News was doing it again last night (6/29/00), when they devoted a full "48 Hours" program to psychic detectives, ESP, communication with the dead, and similar nonsense. Hardly a skeptical viewpoint was mentioned (as usual).

"Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels in End-Time America", by Alex Heard. Main Street Books (an imprint of Doubleday), 2000 $13.95, 0-385-49852-7 (paper).

Some Americans believe that the history of the earth is about to end, and they have been making ultimate preparations. Alex Heard has gained the confidence of quite a variety of these sometimes amusing, sometimes pathetic, sometimes scary people and organizations. Some of the fun went out of this largely lighthearted book when the Ugandan cult, The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, murdered nearly a thousand of its members while I was reading. The "science" that many of these people invoke is quite surreal, and includes the notion that sources of "free energy" are being suppressed by the Establishment.

Selection for June, 2000:

"Exploring the Art and Science of Stopping Time: The Life and Work of Harold E. Edgerton", by James Sheldon. A CD-ROM from MIT Press, 1999 $37.95, 0-262-55031-8.

This is the first time that something not printed on paper has been chosen for Hal's Picks, and it probably will not happen often in the future. This particular subject is, however, better treated in digital format than in a book (although several good books on Edgerton and his work are also available). When the object is to describe a visual technique such as the use of stroboscopic, stop-action, or high-speed photography, there is no substitute for a visual medium. This CD contains not only hundreds of examples of Edgerton's still photos, but also many movie clips that convey the objects of his work and the engaging personality of this popular and gifted teacher. I'm sure that you have see many of these photos and films before, but they are sure a lot of fun. The CD supposedly runs on Macintoshes (I didn't try that) and on a PC. It requires 16-bit Quicktime for Windows, which is provided on the disk. The interface is a bit corny and navigation is not always intuitive, but you can just keep clicking around until something happens.

Selection for May, 2000:

"Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution", by Lisa Jardine. Nan A. Talese Press, an imprint of Doubleday, 1999 $35.00 (cloth)320 pp., 0-385-49325-8 [paperback version will be available from the publisher in December, 2000, for $16.00. 0-385-72001-7]

A year or so ago, I greatly enjoyed reading another book by Lisa Jardine, "Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance", but I couldn't justify it for "Hal's Picks" because it didn't have much scientific content. When I heard about "Ingenious Pursuits", I bought it from a book club and read it right away. My regret is that I didn't buy the hardcover version, because this is a book that I will keep for a long time. Lisa Jardine is Professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, but she is also a daughter of Jacob Bronowski, and she displays the independence of thought and the ability to view history in creative ways that characterized her late father. In "Ingenious Pursuits", she follows the early history of Western science (mostly 17th and 18th centuries) by focusing on the work of the inventors who created the equipment essential to the progress of science. Many of these names are already familiar: Hooke and Huygens, for example. I, for one, was unaware of the extent of the scientific interests of the famous architect, Christopher Wren, until I read this book. I also didn't know that many of the early experiments with vacuum pumps involved the asphyxiation of small animals, often for entertainment. Wren and Robert Boyle, famous to chemists for his contribution to gas laws, were involved in gruesome experiments to discover how respiration works by vivisecting large numbers of dogs.

Selections for April, 2000:

"A Fresh Look at Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics", by Elliott H. Lieb and Jakob Yngvason, in Physics Today 2000 53(4) p. 32 [April 2000]

Lieb and Yngvason describe in this article how the concept of entropy can be explained without resorting to heat engines or statistical mechanics, and without even the a priori imposition of temperature. Few teachers of chemistry are likely to consider the introduction of the authors' proof, but many may include the idea that entropy determines the possible outcomes of an experiment involving a gorilla and a machine, or a glass of whiskey and a glass of ice. .

"The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist", by Richard P. Feynmann, Perseus Books, 1998, $13.00 (paper)

In 1963, Richard Feynmann gave three lectures at the University of Washington. This short book (only 133 pages) is a transcript of those talks. The lectures were not really physics, but were a very informal (virtually extemporaneous) view of what the results of modern physics means to everyman. Feynman displayed his characteristic wit and charm, along with the logic of a scientist to both amuse and edify the audience. His original expectation was that it would take all three lectures to make his essential points; it turned out that he (claimed to) have covered everything he wanted to in just the first two! So he just "rambled on" for another hour, with brilliant off-the-cuff observations that might have been a little less organized than the first parts of the series, but were not a bit less entertaining. The book does an excellent job of capturing the spirit of this remarkable spokesman for physics and science. .

Selection for March, 2000:

"Sport: Extreme Stargazing", by David H. Freedman in The Atlantic Monthly, March, 1999, p. 105

For anyone who has tried unsuccessfully (like me) to find familiar stars in well-known constellations through a telescope, the competition that David Freedman describes sounds impossible. The "sport" is to see how many of the 110 celestial objects in the Messier catalog you can locate and identify during a single night of observation. These objects represent the life's work of Charles Messier, an eighteenth- century Frenchman who, with a simple telescope, searched for comets as a hobby. While looking for them (he found some), he also discovered 110 galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae. Theoretically, it is possible to see them all in one night - it has to be a night in mid-to-late March - if you start when the sun sets and end after it rises, have no clouds, and are both lucky and skillful. It has been done, but it ain't easy. Freedman does an excellent job of describing the hunt, which is called the Messier Marathon .

Selections for February, 2000:

"Chemistry Connections: The Chemical Basis of Everyday Phenomena", by Kerry K. Karukstis and Gerald R. Van Hecke, Academic Press 1999, ISBN 0-124-00860-7(paper), $34.95, 226 pp.

Kerry Karukstis and Gerry Van Hecke teach undergraduate chemistry at Harvey Mudd College (my alma mater), and Gerry was a student there at the same time I was (sometime in the previous millennium). They have collaborated on a very useful and engaging supplementary book for introductory and organic chemistry. One of my colleagues is using it in conjunction with his "Chemistry in Context" course. If their intention was to enrich the chemistry curriculum, they have overshot the goal, and have accidentally written a book that most chemists will enjoy browsing. Of course you find things here that you already knew, but you will also surely discover a few new fascinating factoids. One of the best things about this book is that the authors provide references for every discussion, and also give a list of relevant Web resources (with URL's) for each of them.

"World Records in Chemistry", by Hans-Jurgen Quadbeck-Seeger, Rüdiger Faust, Günter Knaus, and Ulrich Siemeling, Wiley-VCH 1999, ISBN 3-527-29574-7 (paper), $33.95, 300 pp.

These authors address a few of the same questions as do Karukstis and Van Hecke, but they take aim at a somewhat more technically sophisticated audience; instead of trying to enhance chemical education near the introductory level, they are speaking to practicing chemists, some of whom may also be teachers. I really enjoyed reading about the most powerful poisons, the smelliest compounds (and the smallest pheromones), all topics that could have been included in "Chemistry Connections" (but weren't). But "World Records" also covers topics that would interest a chemistry professional but not a beginning student: the longest footnote, the most stable carbocations, the nations that produce the largest amounts of petroleum, and the largest consumers. The highest and lowest melting points; the reaction with the most components; the most strained molecules; the cheapest explosive. There are hundreds of these things, and they are addictive. Learn a few of these at a time, and enrich your conversational repertoire!

"Medicine on Mars", by Jerome Groopman in The New Yorker for February 14, 2000, p. 36

I'm not a big fan of science fiction. I find "real" science to be generally more interesting; the fictionalized kind usually requires me to pretend that the universe is far different than what I believe to be the case. In fiction, travel between planets (or even solar systems) is accomplished quite easily, by suspension of the speed limit imposed by relativity. Real exploration of Mars is now under increasingly serious discussion, and Jerome Groopman has written a stark description of the medical challenges that would have to be surmounted for such an expedition to be successful. Will the astronauts of the future be able to walk on Mars, after six months or more of weightlessness? What happens to an astronaut who suffers a bleeding ulcer, appendicitis, or a broken limb? Will older explorers (whose families are complete) be chosen because cosmic radiation would likely damage DNA? The psychological consequences of living in close quarters, under stress, uncertainty, and isolation could prove to be even more damaging than the physical hazards. Are the risks worth it?

Selections for January, 2000:

"The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, The Ideas Behind the World's Slowest Computer", by Stewart Brand, Basic Books , 1999, ISBN 0-465-04512-X (cloth), $22.00 [a paper edition is scheduled for April, 2000]

The date for this selection should be listed as January, 02000, in keeping with the long view of history, science, technology, and environment that the Long Now Foundation wants to foster. This book is a proposal to build a kind of clock-monument-library designed to provide focus for a philosophy that makes mankind's view of "now" extend, instead of over a few years or a single generation, to a period of about 10,000 years. The foundation proposes to construct a clock that would be large enough so that it could accomodate fairly sizable group of visitors inside and would maintain accurate time over thousands of years. It would be a sort of super-sized Big Ben for the world. The design, construction, operation, and maintenance of the device, which would also be a landmark and an attraction to visitors, would require commitment from a large group of people (which is perhaps the most important part of the project). This book must be the antithesis of my selection for October, 1999!

"The Looking Glass" by Lawrence Weschler in The New Yorker for January 31, 2000, p. 64

Artist David Hockney has a theory that some of the "old master" portrait painters secretly used cameras(!) to help them sketch their subjects. No, he's not saying that they had Polaroids or film. However, the camera obscura was available in the early 18th century, and the more practical camera lucida was invented in 1807. Did the great artists use these devices? If they did, was that "cheating"?

Hal's Picks this year

Hal's Selections in 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1995

Indices to Hal's Picks


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