Hal's 2002 Picks of the Month
This file last modified 2/15/07
Selection for December, 2002:
"Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums" by Stephen T. Asma, Oxford University Press 2001 0-19-513050-2 $30.00 (scheduled for publication in paper May, 2003)When I was a kid, my brother and I used to negotiate Saturday Los Angeles traffic on our bicycles in order to get to the Museum of Natural History of Los Angeles, where the great collection of dinosaur bones from the La Brea Tar pits were exhibited. (Now, many of them are in the Page Museum and elsewhere). The museum had lots of things besides the dinosaurs, though, and it was all fascinating to me. Steven Asma has written a terrific book about how natural history museums came to be, and how natural history became scientific. He kindles (or rekindles) the sense of curiosity that so often opens the eyes of young people to science, and does a great job of explaining how mankind came to understand our place in nature and in evolution. The "pickled heads" in the title refers to those of William Mons, lover of the wife of Peter the Great, and Mary Hamilton, Peter's own lover. Peter had them both executed and their heads preserved. They were kept for many years in the chambers of his wife, Catherine. Stephen Asma has stuffed "Stuffed Animals" with dozens of stories like this, mixed with solid intellectual history.
Selection for November, 2002:
"DNA as Destiny" by David Ewing Duncan, in Wired November, 2002, p. 180We all know that, with the deciphering of the human genome as well as those of other animals, and of plants, that the future will bring a new level of understanding and control of our own heredity. But what can the present level of genetic testing provide? In this story, writer David Duncan has as much determined about his future as you can learn with current technology. He gets some surprises from his mitochondrial DNA, and learns that the most likely thing to kill him will be heart failure. How many us want to know whether we are likely to get diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, lung cancer, or Alzheimer's disease - or whether we even want such information to exist anywhere?
Selection for October, 2002:
"The Honors Class: Hilbert's Problems and Their Solvers" by Benjamin H. Yandell, A. K. Peters Ltd. (Natick, Mass) 2001 400 pp. 1-56881-141-1 $39.00In 1900, David Hilbert gave an address to the International Congress of Mathematicians that outlined the twenty three most important unsolved problems of mathematics, as he saw them. In "The Honors Class", Benjamin Yandell describes the problems and the very remarkable people who worked on them. More than a century later, there are still a few that remain unsolved, and some of those that have been successfully attacked withstood assault for many decades. I was familiar with many of the names in book because they are associated with equations that I have used and that I teach my students about. It was not until reading this attractive and well-written history that I was able to put those names and their contributions into context. This is the best popular book about mathematics that I have read since "Fermat's Enigma".
Selection for September, 2002:
"Chemical Misconceptions - Prevention, Diagnosis, and Cure (2 Volumes)" by Keith Taber, Royal Society of Chemistry 2000 Volume I: Theoretical Background, 180 pp. 0-85404-386-1 £19.50 for non-members; Volume II: Classroom Resources, 238 pp. 0-85404-386-1 £12.50 for non-members. Both volumes - £27.50 for non-members.I usually avoid writing in this space about materials that one might use directly in the classroom, since I am trying encourage teachers to expand their scope. However, this two -volume set recently published by the Royal Society of Chemistry is enough to make me change the rules. Keith Taber has clearly spent a great deal of time researching the causes of student misconceptions about chemistry. The first volume of the set provides the basis for understanding impediments to student learning, and suggests strategies for overcoming them. Volume 2 is conveniently wire-bound to facilitate the copying of the worksheets, transparencies, and diagrams that it contains. The books are both very oriented toward the development of mental models and pictorial representations of chemical systems, rather than the memorization of facts. I will be using some of the materials from these two very interesting books in the workshops that accompany the introductory chemistry class I am now teaching. Because chemistry is introduced to younger children in the UK than here, even more of the material could be used directly in junior high school or high school courses. The principles of teaching apply at any level. One can download student worksheets from this publication from the LearnNet Web site.
Selection for August, 2002:
"The Odds of That" by Lisa Belkin in the New York Times Magazine, August 11, 2002, p.32When nearly a dozen scientists, all in some way associated with research on biotechnology, die within a year of the 9/11 attacks, can it be coincidence? Yes, says Lisa Belkin, author of this excellent article on one of the constants of pseudoscience, the attribution of "cause" to random events. In a class of 23 students, there is a 50% chance that two of them have the same birthday, much higher than most people would predict. What are the chances that two elderly Finnish twin brothers would be killed in separate bicycle accidents within two hours on March 5 of this year? That actually happened, and investigations revealed no reason other than chance. The human mind seems programmed to recognize and to attribute significance to patterns in nature, but they are not always the result of nonrandom causes. Ms. Belkin has written a perceptive and provocative essay.
Selection for July, 2002:
"One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw" by Witold Rybczynski, Macmillan 2000, 176 pp., 0-684-86729-X (cloth), $22.00.It goes without saying (amongst males, at least), that one can never have too many tools. Most of us probably have more screwdrivers than any other tool, both because of their utility and their high vapor pressure (like my reading glasses), and so one needs to buy more in order to make sure that one will be available when needed. Witold Rybczynski, well-known professor of urban studies, was asked by David Shipley, a New Yorker editor to write a feature about the most important invention of the millennium. He considered many possibilities, but eventually settled on the screw and the screwdriver. The next problem was to try to find the origin of this ubiquitous combination. When would you guess they first appeared? His search is described in this short and easy-to-read book which is similar in spirit to engineer Henry Petroski's essays on familiar objects.
Selection for June, 2002:
"Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government --Saving Privacy in the Digital Age" by Steven Levy, Penguin Books 2002, 356 pp., 0-140-24432-8 (paper), $14.00.The usefulness of the Internet for commercial and industrial purposes depends on the ability of individuals and companies to communicate privately, using an intrinsically public medium. People have to be able to count on the fact that credit card information, bank and brokerage transactions, medical records, and other sensitive data can be safely hidden from the outside world, yet be readable by the intended recipient. "Crypto" is a history of how the "public key" system that makes this possible was invented by a group of computer programmers working outside of and in competition with the US National Security Agency (NSA). Government agencies, and especially NSA, tried to keep the technology secret, and to limit the degree of security available to a level that would be "crackable" by them, because truly secret codes also allow criminals and terrorists to communicate secretly. One can only wonder what the consequences for individual freedom would have been, had the technology had not been largely settled before September 11, 2001. (The cloth version of the book was published in 2000.) For more on those important issues, see the Web pages of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Selections for May, 2002:
"The Universe in a Nutshell" by Stephen Hawking, Bantam Books 2001, 216 pp., 9780553802023 (cloth), $35.00I was amazed at the popularity of Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" in 1998. Not because it was not a great book, but because the average reader's background in relativity, quantum mechanics, and cosmology is limited to their discussion in Star Trek. The last few chapters of that book were pretty heavy going, and I suspect that most of the legions of Hawking "readers" did not really plow through to the end. Happily, there is no examination on "A Brief History of Time" required for the purchase of this new volume. This one is not easy going either, and one's brane (not a misspelling) can get bent in trying to accommodated multidimensional spacetime continua. However, the understanding of "Nutshell" is greatly facilitated by the marvelous illustrations by Moonrunner Design Ltd and The Book Laboratory, and spiced by the occasional wit of the author, that arises in unexpected places. This is an intellectual tour de force, made as accessible as it can be to the lay reader. Those who want to read more may find useful the the May 24, 2002 special "Spacetime" issue of Science, which is readable online by subscribers.
"Relativity and the Global Positioning System" by Neil Ashby Physics Today, May 2002 [Available to subscribers online, at http://www.physicstoday.org]An ideal companion to "The Universe in a Nutshell" is this article by Neil Ashby, a Professor of Physics at University of Colorado - Boulder. Hand- held GPS devices have become standard equipment for boaters, hikers, and technology junkies. It is now taken for granted that one's position on the earth can be obtained within a few seconds, accurately, and free. But few users are aware of the degree to which the GPS system depends on general relativity. The system of 24 satellites and their atomic clocks would lose 11 km of accuracy per day, if the bending of space and time were left out of the equations. Ashby has written this article for an audience of physicists, but even those without a great deal of background can get the idea.
Selection for April, 2002:
"The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology" by Simon Winchester, Harper Collins Publishers 2001, 327 pp., 0-06-019361-1(cloth), $26.00If the name "Simon Winchester" sounds familiar, it is probably because of his recent bestseller, "The Professor and the Madman", the history of how the Oxford English Dictionary was originally compiled. It is supposed to be very good, but I haven't had a chance to read it myself yet. However, my experience with "The Map..." strongly inclines me toward reading that other one as well. Mr. Winchester does an excellent job of bringing to life not only the obsession of William Smith to publish a lifetime of work in the first geological map of England, but also the milieu in which he worked. Perhaps Winchester slightly exaggerates the singularity of his main character, and gives him a bit more credit than he deserves, for putting together ideas that had been going through the minds of others of the time. But there is no minimizing his painstaking effort to gather the data that would constitute his opus. This is a book that makes the relatively slow-moving science of geology come to life.
Selections for March, 2002:
"Vacuum Bazookas, Electric Rainbow Jelly, and 27 Other Saturday Science Projects" by Neil A. Downie, Princeton University Press 2001, 253 pp., 0-691-00986-4 (paper); 0-691-00985-6 (cloth), $18.95 (paper); $39.50 (cloth)Those of us who were fans of the old "Amateur Scientist" column of Scientific American will enjoy this collection of projects that look to be fun to build and to play with. These are all things that the author has invented or adapted for a Saturday Science Club for kids near his home in Guildford, UK. Each project begins with a little literary or sometimes historical background, then an estimate of the "Degree of difficulty" precedes a list of materials - "What you need", and directions - "What you do". The science and the math associated with each device is clearly spelled out, and there are suggestions for related investigations and references when they might be useful. My favorite segment, however, is called "The Surprising Parts", where unexpected or unusual characteristics of the projects are described. But what I want to know is: "How do I join that Science Club?"
"Backyard Ballistics: Build Potato Cannons, Paper Match Rockets, Cincinnati Fire Kites, Tennis Ball Mortars, and More Dynamite Devices" by William Gurstelle, Chicago Review Press, distributed by Independent Publishers Group 2001, 169 pp. 1-556-52375-0 $16.95 (paper)This book is not politically correct, in an era in which school science experiments have been tamed to the point that there is little possibility that the teacher will kill or maim him/herself. William Gurstelle, an engineer who has been collecting plans for devices that will throw stuff fast and far, is careful to emphasize the hazards implicit in shooting potatoes or water balloons the length of a football field, or launching flaming newspaper (Cincinnati fire kite) into the sky. Youngsters would need lots of adult supervision when making or using these devices, but any budding engineer would thrill to see them in action.
Selections for February, 2002:
"Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters" by David Hockney, Viking Studio (Penguin Putnam) 2001, 295 pp. (460 illustrations, 402 in color), 0-670-03026-0 $60.00I first wrote about the controversial thesis of this book back in January of 2000, when my "Pick" was an article about David Hockney by Lawrence Wechler in the New Yorker. With the publication of this very attractive, large-format book, you can look for yourself at the evidence that he argues shows that many of the great master painters secretly used optical devices to help produce their work. The thing that I most like about "Secret Knowledge" is that the first half presents visual examples with minimal text. You can follow the thesis and consider the strengths and weaknesses of the argument, examining each of the magnificent plates for yourself. In the second half, Hockney provides historical background for the camera obscura and the camera lucida, and his correspondence with art historians, museum curators, and scientists around the world. This is a relatively expensive book that is worth the price, on both aesthetic and intellectual grounds. A less expensive book that examines the use of optical technology by Vermeer is Vermeer's Camera : Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces by Phillip Steadman, published by Oxford University Press.
"Unraveling the DNA Myth: The Spurious Foundation of Genetic Engineering" by Barry Commoner Harper's Magazine, February 2002, p. 39Barry Commoner argues that the central "dogma" of genetic engineering, that DNA alone controls protein synthesis in a one-to-one correspondence between genes and proteins, is highly questionable. If the relationship between DNA and its cellular consequences is not as simple as genetic engineers claim (due to "alternative splicing"), then the result of modifying the genome of plants, animals, or humans is not predictable. This is an attack on the widespread application of genetic engineering (although it is not against research in this field). This is the most recent salvo in the most important scientific policy war of our time. While most molecular biologists would concede that the central dogma is incomplete, Commoner's conclusions about the implications for genetically modified crops are widely disputed.
Selections for January, 2002:
"Waiting for Aphrodite: Journeys into the Time Before Bones" by Sue Hubbell, Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin) 1999, 242 pp., 061805684X $13.00(paper)Sue Hubbell has written beautifully about her experiences as a beekeeper in rural Missouri. For example, I recommend her "Broadsides from the Other Orders" and "A Country Year". Recently, she moved to the coast of Maine and this book describes her wonder at the new creatures she finds on the coast, comparing and contrasting them to the ones with which she had been familiar. In all cases, she sticks to invertebrates. I found the book to be particularly interesting because the animals she describes are ones that nearly all of us have seen: earthworms, "pillbugs", crickets, millipedes, sea urchins, sponges, horseshoe crabs, fireflies, and bees. However, she interleaves these with animals with which fewer of us have experience: sponges, sea cucumbers, nudibranches, and the elusive Aphrodite aculeata, the "sea mouse". In addition to her observations in Missouri and Maine, she also takes us with her to a rain forest in Belize and a tropical island in the Caribbean, and she does a fine job of showing that an understanding of evolution is necessary for all of this to make sense.
"Ice Memory" by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker January 7, 2002, p. 30Ice cores, bored through thousands of feet of stable glacial ice in Greenland, have proved to be our best record of global climate over more than a hundred thousand years. Elizabeth Kolbert describes how mass spectrometric measurements of isotope ratios on the cores have changed fundamentally how climatologists look at long-term trends in global temperatures, and she does a great job of describing how the samples are obtained and the people who get them. Unfortunately, she doesn't do nearly as well describing why the ratios of H218O to H216O in snow are different when the earth is warm than when it is cold. If you want to read more about that, look at The GISP2 ice core record--paleoclimate highlights by Paul A. Mayewski and Michael Bender, in Reviews of Geophysics vol.33 Supplement, which you can read online.
Hal's Picks this year
Hal's Selections in 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1995
Indices to Hal's Picks
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