Hal's Picks in 2006
This file last modified 1/5/07
Selection for December, 2006:
"The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins, Houghton Mifflin 2006 0-618-68000-4 or 978-0-618-6800-9 $27.00
Unless you teach in a religiously-sponsored school, religion probably plays little role in your teaching of science. However, the "prior knowledge" of your students includes some decidedly non-scientific, religion-inspired viewpoints that ought to be taken into account. Renowned evolutionist Richard Dawkins' best-selling atheist thesis, "The God Delusion", attacks faith of all kinds head-on, and challenges the beliefs of every reasoning person. While he points out that few distinguished scientists hold traditional religious values, that is not true of most teachers of science and is definitely not true of our students. I recommend that teachers read this book, but be cautious about how the material in it is used in the classroom. Even if you fully agree with his very skeptical view of religion, it does not serve our educational mission to confront students with ideas that they will reject out of hand because those concepts do not comport with previous religious training. On the other hand, I agree with Dawkins that religious ideas are given more deference than they deserve, just because they are "religious". I also recommend Dawkins' books on evolution, especially "The Blind Watchmaker" "The Selfish Gene", and "River Out of Eden", which was my Pick of the Month in April of 1997.
Selections for November, 2006:
"The Darkening Sea (Annals of Science)" by Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker Magazine December 20, 2006, p. 66
You may remember Elizabeth Kolbert as author of the extensive New Yorker series on global warming that was Hal's Pick in May of 2005. She also wrote about the ways in which ice core samples disclose the history of the atmosphere; that article was Hal's Pick in January of 2002. This month, she continues her fine work on this subject with a disquieting piece about the consequences of increased carbon dioxide concentrations for the chemistry of the ocean and the fate of marine life. About half of all of the carbon dioxide that humans have emitted since the beginning of the 19th century has been absorbed by the world's oceans. Were it not for this sink, the concentration of would already be approaching 500 ppm. There is no way whatsoever that the concentration will not continue to increase for another fifty or more years, even if the most stringent and Draconian policies were to be adopted (and there is no sign of that!) Kolbert describes the research on impact of more atmospheric carbon dioxide on pteropods, corals, the pH of the ocean, and photosynthesis by marine animals. The news is not bad; it is terrible. The "simple" equilibrium between carbonate, bicarbonate, and carbonic acid - the one that we all teach about in introductory chemistry courses - may be the chemical reaction that determines the fate of the world.
"The Rock from Mars: A Detective Story on Two Planets" by Kathy Sawyer, Random House 2006 393 pp. 1-4000-6010-9 $25.95
If you've been reading Hal's Picks, you might remember something about this rock, ALH84001, because the publication in Science of the paper that announced evidence in a meteorite that life had once existed on Mars was my Pick back in August of 1996. The article was controversial, as you might expect. How do we know this rock, found in the ice of Antarctica, really came from Mars? How do we know that the critical isotopic ratios of its carbonates are the result of life, rather than inorganic processes? How do we know that it has not been altered during its time on earth? Many of these questions were raised ten years ago, and even more have beleaguered the authors since then. The story is much longer, richer, and more even more interesting than it first appeared. I recommend this book for students and teachers of science because Kathy Sawyer does such a good job of describing the adventure, the personalities, the political considerations, and the controversy surrounding this chunk of rock. It could easily inspire students to become scientists because it shows so clearly how the processes of science (including heated arguments) actually operate.
Selection for October, 2006:
"The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance" by Eric R. Scerri, Oxford University Press 2007 346 pp. 0-19-530573.6 $35.00
A copy of the Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements hangs in virtually every classroom in which chemistry is taught, and it represents one of the great accomplishments of science. I can think of no other such concise and profound consolidation of scientific knowledge. Yet, its very familiarity leads students (and often their teachers!) not to appreciate the rich intellectual and philosophical history that brought it to its present form. Philosopher of chemistry Eric Scerri has reexamined the steps and the missteps, the breakthroughs and the dead ends that the story weaves the through the eighteenth to the twentieth century. The goal was tantalizing; from the first quantitative measurements by Dalton, Boyle, Gay-Lussac and Lavoisier, experiments pointed to an underlying structure of matter that causes regularity in chemical results. However, the discovery of that cause was elusive; not only were the reported equivalent weights often erroneous, but it was not clear which species were ultimately fundamental or what to make of variations in combining ratios. Some grand and enticing ideas turned out to be red herrings; the triads proposed by Kremers and others, and Prout's hypothesis that elements were a consequence of combining a single fundamental entity formed the basis for many a misguided inquiry. Ironically, these ideas were largely vindicated. Prout's fundamental entity turned out to be the nuclear charge represented by the proton, and the triad idea works with about half of the possible candidates because of the structure of electronic shells. Scerri gives due credit to the amateur scientist Anton van den Broek, who was the first to propose that the fundamental organizing principle of the Table was not atomic weight, but atomic number. This book can enrich your teaching.
Selection for September, 2006:
"Fuels Gold" by Fred Pearce, New Scientist September 23-29 2006 p. 36
The search for replacements for oil and natural gas is heating up, as the price of oil rises. No alternative is getting more attention than biofuels - which in the US means ethanol from corn or biodiesel from soybeans. The movement has terrific political momentum because it promises not only to increase the price of corn, but also to enrich those who have invested in distillation facilities. There are those like David Pimentel who claim that growing crops and processing biofuels requires more energy than is produced when they are burned, but his conclusions are disputed by the US Department of Agriculture among others. Even if bioethanol requires only 90% as much energy to produce as you get by burning it, it does not represent much of a greenhouse gain. More than thermodynamics is at issue. New Scientist has a nice, brief (four-page) article that describes some of the other concerns about biofuels - it explains that the potential of this energy source is limited (replacing ten percent of the gasoline/diesel used in the US would require 30% of the agricultural land in the country). By 2007, it is expected that bioethanol will be consuming one-fifth of the corn crop. Many question the wisdom and ethics of converting so much food to energy for transportation, and some environmentalists worry about the demands for water, pesticides, fertilizer, and marginal land that this supposedly "green" movement will gobble.
Selection for August, 2006:
"The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, The World's Most Astonishing Number" by Mario Livio, Broadway Books (Random House) 2003 304 pp. 0-7679-0816-3 $14.95 (paper)
1.618033989... is a magic number. Its magic may not be as obvious as the most famous irrational, pi, nor as familiar as e (both of which are also transcendental), but its connection to the Fibonacci series (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, ..., in which element is the sum of the two previous) is a both intimate and surprising, and its role in the spiral of mollusc shells, inscribed pentagons, pineapple segments, fir cones, and the arrangement of seeds in a sunflower provides remarkable evidence that when nature speaks, she does so in the language of mathematics. Astrophysicist Mario Livio, who also wrote "The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved" (about group theory), takes a tempered approach to his subject. Claims have frequently been made that phi was the design principle of the Egyptian pyramids, the Parthenon, the works of Leonardo da Vinci, and in many other artistic creations. The evidence for most of them is weak - often based on a proportion that, when measured in a certain way, comes close to phi or its reciprocal. Livio is rightfully skeptical of most of these claims, but he also gives the Golden Ratio credit for works in which it is clearly implicated. This book provides a wonderful connection from science, art, music, and architecture to geometry and mathematics.
Selection for July, 2006:
"American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer" by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Vintage Press (Random House) 2006 721 pp. 0-375-72626-8 $17.95 (paper); 2005 721 pp. 0-375-41202-6 $35.00(cloth)
I am old enough to remember the 1954 hearings in the matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, but I was too young to understand that there was more to this story about a supposed Communist in the nuclear weapons program than was being reported in the Los Angeles newspapers of the time. Much later I read Philip Stern's 1969 book, The Oppenheimer Case: Security on Trial and even the Atomic Energy Commission's transcript of the hearings, a tome of over 1000 pages that one once could buy from the US Government Printing Office (no longer available). Focusing as they did on only the tragic end of his career in the AEC, I did not understand the connection between the trial and the rest of the career of this charismatic genius, known to chemists for the Born-Oppenheimer approximation. Now comes American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, an insightful and engaging, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning biography. This book is written so well that you feel as if you come to know its subject - a complicated and troubled soul. The man that emerges is not simply the opponent of the development of fusion weapons, the advocate against secrecy that appeared on Edward R. Murrow's "See It Now" television program, or the captain of the Manhattan Project. He is very human in American Prometheus, which is recently available in a paperback edition. Jeff Kovac recommended this book in his suggestions for Summer Reading this year.
Selection for June, 2006:
"The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster" by Bobby Henderson, Villard Books 2006 164 pp. 0-8129-7656-8 $13.95 (paper)
What are the consequences of allowing irrational ideas into the science classroom? If you are willing to rely on faith instead of reason to come to conclusions about nature and our origins, then there is no reason to stop with Intelligent (sic) Design. Why not go all the way (and beyond that) and teach that the universe is the result of divine intervention by The Flying Spaghetti Monster? That is what author Bobby Henderson does in this sophomoric, anti- religious, slightly profane and modestly funny satire. While sending up the ID folks, he also bashes religious belief in broad terms, and goes out of his way to offend specific varieties of Christians, and also Moslems, Jews, Hindus, Jains, Shintos, and Rastafarians. Scientologists, he says, are "best left alone". He correlates global warming with the decline in the number of pirates, who represent the ideal in human perfection. This is the first religion based on carbohydrates, and the superiority of spaghetti to communion wafers is examined. This is all so silly that I was at first reluctant to recommend it, but it is summer, after all, and a time for frivolous reading lists. There is a Web site dedicated to the FSM at http://www.venganza.org. Visit at risk of offense.
Selections for May, 2006:
"Fantastic Realities: 49 Mind Journeys and a Trip to Stockholm" by Frank Wilczek, World Scientific 2006 532 pp. 981-256-655-4 $28.00 (paper); 981-256-649-X $76.00 (cloth)
Fantastic Realities is an adult book. Much of it consists of issues of the "Reference Frame" column that Professor Wilczek, 2004 Nobel laureate in physics, writes for his colleagues in Physics Today. In writing for that audience, Wilczek addresses fellow scientists who are expected to be familiar with "ordinary" physics, but not his specialty, quantum chromodynamics. Few chemists know much about this field, but its intellectual appeal is undeniable, as it deals with some of the ultimate "why" questions - What is the underlying structure of nature? What are nature's fundamental units, and why do they differ so greatly from those of human experience? Why are fields more fundamental than particles? and Why are all electrons the same? The author cannot rely on the fact that his readers remember what he had written in previous months, so there is some repetition. I found this helpful; reading about the same mind-boggling ideas, presented from different viewpoints helped me to at least get the gist of what he is talking about. From the way he writes and speaks (you can hear an podcast of an interview of the author and his wife, Betsy Devine, at http://www.worldscibooks.com/phy_etextbook/6019/6019.mp3, this is a guy who would be the perfect seatmate on a long plane trip. He has a great sense humor and the book includes both some of Wilczek's poetry and Betsy's description of the phone call from Stockholm and her journal of the trip to the Prize ceremony.
"Department of Food Science - The Search for Sweet: The tricky technology of sugar substitutes" by Burkhard Bilger, The New Yorker magazine May 22, 2006 p. 40In 2005, the average American consumed about 140 pounds of sugar, which is about 50% more than the average German or Frenchman and nine times as much as the Chinese (see Hal's Pick for December, 2005). We also consumed about twenty four pounds of sugar substitutes per person, which translates to even more sweetness than the natural substance. Why do we crave sugar, and what is there about certain compounds that makes them sweet? Saccharin may have been discovered by accident (as was sucralose), but the search for other sugar substitutes is systematic and highly competitive. The most recent to hit the market is called Neotame, which can be found in Ice Breaker candies, SunnyD reduced sugar orange drink, and Mr. Fizz sodas (sold at WalMart). More important scientifically and with equal or greater potential for commerce is the understanding of taste and flavor in general. It seems likely that "potentiators" - compounds that accentuate sweetness, bittness, or umami (the savory taste of protein) will be found increasingly in our food. Is this obese society better off eating less sugar, but replacing it with products of the laboratory? Many of these enhancers are effective in amounts so small that they need not even appear on labels, except anonymously in the "natural and artificial flavors" category.
Selection for April, 2006:
"Cantor's Dilemma: A Novel" by Carl Djerassi, Penguin Books 1991 240 pp. 0-14-014359-1 $15.00 (paper)
This book has been around since 1991, but I had not read it until a colleague suggested that I do. This is the first of least four novels by Stanford chemist Carl Djerassi, best known for his work on oral contraceptives. Professor Djerassi has also written two plays (one about Newton, one about the discovery of oxygen), an autobiography, and a book about artist Paul Klee, whose work he collects. "Cantor's Dilemma" is about organic chemist I. C. ("Icy") Cantor, whose work is recognized with a Nobel Prize. As has sometimes been the case in real life, Cantor's young colleague Jeremiah Stafford, whose experimental genius was essential to the work, is also included in the prize. Cantor's ethical "dilemma" is that he begins to suspect that Stoddard might have faked some critical data. Should he make his suspicions public, killing his own career, or wait for the inevitable process of verification either vindicate or bury him? As a logical candidate for his own Nobel, Djerassi is familiar with the high society of science, and he writes with insight and wit (there is a paragraph about chemist from Wayne State who publishes lots of papers, gets an appointment at Stanford, but not the Nobel). There is even a little s-e-x in the novel. It could be used in a course on ethics in science, but also read just for enjoyment.
Selection for March, 2006:
"Fritz Haber: Chemist, Nobel Laureate, German, Jew" by Dietrich Stoltzenberg, Chemical Heritage Foundation 2004 352 pp. 0-941901-24-6 $40.00 (cloth)
Haber's name is found in the indices of a large fraction of all books about chemistry. Introductory students learn about the Haber process, by which we (still) synthesize ammonia from nitrogen in the air. Physical chemistry always includes the Haber cycle, a systematic approach to thermochemistry. Haber was doubtless a genius, and his pursuit of a method to "fix" nitrogen was both conceptually brilliant and dogged. Unlike most of his predecessors, Haber went after a method to reduce nitrogen, rather to oxidize it in combustion or an electrical discharge. Dozens upon dozens of catalysts were tried, in an attempt to speed the equilibrium between nitrogen/hydrogen and ammonia. I have always assumed that iron is used because it works and is cheaper than platinum or palladium. It turns out that humble iron is better than any alternative. Students of history will know that Haber was the initiator and organizer of German's gas warfare, and was behind the use of chlorine and later the synthesis of mustard gases used in World War I. Far from being a remote scientist, he involved himself as much as possible in the dispersion of these agents in the field. Haber was an extraordinary, complex man, well-described in this excellent biography. A longer review of this book appears in JCE 2006 83 1605. There is another recent book about Haber of which I am aware, but have not read. It is "Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare", by Daniel Charles.
Selection for February, 2006:
"The Areas of My Expertise: Which Include Matters Historical, Matters Literary, Matters Cryptozoological, Hobo Matters, Food, Drink & Cheese (a kind of food), Squirrels and Lobsters & Eels, Haircuts, Utopia, What Will Happen in the Future, and Most Other Subjects" by John Hodgman, E. P. Dutton (Penguin Group) 2005 228 pp. 0-525-94908-9 $22.00 (cloth)
"The Areas of My Expertise" is full of little-known and bizarre facts. It is a sort of an almanac, with information that everyone needs. There is a lot about hoboes, including 700 hobo names and a compendium of hobo signs. Did you know that Yale enforces its will on the world via a capella singing groups? Or the essential differences between cat people and dog people? [Linus Pauling fed massive doses of vitamin C to his Schipperke, "Josef" and Daniel Boone devised forty-six ways of skinning cats (many still used today)] How about five jokes that have never produced laughter, or nine palindromes that aren't quite palindromes? [A man, a plan, a kind of man-made river, planned."] According to TAOME, a cesium-133 atom will oscillate between two hyperfine levels 16,546,737,186,000 times in half an hour. A compendium of fifty-five dramatic situations will provide the basis for any book that you might want to write. Several pages of potents and omens provide a guide for the future. Best of all, almost nothing in the book is true (except for the frequency of the cesium clock). It is all made up, and it is quite funny, in the sort of way that appeals mainly to the warped. I guess I qualify.
Selection for January, 2006:
"Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another" by Philip Ball, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux 2005 519 pp. 0-374-28125-4 $27.00 (cloth); 0-374-53041-6 $16.00 [available 2006].
Why is society organized the way it is? Is it possible to use some of the laws of the physical universe to understand why and how national economies, stock and commodity markets, companies and clubs organize the way they do? Can physics provides "laws" of human nature that are as useful and universal as those of mechanics? Does the critical point in a phase diagram have analogies in human behavior? Veteran science writer and physicist/chemist Philip Ball writes very well, as evidenced by Elegant Solutions, which was one of my picks last year. He also thinks very well, as evidenced by this creative application to sociology of concepts familiar to physicists and chemists. Of course, social scientists have always tried to be as "scientific" as possible, using mathematical models, statistical analysis and, more recently, computer simulations to understand the human situation and to predict its future. Critical Mass uses a different approach: using whole concepts in physics for insight into economics, urban planning, and the self-organization of human networks. This is a very original and thought-provoking book; it has already been recognized with the 2005 Aventis Prize for Science Books, bestowed annually by the Royal Society for Chemistry.
Hal's Selections in 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1995
Indices to Hal's Picks
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