Tag Archives: science

** South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby

South Pole Station has everything a great novel may want: an exotic venue in a hostile environment, a cast of misfits, and plenty of political intrigue, both local and global. And yet it never came together for me. Not that I did not enjoy the absurdity of the selection and training process (chillingly conducted by a military contractor), the war between the old cook and the new cook in which cookbooks mysteriously disappear, or the solidarity between national bases once the US base runs afoul of its budget and politics — but the heroine’s back story, whether her family’s attachment to explorers’ stories or her brother’s suicide, seemed forced and irrelevant rather than providing a unifying theme.

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** The Seeds of Life by Edward Dolnick

Is this Science Week for the FT Books blog? The Seeds of Life: From Aristotle to da Vinci, from Sharks’ Teeth to Frogs’ Pants, the Long and Strange Quest to Discover Where Babies Come From tells the remarkably long and chaotic discovery of how babies are made. The author has lots of amusing anecdotes, including about the Italian priest that fashioned the lovely frog pants on the cover (they were effective contraception devices) and also explains how the philosophy of science changed over time, from a completely non-desirable, pointless endeavor to an amateur pursuit to the orderly testing protocols of more modern time. An enjoyable history.

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* Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I love short books, and I thought it would be wonderful to read Astrophysics for People in a Hurry to finally understand something about the mysterious undertakings of astrophysicists. I was sorely disappointed. Yes, the book is short. It’s also very hard to understand, written in a compact style without any visuals that may help a neophyte understand or retain all the abstract concepts that are raining on us. So despite the wonderful first sentence (“In the beginning…”) and lots of factoids stuffed into the slim book, I would advice against it as a learning tool.

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** Inferior by Angela Saini

Did you think Darwin was a great scientist? Well, one thing he got very wrong is his belief that women were inferior to men (in intellect; somehow, he thought them superior “in moral qualities”, reflecting the prejudices of his time) — and we now have over a century of so-called science “proving” him right.  Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong-and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story sets out to show that studies designed and conducted overwhelmingly by men can confirm traditional roles and stereotypes, and even exclude women entirely from some studies, with the assumption that the results would be same. It all reminded of the discussion of whether animals are intelligent (not that women are animals, right?!)

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* The Evolution Underground by Anthony Martin

If you are a biology nerd, you will enjoy The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath our Feet. If not, you will certainly appreciate knowing about ichnologists (people who study animal traces, as the author), and many other fun facts, from where to find the secret nuclear bunker for members of congress to the existence of a keratin-eating moth, to the strange molting habits of coconut crabs, and how gophers were the first to reestablish themselves on the site of the Mount St Helen’s volcanic eruption. But I bet that, like me, you will mostly enjoy the first 100 pages of the book, exploring alligator burrows in the South East, rather than the recounting of the author’s Ph.D thesis, or traversing the stories of many extinct creatures with obscure names, linked only by their love of underground living.

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*** Scale by Geoffrey West

The long and awkward subtitle of Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies says it all: it’s a long and often awkward book that tries to tie together physics, biology, geography, and business — and I found is fascinating despite its gawky structure. The core of the book is simple: scale matters and the world does not usually work linearly so that a large animal (like an elephant) is much more efficient than a small one (say, a mouse). Same for cities and perhaps for companies, too. The author has gathered scores of examples to illustrate his points, from heartbeats to growth rates to income and patent filings to, more surprisingly, crime and stomach flu.

Now to the not-so-accomplished part: the author insist on explaining everything in “plain English” which makes for eye-watering complication and length. I salute his concerns for the less numerically literate but he would have been better off to include a simple (graphical) lesson about exponential functions and logarithms — and proceed with equations and graphs. And his belabored references to the Santa Fe Institute, which he directed for a while, could be streamlined into a single tribute. Still, this is a wonderful look at how the very large is very different from the very small.

 

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*** Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

70,000 years of history in 400 pages. That’s the challenge that Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind tackles, and it is, perhaps surprisingly, successful at showing coherent themes with strong opinions and a good sense of humor. It’s fun to read, and the illustrations are well-chosen and not the same old ones we have seen dozens of times. Still, some will quibble that some important aspects of humanity are not covered at all (looking at you, art), and that interpretations of archeological data can be uncertain. Still, it’s very satisfying to get through so many years and so many concepts (empires, the market, religion, law, ecology) in a concise way.

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Filed under Non fiction