An interesting book which delves into the science of 'when' events occurred using techniques such as dendochronology, radiocarbon dating, argon dating...moreAn interesting book which delves into the science of 'when' events occurred using techniques such as dendochronology, radiocarbon dating, argon dating, electron spin resonance dating and others.
Each chapter covers the dating of a different event including: construction of the Egyptian pyramids, the shroud of Turin, ice ages, and the migration of hominids out of Africa among others.
From a readability standpoint I'd have to say that some chapters are far more interesting than others. In fact the first chapter which discusses who King Arthur may have been and when he lived was almost unreadable. I suppose this book could best be described as 'uneven'.
Some good information nonetheless and several chapters were quite interesting. (less)
In ‘How the Mind Works’ Steven Pinker (Harvard professor of psychology) looks at various aspects of the brain, how it evolved, how it develops from in...moreIn ‘How the Mind Works’ Steven Pinker (Harvard professor of psychology) looks at various aspects of the brain, how it evolved, how it develops from infant to adult and a few theories about how it works. Pinker is a proponent of the ‘computational theory of mind’ which proposes that the brain acts in a step by step fashion, manipulating symbols in order to arrive at an output.
The first few chapters are a bit of a chore as Pinker jumps from topic to topic in such a dizzying scattershot of distantly related topics that one struggles to grasp the point of the discussion. Eventually he settles down and begins to lay out his ideas in way that proceeds logically and the book markedly improves.
Overall the book is ok, though I’d point out that there are more current books on the topic available (this one was written in 1997) and ones that are better written.(less)
I really didn’t have any idea what The Founding Fish was about before getting into it. Little did I know it was all about the American Shad.
Shad are a...moreI really didn’t have any idea what The Founding Fish was about before getting into it. Little did I know it was all about the American Shad.
Shad are a small silvery fish that typically weigh between 3-8 pounds. The feed primarily on plankton in the ocean, but swim up rivers to spawn (like salmon, they are anadromous).
McPhee loves him some shad, and his book is a peon to all things shad … their description, life-cycle, physiology, how to catch them, how to cook them, shad reproduction, shad’s role in history (particularly in the War for Independence). Shad, shad and more shad. How they taste, their anatomy, shad fisherman, fish ladders for shad, the shad environment, the effect of dams on shad reproduction, and fish stories galore. Galore I say!
If there is nothing about shad that doesn’t send you into paroxysms of excitement and delight, then this book is for you. In fact, if there was such a thing as a shad-gasm, then you better be prepare yourself to have one. For others, whose relationship to the fish is somewhat more tepid, you might expect that your enjoyment of the book will be correspondingly muted … or non-existent.
This is the 4th book by McPhee that I’ve read, and I have to say, I find his writing to be a rather bland and uninteresting affair. I understand that he won the Pulitzer Prize, and I can appreciate his approach of remaining at a distance, aloof from the story, letting the characters speak for themselves, but that doesn’t change the fact that his books are dull.
As a final note … McPhee propagates the nonsense that water rotates down the drain in a certain direction due to the Coriolis effect (clockwise in the northern hemisphere, counterclockwise in the southern). It does not, and a simple glance at the drains in your home will verify that this is the case. Water rotates in a certain direction simply based on the shape of your sink.(less)
Irons in the Fire is a short collection of essays on topics ranging from cattle rustling, to tire recycling, geological forensics, and the Plymouth Ro...moreIrons in the Fire is a short collection of essays on topics ranging from cattle rustling, to tire recycling, geological forensics, and the Plymouth Rock. The essays are interesting enough, but there is something about McPhee’s writing style that rubs me the wrong way. I don’t know if it’s the extreme dryness or the disjointed manner in which he shifts between topics, but ... I just can’t get into his books without thinking that there’s something else I’d rather be doing. (less)
"Conversations on Consciousness" consists of a number of transcribed conversations which Susan Blackmore has had with scientists and philosophers on t...more"Conversations on Consciousness" consists of a number of transcribed conversations which Susan Blackmore has had with scientists and philosophers on the question of consciousness. Topics discussed include: what consciousness is, where it resides, how it arises, whether it is separate from the brain, and the 'hard problem' of the existance of subjective experience in an objective world.
The answers are interesting, although the bottom line is that the science of consciousness is in its very early stages, and that there are more questions than answers (and the answers that exist are loudly debated).
My main criticism of the book is that the questions are repetitious and that the answers are often incoherrent.
Though not central to the theme, the book confirms my suspicion that ‘philosophy’ is largely a nonsensical field of study. In ancient Greece the best pathway to knowledge may have involved sitting around and thinking about stuff, but that is simply not the case today. We have a time tested and reliable means of arriving at truth … it’s called the scientific method. Philosophers, at their best, might be able to phrase a question in a new or interesting way, but they are otherwise irrelevant. Francis Crick (co-founder of the structure of DNA) says it well: “A lot of problems which were once regarded as philosophical, such as what is an atom, are now regarded as part of physics. Some people have argued that the main purpose of the philosopher is to deal with the unsolved problems, but the problems eventually get solved, and they get solved in a scientific way. If you ask how many cases in the past has a philosopher been successful at solving a problem, as far as we can say there are no such cases.”
I wouldn’t pay much attention to what the philosophers are saying in this book. They should step aside and let the scientists do their job.(less)
Although the cover of “Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini appears to have been designed to appeal to the ‘how to succeed in...moreAlthough the cover of “Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini appears to have been designed to appeal to the ‘how to succeed in business’ crowd, the content itself has much broader appeal. Cialdini, a psychologist at Arizona State University, brings evidence from his field to bear on the techniques used by salesmen, politicians, and others to gain compliance. The major techniques advertisers use to manufacture desire are all discussed. These include: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity. Examples are provided of each as well as theories as to how they act on the brain. Cialdini also provides suggestions as to how to defend oneself from these same techniques to avoid being swayed against your better judgment.
The book is well written and includes many interesting examples. My main criticism is that there is little in the book that anyone exposed to even a small amount of advertising probably doesn’t already know. On the positive side, the more we are familiar with these techniques and are able to recognize them for what they are the less likely we are to fall prey to manipulation. (less)
In case you haven’t been paying attention, we are on the cusp of a major scientific breakthrough! The pillar of modern biological thought is on the ve...moreIn case you haven’t been paying attention, we are on the cusp of a major scientific breakthrough! The pillar of modern biological thought is on the verge of being overturned by a revolutionary new theory devised by brilliant and diligent scientists who are amassing mountains of irrefutable evidence even as we speak. This bright and shining new scientific horizon goes by the name of “intelligent design” (ID for short) and it will relegate Neo-Darwinism … nay, it will relegate the entire philosophy of scientific naturalism to the stinking rubbish heap of history.
These are, of course, the extravagant claims made by modern day creationists despite the fact that they have yet to publish a single peer reviewed paper in a scientific journal or presented any unambiguous evidence supporting their claims. This should come as no surprise because, despite the fact that intelligent design (ID) proponents have dressed up creationism in the trappings of science and given it a shiny new name, it bears nothing in common with actual science. There are no experiments or research programs, no data or evidence. Zero. There is only ideology … of the religious fundamentalist sort.
Creationists have been trying to insert their religious ideas into the school science curriculum since … well, forever. The Scopes trial, school prayer controversy and school voucher programs are all part of the same concerted effort to introduce religious indoctrination into the public school curriculum. As the Jesuit saint Francis Xavier once said, "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man". Fundamentalists understand this idea, and know that their best opportunity to brainwash the public occurs at an early age. Yet, thanks to a little thing called the First Amendment to the US Constitution (which prohibits the establishment of religion), they have been thwarted and frustrated in their attempts at every turn. In a blatant effort to conceal their actual intentions the creationists have done what any good PR firm would suggest when a company lays and egg, they’ve rebranded their product in an effort to remove the taint of religious fanaticism. Thus the pseudo-scientific field of intelligent design was born. After all, if the natural world was designed, this implies a designer. And who is this designer? Well, the creationists won’t say (there sooo coy), but you can be damn sure it’s not the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Failing to gather any evidence whatsoever in support of their claims, ID adherents have turned to political machinations to achieve their nefarious ends by infiltrating local school boards and rewriting textbooks and school science standards. Although their direct assaults on science haven’t panned out, aided by a scientifically illiterate public they have been somewhat more successful with their efforts to “teach the controversy” and in getting their nonsense into the curriculum of publically funded voucher schools.
Why go to all this effort? Two reasons. First, creationists recognize that evolution represents a significant threat to their world view. At a minimum, it relegates their omnipotent creator to that of a bit player in the role of human affairs. Or perhaps more importantly, it eliminates the need for their god to exist at all. Secondly, they’d like nothing more than for the US to be governed as a theocracy (it’s not for nothing that groups like these have been dubbed the “American Taliban”). They are the true believers who will dedicate their lives towards the establishment of a religious state. Like termites probing a house for weaknesses, when thwarted in one area, they move on to try another, and another until they can find an opening in which to establish a foothold (thus the title of their strategy as “the Wedge”, which they intend to drive metaphorically into the bulwark of science and the secular state). Their attacks on science have been aggressive and relentless.
Creationism's Trojan Horse recounts in minute detail the ideology and strategy of the ID movement. While this level of documentation may seem excessive, a deep understanding of the tactics of the ID movement are necessary to staving off their assault on education. Parents and teachers who are concerned about science standards and who are faced with a threat of ID in their area would do well to read this book.
Creationism's Trojan Horse was published in 2002 not long after the 9/11 attacks at the height of the right wing’s power when George Bush had the approval of a substantial majority of the country and republicans controlled both the house and senate. At that time it was uncertain just how far the influence of the right wing would extend, and as a result the book’s tone is urgent. With hindsight, we know now that the creationists were subsequently crushed in the 2004 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case and that the republican party, once so strong, is now in shambles after their disastrous overreach and the public’s rejection of their extremist policies. Though the threat is diminished, it is no cause for complacency. Creationist bills are still being introduced regularly (most recently in Colorado) and these groups remain well funded and motivated. Continued diligence is essential to ensure the future of science education in the US.
So why is evolution by natural selection important (beyond the fact that it is true)? Well, for starters, it is the founding principle upon which all of biology is based. If we intend to know anything about the living creatures who inhabit our planet (including ourselves), evolution needs to be understood. But there are more practical reasons as well. 1) We live in a competitive world in which the country with the best educated scientists and engineers stand the best chance of succeeding economically in a global market. 2) Deadly bacteria and viruses continually evolve to create health issues and pandemics around the globe. 3) To counteract crop diseases, insect infestations and respond to ecological changes caused by global warming new food plants will need to be developed through selective breeding or gene splicing. (less)
“Deep Economy” wasn’t really what I was expecting, or hoping, the book would be about. Given that “Economy” was in the title I had assumed the book wo...more“Deep Economy” wasn’t really what I was expecting, or hoping, the book would be about. Given that “Economy” was in the title I had assumed the book would be about how economic indices effect the environment and perhaps how a deeper understanding of real economic benefits produced by natural systems, and the real costs of extractive practices, could lead to a more sustainable future. But he really only touches on this subject and not in a meaningful way.
Instead, the book argues that society has lost a sense of community in its pursuit of economies of scale. • Food from across the globe is available at local supermarkets year round. Disconnectedness from local growing seasons and conditions has led to a loss of a sense of ‘place’. • Modern society is hyper-individualistic, leading to isolation and loss of community. • Energy, media and retail (as evendinced by big box stores) are eliminating (or have already eliminated) local businesses and competition.
While perhaps true, these conclusions aren’t particularly insightful and the arguments McKibben uses to support his claims are, more often that not, on the soft and fuzzy side. As an example … eating locally one winter caused McKibben to connect to local farmers, their challenges and the changing seasons leading to a deeper appreciation of place. Well ... ok ... and a trip to the local wastewater treatment plant will give you deep insight into where that food goes after it’s been digested and perhaps we’ll then have the opportunity for a group hug around the sludge drying bed.
In his opening sentence McKibben introduces the concept of whether “More is Better”. It’s a shame this wasn’t the centralizing theme around which the book was organized since it is a concept that does, in fact, lend itself to the type of values discussion McKibben prefers in his prose. (less)
I can distill my thoughts about this book into a single word ... “bleah!”
'Top Secret: The Truth Behind Today's Pop Mysticisms' consists of a collectio...moreI can distill my thoughts about this book into a single word ... “bleah!”
'Top Secret: The Truth Behind Today's Pop Mysticisms' consists of a collection of academic, esoteric clap-trap wrapped in a populist cover. I have no idea who the target audience for this book might be. Perhaps cynical masters candidates in religious studies might find this book interesting, but almost no one else will. (less)
OK introduction to the theories of life's beginning and somewhat more thorough review of work being done to re-create life in the lab. Also discusses,...moreOK introduction to the theories of life's beginning and somewhat more thorough review of work being done to re-create life in the lab. Also discusses, as the title suggests, different views on the definition of life. The best answer? Though I hate to be a spoiler ..... "metabolism"!(less)