The mysteries of Stonehenge fascinate archeologists as well as the general public, but for completely different reasons. To the public, the ancient stThe mysteries of Stonehenge fascinate archeologists as well as the general public, but for completely different reasons. To the public, the ancient structure is saturated with the eldritch energy of lay lines, the lore of ancient druids and rituals, and was probably built by ancient aliens (or so the History Channel hypothesizes). Archeologists and students of actual history are attracted to seemingly more mundane aspects of Stonehenge. For the scientists, finding a broken antler pick is far more interesting than trying to explore the magical properties of the stones or the land.
In his decidedly reality-based book, author and archeologist, Mike Parker Pearson, briefly addresses this duality as he discusses a gaggle of modern day druids who showed up to protest the start of his groundbreaking (pun intended) Stonehenge Riverside Project. He expresses his befuddled annoyance at their ambiguous new age complaints, agrees to let some of their more diplomatic members conduct a blessing on the land, then happily ignores them as he gets down to the real work of finding post holes, shards of pottery and charcoal lumps.
For even though Pearson and his colleagues give virtually zero thought to the monument’s magical or spiritual properties, Stonehenge and the surrounding complex of Neolithic structures are no less interesting for them. In picking apart its excavation history, then laying out and reorganizing our understanding of all the current knowledge, Pearson creates an impressive detective story that isn’t the sensationalistic plot you might expect from a pseudo-scientific cable television documentary, but nonetheless demonstrates how the last decade of research has redefined what archeologists know and understand about Stonehenge.
Having recently visited Stonehenge, I can attest to the mysterious command the stones hold over our imaginations. It seems like something otherworldly must have been going on there, but only because we do not understand it. In "Stonehenge", Pearson doesn't necessarily answer all the mysteries, but he certainly outlines a very vivid chronology that steps you through the few thousand years of Stonehenge's active history, and leaves one with a very clear understanding of the monument's connection to the ancient world that produced it.
The content can be a little dry at times, but only because Pearson is so tedious is mapping out every detail of his group’s findings. The author has a pleasing, genial writing style, but there are times the book feels like a really well-written university research paper. Pearson gives detailed and technical descriptions of various monuments, mounds, ditches, avenues, living structures, old excavation sites, human and animal remains. He explains the accuracy of radiocarbon dating, the usefulness of pollen and tooth enamel, the geographical distribution of stone and metal tools and various artistic and architectural motifs. He explains the geological fluke that is the probable cause for building on that particular site. He discusses the possible routes across which the sarsen and bluestones were likely dragged from their quarries. He explains the difference between a sarsen and a bluestone.
This is not a book of wild speculation and paradigm-shifting hypotheses. This is a book about the joy of figuring out what people did 5,000 years ago using the scientific method. If you’re a fan of druids and ancient aliens, the fantasy section of your bookstore is just down that aisle. If you’re a fan of archeology and the simple pleasure of finding things out, Mike Parker Pearson’s “Stonehenge” should whet your whistle....more
Richard Dawkins’ second career as an anti-creationist lecturer both fuels and inhibits The Greatest Show on Earth. His explanatory power is in full diRichard Dawkins’ second career as an anti-creationist lecturer both fuels and inhibits The Greatest Show on Earth. His explanatory power is in full display, and there are numerous intricacies of evolution and natural selection that he lays out very clearly for any interested layman to understand. Dawkins’ passion is also in evidence, as he reveals the almost sublime emotional personal impact of witnessing things like the bizarre recurring laryngeal nerve of the giraffe or in trying to comprehend the stunning complexity of cellular mechanisms and processes. If you like Richard Dawkins, and you can bear to hear a few repeated strains of arguments and speculations he has made in past works, The Greatest Show on Earth is certainly a worthwhile read.
Where things are on less sturdy ground pertain to Dawkins’ purported reason for writing this book. The book’s subtitle is “The Evidence for Evolution”, and in his introduction, he specifically mentions how one factor in its creation was a desire to lay out all the evidence for evolution such that an evolution-skeptical might be better understand why the ‘theory’ of evolution is actually about as close to a fact as you can get in science. As he fleshes out hi conceit, he betrays a lot of the frustration that clouds any attempt to create an honestly persuasive work.
To be clear, all of Richard Dawkins’ frustration is justified and earned. He likens anti-evolution zealots to someone who declare as self-evident fact that the ancient Romans did not exist, and himself to the confused historian who must then commit wasteful time and resources to proving the existence of his subject instead of getting on with the business of just studying it. Why not just ignore such foolish denial of well-founded science and get on with your research? Well, thanks to a largely scientifically illiterate public and the more sophisticated efforts by creationists in recent years, science education in both the US and the UK are under threat and showing signs of degradation. Someone must bolster the ramparts, and for good or ill, Richard Dawkins has taken on the task with admirable abandon. The problem is that his adventures and experiences in this realm of quasi-debate have left him…well, frustrated.
All you have to do is watch the fascinating YouTube clips of Dawkins interviewing Wendy Wright, an avid Creationist. Her anti-evolution ‘evidence’ consists of saying things like there are no transitional forms in the fossil record. When Dawkins helpfully names several specific transitional fossil species, she blankly smiles and says that if that was enough evidence then she’d believe, but she doesn’t believe so that must not be good enough evidence. That Dawkins does an entire hour-long interview with this woman and remaining relatively calm throughout is a testament to his patience. [I’d highly recommend watching the video if you have time. It is equal part entertaining and horrifying.]
But experiences like these have colored his view of the very people he is allegedly trying to persuade with this book. Subsequently, there is a subtle (and occasionally unsubtle) antagonistic streak that runs through the entire work, which I think distracts the author from making the most cogent case possible given the facts he’s working with. And I use the word ‘case’ not because evolution is on trial, but because if he has any real interest in converting the skeptical doubters or the full-on deniers, he needs to approach the material with a more step-by-step strategy than is present here.
The Greatest Show on Earth is at its best when it focuses on one specific thread of evidence. Though it feels incomplete, there is an enlightening chapter on fossil dating which discusses dendrochronology and radiometric dating and how and why they are used in different circumstances. There is a chapter on the hodgepodge, often counter-intuitive anatomical structures that no designer would ever employ, but make perfect sense viewed through the lens of natural selection, which doesn’t design things from scratch, but uses whatever materials are available. See the above mentioned laryngeal nerve of the giraffe which reaches from the cranium to within inches of its destination, the larynx, only to pass it by, travel several feet down the length of the neck, then back up again before finally connecting. Why would a creator design a nerve that travels almost 15 feet out of its way for no good reason? Natural selection has an answer for this. And when Dawkins is explaining these apparent contradictions in anatomy, he is, dare I say, persuasive.
Elegant though many of his explanations may be, they are also haphazardly organized and not really presented in a way that is going to convince anyone who is not already a believer. Yes, The Greatest Show on Earth is a well written and very interesting collection of explanations about evolution, and if you a) enjoy Dawkins or b) consider yourself unsure about evolution but curious to hear one man’s take on why the evidence is conclusive, then I highly recommend this book.
If you are doubtful about or actively don’t believe in evolution, well, there isn’t anything here that you haven’t already willfully denied, so you might as well move along....more
Though some of their beliefs differ slightly, you can tell that Richard Dawkins is an academic and literary cousin of Stephen Jay Gould. They engagedThough some of their beliefs differ slightly, you can tell that Richard Dawkins is an academic and literary cousin of Stephen Jay Gould. They engaged in a fair amount of civil intellectual bickering in their heyday, but they each have the same mission: to illuminate rather tedious scientific concepts such that a lay reader can understand them. Dawkins lacks some of the literary flourish at which Gould was so brilliant, but he's obviously set out to accomplish the exact same mission.
Probably the main thing that sets Dawkins apart in the public eye is his more antagonistic stance toward religion, and how it relates to science. But anyone expecting controversy in the pages of "The Selfish Gene" can move along, for there's nothing to see here, but a very deliberate clarification of the author's notion that natural selection acts directly not on organisms or groups, but on individual genes themselves. Much of his arguement revolves around what he sees as a misinterpretaion of altruism in individuals and groups. While many animals may seem to display self-sacrificing behavior for the good of the group, he boils this down to mathematical formulas that accurately predict such behavior, not as a means of sacrificing yourself for others, but to protect those who possess similar genes as you do. A fascinating exploration of the insect world drives the point home and proves to be some of the most interesting material Dawkins covers.
There are also some curious bits about memes as self-replicating constructs, how genes can often reach beyond their machine hosts (that is, the organisms they inhabit) to display extended phenotypes, and much insistence that just because he refers to our bodies and brains as machines, it does not negate the notions of free-will that we humans cherish so much. Indeed, Dawkins points out that it is humans' capacity to learn behavior contradictory to our genes' desires that makes us human. Our genes are inherently selfish, but miraculously, it doesn't mean that the machines that host them have to be.
"The Selfish Gene" gets a bit sluggish in some of the middle chapters, but taken as a whole, it offers up a fascinating perspective and a useful lense through which to analyse, understand, and maintain control of our sometimes constructive, sometimes destructive human desires....more
Lest you think I've gone all illicit and perverted, this book is actually by Jared Diamond, the renowned and Pulitzer Prize winning physiologist and aLest you think I've gone all illicit and perverted, this book is actually by Jared Diamond, the renowned and Pulitzer Prize winning physiologist and anthropologist who wrote "Guns, Germs, and Steel", and isn't a work about the sexiness of sex, but about the evolution of the strange human version of it....more
Amidst all the fanatic cheerleading for string theory, Brian Greene at one point in "The Elegant Universe" points out that when it debuted as a majorAmidst all the fanatic cheerleading for string theory, Brian Greene at one point in "The Elegant Universe" points out that when it debuted as a major new theory, string theory was frowned upon by some of the physics old-schoolers because of all the fanatic cheerleading being done by its proponents. Greene admits that some of the praise for the theory was a bit over the top, and if the excitement he puts forth in this book is a toned down version of the original fervor, I can't imagine how naysayers like Sheldon Glashow ever managed to co-exist in the same universe with it without exploding into a furious rage.
Even after admitting that the near messianic prophecies about string theory's usefulness were over the top, Greene can't help but remind you how if you study it carefully, you'll see how it solves EVERY PROBLEM IN PHYSICS EVER!! With enough research, it will solve gravity! It will unite classical and quantum physics! It will come to your house and do your dishes! It will travel back in time and kill Hitler!! All hail String Theory!
What I mean to say is that it's sometimes over the top.
Unintentional humor aside, how is the book? Well, fortunately for Brian Greene, the man is a pretty smart guy and has a knack for explaining rather complicated ideas in very simple terms. The first several chapters are basically a physics primer and lay out both classical and quantum concepts in an imminently understandable fashion. He even threw in an easily graspable analogy to explain time dilation, which I can accept as a concept but has always had a sort of mystically enigmatic aura around it. The mechanics of it actually kind of make sense to me now thanks to Greene.
He uses similarly disarming approaches when delving into the esoteric goings-on of string theory. And though he frequently seems like a love-struck teenage girl when describing his theory, he makes solid and understandable cases for why it shouldn't immediately be dismissed as important in the field of physics.
Plus, in his endnotes, Greene includes lots of hard math, which are thrown in for the number-crunchers in the room, but also manages to remind you that Brian Greene is not just some pretty-boy poster child for string theory, but that he's a pretty damned smart guy, and though he may have picked a risky thread of science to pursue, he knows his field well....more
If you've read Michael Pollan's previous works about food and diet and eating habits, what you get here is basically the Cliff Notes version. He boilsIf you've read Michael Pollan's previous works about food and diet and eating habits, what you get here is basically the Cliff Notes version. He boils down everything he had to say in "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food" into 60 or so rules you can follow to be healthier eater. He admits up front that he is a journalist, not a food scientist, but most of the rules he posits work whether you understand the biomechanics of the foods involved or not.
If you'd like to better understand the details behind some of the rules, feel free to go back and read the two other books.
Also: it would be easy to fault this book for being too slight. I think if price v/ quantity is your arguement, you have a case. But quality-wise, this is a helpful read. Indeed, after I read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" I recommended it to about ten different people, only one of which actually read it. Who (besides me I mean) wants to read a whole book? When I likewise recommended "In Defense of Food" to the same people, nobody read it. I really like "Food Rules" because I can put this in several different people's hands who don't have the time for reading, and be confident that they can take away all the things I wanted them to learn from the previous two recommendations. And maybe, if I'm lucky, "Food Rules" could be the gateway book into the longer books which give the more thoroughly explained details....more
Like most things Timothy Ferris is involved in, there is a bit more whimsy than I like to see in my science writing, but with the inclusion of some thLike most things Timothy Ferris is involved in, there is a bit more whimsy than I like to see in my science writing, but with the inclusion of some thorough science journalism, the 2001 edition of the Best American Science Writing series is more good than bad.
Surprisingly, the least effective stuff includes most of the articals concerning physics and astronomy. What with this being Ferris's field, one might assume he's have a unique insight into tracking down the most engaging articals from that year. Instead, he seems to have mostly chosen very short rah-rah cheerleading essays about how Neat-O science is. They all read like guest-introducitons to books I'd rather be reading.
Far more interesting are the longer, less scientific, more journalistic articals. The highlights are Richard Preston's artical about Craig Venter's quest to map the human genome and Tracy Kidder's profile of the ridiculously altruistic and self-sacrificing doctor, Paul Farmer. Also worthwhile are the investigative works like Peter Boyar's look at the validity of DNA evidence in criminal trials or Jacques Leslie's somewhat frightening look at the criminal worldwide mismanagement of the planet's water resources.
Also of note is a lovely little aquatic-biology inspired poem from John Updike (you get bonus points for that inclusion, Mr. Ferris), and an amusing and intricately written explanation for the origin of syphilis from all round science oracle, Stephen Jay Gould.
There are other articals about Mandrill gender issues, the facts behind testosterone, the evolutionary origins of altruism, the relationship between a simean virus and mesotheliomal cancers, and other assorted sundry. None of these are bad reading, but much of it felt more like Discovery Magazine articals that I'd browse through rather than read carefully.
In the end, not a waste of my time, but a with a wide variety of quality, ranging from substancless science boosterism to average articals good for passing the time to genuinely interesting glimpses into hidden aspects of the inner-workings of the world around us....more
Stephen Jay Gould is a skeptic's skeptic. Most of his longer form books (as opposed to his wonderful essay collections) deal with some long-held belieStephen Jay Gould is a skeptic's skeptic. Most of his longer form books (as opposed to his wonderful essay collections) deal with some long-held belief in scientific or societal thinking, and then using sometimes tedious statistical analysis to show how said belief is wrong. What's not to love about a man who made a hobby out of trying to break various paradigms of thought?
Sure, he can get a little bit repetitive as he states and restates his thesis and gives detailed re-accounts of points he made just a few pages or chapters ago. And when I used the word 'tedious', I absolutely meant it. The lengths to which Gould goes to prove his hypotheses are quite entertaining in their own rights. And yes, the subject matter itself may seem a bit dry. How exciting can a book about the contrast between opposing ideas concerning the presence or absence of 'progress' in the history of life be?
Now to be sure, I only recommend this book to the nerdiest of academic wannabes. To the kinds of people who find modal dominance and skewed means via extreme variations interesting. Or if those don't float your boat, I'd also recommend this to people who might delight in watching Gould taking an idea that is quite counter-intuitive (that the extinction of 0.400 batters in baseball signifies an improvement in overall play, not a decline) and then proving it quite convincingly true.
That the illusion of 'progress' in evolutionary history now seems more an artifact of human's egocentric perceptions than a natural law is a testament to how thorough and convincing Gould can be when he gets on a role.
And the delight in watching him dance nimbly from point to point to make his case is part of what makes this book so enjoyable. Even if statistical analysis of the modal and average complexity through the history of life isn't your cup of tea....more
The fact that it was written in 1971 adds a little bit of out-of-date flavor that makes "A History of Pi" a lot more amusing than it otherwise might hThe fact that it was written in 1971 adds a little bit of out-of-date flavor that makes "A History of Pi" a lot more amusing than it otherwise might have been.
As a history of pi, it kind of doesn't really work for a couple of reasons. First of all, its not really a history of pi. Its more like a history of mathematics in general. But even there, its far too anecdotal to serve as any real history lesson. Beckmann jumps and skips from one era to another giving you the lowdown on a random sampling of famous mathemeticians. The fact that he occasionally delves into the methods by which those mathemeticians were able to calculate pi with greater and greater accuracy over the years I guess justifies the book's title.
Secondly, Beckmann does absolutely nothing to make pi seem like the awesomly inpenetratable number that it is. The main reason I picked this up to read in the first place was because I recently read the chapter from Richard Preston's most recent book about the Chudnovsky brothers and their strange obsession with calculating the digits of pi. In that single chapter, Preston did a fascinating job of pulling you into the bizarre world of pi, and made me understand why a mathemetician could get lost in all those infinite, endless numbers. Petr Beckmann never really attempts to get into the philosophical implications of pi, and that left me a little wanting.
The third thing that bugged me was Beckmann's occasional lapses into opaque mathematical formulas. To his credit, he does include a helpful tip in his introduction:
"The reader who find the mathematics too difficult in some places is urged to do what the mathemeticians will do when he finds it too trivial: Skip it."
While I don't feel like I missed anything important in skipping over the many pages of equations, I am a little irked at being made to feel ignorant by the casual way in which Beckmann starts talking about things like the arcsin of the integrand.
Among these little problems, however, arises the "1971 Factor". This Factor manifests itself in a few amusing ways, not the least notably in the book's final chapter (apparently added in its third edition) about "The Computer Age". You can't help but laugh as Beckmann describes the BASIC programming language as "simple, but powerful". Its like basking in the delight of a five year old's amazement when you pull a quarter out of their ear. It's just so adorable.
The other amusing 1971 side effect is Beckmann's unmasked distate for those darned communists! Amid the sometimes dry historical accounts and the calculus equations and geometric theorems, the author just can't help himself and throws in several rather opinionated rants against those pesky Soviets. They made for some odd juxtapositions that brought a smile to my face every time they came up.
[By the way, Beckmann is a native of Prague, Czechoslovakia, and was forced to flee his home at a young age to escape the Nazis, so his personal distate for any sort of totalitarianism is quite understandable. It's just a weird tangent to wander into in the middle of a text on the history of mathematics.]
In the end, I didn't find "A History of Pi" to be a waste of my time. But it didn't quite live up to the mysterious awe inspired by the Preston artical that led me to pick it up in the first place....more
"QED" brings together two of my favorite things: Richard Feynman and Quantum Electrodynamics. I've read several books and articals that lay out layman"QED" brings together two of my favorite things: Richard Feynman and Quantum Electrodynamics. I've read several books and articals that lay out layman-friendly explanations of this quirkly little sub-genre of physics, and I've read several books by Richard Feynman, but amazingly, never a book about physics by Feynman.
[Sidenote: even if you don't give a whit about science, you owe it to yourself to read Feynman's two non-fiction personal essay collections, "Surely You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman" and "What Do You Care What Other People Think".]
Having read several of Mr. Feynman's writings about his life and the plethora of random topics he seems to stumble into becoming obsessively interested in, I feel like I've had the chance to get to know the man. If you haven't read his books, he's basically the Kurt Vonnegut of the Physics world: a rather smart fellow with a sometimes eccentric yet always bluntly straight-forward view of things.
His personality shines out brightly in the opening moments of "QED", which is essentially a book-version of a lecture series he delivered in 1979. The lectures were designed to explain the rather complicated and counter-intuitive science of quantum electrodynamics to a lay audience. The trade-off, he explains, is that at the end of his lectures, you'll have a general grasp on several concepts that help explain the interactions of electrons and photons, but you'll have no idea why those concepts work or where they came from. To understand that, you have to go graduate school for eight years.
There are four chapters (one for each of the lectures), and as a whole, they do a fair job of getting some pretty complicated points across. I found the first two chapters the easiest to grasp, possibly because I was able to read each of those lectures in a sitting apiece. When you can concentrate and focus on his step-by-step roadmap and see it through to the end, rather complicated ideas (such as the amplitude of partial reflection of a photon by a pane of glass) actually begin to make sense. I actually had a Eureka moment when Feynman made me understand that photons could apparently travel backwards in time.
I had more trouble with chapter three, when my rehearsal schedule didn't really grant me the twenty minutes or so of downtime necessary to read the chapter through in one go. Even so, I still did come away with far better understanding of the 'Feynman Diagrams' that have baffled me to no end when described by other science writers.
Like the first two lectures, I was able to read lecture four all at once, and this, combined with its interesting topic allowed to to finish the book with some of my pride still intact. (When I finished "Paradox Lost" a few years ago, I felt like I should turn in my college diplomas). It was this fourth chapter that touched on what it is I love about theoretical physics in particular, and all science writing in general: Feynman blatantly states that scientists have no idea what the heck is going on half of the time! You can observe something, and measure it and record it and double-check it, but finding out why things things like quarks and baryons and pions and mesons are the way they are sometimes seems beyond human capabilities.
Trying to pry deeper into the odd world of subatomic particles is like having your computer flash the number "87" on its screen, but never ever being able to figure out why! You can play with the number "87" and divide it and multiply it and square it and anything else you can think of, but why the number "87"?!
Who knows? Nobody does. But that never stopped men like Richard Feynman from trying to figure it out anyway. And possibly more impressively, it didn't stop him from trying to share his field's rather esoteric ideas with people like me....more