This book is a set of interviews with 36 contemporary scientists. Some of the scientists are well known to laymen; Daniel Dennett, Joan Goodall, Richa...moreThis book is a set of interviews with 36 contemporary scientists. Some of the scientists are well known to laymen; Daniel Dennett, Joan Goodall, Richard Dawkins, Oliver Sacks, Stephen Jay Gould, Paul Davies, James Lovelock, Lisa Randall, and Edward O. Wilson, for example. Many of the other scientists are not as well known, at least to me. So, in several pages per interview, I got an inkling--just an inkling of an idea of what each scientist is about. A brief biography on each scientist, and a reading list are featured at the end of the book.
Almost every interview was enjoyable, but I sometimes felt cheated--the interviews are so short, that I got the feeling that we were just skimming the surface, and not penetrating in depth into any particular subject. The vast majority of the interviews were with biologists and psychologists. Only six scientists work in the physical sciences, and most of them are not well-known. So, I felt that the bias of the editors showed through their selection, and again, I felt a bit cheated.
Several of the interviews were particularly fascinating to me. For example, Daniel Gilbert talked about the "Science of Happiness". When people try to predict how happy they might be in some particular vacation, they prefer to read brochures rather than ask others about their experience on the same vacation. They often make the wrong decision about the vacation, because humans have an "illusion of uniqueness". People do not believe that the experiences of others can help them decide, because they we feel we are unique; we know our own thoughts and feelings, and we don't believe that the experiences of others are relevant.
James Lovelock's interview was fascinating. The interview did not explicitly bring up Lovelock's "Gaia" hypothesis, but he had lots to say about the origin and preservation of life on Earth. When asked about how humans might prevent the demise of life, Lovelock declared that it is important to overcome our fears of nuclear power, as it is the only energy source that does not harm the atmosphere. He talked about the pressures that humans put on the Earth's ecology, and some of the misguided efforts of environmentalists.
I loved Eugene Chudnovsky's interview--he is quite a character. I enjoyed his response when he was asked,
"But do you believe in cyborgs, in those half-machine, half-organism hybrids?" "Of course I believe in cyborgs."
There is a famous story about Chudnovsky, when he was young, attending a lecture by the world-famous Soviet Professor Lysenko. Unfortunately, Lysenko believed in Lamarkism, and he had a lot of influence in the Soviet Union. Lysenko said,
"If we cut the ears off calves when they were born, generation after generation, after some time cows would be born without ears." "Professor Lysenko," timidly asked the young Chudnovsky, "if it were true that by systematically cutting off cow's ears, generation after generatation, they would end up being born without ears, how do you explain that all the young women of the Soviet Union continue to be born virgins?"
This book is not good as a comprehensive guide to the sciences. But it is an excellent way to be exposed to some very interesting, prominent scientists and a wide range of ideas. Think of this book as a "teaser", and you will be well rewarded. (less)
This is a delightful book of short essays on a diverse set of topics. The collection of essays serves as Chabon's memoirs--not chronological, not comp...moreThis is a delightful book of short essays on a diverse set of topics. The collection of essays serves as Chabon's memoirs--not chronological, not comprehensive, but fun and funny. Each essay begins in a simple manner, but then starts to delve into heavier matters--all while maintaining a light-hearted style.
The book uses the word "amateur" from its title Manhood for Amateurs in two different ways. Chabon easily admits that he is an amateur in the sense that he is not an expert. He freely acknowledges that he has failed on numerous occasions as a husband and a father, but not for want of trying. In the other sense of the word, he "loves" being a husband and a father, and he clearly tries his best at both. He tries his best to understand his children, and in many ways they share his interests.
Each essay is imbued with an easy-going, self-deprecating, nostalgic humor. The book is full of references to pop-culture from the 1970's, as he grew up through childhood and adolescence. I recommend this entertaining book for any fan of Michael Chabon.(less)
Isaac Asimov wrote over 500 books, and was one of the most prolific authors of all time. While he is best known for his science fiction and popular sc...moreIsaac Asimov wrote over 500 books, and was one of the most prolific authors of all time. While he is best known for his science fiction and popular science books, his writings cover an extremely wide range of subjects. This book of short essays is a great sampling of his writings--just take a look at the bookshelf tags I've assigned to this book; astronomy, computers, essays, memoirs, politics, religion, science and technology. This amazing collection of essays was written in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Many of the essays are speculations about the future, so many seem rather "quaint" now. Nevertheless, it's fascinating to read Asimov's speculations, and to see that many of them have turned out to be true. For example, Asimov is responsible for coining the word "robotics". He foresaw that Pluto did not deserve to be called a planet. He foresaw the possibility of quantum computers.
On the other hand, some of his speculations have turned out to be really on the wrong track; for example, he worried about global cooling. He also was very very worried that the human race would destroy itself before the year 2000. After all, he wrote these essays during the height of the cold war. He also worried about over-population, famine, and the over-use of natural resources. Many of his essays start with something like: (paraphrasing) "... and here is my speculation on the future of technology in the next century--if humanity survives that long."
Asimov is still the voice of reason, of rational logic, common sense, and an innate sense of morality. This book contains essays about the future of transportation, communication, computers, space colonization, even of hotels and collecting--yes, collecting! Even though he speculated on a wide range of technological issues, when Byte Magazine asked him to write an essay about his experiences using a computer/word processor, he had to confess that he still used a typewriter! He was given a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer, and wrote a humorous essay about it, making himself sound like a real Luddite!
Some of the essays in this book are quite interesting; for example, an essay about the possibility of multiple universes, and another about the direct...moreSome of the essays in this book are quite interesting; for example, an essay about the possibility of multiple universes, and another about the direction of time. But the vast majority of the essays are boring. They just seem--irrelevant. Perhaps they would be interesting to someone who lived 50 or 100 years ago. Not just one, but two essays about a little-known novel, The Green Archer. An essay about Ernest Hemingway (my least favorite American author) and his lover, Jane Kendall. An entire section of essays about bad, disreputable psychics. A section of essays about forgotten, false messiahs. I used to love reading Martin Gardner's essays in Scientific American. I guess these are his essays that didn't quite make it.(less)
This is not an easy book to read--Gould's language and style are aimed at educated, but non-professional readers. Each essay is a gem in its own way,...moreThis is not an easy book to read--Gould's language and style are aimed at educated, but non-professional readers. Each essay is a gem in its own way, on a wide diversity of subjects. Gould sheds much light on how science is done, and the importance of the process rather than the conclusions. Highly recommended!(less)