If you’re curious about how scientists actually study climate change, David Archer is an excellent go-to guy. Every year brings new developments, so a book isn’t the best resource for up-to-date understanding of all of the details of what is known about what is happening, but a book is a good way of learning how the science gets done.
This book, The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth's Climate instead delves into climate science across the vast spans of geological time. In this short book, you’ll learn that what our generations do (or, more precisely, don’t do) will change the climate for hundreds of thousands of years.
The science really is the point, though. We can’t predict what humanity will be going through in another hundred years, much less after thousands or tens of thousands, so the presentation of all of these details is to enlarge our understanding of the magnitude of what we are doing, in the hope that we’ll change our ways as soon as possible.
Although this is a book about science, you won’t be tasked with dealing with the nitty-gritty. There isn’t a single equation, for example, and the endnotes are to guide further reading, so even those aren’t laden with impenetrable jargon.
In most of the analysis, all the reader has to do is concentrate a bit. There are a lot of phenomena that are examined, since the way science double-checks itself is for people in disparate fields to see if they come to similar conclusions, and “disparate fields” goes from oceanography, plant paleobiology, geologic chemistry and many more.
The toughest for most people will probably be in understanding how isotopes are used. I’m pretty science savvy, but it was still engrossing to learn how isotopes are central to some of these analyses.
I’ll try to boil down my favorite narrative:
• An isotope is an atom — an elementary particle — the contains a different number of neutrons than the standard variation of the element. Since neutrons aren’t charged, this affects the element’s chemistry only in subtle ways.
• One key isotope is that of oxygen, because it can start off in H₂O, and have subsequent effects seen in CaCO₃ and CO₂. “Normal” oxygen has eight neutrons, and since it also has eight protons, it is known as O-16. The heavier O-17 (one extra neutron) and O-18 (two extra neutrons) isotopes are also stable.
• The extra neutron(s) also makes any water containing the heavier isotope heavier, which has the critical result that it evaporates with a little more difficulty than “normal” water (see the Wikipedia article on “kinetic fractionation”).
• This is crucial: because it evaporates less, seaborne clouds will have fewer of the heavier isotopes, while the remaining seawater has relatively more.
• Since the precipitation that falls on the land comes from these clouds, it is isotopically lighter. Which means snow is, too, and so are glaciers, and those huge ice packs during ice ages.
• The amount of the planet’s water that is stuck in ice form on land is therefore directly correlated with the varying ratio of oxygen isotopes left in the ocean. Woo-hoo!
• That (slightly isotopically heavier) oxygen is taken up by the billions and billions of microscopic sea creatures (the Foraminifera) that create shells, commonly out of CaCO₃.
• As those microorganisms die, their shells remain and accumulate. When the layer of sediment they accumulate in is compressed into rock over geologic time, we end up with limestone, such as the stuff the pyramids in Egypt are made out of. But for our purposes —
• When scientist dig up core samples of the sediments deep in the ocean, they can analyze the variation in the isotopic ratio of oxygen, and thus determine the varying amount of ice that was present elsewhere, on land.
This is one of the multiple ways that we can gaze back into the distant past and determine what the climate used to be like. The results of different methods can be compared to make sure they are being used properly. For example, ice cores have been cut out of the antarctic which go back 800,000 years (there are places where ice may have been accumulating for 1.5 million years). The amount of carbon dioxide in the air bubbles found embedded in those cores is cross-checked with other factors, including various isotopic measurement.
Progress continues: fairly recently, ancient graffiti in a Chinese cave recorded the impact of droughts more than 500 years ago, including dates which correlate with Chinese historical records. That same cave provided minerals, which steadily accumulate in stalactites or stalagmites, etc., which show a change in oxygen isotopes consistent with other climate models.
Isotopic analysis is only one of the many “proxies” that are used to gauge climate history. Tree rings have been dated back almost 14,000 years; evolutionary changes in the pores on leaves (stomata), which relate to the concentration of carbon dioxide and humidity, are examined in the fossil record.
Scientists compete to build computerized models of the climate which incorporate those factors they’re guessing are most important, and which work over different time and geographic scales. A model which uses one set of data from history and is able to accurately predict what changes were taking place in another area is doing well. When two models which use different input datasets yield predictions that are consistent with one another, that’s also a good sign.
But Archer notes many times in the book that models still can’t account for nearly enough for us know what is happening to our satisfaction. It is important to point out that this doesn’t mean that climate change isn’t happening — the question is how fast, and how bad, and what changes will take place where. For example, the current drought in California is still largely believed to be just a normal variation in weather, similar to other droughts in memory. But climatologists are increasingly worried that the “drought” isn’t weather, but climate, and is an early sign of California’s “new normal”.
This isn’t the correct book for information about recent discoveries in climate modeling — books aren’t the right medium for that. But if your reading diet (or podcast listening!) includes enough science, you’ll spot the steady accumulation of data. For example, “a newly discovered strain of bacteria found in Arctic permafrost harvests methane from the air — meaning it could help mitigate the effects of warming” is good news I learned from Scientific American here, but “tree growth lags below normal for several years following droughts, a detail about carbon sequestration that climate models currently overlook”, from here, which is bad both for the climate and for California’s forests in the current drought.
Even readers that are barely aware of what an isotope is will probably be able to keep up. This is especially true since a quick trip to Wikipedia or a Google query can help you brush up on the toughest stuff, although I found most of my complimentary online research was driven by voracious curiosity.
At one point I wanted to remind myself of the details of the surprising Larsen B Ice Shelf collapse in 2002 (which had been stable for maybe 12000 years). That then led me to examine the current status of the Ross Ice Shelf, and then the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, at which point I found myself looking up the differences between “ice shelfs” and “ice sheets”, for example, and then back to the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf, and then finally to the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Personally, I think the relatively near-term climate effects of agriculture will be so devastating that it might cause an economic collapse leading to the collapse of our global civilization. If it doesn’t, then maybe this reminder of what the longer-term threat will be (p. 138):
Yeah, the amount of carbon dioxide and methane we’re pumping into our atmosphere could easily mean that eventually the sea levels will be fifty meters higher. It’ll [probably] take a long, long time for all that ice to melt; hundreds of years, or maybe over a thousand. Still: this is what we’re doing to our home.
Curiously, while our addition of large amounts of carbon will be catastrophic for many species on our planet, and seriously detrimental to future humans’ ability to thrive on a biologically impoverished planet, it might stave off the return of an ice age, which normally would start closing in after another few tens of thousands of years. Given that our planet happily functions in both ice ages and ice-free ages, that probably doesn’t matter except to us.
If you understood this stuff the to the same depth as the scientists, you wouldn’t need to read books like this. The point is to read enough that you are comfortable with how the science works, that there aren’t glaring omissions, and build your faith that the scientific enterprise actually does provide reliable guidance for us when we try to solve difficult policy questions. It’s also just a drop-dead fascinating lesson....more
I wonder if I'd rather just watch the PBS series (enthusiasically endorsed by the New York Times, but that's tough when you don't own a television andI wonder if I'd rather just watch the PBS series (enthusiasically endorsed by the New York Times, but that's tough when you don't own a television and don't really want to sit in front of the computer watching it online.
I very much enjoyed Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map and Everything Bad is Good for You, so I should probably give this a try.
There’s potentially a lot of promise behind this book, but as of today, it isn’t convincing enough.
The science and history presented in the first portThere’s potentially a lot of promise behind this book, but as of today, it isn’t convincing enough.
The science and history presented in the first portion of the book almost make it worth reading, regardless of the flaws in the rest.
First, the discussion of the functional division of the various major structures in the brain was well done. For example, there is a great little diagram on page 29 that quickly and clearly delineates what the four lobes of the brain do (somewhat like this, but the book’s version is more parsimonious).
Then the authors shift to the convincing scientific evidence that different people perceive in sometimes substantially different ways, and that this is related to how their brain is wired. This is the Object-Spatial Imagery hypothesis, and it seems pretty solid. Primary visual processing occurs in the occipital lobe, but it seems that objects are recognized and processed in the temporal cortex, whereas spatial processing occurs in the parietal cortex. In other words, one part of our brain figures out what we’re seeing, but is clueless about where it is, while another knows where it is, but really isn’t clear on any details about what it is. Fascinating, but well supported.
This 2006 article is pretty easy reading, as science articles go, and has an embedded test that will quiz you on your preferred style; later portions show examples of the kinds of tests that correspond to what the different styles are good at. I long known that I’m great at spatial reasoning, and I’ve always been slightly mystified when people describe in great detail what takes place in their “minds eye”, but this explains it: I’m pretty close to zeroed out what apparently happens in the temporal lobe. On page 250 (the 12th page) of the article, there’s a “degraded picture” of a common object, and I literally couldn’t see it even after being told what was somehow hidden in there. (Strangely, I was going to say “I still can’t see it”, but when I looked up the page number, I was able to spot the object for the first time, but keep in mind I already knew what I was looking for.)
The old “left-brain/right-brain” comes in for a great drubbing, and includes some very interesting history, especially of Phineas Gage, a man whose improbably survival of a horrific accident led to tremendous advances in pioneering neuroanatomy. If you don’t know the story, you really should check it out. Even if you do know the basics of the story, you might not know some of the details, such as the fact that the iron rod was “three feet, seven inches long, and an inch and a quarter in diameter at its thickest point” and “landed more than sixty feet behind him” — after going through his skull!
But the worthwhile part of the book is over at that point.
The remainder explains the “top brain/bottom brain” hypothesis. They make the claim that, unlike most popular cognition tests floating around the world, theirs is based on actual science. But the connection is weak.
Here’s the gist:
The portion of the brain we’re interested (e.g., cerebral cortex, as opposed to the subcortical portion of the cerebrum or the brain stem) can usefully be divided into the top brain, consisting of the parietal lobe and the top of the frontal lobe, and the bottom brain, consisting of the lower portion of the frontal lobe, along with the temporal and occipital lobes.
I’m going to put more crudely than they do, but effectively the top brain is responsible for planning and the thinking associated with that in a very broad sense. The bottom brain deals with processing sensory input, as well as any associated complex thinking.
Everyone uses all of their brain, but — according to the hypothesis — we’ll rely even more on one of these (or both, or neither), depending on our temperament and habit, some of which devolves from genetic factors.
In their system, if you “rely” on both the top and the bottom, then you tend to use the “Mover mode”. If you rely on the top, but not the bottom, you’re a “Stimulator”. In the reverse, you’d be a “Perceiver”. If you don’t really rely on either, then you’re more of a go-with-the-flow “Adaptor”. Because their test might tell you that you “tend to rely” or “tend not to rely”, there are actually sixteen categories, so there’s some gray area.
The first problem is how they describe those categories. Even though they assert that none of them are better or worse, it will quickly become clear that the “Movers” are going to be the heroes here. And you can’t say you didn’t see that coming — after all, if you don’t rely on some major portion of your brain, you’re likely to run into some problems, aren’t you?
The first disturbing weakness in the “science” shows up when they provide the detailed descriptions of the four modes. They explain how two actual public figures and one imaginary person exemplify that mode’s behavior. One of the real humans is contemporary, the other is historic. Then there is a just-so story made up to “illuminate” the hypothetical person. This should get you wondering: of the many billions of people on the planet that must fit this category, this is the best they can do? Without conducting any actual tests on Michael Bloomberg (the ex-mayor of New York) or the Wright brothers, the author uses them as archetypal Movers. Are there any real “normal” human beings that walk amongst us that are also Movers? Because the best they can do is an almost idealized “Lisa”, who’s story ends with her considering whether to found her own startup.
The depictions of the other three modes are no better, although despite the author’s contention that none are really better than others, they make it increasingly clear that we’re gradually getting into loser territory. Everyone who isn’t a Mover had better marry well, so your spouse compliments there flaws.
Chapter thirteen introduces the test (which you can also take online, although no explanation is provided). The next chapter explains how scientific the test is, although it doesn’t take a very close reading to see some pretty gaping holes.
After writing hundreds of questions, they evaluated many hundreds of response from online test-takers, and figured out which questions correlated well with one another. To them, that means they’re finding questions that measure the same thing, albeit from different angles. Fine, as far as that goes. At that point, they tested how people’s scores on their final test correlated with well established standardized tests — a lengthy list is provided at the bottom of page 166. Frankly, that sounds backwards to me — design the test, and then see if it correlates to what you hoped it would?
The big problem is that the scores from the questions intended to measure reliance on top-brain functions are what correlated to all those tests (which cover quite a spectrum of psych tests), whereas… well, this is the way they put it:
Specifically, the scores on the bottom-brain scale did not correlate with any of the other test scores; this means that these scores are measuring something completely distinct.
Got that? Because that is all they’re going to say about it. There is no evidence given that the bottom-brain scores have anything to do with bottom-brain functionality. Or, if there is, it didn’t occur to them to provide it (I suppose I may have missed it, but I double and triple-checked). All we know is that the “something completely distinct” being tested is statistically consistent amongst the question, but not what it actually is.
The remaining chapters go into using your knowledge of your mode to learn to play well with others, blah blah blah. Honestly, at that point I was almost skimming, looking for a life saver that would rescue my opinion of this book.
How I scored, personally, also affected my judgement of the book. I don’t think that is a great reason for anyone else to dismiss it, since I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’m an outlier in many ways, and since those are none of your business, I’m not going to provide any substantiation. However, I will say that I was tagged as a lean-towards Stimulator, which came as something of a surprise, since neither my actual life nor my inner thinking bears any resemblance to what had been described in that chapter. What I actually spend far too much time doing came closest to the librarian described as the hypothetical Perceiver, but that requires that I not rely on my top-brain, which is laughable.
I didn’t give this one star for two reasons: the first is that the introductory chapters are interesting, and worth reading. Get a copy from the library and read through Chapter Six, and you’ll have a quick and easy read about some interesting aspects of neuroanatomy and cognition. Don’t buy a copy, because these authors shouldn’t be rewarded for what is honestly shoddy work.
But the second reason is more nuanced. Enough of what they are working towards seems sensible that this could be a deeply flawed first hint at a better model of how people’s behavior emerges from how the brain is used.
Instead of everyone falling into four modes (or along two intersecting spectrums, which is what the sixteen categories hint at), what this suggests to me is that the more high-functioning you are within a context, the better you’ll use the relevant portion of the brain. Or, probably, the reverse: the better you use a relevant portion of your brain in a certain context, the more high-functioning you’ll be in that context.
Visualization along the spatial/object spectrums is a good indicator: people that can easily image spatial information would be better at navigating, for example (something I excel at), while someone poor at object visualization would make a poor illustrator. In fact, the last two pages of the book returned to an excellent example of this, referring to a research experiment that tested the spatial/object visualization hypothesis.
Pairs of people were assigned the task of navigating a maze (video-game style) peopled with “Greebles”. The navigation task required spatial visualization, the Greeble recognition required object recognition. If one or the other skill was missing from the team, they’d score poorly in the game. If the people with the required task were assigned to appropriate roles, the team scored very well. All that is as one might expect.
However, if the correct skills are present between the two, but those people are assigned to the wrong tasks, it got interesting. If they couldn’t communicate, they did horribly, but if they could talk, they quickly recognized that the trick would be for each to direct the other, and they scored quite well.
The PhD author, Kosslyn, was the last-named author of the paper that described this (the link is above). In coming decades, it seems certain that we will decode which functional structures of the brain do what, and it seems reasonable that the ability to actually perform those functions well will require strong neural linkages to the other brain structures that provide executive function. This book hints at that direction, but poorly so — it should have been shelved for a few years until a clearer picture had developed, and more evidence for any model could be prevented. ...more
The cartoon treatment makes this critical (or hot!... sorry) but somewhat academic topic more manageable. Those who are have already formed beliefs anThe cartoon treatment makes this critical (or hot!... sorry) but somewhat academic topic more manageable. Those who are have already formed beliefs and conclusions on the subject are unlikely to be swayed, but there are undoubtedly plenty out there who aren't yet sure what to think, and this is their book.
The Kindle edition saves paper, and at about $10.50 is a pretty inexpensive way of getting this, but you can't pass it on to others after reading it. For a few bucks more, you can buy it and keep it in circulation. If you're annoyed with Amazon, Indiebound can point you to a local book merchant that sells it.
Then there's the even greener option. My library has six copies. You can check to see if any library in your area has one here....more
This is a mostly delightful tour of geology, earthquakes and plate tectonics, with an emphasis on California's infamous San Andreas Fault and the 1906This is a mostly delightful tour of geology, earthquakes and plate tectonics, with an emphasis on California's infamous San Andreas Fault and the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco. I can highly recommend it.
Much to the delight of info gluttons, Winchester as always ranges widely from the nominal focus of the book. Any reader looking for an in-depth history of the whys and wherefores of the earthquake and fire will be more than satisfied, as well anyone wondering about the broader surrounding topics.
Of course, if you want your author to go straight to the heart of the matter, this isn't your book and, furthermore, you really should forego any of Winchester's books.
By the way, this book was more personal to me than to most of you out there: I've lived in San Francisco for almost my entire adult life, and I'm a third-generation Californian (and almost a third-generation San Franciscan). I've backpacked for many years in the Sierras, thrown up millions of years ago by the mechanisms he describes in the book, and I felt connected to every scene he describes in the city.
Still, my reaction to this book isn't unalloyed praise. I think there were several false notes. The more obvious one was the connection to Pentecostalism. I agree it was an important phenomena of the time — actually, I wouldn't be here if my mother's parents hadn't found each other while attending a Pentecostal church during the depression. But the movement almost certainly would have taken off with or without San Francisco's earthquake; that kind of exuberant religiosity seems to be a fundamental part of U.S. culture. Despite the specific anecdotes that tie the two stories together, I felt it was really a post hoc, ergo propter hoc kind of connection, and detrimental to the book's focus.
The other significant annoyance was that several times the author referred to San Francisco and other places in close proximity to the fault as "very dangerous". Now, maybe when the Big One hits I'll change my tune, but substantially fewer than 1000 Californians have died in earthquakes in the past century. As I'm writing this at the end of April 2013, and the New York Times just reminded me that three years after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (which killed 63 in the region), Los Angeles lived through the Rodney King riots, which killed 54. And, of course, at least 15 (and possibly many more) have just died in the explosion of a fertilizer company in Texas. Frankly, life is dangerous; everyone dies in the end.
Living in an earthquake zone does slightly raise the likelihood of dying prematurely (or being seriously injured), but there are many, many other factors that affect mortality rates even more. Coastal California — right along the San Andeas Fault — has a famously benign climate, for example. I suspect the overall health of the locals is higher because of it, and probably lengthens their life expectancy more than the earthquake risk shortens it. Winchester even makes fun of the residents of Portola Valley, a town that lies directly upon the fault line — amused at how they argue endlessly about whether and where to move this building or that, only to go back to sipping their sauvignon blanc. He agrees that their "way of life [is] quite unrivaled in its quality anywhere in the world", yet still thinks that there can be "no greater monument to hubris" that the choose to live there.
I suppose he really thinks they'd be better off somewhere else, but I think there's a lot of hubris in his assertion that he is right and several million residents of the San Francisco Bay Area are being irrational. Perhaps he should have asked the scientists at the Menlo Park's USGS — the same folks he thanks for helping in his studies. After all, their office is on alluvial soil about eight miles from Portola Valley, and they undoubtedly live in the area. It apparently did not occur to Winchester to ask them what they feel about that risk.
I'll take the certitude of a quake and its consequent increase in my mortality over living elsewhere, thank you.
Personally, I think there’s an epidemic of annoyances around.
The authors of this book, Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman (both of NPR’s Science Friday) telPersonally, I think there’s an epidemic of annoyances around.
The authors of this book, Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman (both of NPR’s Science Friday) tells us in their teaser video (on their website at annoyingbook.com) that there seems to be an equation:
annoying = unpleasant + unpredictable + temporary
which seem to be the key ingredients.
I’m pretty certain from my own experiences that they’re missing something there, and I suspect it’s because there are multiple types of annoyances. What isn’t in their equation is the problem of disappointed expectations.
Sure, the scraping of fingernails down down a chalkboard is irritating, but it usually misses that other aspect. What their equation doesn’t explain very well is the annoyance of the sidewalk — you’re moving along efficiently down a city sidewalk and suddenly you come across a group of people two or three abreast, causally strolling at an a snail’s pace and oblivious to the fact that they are blocking the path. Or that person who unlocks their bicycle from a post and leans it against their body so it blocks that same sidewalk until they finish their little chore. Or the motorcyclist who doesn’t care how staggeringly and obnoxiously loud their exhaust note is on a city street, or the driver that leans on a horn in a parking garage, again oblivious to how it affects anyone other than themselves.
The annoyances I feel more often are based in people’s all-to-frequent insensitivity to the effect of their actions on others when I think they should know better.
Did Palca and Lichtman capture that side of annoying, or only the superficial stuff?
Gary Taubes, the author of Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, wrote a moderately lengthy article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on AprilGary Taubes, the author of Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, wrote a moderately lengthy article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on April 17, 2011, with the title “Is Sugar Toxic?” The evidence seems to be accumulating steadily that the amount of sugar that the average American consumes is profoundly unhealthy, and the article does a very good job explaining why.
I’m not sure if that article covers the same grounds as this book, but I can very briefly recap the article:
• Increasing sugar consumption is highly correlated with diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and some cancers.
• Granulated “table” sugar—sucrose—consists of one molecule of glucose bound to one molecule of fructose; that pairing is easily broken, leaving one molecule of each. High-fructose corn syrup (“HFCS”) consists of roughly half each of those same two molecules, and all the evidence is that there is no caloric or metabolic difference between the two forms. Plain corn syrup, on the other hand, is effectively just glucose—no fructose.
• Glucose can be metabolized by any cell in the body whereas, with few exceptions, fructose must be metabolized in the liver. Therein lies, apparently, a key difference. When the liver is presented with fructose, it preferentially metabolizes it, dramatically elevating insulin and related hormones.
• A high steady intake of fructose (either from sucrose or HFCS) means that insulin is elevated too often, leading to insulin resistance.
• Fructose is also sometimes thought of as the fruit sugar. Whole fruits still have fiber, which apparently slows down intestinal absorption so much that it doesn't overwhelm the liver the way a soda does. But fruit juices? Yeah, sorry — rip out the fiber and you’re once again sucking down nothing but sugar water with a bit of “health halo effect” vitamins.
• Insulin resistance is linked to heart disease (and other, related, disorders associated with a poor glycemic balance), and metabolic syndrome.
• A thickening waistline is the visible indicator of metabolic syndrome.
• Insulin is a growth factor in tumor production, which provides one likely explanation for why rising cancer levels have correlated strongly with the rise in sugar consumption for the past hundred and fifty years.
The video that Taubes links to, by the UCSF scientist Robert Listig, is also well worth watching, even if you don’t read the book. It presents the example that a teenage boy’s caloric intake, on average, has gone up in five years (from 1990 to 1995) a total of 275 calories per day. Where is that from? Not fat, so much — that represents only 45 calories out of the total. “In fact, it’s all in the carbohydrates.” That would be an increase of 228 calories per day. Where is that coming from?
Mostly soda. One can of Coca Cola or other soft drink is about 150 calories. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the other standardized container is the 20-ounce plastic bottle. Unless someone is addicted to the 44-ounce “Big Gulp” style. Or, especially disheartening: a “Texas-sized Big Gulp” is reported to consist of a 60-ounce Coca Cola, a Snickers bar and a bag of Doritos, all for 99¢.
Profoundly important, and profoundly depressing, since this trend doesn’t look likely to be reversed any time soon.
I hope the book goes into more detail on metabolic and biochemistry. I fondly remember the Krebs Cycle from my high school physiology class, and I really like knowing the science behind all this stuff.
For those of you just looking for the highlights, read the New York Times article, and then watch the video. If you can't be bothered to watch Robert Lustig's 90-minute long video, you could download a 52-minute interview with Lustig from KQED's Forum program: Sugar and Health.
Mark Hertsgaard wrote an essay for The Nation: Hurricane Sandy as Greek Tragedy which provides yet more evidence of our world's slow-motion train wreck. The name of the hurricane provides the most poignant and realistic note:
Sandy is short for Cassandra, the Greek mythological figure who epitomizes tragedy. The gods gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy; depending on which version of the story one prefers, she could either see or smell the future. But with this gift also came a curse: Cassandra’s warnings about future disasters were fated to be ignored. That is the essence of this tragedy: to know that a given course of action will lead to disaster but to pursue it nevertheless.
Hertsgaard states that “There are signs of hope” — but his threshold must be abysmally low. Does he really believe that “Especially in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there is no reason to continue disregarding scientists’ warnings about where our current path leads”? Of course, there are plenty of reasons, and he knows what they are. There is plenty of money behind the push to deny this, and huge portions of the American demos have passively chosen to believe there is a controversy, either because the issue is tied strongly to their other ideological positions, or because it is more convenient to be too busy to worry about such long-term problems.
Hertsgaard again has the wrong attitude and the wrong tone of voice. This message might be a bit more persuasive if it were delivered in tones of a thundering Mosaic condemnation from Mount Sinai. Because he leavens his message with unwarranted optimism, his message and the tragedy are both left easy to ignore.
Back to my original review —
• • • • •
Mark Hertsgaard’s book covers a lot of ground, and I’d argue that in the coming years there is no more important topic that anyone could study. This book is a decent start, but in the end I was disappointed — primarily because he was too optimistic.
All of the accumulated evidence is that we are so far from any significant mitigation of global warming that it as if someone is writing the script for a very black comedy of errors. But Hersgaard ends in an upbeat mood, asserting that we’ll do this, because… well, because we have to. The alternative is too horrendous to contemplate.
The problem with that prognosis is two-fold. First, even people that believe global warming is taking place seldom have examined how very nasty the latter half of the twentieth century will probably be. Sure, some cautionary descriptions have floated around, but even picking a single example hides the panoramic sweep of the changes and the trauma. Much like looking at the aftermath of a hurricane or tsunami through a telescope, you only examine details by losing the ability to see everything else.
Second, collective action is naturally slow in coming when the costs of change will undoubtedly be high. Deniers have been criminal in making things worse by sowing doubt when there really is very little doubt. A reasonable prediction is that people won’t agree on the need for real action until much later in the game. A few hundred deaths from a clutch of tornadoes here, a few billion dollars in damage from hurricanes there, climbing food scarcity due to floods here and droughts there — it will all get shrugged off as just plain bad luck for another decade or more. And by that time…
Hertsgaard has a very well-chosen framing narrative here (although, as other reviewers have noted he gets too bathetic, especially towards the end of the book). He has recently become a father, and there is some cognitive dissonance between the horror story he keeps finding as he has researched this book, and the warm and happy feelings he has when he looks at his young daughter. He’s right to worry. In her anticipated lifespan she could easily witness changes that dramatically reduce any expectation she has for a pleasant life.
It’s too bad that this book hasn’t told the bad side of that story. Many pages were devoted to how, for example, a few tiny parts of the United States and other wealthy countries have made baby steps towards adaptation. And more pages turn to how difficult it is to prepare. But while he notes out that “floods kill thousands, drought can kill millions,” but he doesn’t go much deeper. Drought is potentially a problem in so many parts of the world that he should probably warn about tens of millions of deaths. And once people start seeing that, do we really expect them to peacefully beg for help? Water wars have been a hot topic of study in international relations for many years now — where are the interviews regarding that? With climate change triggering food scarcity, these problems are likely to cascade upon one another.
The book’s single instance of humor is inadequately dark: “You know the joke, don’t you? Under climate change the future is definitely going to be wetter. Or drier. Unless it’s both.”
I think the only honest conclusion is that the future is definitely going to be wetter, drier and much deadlier.
Three stars seems a bit paltry, because I like Lehrer as an author, but it does, after all, mean “I liked it.”
I like the idea of what this book couldThree stars seems a bit paltry, because I like Lehrer as an author, but it does, after all, mean “I liked it.”
I like the idea of what this book could have been more than the actual execution. In our bookclub meeting, someone suggested a better title might have used a question mark: Proust Was a Neuroscientist?, but I think a better idea would have been to drop the “w”: Proust as a Neuroscientist. Lehrer traces the history, personal development and impact of each artist’s contribution and points out how those advances presaged much later changes in our understanding of cognition.
The idea that artistic revolution might intuit things that scientists hadn’t yet noticed is wonderful; showing such foreshadowing is the pleasant core of this book. What I didn’t like was when Lehrer presented the artists as actually understanding cognition or neuroscience. So he claims that Proust spent so much time and effort examining his flawed memories that he “understood how the brain worked”, and his ”hypothesis”, “model” and “theory of memory” have since been ratified by contemporary science.
Our current culture is atrociously science-averse. Lehrer’s assertion that these artists really are cryptoscientists diminishes science in service of further glorifying select artists. Although radical insights and creative explosions are the visible highlights of scientific endeavors, they are precisely what is shared by every creative field, and focusing on them as the sine qua non of science is precisely what is misleading. Science is the drudgery of data gathering, experimental replication and hypothesis testing. Most of it is, necessarily, ”little science” in Kuhn’s paradigmatic scenario: not glorious at all. Lehrer’s eight revolutionary artists were not engaged in science, but radical creativity. Look to inventors like Nikola Tesla or Alexander Graham Bell, perhaps, as their equivalents.
In Lehrer’s final chapter, he repeats C.P. Snow’s lament at the divide between art and science. Frankly, I’m a bit of a heretic on that point; I think the divide is as natural as that between, say, shoe-making and ice cream production. Science and art are both important to our society, but that does not mean they have a natural touching point. When Lehrer attempts to build a bridge between these two domains, he diminishes some important points and emphasizes lesser points, inevitably to the detriment of one field or the other — which is precisely what he complains in his afterword what science popularizers often do.
This is a pleasant book to read, especially if you re-imagine it as a book showing artists intuiting and foreshadowing later research into neuroscience or cognition. That might not be quite as grand as Lehrer had intended, however.
This book starts out with incredible energy and strength — the opening chapters breeze by with delightful tales of discovery. But it slows down halfwaThis book starts out with incredible energy and strength — the opening chapters breeze by with delightful tales of discovery. But it slows down halfway through as the stories get pulled farther from the chemistry of the elements themselves. The twists of the early discoveries are more personal, while the later ones are more abstract.
And while those earliest chapters would make this a great tool for making chemistry more entertaining to learn, unfortunately that pedagogical advantage isn’t sustained.
Still, a fun book to read — and very educational, obviously. ...more
Mary Roach now has a lock on a certain kind of book. Science is her beat, and her shtick is to make it funny —often hilariously funny. But be forewarnMary Roach now has a lock on a certain kind of book. Science is her beat, and her shtick is to make it funny — often hilariously funny. But be forewarned: her take on “funny” means she is going to violate any taboo that gets in the way of making you cringe and groan at the same time you laugh.
In Packing for Mars, she’s tightened her focus. No more creepy, no more titillating, just funny in that juvenile way of hers. She asks the questions that any “mature” adults would never dare ask, and then begs for the juicy details. I’m sure many of the people she interviews are non-plussed at how to respond; those that don't know her previous work probably think she’s a kook. She appears to be okay with that.
As usual, much of her funniest asides come in the form of footnotes. Here’s one, from the chapter on NASA’s research on how to best, er, replicate what toilets do in the absence of gravity. It turns out that NASA has saved the “output” of astronauts for years...
Astronaut specimens from the Skylab and Apollo eras are still around, in freezers on the top floor of a windowless high-security building at Houston's Johnson Space Center—the one that houses NASA's collection of (non-biological) moon rocks. “I’m not sure what our inventory of excreta from Apollo is right now,” John Charles told me. “Forty years of freezing, with occasional thaws due to power outages during hurricanes, may have reduced them to mere vestiges of their former glory.” They were there as of 1996, because planetary biologist Ralph Harvey stumbled onto them when he got lost taking a group of VIPs on a tour. “Back then all the doors opened to the same code,” he recalls. “I opened this one door and it was almost like the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. There were these rows of long, low freezers. They all had a little light on them that’s blinking, and a temperature readout, and a piece of tape with the astronaut’s name. I’m like, Shit, they stored the astronauts in there! and I quickly got the people out. I found out later that was where they stored the astronaut feces and urine.” Harvey can’t recall the room number. “You have to stumble onto it, that’s the only way you can find it. It’s like Narnia.”
• • •
See the review at the New York Times: Astral Bodies (August 6, 2010).
(Mentioned in V.S. Ramachandran'sPhantoms in the Brain; apparently it includes an explanation from Richard Feynman regarding why we perceive mirrors(Mentioned in V.S. Ramachandran'sPhantoms in the Brain; apparently it includes an explanation from Richard Feynman regarding why we perceive mirrors "flipping" images from left to right, but not top to bottom. "How does the mirror know?" asks the child to the discomfited parent. "And while we're at it, why is the sky blue?".)...more
With global warmingclimate change, malaria will undoubtedly return to the United States, so this looks like a good book to preview coming attractions. As the New York Times reports, Dengue fever is already back in Florida and likely to move up the eastern seaboard, and — astonishingly — the United States Centers for Disease Control is closing its “vector-borne” disease branch:
The disease centers confirmed that the 2011 budget does eliminate financing for the “vector-borne” disease branch, which tracks dengue, West Nile virus, plague, encephalitis and other illnesses carried by insects.
Is malaria one of these “other illnesses carried by insects”? Itching minds want to know...
Note: malaria is carried by mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles, whereas dengue, as well as yellow fever and Chikungunya come courtesy of the genus Aedes. Both genii survive in North America, and these diseases are almost non-existent becase "transmission has been interrupted through successful control/elimination programs", per the CDC. However, as temperatures rise, "transmission will be more intense" and will be "transmitted year-round". Combined with declining budgets, declining scientific awareness and the many other critical problems "climate change" is likely to bring, it seems like a good bet that malaria (et al) will become endemic in the southern United States. ...more
Dunno if I'll make the time to read this. That 'Muricans are getting really bad at dealing with science is a truism; as someone whose daily entertainmDunno if I'll make the time to read this. That 'Muricans are getting really bad at dealing with science is a truism; as someone whose daily entertainment time budget leans heavily towards science podcasts, I don't need any more lessons in how true this is.
But I can immediately see at least four reasons why this might be so, and other reviews inform me that the authors have ignored what I suspect are the most problematic.
First, does our education system do a decent job of laying the foundation? No, but that's old news and this book apparently doesn't focus on it.
Second, do the scientific elites and their partisans do a good job of fighting for part of the spastic 'Murican attention span? er, probably not, and this seems to be what this book is about.
But: third, are there fundamental reasons why scientific awareness is declining? Well, yes: complexity is way up; and since humans unconsciously shy away from high-cost/low-reward endeavors, that complexity means more and more folks will implicitly free-ride on the expertise of others. Expecting scientific literacy is increasingly unwise. Has the educational establishment (1, above) and the scientific outreach community (2, above) recognized this trend? Perhaps this is, indeed, dealt with in the book, but I haven't seen mention of it.
And: fourth, has the sociology of the West shifted to make this even more problematic? About sixty years ago sociologists were struggling to define and describe changes that seem to have been leading indicators of such a shift (viz., Riesman's The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character). A century ago most science was understandable by lay-folk, but more importantly the economy was production-oriented, so the whole question of "How Things Work" was widely germane. Since WWII we've shifted to a consumer-driven economy, which is fundamentally more interested in "What Are the Cool Kids Buying?" This question is essentially an a-rational one, so the trend is inimical to a perceived need for careful rational thought.
Clearly, if the last trend is real and significant, progress on the other three questions will be ephemeral.
I'd be interested in a book that deals with all of this, but that is asking a lot. Scientific educators already have so much on their plates that their ability to deal with the meta is limited...