If you don’t read XKCD or Munroe’s weekly “What If?” column over at xkcd.com, you’re really missing out. This book collects some of the best What If cIf you don’t read XKCD or Munroe’s weekly “What If?” column over at xkcd.com, you’re really missing out. This book collects some of the best What If columns, plus adds a bunch of new ones. It’s a simple premise: people ask Munroe questions like “Can dropping a steak through the atmosphere cook it by means of the re-entry burn?” or “What’s the highest a person can throw something?” or “How long could I swim in a cooling pool storing nuclear waste before I died?” And he answers the questions in very funny ways.
The best part of the book is the repeating feature “Disturbing Questions from the What If? Inbox,” in which people ask things like the best way to chop up a body or how many nuclear bombs it would take to wipe out the US. I imagine they think these are innocent questions (and they probably are) but Munroe rightly recognizes the problems with them, and pokes fun.
There’s not a lot else to say about the book. It’s great, very entertaining. And Wil Wheaton’s narration is great, though it’s pretty “Wil Wheaton-y,” so I imagine that if you didn’t like Wheaton or his performative style (as seen on, say, Tabletop), you probably wouldn’t like his narration. The other down-side to the audio book is that you don’t get to see Munroe’s great pictures, of which there are many in the physical book.
Mary Roach’s latest book explores the digestive process, from beginning to end, looking at what scientists think and have thought, what they study, anMary Roach’s latest book explores the digestive process, from beginning to end, looking at what scientists think and have thought, what they study, and how they go about it. It’s great, as usual, with lots of funny moments. A few thoughts:
- People are generally fine with their own saliva, as long as it’s in their mouth. As soon as it has left their mouth, it’s gross. For instance, they’re far less interested in eating a bowl of soup into which they have spit than one they haven’t. - Roach gave plenty of room to Alexis St. Martin and Dr. William Beaumont, the former being a man with a fistulated stomach and the latter being the doctor who used the stomach to experiment with digestion, whether or not St. Martin wanted to do so. Particularly of note for us as Beaumont was the military doctor at the U.S. fort on Mackinac Island, which we visited this summer (and where I first learned about Beaumont, though mostly in a positive light). - As with the book on astronauts, there is a long section on flatus and the people who study it. Flatus samples are now often collected via special mylar ‘pantaloons’ taped at the waist and legs, with a valve for harvesting the samples. - Elvis probably died from having a gigantic colon, something that happens after a lifetime of constipation. His lifetime battle with this condition is part of why the Graceland bathroom was so well appointed. The King spent a lot of time on his throne. - The section on coprophegia, animals that eat their own waste, was equal parts gross and fascinating. Not only do rabbits and rats perform this most yucky of acts, it’s essential to their digestive practice. For instance, there are bacteria in the colon of rats that release vitamins which the rat can only absorb in the small intestine, thus the food must make a second pass through the system.
Once again, Emily Woo Zeller does a fine job with the book, giving a wry twist to many of the more amusing passages and really Roach’s perspective. Another fascinating book in the continuing line of science writing from Mary Roach. A winner!...more
Clark explores the history of modern astronomy and its study of the sun, building his tale around Richard Carrington, whose name has been applied to tClark explores the history of modern astronomy and its study of the sun, building his tale around Richard Carrington, whose name has been applied to the event he documented, a solar flare sending its plasma directly at the Earth. Carrington happened to be lucky, documenting a sun spot just when it erupted, and thus making the intuitive leap to understand the relationship between the flare and the magnetic storm that disrupted worldwide communications and set fire to telegraph offices over the next couple days.
Clark does a great job telling us about the lives of these early astronomers, who often struggled for financial and institutional support. Science in this era was often a gentleman’s hobby, something only the wealthy could do because it literally did not pay. He tells dramatic stories of astronomers who traveled around the world to observe solar eclipses, of the arguments over the nature of the sun and its surface, and the means by which the field narrowed its ideas and honed in on the truth.
The Sun Kings is a great piece of science writing, well worth reading. Alas, it is somewhat like The Great Influenza, which also explained the disastrous effect its subject had on the world. Both books note, almost as an horrific afterthought, that if these events were to happen again, we would find ourselves in a world of hurt. In the case of a Carrington event, we would likely see massive infrastructure failures, with electric surges knocking out information systems and power grids and causing trillions in damages.
So now I have four things to worry about how nature might kill us like mosquitoes on its ass: the Yellowstone Supervolcano, another Great Influenza, world-killing asteroids, and now Carrington events. (I’m not including, of course, the various ways our species might commit suicide through war, environmental degradation, or technological apocalypse.)...more
Rosalind Franklin is most remembered now as the unsung fourth contributor who found the evidence for Watson and Crick’s double-helix paper in the earlRosalind Franklin is most remembered now as the unsung fourth contributor who found the evidence for Watson and Crick’s double-helix paper in the early 1950s. A brilliant experimentalist, Franklin actually made advances in three significant areas in her short life (she died of cancer at the age of 37): the understanding of coal, the shape of the DNA molecule, and the way RNA functions inside viruses.
A few notes about Maddox’s book and this remarkable scientist:
Franklin’s specialty was x-ray photography, a science that was used to analyze the shape of molecules and particles somehow. Thankfully, Maddox spends very little time on the minutiae of how these discoveries work, focusing instead on explaining the broad outlines of what Franklin discovered. She made her name in this field by studying coal, particularly in her discovery that there were some kinds of coal that never turned into graphite no matter how hot they were heated. In the last four years of her life, Franklin made big advances in the study of viruses, findings that ultimately may have been more significant for the fact that they weren’t at such a heated centerpoint of debate. Indeed, someone else would have proven the double-helix within a short time if Franklin hadn’t been doing that work. Her virus work was more singular. Franklin has been characterized as abrupt and cold, aggressive and unable to converse easily. At the same time, she’s described as caring and heartfelt, passionate and humane. While these perspectives seem at odds, Maddox describes most of the abrupt personality as tied to her workplace demeanor, while her warmer side was reserved for casual time. Maddox suggests that her upbringing fostered a defensiveness that may have contributed to this persona she adopted. (Apparently, Franklin was particularly sensitive to anything she thought was anti-Semitic, even if the suspicions were groundless.) In the last couple years of her life, Franklin gained significant recognition for her work, and did two tours of the US, where she met scientists in labs all over the country. I was interested to read that she spent some time at Cold Spring Harbor, which was the research home for Barbara McClintock in that same era. I like to imagine that they met one another.
The most debated period of her life stems from her short stint at King’s college, where she and a postgrad were working on x-ray photography of DNA. At the same time, Watson and Crick were up the street at Cambridge, trying to model the structure of DNA. Franklin’s colleague at King’s, Wilkins, was also working on the problem, but didn’t have Franklin’s technical skill with x-ray photography. Thus, when he wanted her to collaborate with him and share information with Watson and Crick, she became defensive and territorial, feeling like a less talented superior was trying to mooch her hard-won data. Her approach was that models could not prove anything, thatdata was needed in order to prove their case, so she pursued her data. Then Wilkins shared her data with Watson and Crick without her permission, when it was quite clear that she would not have wanted him to. Her data led to their breakthrough, and within months they had staked their claim to the theory.
While she and Wilkins were acknowledged as contributors in the notes of their paper, Watson and Crick didn’t give them co-author status. But while Franklin may have felt upset, Maddox points out that she didn’t seem to have any particular anger or grudge over the issue. Indeed, she was just happy to get away to Birkbeck and begin her research on viruses. In the years between Watson and Crick’s paper (March 1953) and her own death (April 1958), she carried on a friendly correspondence with both Watson and Crick, going so far as to spend time in a social context with each and maintain a rather hearty work relationship with Watson.
This continued collegiality makes what happened after Franklin’s death so strange. When Watson wrote his novelistic adventurous tale, The Double Helix, Rosalind appears as a shrewish hoarder, obstinately refusing to share her data but also intellectually incapable of making proper use of it, practicallyforcing Watson and Crick to sneak a peek. Both Crick and Watson maintained, for a long time, a recognition that her data was crucial to their solution, but withholding proper credit for her work. Other people in the community were shocked and angered at this portrayal and have, in various places, defended her vigorously; so much so, in fact, that she has become very well known for the unfair treatment she had from Watson and Crick. Maddox suggests that perhaps their portrayals of her stem from a deep unresolved guilt about having used her data without her knowledge, and then never really getting the chance to share that credit later on.
Maddox does a great job of presenting Franklin’s life in an even-handed way. She’s fair to Watson without flinching at his missteps and lies, but she also acknowledges where Franklin’s own personality foibles exacerbated occasional problems with colleagues. This is an excellent book, a strong biography with good storytelling and research. The second half is better than the first, starting about the time she arrives at King’s college (no surprise that the controversy is the most interesting, I suppose)....more
Set just after the civil war in Boston, Daniel Pearl's The Technologists follows the adventures of several students at the recently-founded MassachuseSet just after the civil war in Boston, Daniel Pearl's The Technologists follows the adventures of several students at the recently-founded Massachusetts Institute of Technology as they grapple with a madman attacking with plagues of science. Pearl does a great job building a convincing environment for his story, using both real and fictional figures throughout his story. A few thoughts:
- Pearl constructs a solid mystery built on convincing and realistic characters. We get reasonable sketches of their motivations and enjoy the interplay between them. The four main characters, Marcus, Edwin, Bob, and Ellen, each have their own quirks, and these play off one another nicely when they get together. - The environment of Boston itself comes alive in the story, from the bustling financial district where the second attack occurs (early in the book) to the undeveloped "Back Bay" where M.I.T.'s new building stood among the mudflats and undeveloped space newly claimed from the water. - I love the history of M.I.T. itself -- the conflict between science and people was really ramping up after the Civil War, and Pearl captures perfectly the divided perspective people have about science--they're suspicious of the technology they don't know, and blissfully blind to how much they depend on the rest of it. I couldn't help but think of recent developments, particularly in terms of medicine, where people trumpet both advancement in biological sciences and then scorn the basis of those advancements (Evolutionary theory). - Very Minor Spoiler: The terror attacks are carefully researched and creative. I have no idea how technically accurate they are, but given the care with which Pearl crafts the rest of his narrative, I can't imagine that he'd propose implausible technologies for the attacks. The villain does have a touch too much mobility/reach for a single person (along the lines of the Joker in The Dark Knight), but otherwise the story works pretty well. - I also appreciated Pearl's careful use of class conflict throughout the novel. We Americans like to imagine ourselves part of an classless society, at least in terms of people "knowing their station," but Pearl reminds us that we haven't always been so opposed to the idea that people should stay where they were. The novel also broaches the question of technological knowledge as power -- if just anyone can get access to science, then undesirable types, with low moral character, would get too much power. We have, of course, come to see the value of widespread education as a positive thing, but Pearl grapples with the essential question of the power technology gives us over one another. As we become ever-more-interconnected, we become more interdependent, and more vulnerable to one another. (I'd argue we become stronger together too, but there it is.)
Pearl also discusses the relationship between technological innovation, science, education, and capitalism. To whit, one rant from a character:
How long before all industry finds itself bankrupt? 10 years from now, it will not be a question of how many men you employ, but only how many ideas you own. With the inventions to come the railroad and the telegraph will seem as silly and prosaic to your sons as stagecoaches do to you.... Imagine the public in control of the railroad. Imagine each citizen with a steam engine of his own. A telegraph wire at his disposal at his parlor table. A vast Pandora's box that would be opened by the destructive decisions and incompetence. Corporations manage the forces of science for the benefit, for the safety of all. To grant free access to technology? That is the fatal danger.
Such has long been the worry of most or many technologies, no? Technology is power, and providing access to it takes power away from those who'd formerly held that power. Pearl constructs the build-up to this discussion well, so it doesn't feel forced or heavy-handed.
Stephen Hoye does a fine job throughout the novel, using East Coast accents where applicable without overdoing it, developing easily-distinguished voices to use. The Technologists isn't an amazing book -- it's not quite as good, in my thinking, Pearl's The Dante Club, but it's darn impressive nonetheless....more
Blum’s non-fiction narrative follows the careers of Charles Norris and Andrew Gettler, two pioneering scientists working as New York’s head Medical ExBlum’s non-fiction narrative follows the careers of Charles Norris and Andrew Gettler, two pioneering scientists working as New York’s head Medical Examiner and Toxicologist, respectively. Blum uses Norris and Gettler to guide us through a discussion of the way pathology and science became part of the legal system, focusing especially on the chemistry and discovery of different poisons, the way they function, and how they came to be detectible.
A few thoughts:
- Norris earned a reputation not just as a good medical examiner, but as a defender of peoples’ rights and an advocate for quality care through three practices that had nothing to do with his expertise as a scientist. First, he cleared the old autopsy system of all its corruption by establishing solid rules for what procedures should be followed. Second, he advocated strongly for public policies about chemicals and poisons that would save lives, even when the policies he was arguing for were unpopular. Third, he spent a lot of his own money on equipment for the office so his examiners could do their jobs. - I hadn’t heard much about the case of the watch dial girls, but it was really interesting to learn how the first victims of radiation poisoning and industry wrestled over who was at fault. The most egregious part, to my mind, was that when the young women whose bones were literally crumbling because they’d inhaled so much radium sued, the company delayed for three years, then argued that the statute of limitations had run out on the poisoning. The judge didn’t agree. - I can’t see why people would choose poison as a way to kill themselves — almost all the poisons are awful ways to go — arsenic and cyanide particularly. The least painful seems to be carbon monoxide, if you can call suffocating “least painful.” - When Blum tells the stories of poisoners, their motives often seem pretty shabby (though I guess money is the primary reason people kill). I found the long history of the “arms race” between toxicologists and poisoners particularly interesting. In the past, it was extremely difficult to catch poisoners, so much so that the French named White Arsenic “The Inheritance Powder.” - The discussion of prohibition was particularly interesting. Apparently, because alcohol was still needed for industrial purposes, it was still manufactured throughout the country. This industrial alcohol was poisoned by the government with the idea that people wouldn’t drink it if they thought it could kill them. Instead, they died in record numbers. Mostly, though, it was the poor drinkers would couldn’t afford safer (and legal) ethyl alcohol (the chemical in spirits today); instead they drank methyl alcohol (made from wood instead of grain) mixed with various flavorings. This drink, sometimes called ‘smoke,’ killed an awful lot of people.
Coleen Marlo does a nice job narrating the text, though I couldn’t help but smile at the heavy New York accent she gives Gettler when quoting him (NOTE: there’s no reason to think her accent isn’t absolutely correct, I just thought it was a funny disconnect from the language of the others). The Poisoner’s Handbook is an excellent book, full of intriguing detail and interesting facts, but also knee deep in science and history. Well worth the read....more
Once again, Bryson turns his hand to something new (he’s written travel books, history, language, memoir, and now science!). Of course, he does it witOnce again, Bryson turns his hand to something new (he’s written travel books, history, language, memoir, and now science!). Of course, he does it with aplomb and skill, not to mention a heavy dose of humor. A Short History of Nearly Everything functions like a quick primer of the state of science circa 2002. It’s a little dated in certain parts (as in the discussion of DNA, the last eight years have actually revealed a lot), but overall it’s really interesting. He writes about cosmology, astronomy, geology, vulcanology, platetechtonics, climatology, biology, chemistry, evolution, and paleontology, among others. Skipping from discovery to discovery, he traces out key ideas through key thinkers, giving us plenty to think about in how they worked and what they were like. It’s a delight. A few extra thoughts, mostly in the form of fun stuff I’ve now learned:
- Huge ecosystem-shaking planet strikes from meteors are very common, from a geological standpoint; at least every 100k years or so. Ice Ages also happen pretty regularly, and the super volcano under Yellowstone that erupts every 650k years hasn’t erupted for 650k years. - There have been a lot of petty, mean scientists mixed in with the nice ones. I was especially irritated to learn how badly Rosalind Franklin, one of the four scientists most responsible for discovering DNA’s double-helix, had been treated. I’ve decided to read the 2002 biography of her for Ada Lovelace day. - After documenting all the ways human beings, particularly 19th Century naturalists, had caused the extinction of numerous species, Bryson writes something to the effect of “If a divine creator were to select a species to husband and care for all the other species on Earth, it could hardly to worse than to choose human beings.” - While many of the discussions of geology and astronomy and physics were interesting, I found the life sciences sections most rewarding. When he starts to write about evolution, he lays out all the ways evolution depends on “random chance” to assemble its creatures, then he reveals that this is a creationist misinterpretation, and demolishes it. - Looking at the large mammals who lived not so long ago, he remarks that there used to be “guinea pigs the size of rhinoceroses and rhinoceroses the size of two story houses.” Also, the era just after the KT event that killed the dinosaurs could quite reasonably be called the age of the turtle after its most diverse and dominant species.
Richard Matthews brings a fine solemnity to the proceedings, cracking Bryson’s jokes with what you can be sure is a straight face....more
In Packing for Mars, you will learn how much volume of flatus a burrito causes the average human to expel, you will learn that Russian scientists reguIn Packing for Mars, you will learn how much volume of flatus a burrito causes the average human to expel, you will learn that Russian scientists regularly smuggle alcohol aboard to bribe cosmonauts to conduct their experiments carefully, and you’ll join Mary Roach as she digs through archives both astronomical and pornographic in an attempt to learn whether humans have ever had sex in space. As with her previous books, Roach takes us on a whirlwind tour of the people and places where research is being done, and uses her footnotes to keep us laughing throughout. A few thoughts:
- While it was interesting, this book scores higher on the grody scale than any of her previous books have done. I haven’t read Stiff, though. Spook had only the mildest grossouts, and Bonk‘s issues were challenges to my modesty rather than my stomach. Strangely, I thought the chapter on food prep was more disgusting than the chapter on evacuation. I think Roach intended it this way. - I love the bits of dialogue Roach includes from oral histories and tapes of crew conversations with mission control. Jim Lovell and his partner on the Gemini missions were particularly funny. - I listened to the audio of this book, so I wasn’t in danger of missing any of the footnotes. Be sure you consult them, if you read the physical book. They’re where she stashes her best comedic gems, like Groucho Marx mumbling asides to the audience. - I didn’t realize how much your body maximizes efficiency all the time. Apparently astronauts lose massive bone density and weight in ways that don’t completely heal. When there was a crash coming back from the ISS, they weren’t as much worried that the astronaut wouldn’t be able to get out of the capsule, but that when she did she’d break a hip running away. - I love the moments where Roach mentions her husband, who puts up with her science writing antics. I remember fondly the descriptions of talking him into joining her for intimate time in an MRI machine while she was writing Bonk. I’m not sure how that compares to having her store potable recycled (and purified) urine in their refrigerator.
Once again, Roach writes with intelligence, wit, and savvy about her science of choice. She covers a wide range of topics and speaks to scientists throughout the world. A great, entertaining read....more
For years, sailors have told tales of freak waves, three or four times the size of the surrounding waters. Dozens of ships disappear each year, oftenFor years, sailors have told tales of freak waves, three or four times the size of the surrounding waters. Dozens of ships disappear each year, often swamped without a sound or any warning by these freak waves. In The Wave, Casey chronicles two groups of people who pursue and study these waves — ocean scientists who want to understand the physics that create these strange waves, and big wave surfers who want to understand the core of their being by riding the biggest waves they can. A few thoughts:
Casey is a remarkable writer, deft in telling the stories of surfers and the ideas of scientists. She deploys an endless variety of descriptive adjectives and powerful images as she describes wave after wave after wave. She knows just the right balance to make between explanation and excitement, between description and action. While I found the science part of the book interesting and the shipwreck/ shipping stories compelling, the tales of surfers are both the core of the book and the most interesting part. Casey paints a strong picture of her main subject, Laird Hamilton, an early pioneer of tow-surfing (the process of being flung onto fast-moving gigantic waves by a jet ski) who believes more in the philosophy of big wave surfing than the commercial practice the industry has become. The utter destructive power of the freak waves Casey describes makes the prospect of sea travel absolutely frightening. When ships encounter these freak waves, they are overwhelmed and often sink with little or no warning or chance for lifeboats. Most distressingly, many of the ships are far past their sell-by date, being crewed by substandard captains and third-world crews. She also writes in very compelling–and terrifying–ways about the grim prospect of uber-tsunamis that threaten the coasts. These waves, which occur so rarely as to be unheard of by anyone NOT taking core samples, will sweep dozens of miles inland, scouring the ground. And there are some very populated places that are due. In Casey’s conversations with wave scientists, she regularly asked about whether we’re seeing changes in the oceans due to climate change. Pretty much every one of the scientists she spoke to hesitated–you could sense their gunshy language in talking to a writer about this–and then said that, yes, climate change is disrupting the oceans. Yes, the waves are getting bigger. I listened to The Wave as an audio book, so when I first heard about Hamilton’s big-wave method, I thought the term for it was toe surfing, referring somehow to the way one rides the board in big waves, or something. Casey quickly explains that the only way for a surfer to get moving fast enough to keep the pace of a big wave is to be towed by a jet-ski and launched onto the wave. Thus, it became clear to me that it was tow-surfing, not toe surfing. Despite this realization, I still heard toe surfing for most of the book.
As with Devil’s Teeth, Casey does a great job telling a complex tale involving science, adventure, and the ocean. It’s a solid read, well worth a listen....more
I already wanted to read Moneyball before I saw the film because I like Michael Lewis' The Big Short. After seeing the film, I just knew it would be tI already wanted to read Moneyball before I saw the film because I like Michael Lewis' The Big Short. After seeing the film, I just knew it would be the kind of book I'd enjoy. I had, after all, devoured Game of Shadows, and this book offered an even better discussion of baseball, cool science, internicene fighting, and a David vs. Goliath story. I wasn't disappointed. In case you haven't seen the movie and don't know the story, Lewis writes about Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics who began using a variety of statistical measures in the late 1990s and early 2000s to find "inefficiencies" in the baseball market, to determine who was being over-valued and who was being under-valued, and to do much better with his team than anyone thought was possible. A few thoughts:
As in The Big Short, Lewis' strength as a writer comes in knowing how to tell a complex story with lots of esoterica in ways that people not versed in that esoterica can understand and enjoy. He mixes the informational with the dramatic in precise ratios that drive the story along at a genius clip. I love the profiles of the individual athletes Beane recruited. In particular we see two hitters, Scott Hatteberg and Jeremy Brown, and one pitcher, Chad Bradford, whom Lewis uses to explain Beane's approach to recruiting and team-building. Bradford's story is particularly compelling, to my mind. He was a not-particularly talented pitcher who threw in a weird way, but after some coaching let that strange throwing style evolve into something really deadly to batters. Like Hatteberg and Brown, Bradford becomes a key figure in Oakland because his strange throwing style makes him look "weird." Lewis' chapter on statistics and their unwelcome place in Baseball is a masterful demonstration of how to craft compelling historical background for the reader. He describes Bill James' early Baseball Abstracts and explains how they introduce the scientific method into scouting by removing personal experience from the equation, then Lewis explains concisely and with convincing clarity why the baseball establishment was reluctant to follow that advice. At its heart, much of the struggle over Sabremetrics (the name given to the statistical study of baseball) comes down to the old conflict between jocks and nerds. Lewis explains how most baseball leadership are former baseball players, often people who got recruited into the farm system and then didn't make it much past that, but with plenty of former pros as well. Their image of the game is one of myth and elegance -- the scouting corps that drove recruiting before the book looked for players who looked good, and couldn't usually see past players who had other faults, like being fat or having a weird throw. The subtle point that arises in the book but Lewis doesn't hammer on is that management is a different skill than playing, and the idea that a manager must be a former player (or even should be one) might just be outdated. I enjoyed the film, but didn't think that much of it. In retrospect, the film is a good summary of the book, but the depth available to the longer-form nonfiction makes the narrative work better, in my opinion. The need for high drama to emerge in the 2-hour film undercuts a lot of the history and science that make the book compelling. The biggest failing of the film, to my mind, is the erasure of Paul DePodesta, Billy Beane's right-hand man who inspired the Jonah Hill character Peter Brand. The difference has to do with experience and position -- the film makes Billy Beane's discovery of Sabremetrics part of his meeting Brand, and a sudden decision, a kind of eureka moment. The book makes it evident that before Beane dove into the 2002 draft with the vigor the movie shows, he'd been working on this plan for a while, and Paul was a key part of the equation.
It's an excellent book, one I listened to very quickly and with an obsession that kept me finding chores to do that gave me book-listening time. As usual, Scott Brick brings emotion and clarity to the reading....more