The first third of this book is a lean and lucid summary of global finance. If you're like me, you might find the world of high finance intimidating aThe first third of this book is a lean and lucid summary of global finance. If you're like me, you might find the world of high finance intimidating and full of weird jargon. This section went a long way towards demystifying the financial world for me. (To give one example: I now know what the word "equity" means!)
The remaining 2/3rds of the book is devoted to a frequently engaging, but often under-cooked, treatise on how the financial sector might be "hacked" and put to work building a more just and sustainable world. The author uses hacking as a metaphor for a more constructive engagement with finance, as opposed to vaguer notions of "revolution" or "overthrow" that sometimes get tossed around.
In order to be a successful hacker you have to understand and engage with the system, something that environmentalists and social justice activists aren't very good at. This section has a number of fascinating ideas for how activists can hack into the financial system -- everything from going undercover at a bank to starting up a hedge fund and diverting the proceeds to affected communities. Groups like Platform London and Greenpeace have started to incorporate shareholder outreach into their climate activism, and concepts like "stranded assets" and "carbon bubbles" are commonly discussed in the business press. But this is uncharted territory for many. Many of the ideas could benefit from more detail and a tad more skepticism, but overall the book is a stimulating read....more
This book relates the long and twisty path from the discovery of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) in the late 1960s to their conclusive linkage with the deathsThis book relates the long and twisty path from the discovery of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) in the late 1960s to their conclusive linkage with the deaths of massive stars in the late 1990s. Along the way the author seems to have tracked down and interviewed every major researcher in the field (including my Ph.D. advisor) and hits all the important highlights (and most of the backalleyways and dead ends as well). Because gamma-ray astronomy must be done above the earth's atmosphere, this is also the story of 5 or 6 expensive satellite missions and the large collaborations that ran them, and as such, it's also an interesting look at the perils and politics of launching scientific instruments into space.
Since this was my field of research I've had a lot of experience explaining just what they heck GRBs are and why they are interesting. To the average layperson I think GRBs a reasonably interesting topic to talk about (explosions! black holes!) but it does have a lot of moving parts that need explaining before certain basic facts make sense (like: what's a gamma-ray?). The author does a pretty good job of explaining the physics, but I think the core story found here is about the sociology of science and the scientific process. Maybe more so than many other discoveries, the history of GRBs is a great example of how paradigm shifts work in science.
Anyway, those are my initial thoughts. Possibly more later......more
I read this when I was a kid (of course I did, because it perfectly combined two of my geeky obsessions) but I suspect a fair fraction flew over my heI read this when I was a kid (of course I did, because it perfectly combined two of my geeky obsessions) but I suspect a fair fraction flew over my head. Now, having studied quite a lot more physics, I can see that it's not really meant to be a popular treatment of the subject, so much as it is a first draft to a thorough technical analysis. As a result, it can be an intimidating read for layfolk, but also a fairly accurate window into how professional physicists attack new research problems.
The book opens with a blast of fluid dynamics, describing the flight of the baseball. By its nature, fluid dynamics is one of the more opaque sub-branches of physics -- the realm of turbulence, chaos and ad hoc empirical approximations. (Turbulence is one of the great unsolved problems in physics, and a solution to it could win you a cool million dollars.) It is a hard topic to present at the best of times but Adair actually does a pretty good job getting to the heart of why a curveball curves. The explanation could probably benefit from just a bit more exposition and explanation of basic concepts, and there are a few sentences here and there that leave you scratching your head, but a solid effort.
The later chapters on pitching and batting have more to do with materials and kinematics than fluid flow, and are less complicated but a bit duller and more repetitive. Much of the content of the book comes from simple models of throwing and hitting baseballs, based on likely approximations and squeezing information out of what little experimental data exists. When things get too dry, the author does his best to spice things up with baseball lore. In fact, one of the really cool things about the book is how he tries to address and assess the opinions and wisdom of pro baseball players, and provide explanations for many of the common features of the game....more
A fun and somewhat charming book of puzzles, presented as the story of the "omniheurist," Jacob Ecco, who solves puzzles and mysteries for wealthy cliA fun and somewhat charming book of puzzles, presented as the story of the "omniheurist," Jacob Ecco, who solves puzzles and mysteries for wealthy clients. The storyline is not super-compelling and when the puzzle is easy you kind of have to laugh at the idea of a rich businessman frantically hiring a reclusive genius to solve an undergrad-level combinatorics problem. Still some (not all) of the puzzles are pretty fun, touching on a wide range of computer science and applied math topics: networks, graphs, decision trees, encryption, etc. ...more
There are moments where the process of scientific discovery looks a lot like a fumble recovery play in football. The solution is right there in frontThere are moments where the process of scientific discovery looks a lot like a fumble recovery play in football. The solution is right there in front of you, bouncing in crazy directions, if you could only get your hands on it. In that light, the most revealing anecdote in Alan Guth's intellectual history of cosmic inflation is Steven Weinberg's reaction after learning of Guth's discovery: he allegedly cursed out loud and said he wished he had though of it himself.
Inflation is one of those ideas that is so elegant and useful that most working astronomers assume it (or something like it) must be true even without any direct observational evidence. (The recent BICEP2 discovery of a gravity wave signature in the CMB, if they survive the simmering controversy, would be the first direct evidence for inflation.) As Guth shows, inflation is a logical (or at least likely) consequence of the particle physics revolution of the late 1960s/early 1970s. As an added bonus, it elegantly solves several major conceptual problems with the standard Big Bang theory (the flatness, horizon and monopole problems). All of these ideas were floating around in the mid-70s, but it was Guth who put them all together in a seminal 1980 paper. (In the Soviet Union, the same ideas were advanced independently by Andre Linde and Alexei Starobinsky -- the 3 of whom shared the recent Kavli Prize for the discovery.)
To coherently explain inflation to a lay audience there is a large amount of introductory material that has to be addressed first -- general relativity and the standard Big Bang theory, along with quantum mechanics and the Standard Model of particle physics. Plus some advanced topics like the Higgs mechanism and topological defects. Thankfully Guth is a lucid writer and handles the material efficiently and cleanly. If the experimental discovery holds up, Guth and Co. will probably be heading to Stockholm in a few years and this will be the book every journalist is skimming to get up to speed....more
A gorgeous and fascinating book just to browse through. The gallery of data-graphics good, bad and ugly will be irresistible for anyone interested inA gorgeous and fascinating book just to browse through. The gallery of data-graphics good, bad and ugly will be irresistible for anyone interested in data analysis. The text is also worth reading and contains good advice for breaking out of the prison of Microsoft Excel and Powerpoint....more
If you saw the movie version of A Beautiful Mind and thought that its corny description of Nash equilibria left something to be desired, then this popIf you saw the movie version of A Beautiful Mind and thought that its corny description of Nash equilibria left something to be desired, then this popular treatment of game theory is an excellent next step. The book devotes some space to a biography of John von Neumann and a rushed history of post-WW2 nuclear politics, but the real highlights are the author's crisp and readable explanations of the major concepts of game theory -- chief among them the Minimax Theorem, the Prisoner's Dilemma, Tit-for-Tat, and the Dollar Auction. The book wisely confines itself to a narrow corner of the broad and diverse field of behavioral economics, which lets it go deeper with each idea. But it's hard not to feel intrigued by the unexplored paths branching off from game theory. I guess for that there are other books to read....more
A highly readable popular work on encryption, from the earliest substitution ciphers up through the Enigma machines of WWII, modern public-key encryptA highly readable popular work on encryption, from the earliest substitution ciphers up through the Enigma machines of WWII, modern public-key encryption, and the possibility of quantum computation. Singh's book is really a textbook piece of popular science writing. Pick a topic that is (1) highly technical, but also (2) romantic and exciting. (3) Identify an organizing scheme (here: the arms race between code-makers and code-breakers) that you can return to periodically and use that principle to lay out the (4) history *and* (5) provide a pedagogical introduction to the concepts. The author hits all highlights and unless you're already an expert you're very likely to learn something. This is of course not the first or necessarily the best book on cryptography, but it's a fun intro....more
A fairly technical and academic introduction to neotropical ecosystems. Happily it is also highly readable, consistently fascinating and even amusingA fairly technical and academic introduction to neotropical ecosystems. Happily it is also highly readable, consistently fascinating and even amusing in places. The highlight for me were the long, clear discussions of forest succession and evolutionary patterns in tropical rain forests. Less consistently engaging than Tropical Nature, but also more useful in case you actually wanted to identify that strange [tree, bird, bug, snake] you are looking at....more
The spiritual descendant of Rachel Carson's classic, Silent Spring. While the villains of Carson's book have mostly been banned (in the U.S. anyway),The spiritual descendant of Rachel Carson's classic, Silent Spring. While the villains of Carson's book have mostly been banned (in the U.S. anyway), the underlying dynamic that most concerned Carson continues: namely, that technological development outpaces our scientific understanding of technology's effects on human health and the environment. That we are, in effect, all guinea pigs in a great un-supervised experiment.
Our Stolen Future focuses on chemicals that are not acutely toxic nor necessarily carcinogenic. Rather they are endocrine disruptors that can either mimic or block the body's hormones. As the authors point out in case study after case study, the consequences of these chemicals are both potentially enormous and remarkably hard to study. For starters, endocrine disruptors upset the traditional toxicological maxim that the "dose makes the poison." For many of these chemicals it matters more when the dose is administered rather than how much it is. A minuscule dose of a certain substance delivered at just the right moment in the biological development process can cause remarkably large problems for the organism. And the evidence indicates that our environment is literally flooded with these chemicals, with consequences that we are only perceiving dimly.
The book is another fine example of good science writing, with clear and cogent chapters addressing the tragedy of the "DES daughters" or tracing the remarkable path of a PCB molecule as it bioaccumulates its way up the food chain. There's even a hermaphroditic beluga whale. The scientific field profiled here is one that is very much in its infancy -- pre-paradigmatic, as Kuhn would say -- which makes much of what is discussed somewhat speculative. The scientific picture has become somewhat clearer in the years since publication, although a coherent policy response remains years away....more
A data-driven look at how American consumers impact the environment, and hence, what the most effective steps are to reduce that impact. Woulda been 4A data-driven look at how American consumers impact the environment, and hence, what the most effective steps are to reduce that impact. Woulda been 4 stars but it's a bit outdated. The economy and the environment have changed a bit since 1999, so it would be cool to see an updated version, especially given the proliferation of internet-based advice (not all of it trustworthy).
Realizing that most people only have limited bandwidth available for changing their lifestyle to be more ecological, this book aims to identify the largest consumer impacts on the environment. The big ones turn out to be connected to driving a car, eating meat and heating your home. These aren't surprising results for anyone paying attention to the environment. But it is nice to see the results put into a comprehensive framework where you can compare the impact of owning a big car to eating steak weekly to buying paper napkins. They also tell you not to sweat the small stuff -- activities where the impact is small, or where the alternative is not significantly better. E.g. if you live in an area with water scarcity, go ahead and use plastic diapers; cloth isn't radically better, just a different set of problems.
There is a rhetorical divide within the environmental movement about whether to be optimistic or pessimistic when talking about environmental problems and solutions. This book falls squarely into the can-do, optimist camp. But they are careful not to state that consumer action alone will be sufficient to the task, and include a later chapter talking up the importance of government action and calling your Congressperson....more
The idea that profit-maximizing behavior by food companies might harm your health and your waistline is a more mainstream idea now than it was back inThe idea that profit-maximizing behavior by food companies might harm your health and your waistline is a more mainstream idea now than it was back in 2002 when Food Politics was first published. Skyrocketing obesity rates seem to have focused a lot of peoples' attention, and while there's no real consensus on what (if anything) we should do about it, corporate behavior is definitely on the radar screen. In one level it should be obvious that corporations exist to maximize profits and there's no law of physics that says what's good for the corporate bottom line is good for public health. Quite the contrary. However, as Marion Nestle makes clear, food companies are not quite the equivalent of tobacco companies, even if their tactics are similar. We still do need to eat, the challenge is to eat better, which is a subtler message than "Don't smoke, dummy."
Nestle touches on a wide-range of topics here: the Food Pyramid wars, lobbying, soda in schools, food supplement, techno-foods, etc. (See also her follow-up Safe Food.) The book can be a pretty dry in places and she resists the urge to demonize food corporations or simplify the issues at stake. She doesn't bring the writing style or conceptual gimmicks of a Michael Pollan. But she makes up for her lack of poetry in sheer overwhelming academic firepower. By all indications this is a researcher who has read every USDA Federal Register notice for the past several decades. She knows her stuff....more
A pretty entertaining read. Grann tells the tale of Percy Fawcett, an old-school British explorer who disappeared in the 1920s in the Amazon looking fA pretty entertaining read. Grann tells the tale of Percy Fawcett, an old-school British explorer who disappeared in the 1920s in the Amazon looking for the titular lost city. He weaves this together with stories of other obsessives who have followed in search of Fawcett, including the author himself, whose interest in the story leads him to visit the same region where Fawcett disappeared.
For me, the most interesting subtext of the book was the shifting scientific perspectives on the Amazon and its inhabitants -- from the fantastical initial accounts of the conquistadores to the age of scientific colonialism and up through the fascinating recent archaeological discoveries indicating that the region did in fact support advanced, centralized farming civilizations in the centuries before the Spanish arrival.
As others have noted, the ending is a little ridiculous. Grann's considerable showmanship slightly outstrips the content of the story, giving it the occasional feel of a poorly-produced reality TV show that keeps over-promising a big reveal at the end that it can't realistically deliver on. Perhaps this has something to do with how the book started out as a New Yorker article, before being expanded for publication. It's too bad, since the reveal at the end is actually pretty cool, from a scientific perspective....more
More first-rate science writing from Simon Singh. In this case he seems to have got in on the ground floor of the biggest mathematical discovery of thMore first-rate science writing from Simon Singh. In this case he seems to have got in on the ground floor of the biggest mathematical discovery of the century -- the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem by Andrew Wiles in 1994. Were it only for the reporting alone it would be worth a read, but Singh also does a creditable job of actually, you know, explaining the math. Unintimidated by Stephen Hawking's dictum that each equation reduces your sales by half, he succeeds by going big, delving as deep as he dares into the strategies of the many failed stabs at a proof, as well as Wiles' final triumph. I especially appreciated that Singh didn't shy away from the thorny abstraction of 20th century math, such as the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture at the heart of the proof. A great many popular books will touch on Pythagoras and Euclid, Gauss and Germain, Hilbert and Gödel, but it's rare to read about more recent work, much less predictions for the future of mathematics (probably because it is all quite difficult and hasn't yet filtered into the public understanding)....more
The best way to read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is as a species of Greek Tragedy -- whom the gods would overthrow, they first make great. In the 19The best way to read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is as a species of Greek Tragedy -- whom the gods would overthrow, they first make great. In the 1940s, the gods gave us humans mastery over organic chemistry, a tool of tremendous power, flexibility and usefulness. But pridefully we overreached, attempting to micro-manage the insect kingdom and assert control over the natural world. Inevitably our pride is overthrown as the unintended consequences of our actions accumulate and multiply. When it was published in 1962, Silent Spring captured the public imagination with stories of a poisoned environment, but the dramatic undercurrent is what has kept it relevant in the 50 years since. Were he alive to read it, Sophocles would be furiously taking notes.
It's common to say Silent Spring is the book that launched the environmental movement. Certainly there were environmentalists before Carson -- John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Henry David Thoreau -- but it wasn't until the late '60s, early '70s that you could really speak of a movement. Carson's best-seller was one of the catalysts of this movement, which led eventually to landmark legislation like the Clean Air Act and a greater public awareness of environmental issues.
Because of the successes of the environmental movement many of the specifics in the book are no longer relevant. Carson's primary villains are chemicals such as DDT, dieldrin, aldrin, heptachlor and others -- the so-called "Dirty Dozen" persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Most of these "first-generation" pesticides have been banned in the U.S. for decades (although some continue to be sold and used overseas). We are already seeing the fruits of these policies: in 2007 the Bald Eagle was removed from the Endangered Species List, thanks in no small part to the DDT ban.
Writing before the existence of large, systematic studies on the effects of pesticides, Carson relies heavily on anecdote, case studies and expert opinion. Some of the book is fairly speculative. Still it is remarkable how much she gets right. She identifies most of the themes that still trouble environmental policy today: bio-accumulation, persistence in the environment, effects on non-target species, evolving resistance to pesticides, the importance of biological controls, etc.
DDT may be (mostly) gone from our environment, but the central tension illustrated in Silent Spring remains with us in the age of climate change and other emergent environmental threats. Our ability to control and shape the natural world is greater than ever, but we are still profoundly ignorant of the richness and interconnectivity of that world, and as a result, we are vulnerable to the unintended consequences of our actions....more
It warms my astronomer heart to see someone write a pop science book about the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Of course the Hubble Space Telescope is the mIt warms my astronomer heart to see someone write a pop science book about the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Of course the Hubble Space Telescope is the media darling of the astronomy world with its exciting backstory and gorgeous, National Geographic-ready imagery. But in terms of data the SDSS has been the real transformative instrument over the past decade and it's nice to see it get some lovin'.
However, as I was reading this book I kept asking myself -- where's the science? The book dedicates a lot of time to personalities, story-telling and the sociology of astronomy. We get two chapters on funding the project (yay?), two chapters of scientists bickering over software development issues (yay!), another chapter on Sloan's epic management problems (who knew scientists suck at project management?). Now don't get me wrong: *I* love this gossipy, inside-baseball stuff. It reminds me of being back in grad school, and grad students like nothing more than gossiping about their advisors.
But this emphasis ends up slighting the actual science, at least in places. (And really the gossip isn't *that* juicy.) Until the last few chapters, the science content appears when the narrative dictates. As a result, it isn't really presented in a systematic or pedagogical manner. Which is too bad, since the book could stand to be a smidge more accessible to lay-folk who don't already know what an "arcsecond" is. And to be fair, the final chapter does contain a very well-written account of the history of the universe (SPOILER alert: structure forms!) but it might have strengthened the narrative to include some of the background info at the beginning too.
A related criticism is that the book, somewhat inexplicably, does not contain any illustrations, images or figures. For a book that gushes over the "new map of the universe" created by Sloan, it is pretty strange that the map itself is not included. Instead we get multiple written descriptions of what the large-scale structure of the universe looks like. But failing to include even a few visualizations of the data (like this image, or this video) seems like a big missed opportunity. Perhaps it's a printing cost thing, but still.
Anyway, probably I'm being overly picky. This is a good book about an interesting experiment and well worth reading....more
I had sort of lumped this book in with Freakonomics as part of the contrarian, everything-you-know-is-wrong brand of popular science writing. So I wasI had sort of lumped this book in with Freakonomics as part of the contrarian, everything-you-know-is-wrong brand of popular science writing. So I was bracing myself to be irritated with it and was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be more coherent than Freakonomics. Some parts of it are oversold and could have used more nuance. In particular it is interesting that both books devote a chapter to an unconvincing mono-causal explanation for the drop in crime since the early-90s. But there's definitely enough interesting sections and a convincing organizing principle to make it worth a read....more
Diamond's previous book Guns Germs and Steel was for me (and lots of other people, I think) a real eye-opener. There were 5 or 6 ideas in that book thDiamond's previous book Guns Germs and Steel was for me (and lots of other people, I think) a real eye-opener. There were 5 or 6 ideas in that book that I had never even heard mention of before reading, but that seem so elegant and obvious upon reflection. To give just one example, the way the east-west orientation of the Eurasian continent facilitates travel and the spread of crops and ideas, in contrast to the north-south orientations of Africa and the Americas, which hinder that spread. Regardless of whether you fully buy into his overall argument, it was a masterpiece of popular science writing.
Collapse continues that high-level of quality, although the tenor of the work is different. Rather than a collection of diverse ideas supporting one theme, Diamond applies a set of 5 factors to explain the collapses of several ancient civilizations -- Easter Island, Pitcairn/Henderson, the Anasazi, the Classic Period Maya and the Norse in Greenland. This gives the book more of a repetitive feel than Guns, but the romance of ancient civilizations and his beautiful explanations are more than enough to keep you glued to the pages.
The second half of the book addresses collapses in the modern world (Rwanda, Haiti) or current societies that are probably unsustainable (China, Australia). In these sections you can sense that Diamond is a little out of his element. The chapter on China is an especially deadly litany of environmental statistics offered with little real insight into the complexity of that country. He closes the book with a generally interesting discussion of sustainability in the modern world.
Like its predecessor, Collapse is a synthesis of a very large body of scientific work, which naturally means that it is not the last word on any of these topics. He alludes briefly to some of the controversies found within the scientific communities that study these civilizations. The book has also spawned some pushback in the form of a collection of essays -- Questioning Collapse. I don't think it's a big knock on a work of popular writing, but it's important to note that there are other perspectives out there on these complicated questions....more
Moneyball tells the story of the Oakland A's, who for many years had one of the lowest payrolls in the majors but won far more games than much richerMoneyball tells the story of the Oakland A's, who for many years had one of the lowest payrolls in the majors but won far more games than much richer teams by being the first to take advantage of modern statistical analyses. It's hard to know what's left to say about the book that hasn't been said. Not only was it a raging bestseller (and now a movie) and the platonic ideal of a certain type of non-fiction writing -- it was one of the most talked about books (both pro and con) of the decade... at least among baseball fans. I felt like I knew the central argument before I turned the first page.
Still, I'm the guy who did his 6th grade science fair project on baseball statistics, so it pretty clear that this sort of thing is like crack for me. It doesn't hurt that it's often funny as hell and about as easy to read as watching TV.
The most general version of Lewis's thesis -- that you can run a better baseball team by being smarter about stats and finding undervalued players -- is pretty clearly true. The book doesn't present much in the way of systemic evidence for some of Billy Beane's more specific claims and I think it would be interesting to take a systematic look back at some of Moneyball's theories to see how they hold up. (Probably somewhere a Bill James disciple has done just that...)
Interestingly, the parts of Moneyball that stick with me are they some of the more human moments where the psychology of winning and losing sports games comes to the front. I'm no athlete, but I think we've all had moments in pick-up games when we felt invincible and that confidence led to success. I can certainly remember the flip side where mistakes led to self-doubt and then more mistakes and onward to total psychological collapse. There's an interesting book to be written there too....more