The style is so delicious and the chapter endings have such lovely twists at times, that it's hard to put down. It made me think at times of a SpielbeThe style is so delicious and the chapter endings have such lovely twists at times, that it's hard to put down. It made me think at times of a Spielberg movie -- my emotions are being manipulated by a master at manipulation....more
This is a popularization in the sense of intended for non-scientists, but it's fairly complex in a couple of ways so that it's not a simple read. FirsThis is a popularization in the sense of intended for non-scientists, but it's fairly complex in a couple of ways so that it's not a simple read. First, it covers a lot of ground that you might or might not be interested in, from history of science to creationism to lots of technical detail -- piconewtons, equivalent temperature gains from the chemical reaction of single molecules, and much more. I personally found the breadth to be too much, though only by a little. Second, some of the technical material is pretty technical. We work through gentle introductions to statistical mechanics, what the second law of thermodynamics really means, introductory chemistry and biochemistry, atomic force microscopy, and quite a selection of other topics, before getting to what seems to be the heart of the book, explanations of the molecular machines that make life work, whose structure and workings we're just starting to understand. We also get quite a bit of detail along the way about the clever experimental techniques that scientists have invented to figure these things out.
So it's not very everyone, but if you're up for it and interested in such things, this book is well worth your time. The best thing about it for me as a science popularization was the vivid way he helps you understand what it's like in the nano world, and how different it is -- the world of what he calls the "molecular storm", the world of life at the level of the cell. This is critical to his narrative, because it turns out that the molecular machines that make life work are actually coming as close as possible to cheating the second law by exploiting the highly disordered energy in the molecular storm to drive things forward and then click the "ratchet" forward when random forces push things in the wanted direction. Although less vivid, a philosophical theme of the book is that the roles of chance (randomness) and necessity (physical law) are exquisitely balanced in the universe generally and the workings of life in particular.
Hoffmann is an excellent writer, and many of the technical descriptions are quite masterful. For example, the description of the machine in mitochondria that recharges ATP from ADP is spine tingling. In addition, Hoffmann is very well read: in science, in the history of science, and even in matters philosophical that go beyond science. (His knowledge of popular culture isn't too shabby either -- one of the chapters is named "Twist and Route" for example. One would never suspect his native language is not English.) Different parts of the book discuss works I knew about by famous scientists (Schrodinger, Monod, D'Arcy Thompson), and some I hadn't heard of (Smoluchowski, Delbruck, and more). In the age of the web, one can follow many of the references in the book. For example, on page 123 Hoffmann has a fascinating diagram about why different kinds of energy "converge" at the nanoscale, but his explanation is in this case not very good. Fortunately, it's easy to find the article where the diagram was originally published and the explanation there is better. Hoffmann's affection and enthusiasm for his subjects is infectious. Although some of the philosophical and historical parts can come across as a bit unfocused, I really appreciated the path he takes from physics through biology to help his readers understand at a deeper level what life is like in the cell, how it works energetically, and how a fairly large selection of the most important molecular machines do what they do....more
“Charm” is a word that has lost its charm. Nowadays, to hear the word is to think of a girl with a pretty smile, but once upon a time it evoked magic,“Charm” is a word that has lost its charm. Nowadays, to hear the word is to think of a girl with a pretty smile, but once upon a time it evoked magic, the mysterious, the untamed. John Berendt writes with an enviable quality (and quantity) of charm, the old kind. Berendt once wrote for magazines but his first book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, was a smashing success that propelled him far beyond that career. Midnight came out in 1994; now, 11 years later, out comes another book, The City of Falling Angels. Angels is remarkably similar to Midnight in a number of ways. Both are about out-of-the-way cities. Both are packed with tales of interesting, mostly unconventional people and events. Both are loosely organized around horrific events – Midnight’s central focus is the story of a murder and its aftermath in Savannah Georgia, while Angel meanders around the burning of the Fenice opera house and its reconstruction. Both tell stories of high society, of low society, and of meetings between high and low society. Berendt lived in both cities as a critical part of researching and writing the books. And there are stylistic similarities. Both stories are told in the first person – the author is present, though with a light touch. He loves to spring surprises. His ability to create little plot twists is breathtaking, particularly at the ends of chapters. So, if you’ve read Midnight you know quite a bit about what Angels will be like, how much pleasure is in store for you. But this detracts not at all from the pleasure. What is best about Berendt is the way he writes, and his chosen modus operandi for structuring books works just fine. No sense in my trying to boil down the stories of Venice found in the book. They paint a charming picture of Venice (in the new sense, but more importantly, in the old sense). The pleasure is in reading them in Berendt’s voice, meeting vicariously the people he meets, wondering about the many loose ends that emerge in the many stories (and in real life), shivering at the beautiful twists in his telling of them. By all means, read this book. ...more
More political than I expected, for example he really lashes into Scalia a number of times. Goes way beyond "how to lie with statistics". But it is noMore political than I expected, for example he really lashes into Scalia a number of times. Goes way beyond "how to lie with statistics". But it is not mathematical. More about psychology, our tendency to believe numbers more than we should, precise lies being better than vague ones apparently. One useful thing is his naming various strategies for misusing numbers, but the names tend to be unattractive -- catchy but overly cute: "randumness", "Potemkin numbers", and so on....more
Before buying and reading this book, I read some reviews, and frankly, they didn't inspire me. They talked about it being a history of the world, theyBefore buying and reading this book, I read some reviews, and frankly, they didn't inspire me. They talked about it being a history of the world, they talked about its immense, ambitious scope. Such talk causes my crap detectors to tingle. I did finally buy it after reading a laudatory review by someone I respect. And I'm glad I did, because I found it to be absolutely top notch. The phrase "history of the world" misguides because the book is entirely about pre-history. The story it tells is historical in nature, but since it is about societies for which we have no written histories, the nature of the evidence is different, and that is one key to its value. The book is a superb assemblage of evidence from different disciplines, mainly genetic analysis, archeology (including non-human fossil evidence), and linguistics, with a smattering of anthropology. This evidence is woven – with original analysis – into a story of early human history. The result is a story that isn't always pretty but that hangs together well and seems better defended – hence more believable – than I would have thought possible. I suppose this is the origin of those "ambitious scope" comments in the reviews I distrusted. I could not have imagined before reading this book that so much about human pre-history could be inferred. The writing is strong as well: cogent, well paced, never overbearing. Diamond has a gift not only for writing clearly, but for helping you to understand why you should care. For example, even though his scope includes inference of pre-historical migrations and developments (both cultural and technological) throughout the world, he organizes his presentation in terms of a trenchant theme – why did the European cultures win out over so many others? Why did the Europeans colonize Africa, South America, and so on? Why didn't the Bushmen, or the Australians, or the Incas invade Europe? And this gift extends to well-chosen personal anecdotes from Diamond's rather unusual life. He personalizes the key question (why the Europeans won) by having it come from the mouth of a Papuan politician who buttonholes Diamond on a beach, asking why the Europeans have so much "cargo" and the New Guineans so little. He illustrates the challenges of Australia by telling stories of his own adventures there as well as those of some Europeans (who died there) in the 19th Century. By bringing together evidence from a number of disciplines, synthesizing it, and writing about it in an accessible way, Diamond has done something important. It has always been said that the reason to pay attention to history is to learn more about who we are. I believe that this book can be even more powerful in that endeavor because of the vast period (13000 years) and scope (the whole world) it covers, even though the lack of a written record limits the amount of detail. I for one found it stimulating, eye-opening, maybe even life changing. ...more