Archive for Science

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, by Dava Sobel (pb $6.95)

longAmazon: Anyone alive in the eighteenth century would have known that “the longitude problem” was the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day-and had been for centuries. Lacking the ability to measure their longitude, sailors throughout the great ages of exploration had been literally lost at sea as soon as they lost sight of land. Thousands of lives and the increasing fortunes of nations hung on a resolution. One man, John Harrison, in complete opposition to the scientific community, dared to imagine a mechanical solution-a clock that would keep precise time at sea, something no clock had ever been able to do on land. Longitude is the dramatic human story of an epic scientific quest and of Harrison’s forty-year obsession with building his perfect timekeeper, known today as the chronometer. Full of heroism and chicanery, it is also a fascinating brief history of astronomy, navigation, and clockmaking, and opens a new window on our world.

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The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, by Dava Sobel (Kndl $14.99; pb $11.53)

glassAmazon: In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or “human computers,” to interpret the observations their male counterparts made via telescope each night. At the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but soon the female corps included graduates of the new women’s colleges—Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith. As photography transformed the practice of astronomy, the ladies turned from computation to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates.

The “glass universe” of half a million plates that Harvard amassed over the ensuing decades—through the generous support of Mrs. Anna Palmer Draper, the widow of a pioneer in stellar photography—enabled the women to make extraordinary discoveries that attracted worldwide acclaim. They helped discern what stars were made of, divided the stars into meaningful categories for further research, and found a way to measure distances across space by starlight. Their ranks included Williamina Fleming, a Scottish woman originally hired as a maid who went on to identify ten novae and more than three hundred variable stars; Annie Jump Cannon, who designed a stellar classification system that was adopted by astronomers the world over and is still in use; and Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne, who in 1956 became the first ever woman professor of astronomy at Harvard—and Harvard’s first female department chair.

Elegantly written and enriched by excerpts from letters, diaries, and memoirs, The Glass Universe is the hidden history of the women whose contributions to the burgeoning field of astronomy forever changed our understanding of the stars and our place in the universe.

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The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe

The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe, by Thomas Levenson ($13.99 Kndl, $14.32 Pb)

There is an interesting discussion of this book in New York Review of Books (unfortunately it’s behind a paywall, but I can provide it if you are interested).

VulcanAmazon: The captivating, all-but-forgotten story of Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and the search for a planet that never existed

For more than fifty years, the world’s top scientists searched for the “missing” planet Vulcan, whose existence was mandated by Isaac Newton’s theories of gravity. Countless hours were spent on the hunt for the elusive orb, and some of the era’s most skilled astronomers even claimed to have found it.

There was just one problem: It was never there.

In The Hunt for Vulcan, Thomas Levenson follows the visionary scientists who inhabit the story of the phantom planet, starting with Isaac Newton, who in 1687 provided an explanation for all matter in motion throughout the universe, leading to Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier, who almost two centuries later built on Newton’s theories and discovered Neptune, becoming the most famous scientist in the world. Le Verrier attempted to surpass that triumph by predicting the existence of yet another planet in our solar system, Vulcan.

It took Albert Einstein to discern that the mystery of the missing planet was a problem not of measurements or math but of Newton’s theory of gravity itself. Einstein’s general theory of relativity proved that Vulcan did not and could not exist, and that the search for it had merely been a quirk of operating under the wrong set of assumptions about the universe. Levenson tells the previously untold tale of how the “discovery” of Vulcan in the nineteenth century set the stage for Einstein’s monumental breakthrough, the greatest individual intellectual achievement of the twentieth century.

A dramatic human story of an epic quest, The Hunt for Vulcan offers insight into how science really advances (as opposed to the way we’re taught about it in school) and how the best work of the greatest scientists reveals an artist’s sensibility. Opening a new window onto our world, Levenson illuminates some of our most iconic ideas as he recounts one of the strangest episodes in the history of science.
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The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It

The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It, by Shawn Lawrence Otto ($10.49 Kndl, $13.75 Pb)

A science blogger’s review.

warscienceAmazon:  “Wherever the people are well informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.” But what happens when they are not? In every issue of modern society–from climate change to vaccinations, transportation to technology, health care to defense–we are in the midst of an unprecedented expansion of scientific progress and a simultaneous expansion of danger. At the very time we need them most, scientists and the idea of objective knowledge are being bombarded by a vast, well-funded, three-part war on science: the identity politics war on science, the ideological war on science, and the industrial war on science.

The result is an unprecedented erosion of thought in Western democracies as voters, policymakers, and justices actively ignore the evidence from science, leaving major policy decisions to be based more on the demands of the most strident voices.

Shawn Lawrence Otto’s provocative new book investigates the historical, social, philosophical, political, and emotional reasons for why and how evidence-based politics are in decline and authoritarian politics are once again on the rise, and offers a vision, an argument, and some compelling solutions to bring us to our collective senses, before it’s too late.

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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Juval Noah Harari ($16.99 Kndl, $22.28 Hb)

SapiensAmazon:  Yuval Noah Harari has some questions. Among the biggest: How did Homo sapiens (or Homo sapiens sapiens , if you’re feeling especially wise today) evolve from an unexceptional savannah-dwelling primate to become the dominant force on the planet, emerging as the lone survivor out of six distinct, competing hominid species? He also has some answers, and they’re not what you’d expect. Tackling evolutionary concepts from a historian’s perspective, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, describes human development through a framework of three not-necessarily-orthodox “Revolutions”: the Cognitive, the Agricultural, and the Scientific. His ideas are interesting and often amusing: Why have humans managed to build astonishingly large populations when other primate groups top out at 150 individuals? Because our talent for gossip allows us to build networks in societies too large for personal relationships between everyone, and our universally accepted “imagined realities”–such as money, religion, and Limited Liability Corporations—keep us in line. Who cultivated whom, humans or wheat?. Wheat. Though the concepts are unusual and sometimes heavy (as is the book, literally) Harari’s deft prose and wry, subversive humor make quick work of material prone to academic tedium. He’s written a book of popular nonfiction (it was a bestseller overseas, no doubt in part because his conclusions draw controversy) landing somewhere in the middle of a Venn diagram of genetics, sociology, and history. Throughout, Harari returns frequently to another question: Does all this progress make us happier, our lives easier? The answer might disappoint you. —Jon Foro

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How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate

How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate, by Andrew Hoffman ($12.99 pb, $8.99 Kndl, 120 pp)

culture

Amazon: Though the scientific community largely agrees that climate change is underway, debates about this issue remain fiercely polarized. These conversations have become a rhetorical contest, one where opposing sides try to achieve victory through playing on fear, distrust, and intolerance. At its heart, this split no longer concerns carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases, or climate modeling; rather, it is the product of contrasting, deeply entrenched worldviews. This brief examines what causes people to reject or accept the scientific consensus on climate change. Synthesizing evidence from sociology, psychology, and political science, Andrew J. Hoffman lays bare the opposing cultural lenses through which science is interpreted. He then extracts lessons from major cultural shifts in the past to engender a better understanding of the problem and motivate the public to take action. How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate makes a powerful case for a more scientifically literate public, a more socially engaged scientific community.

“This is a well-researched treatment of cultural dimensions of climate science and policy. Hoffman’s ability to organize overlapping literatures into a cogent assessment of the current conditions makes for a wonderful book.”—Max Boykoff, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), University of Colorado-Boulder
“One of the tallest orders of our day is to communicate effectively about global warming. Hoffman shows us how to talk about climate science and policy in ways that depolarize the debate and empower people to form their own opinions based on the scientific risks. This book is a valuable resource, and it comes at the right time.”—Ken Kimmell, President of the Union of Concerned Scientists and former Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection
“Hoffman’s book is a much-needed analysis of how humans process information—and how that messy mix of reason, emotion, and cultural influence shapes and reinforces our views on global climate change. Important reading for anyone who wants to influence public opinion and public policy on this crucial issue.”—Fred Krupp, President, Environmental Defense Fund
“Andrew is so right: ‘It’s about values, not science.’ We learn values and their application from people we trust. So, in order to build trust, we must go to them with credible messengers and affirm their truth. This book offers a clear explanation of why this is so, and what do about it.”—U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC4) (1993–1999; 2005–2011)
“Andrew Hoffman’s central message is that more scientific information, while necessary, is insufficient to persuade those who dismiss the reality or seriousness of global warming. Summarizing multiple lines of research, he helps the reader understand the diversity of public responses to climate change and suggests promising ways forward. A very readable and helpful book!”—Anthony Leiserowitz, Director, Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

About the Author

Andrew J. Hoffman is Professor of Sustainable Enterprise and Director of the Frederick A. and Barbara M. Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.

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Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet

Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet, by Gemot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman ($20.48 hb, $15.37 Kndl)

climateshockAmazon: If you had a 10 percent chance of having a fatal car accident, you’d take necessary precautions. If your finances had a 10 percent chance of suffering a severe loss, you’d reevaluate your assets. So if we know the world is warming and there’s a 10 percent chance this might eventually lead to a catastrophe beyond anything we could imagine, why aren’t we doing more about climate change right now? We insure our lives against an uncertain future–why not our planet?

In Climate Shock, Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman explore in lively, clear terms the likely repercussions of a hotter planet, drawing on and expanding from work previously unavailable to general audiences. They show that the longer we wait to act, the more likely an extreme event will happen. A city might go underwater. A rogue nation might shoot particles into the Earth’s atmosphere, geoengineering cooler temperatures. Zeroing in on the unknown extreme risks that may yet dwarf all else, the authors look at how economic forces that make sensible climate policies difficult to enact, make radical would-be fixes like geoengineering all the more probable. What we know about climate change is alarming enough. What we don’t know about the extreme risks could be far more dangerous. Wagner and Weitzman help readers understand that we need to think about climate change in the same way that we think about insurance–as a risk management problem, only here on a global scale.

Demonstrating that climate change can and should be dealt with–and what could happen if we don’t do so–Climate Shock tackles the defining environmental and public policy issue of our time.

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To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science

To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science, by Steven Weinberg ($21.79 hb, $14.44 Kndl)

Amazon: 

explainA masterful commentary on the history of science from the Greeks to modern times, by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg—a thought-provoking and important book by one of the most distinguished scientists and intellectuals of our time.

In this rich, irreverent, and compelling history, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg takes us across centuries from ancient Miletus to medieval Baghdad and Oxford, from Plato’s Academy and the Museum of Alexandria to the cathedral school of Chartres and the Royal Society of London. He shows that the scientists of ancient and medieval times not only did not understand what we understand about the world—they did not understand what there is to understand, or how to understand it. Yet over the centuries, through the struggle to solve such mysteries as the curious backward movement of the planets and the rise and fall of the tides, the modern discipline of science eventually emerged. Along the way, Weinberg examines historic clashes and collaborations between science and the competing spheres of religion, technology, poetry, mathematics, and philosophy.

An illuminating exploration of the way we consider and analyze the world around us, To Explain the World is a sweeping, ambitious account of how difficult it was to discover the goals and methods of modern science, and the impact of this discovery on human knowledge and development.

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Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible

Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, by Jerry Coyne ($21.11 hb, $11.99 Kndl) [This title is not yet released — release date is 5/19/2015]

Note: I put this title up not because I believe it, but because the book discusses a problem that religion has today, and that is increasing in significance, especially in this country. — rls

Afaithmazon: The New York Times bestselling author explains why any attempt to make religion compatible with science is doomed to fail

In his provocative new book, evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne lays out in clear, dispassionate detail why the toolkit of science, based on reason and empirical study, is reliable, while that of religion—including faith, dogma, and revelation—leads to incorrect, untestable, or conflicting conclusions.

Coyne is responding to a national climate in which over half of Americans don’t believe in evolution (and congressmen deny global warming), and warns that religious prejudices and strictures in politics, education, medicine, and social policy are on the rise. Extending the bestselling works of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, he demolishes the claims of religion to provide verifiable “truth” by subjecting those claims to the same tests we use to establish truth in science.

Coyne irrefutably demonstrates the grave harm—to individuals and to our planet—in mistaking faith for fact in making the most important decisions about the world we live in.

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The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning

The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ($14.01 pb, $10.99 Kndl)

partnershipAmazon: Impassioned, erudite, thoroughly researched, and beautifully reasoned, The Great Partnership argues not only that science and religion are compatible, but that they complement each other—and that the world needs both.

“Atheism deserves better than the new atheists,” states Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “whose methodology consists of criticizing religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, ridiculing, and demonizing religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity. Religion has done harm; I acknowledge that. But the cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure for bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.” Rabbi Sacks’s counterargument is that religion and science are the two essential perspectives that allow us to see the universe in its three-dimensional depth. Science teaches us where we come from. Religion explains to us why we are here. Science is the search for explanation. Religion is the search for meaning. There have been times when religion tried to dominate science. And there have been times, including our own, when it is believed that we can learn all we need to know about meaning and relationships through biochemistry, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology. In this fascinating look at the interdependence of religion and science, Rabbi Sacks explains why both views are tragically wrong.

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