I guess it was inevitable that in my wider reading on subjects such as astronomy and physics I would eventually bump into quantum mechanics. Where I have encountered it so far, I have admitted it went straight over my head. It might thus seem foolhardy for a biologist to try and tackle a book like this. Then again, the hallmark of good communicators is that they make complex topics understandable. And theoretical physicist Sean Carroll’s previous books have been lauded, some even winning prizes. Are you ready to get down and dirty with quantum mechanics?
Let me first welcome all my readers to 2020. Casting my gaze back over last year, 2019 was an exceptionally productive year where I managed to read and review 107 books. Although I fully intend to bring you many more book reviews this year, I am not sure whether I will match that output again.
For those who do not feel like trawling through that many reviews, here is my personal top 5 of the most impactful, most beautiful and most thought-provoking books I read during 2019.
I have written on this blog before that the Internet is not everything it is cracked up to be. Here I will add another string to that bow: crime. Spam, scams, malware, keyloggers, viruses, hacking, identity theft, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, stolen credit card details… the list goes on. Just as its offline counterpart, cybercrime encompasses a diverse array of misdeeds. But where its victims, both personal and corporate, regularly make headlines, the perpetrators remain a mysterious bunch. Based on a huge number of interviews, sociologist Jonathan Lusthaus here provides a peek behind that veil of anonymity. Next to showing that cybercrime has become an industry like any other, he also explores the paradox at its heart: how did this growth happen in an environment of mistrust and anonymity?
Here be rabbit holes.
With that warning in mind, this book examines the question that has deprived philosophers of sleep since times immemorial: do we see the world as it truly is? Professor of Cognitive Sciences Donald D. Hoffman answers with a firm “no”. The resulting case against reality that he constructs is both speculative and thought-provoking, but I also found it a winding, confusing, and ultimately unconvincing read.
Extremes fascinate us: the biggest, the fastest, the oldest, the tallest. Books and TV-programmes regularly scratch our itch for records, whether it is feats of engineering or biological extremes, and many sporting events revolve around humans attempting to set new records. One glance at the cover of Matthew D. LaPlante’s book Superlative and you might think that this is yet another book offering lots of gee-whiz factoids. You would also be wrong. Instead, this is an amusing and fascinating book that digs just that much deeper into the biology behind extremes, and why studying them is so worthwhile.
Having just reviewed Nieuwland’s American Dinosaur Abroad: A Cultural History of Carnegie’s Plaster Diplodocus, historian Lukas Rieppel’s book Assembling the Dinosaur seemed like a logical choice to read next. Whereas the former focused on the plaster casts of a Diplodocus skeleton that American business tycoon Andrew Carnegie donated to museums, Rieppel takes in a far wider sweep of history, studying the role of dinosaurs in America’s Long Gilded Age – the period from roughly 1880 to the Great Depression in 1929. This scholarly work charts the entanglement of economic transformation, notably the rise of large corporations, with the rise of palaeontology and changes in size, scope, and management of museums. Readers with an interest in the history of palaeontology will be particularly well-served by this book.
If you visited the London Natural History Museum sometime before 2015 you will have been greeted by the skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur: a plaster cast of Diplodocus affectionately nicknamed Dippy (see also Dippy: The Tale of a Museum Icon). Dippy has left the building but is not the only such cast in existence. Historian Ilja Nieuwland here traces the little-known history of the philanthropic campaign that saw Scottish-born business magnate Andrew Carnegie donate plaster casts to museums around the world. Drawing on a wealth of archival material, he examines Carnegie’s reasons and the response of the recipients and the general audience, adding a valuable and surprisingly interesting chapter to the history of palaeontology as a discipline.
There is an amusing and slightly acerbic acronym that has stuck with me from my days working at a computer helpdesk for an international oil firm: PICNIC. Short for “problem in chair, not in computer”, my colleagues used it as code whenever an employee rocked up at our helpdesk with a complaint or problem that was due to human clumsiness rather than malfunctioning hardware. “Did you check that the printer was plugged into the power socket?”
Nevertheless, says Artificial Intelligence (AI) researcher Robert Elliott Smith, our blind faith in computers and the algorithms that run them is misguided. Based on his 30 years experience working with AI, the aptly titled Rage Inside the Machine takes the reader on a historical tour of computing to show how today’s technology is both less amoral and more prejudiced than we give it credit for.
“To understand something, you need to know its history. Right?”
– That sounds reasonable.
“Wrong“, says author and professor of philosophy Alex Rosenberg.
“Feeling especially well informed after reading a book of popular history on the best-seller list?”
– Well, since you are asking…
“Don’t. Narrative history is always, always wrong.”
That is the rather provocative premise that Rosenberg pushes with How History Gets Things Wrong. Given that I review both pop-science books and books charting the history of certain academic disciplines, will this be the book that brings on a bout of existentialist doubt, and cause me to abandon reviewing books? Is this book the proverbial blog killer??
In Algae We Trust. That might just as well have been the subtitle of this book. In Slime (published in the UK as Bloom, but I read the US version), author Ruth Kassinger writes of the many fundamental, often eye-opening roles that algae play in our ecosystems. But she also travels around the world to talk to farmers, scientists, and inventors. From food to plastics to fuel, entrepreneurs are discovering that these little green powerhouses hold immense biotechnological potential.