In a time of fake news and alternative facts, being able to separate the proverbial scientific wheat from the pseudoscientific chaff is vitally important. But seeing the wide acceptance of a lot of dubious ideas, critical thinking does not come easily. So, how, then, do you tell science from bunk? Updating his 2010 book Nonsense on Stilts, evolutionary biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci once again attacks this problem from many sides. Going far beyond cheap potshots at pseudoscience, I found a book that takes an equally serious look at the more insidious phenomena of think tanks and postmodernism, with a healthy side-serving of history of science. The result is a readable introspection on what science is and how it is done.
Shelter. Yield. Dispose.
These three tasks, so says nature writer Robert Macfarlane, signify our relationship with the world beneath our feet, both across time and across cultures. Underland is his lyrical exploration of underground spaces where people have sought shelter from warfare or hidden valuable treasures, are extracting minerals in mines or knowledge in research facilities, or are looking to dispose of waste. It is one of two big books published only five months apart on the subterranean realm, the other being Will Hunt’s Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet which I will be reviewing next. But first, Underland.
“A series of glasses with transparent liquids is in front of you, but which will quench your thirst and which will kill you?” Thus asks the dust jacket of Liquid of the reader. In this imagined game of liquid Russian roulette, one glass will get you drunk (vodka), the other kills you (kerosene), while a third will bring you no harm (water). But why? In Liquid, materials scientist Mark Miodownik takes an amusing romp through the chemistry and physics of the liquids of our everyday life.
How did we get here? It’s a simple question, but as all parents will affirm, the simplest questions can have the most complicated answers. With Quarks to Culture, Tyler Volk, a professor in biology and environmental studies, looks at our human culture and goes all the way back to the beginning (yes, the very beginning) to ask: “Is there a pattern here?”. What follows is a book that should be taken as a spirited thought experiment.
So, quick question for you. What is life?
Sorry, that’s a trick question, for the answer to this is anything but quick. The mind-boggling complexity that is life, even something as “simple” as a bacterium, somehow arises from atoms and molecules. And yet, physics and chemistry as we currently know it seem incapable of answering how life’s complexity emerges from its constituent parts. With The Demon in the Machine, well-known physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies takes a stab at it, saying we are on the verge of a breakthrough.
When it comes to social insects, ants and bees get all the love. But, if you pardon the pun of the book’s title, termites are a bit of an underbug. While finishing up a previous writing assignment, author Lisa Margonelli got on the trail of the termite sometime in 2008 and spend the next decade obsessing over them. Tailing various scientists and sitting in on their day-to-day work, she here spins a wide-ranging tale about termites and the research they have inspired. The result is a hypnotic book that ranges well beyond this humble insect.
I spy, I spy with my little eye… humans are visually oriented creatures and eyes are fascinating organs. Michael Land, an emeritus (i.e. retired) professor in neurobiology at the University of Sussex, is a world expert on eyes, having studied vision for over 50 years. Next to hundreds of papers, he co-authored the textbook Animal Eyes, which was published in a second edition in 2012, and the short primer The Eye: A Very Short Introduction. Eyes to See is his opportunity to reflect on a long career and simultaneously showcase the astonishing variety of vision, as the book’s subtitle would have it.
This review is part of a double bill. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press recently published How Scientific Progress Occurs: Incrementalism and the Life Sciences. In it, Elof Axel Carlson explores the relevance to biology of the ideas Kuhn formulated in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This is one of those classics already on my to-do list, so I have read both books back-to-back and will review them one after the other. Anyway, who is this Kuhn and why should you care? Virtually everyone will have heard the buzzwords “paradigm” and “paradigm shift” – and for that, you can thank Kuhn.
I am going to start this review on a tangent. The liner notes of the 1983 album Zeichnungen Des Patienten O.T. of the German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten contained the slogan “Destruction is not negative, you must destroy to build”. I don’t expect that Ugo Bardi shares my taste in music, but, judging from this book, I’m sure that if we were to sit him down with the band members over a pint, they would have plenty to talk about. Because, according to Bardi, collapse is a feature, not a bug.
Starting your book blurb by asking why gazelles have legs rather than wheels is a suitably out-there question to immediately grab a reader’s attention. A more pertinent question then; why is all life based on carbon rather than silicon? In The Equations of Life, Charles Cockell takes the reader on a giddy tour down the organisational hierarchy of life – from sociobiology to subatomic particles – to show that nature is far more predictable and understandable than it might appear at first blush. His eloquent answer to above and other why questions? “Because physics is life’s silent commander”.