The word “robot” will soon celebrate its 100th anniversary, as it was coined in 1920 by Czech writer Karel Čapek. But humanity’s fascination with self-moving devices, or automata, is far older. Classicist and science historian Adrienne Mayor here surveys the many living statues, robotic warriors, and artificial devices that populated Greek mythology to show the deep roots of our fascination with beings “made, not born”.
Animals move in many different ways – hopping, gliding, flying, slithering, walking, swimming, etc. their way through our world. Studying how they do this brings together biologists, engineers, and physicists in disciplines such as biomechanics, bioengineering and robotics. Author David L. Hu, for example, is a professor of mechanical engineering and biology. How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls is a light and amusing romp through the many remarkable forms of animal locomotion, and the equally remarkable experiments that are informing the robots of the future, although it leaves out some notable examples.
The internet was supposed to be the great leveller. A revolutionary new medium that would allow anyone, anywhere to share his views and opinions with the world. A medium that would lead to robust and civil discourse amongst the citizens of planet Earth, with people holding different viewpoints exchanging ideas and finding inspiration. It would spell the end of big companies, with “competition being only a click away”, and numerous promising startups hiding in garages everywhere, ready to burst onto the scene. With the cost of reproduction and distribution approaching zero, anyone could start a blog, be a journalist, be heard!
Now take another good look around you. Where is the internet that we were promised?
Of all the threats to free scientific enquiry, there is one that is perhaps not put on the foreground as much as it should be: the pressure of scientific findings to have immediate, practical applications. In the current climate of chronic funding shortages and anti-scientific sentiments that flourish in both society and politics, it is a problem that is overtaken by more urgent concerns. But just as the delay in developing new antibiotics due to the costs of R&D will cause severe problems in the long term, so this intellectual straitjacket will have long-term consequences that are not immediately apparent. This slim volume shows these concerns are far from new. In fact, they were at the roots of the founding of a remarkable institute.
In my recent review of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, I mentioned how the concept of heredity has become ever fuzzier the more we have learnt about how traits can be passed to the next generation. We have come from a very gene-centric period in biology, but biologists Russell Bonduriansky and Troy Day are ready to shake up the field. Neither a Lamarckian redux nor an attempt to downplay the importance of genes, this book successfully argues that the time has come to take into account non-genetic forms of heredity. Along the way, they provide a very interesting history lesson on how we got here in the first place.
Ask most biologists about the history of genetics and they will likely mention Watson and Crick’s 1953 discovery of the double helix structure of DNA or the work of the monk Gregor Mendel that showed a simple form of trait inheritance. Professor of History Theodore M. Porter contends that there is another, largely forgotten side to this story. Long before words such as genetics and genes had been coined, the fledgeling discipline of psychiatry was recording details of patients in mental asylums, collecting vast amounts of data on human heredity. Genetics in the Madhouse is a deep dive into the archives to reveal this little-known history.
Our planetary neighbour Mars has long fascinated us, and the idea of there being Martian life holds a strong grip on our collective imagination. NASA and others are becoming serious about sending people to Mars. Before we do so, astronomy professor David Weintraub would like to give you this readable history of our fascination with the Red Planet and the research that tries to answer the question: is there life on Mars? (Admit it, you were crooning that David Bowie song there).
At first blush, you might think this book is part of the ongoing craze of spiritual mindfulness books. But let me refrain from snarky comments. Geologist Marcia Bjornerud does indeed want to instill a sense of mindfulness about deep time, but one that is, pardon the pun, grounded in geology. In her opinion, most of us lack an awareness of durations of important chapters in our planet’s history and of rates of change of many natural processes. As a consequence, we fail to see just how rapidly we are altering our planet. In one of the first paragraphs she eloquently writes:
“Like inexperienced but overconfident drivers, we accelerate into landscapes and ecosystems with no sense of their long-established traffic patterns, and then react with surprise and indignation when we face the penalties for ignoring natural laws”.
And with that, she had me hooked.
Here is another book in the category “reading outside of my usual fields of interest”. When I spotted this title in the last Princeton catalogue it immediately piqued my interest. Surely, as an unabashed cheerleader of science, why would I oppose education, the gateway to science? Economist Bryan Caplan has written a provocative book that will not make him many friends. But before you discard this book as abject nonsense, give the man a chance and hear him out. He makes a cogent argument, supported by both common-sense observations and a solid analysis.
You might think that with the constant presence of the subject of climate change in news stories there isn’t much left to tell. But just because a certain sense of climate-change-fatigue might have set in (which is worrying in itself), climate change has not stopped. In Brave New Arctic, geography professor Mark C. Serreze gives an eye-witness account of how the Arctic is rapidly changing, based on his more than 35 years of personal involvement. And as he shows, there certainly are stories left to tell.