25 January, 2009

Sunday Sensational Science

Completely gratuitous picture of Michio Kaku

Outstanding Science Authors

As an SF author trying to grasp enough science to make her world work, I've read a crapton of science books. Some of them have been meh, some mkay, and some teh awesome. There are authors whose books I return to endlessly, not merely because of the science, but because of the way they wield their words. They're not only scientists, but prose poets. They get across the grandeur and excitement of science. They delight in the absurd and bask in the beautiful. They make me think, but more than that, they make me dream.

I'll introduce you to a few of them today. They've not only written books, but articles worth reading.

One of the most important things scientists can do is popularize it, bring it within the grasp of people without degrees. These authors have done that. We owe 'em one.

Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist, Harvard University

During one of my many extravaganzas in the local used bookstore, I ran across a book called The Language Instinct. I'd fallen in love with linguistics because of Tolkien, and here was a man who explored the evolution of language. Brilliant! The book came home with me. And I know I'll probably hear screams from those of you who think evolutionary psychology is so much bunkum, but I enjoyed it immensely. Steven's subject matter isn't simple, but he makes it seem so. He's got a wonderful sense of humor and rapier-sharp insight. One of my favorite lines comes from another book of his, The Blank Slate: "It is precisely because one act can balance ten thousand kind ones that we call it 'evil'." Say what you will about evolutionary psychology, but he's speaking absolute truth there.

I found two fascinating articles by Steven. In "My Genome, My Self", he takes us on a whirlwind tour of what genes mean to personality, and then his adventure in personal genome sequencing:
Our genes are a big part of what we are. But even knowing the totality of genetic predictors, there will be many things about ourselves that no genome scan — and for that matter, no demographic checklist — will ever reveal. With these bookends in mind, I rolled up my sleeve, drooled into a couple of vials and awaited the results of three analyses of my DNA.
Then he provokes some thought by exploring "The Moral Instinct." This one might be of enormous good use in debates with frothing fundies.

Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist, City College of New York

Working at the bookstore brings a lot of books to your attention you might not have noticed otherwise. Such was the case with Beyond Einstein. What did this guy mean, beyond Einstein? Who could possibly be beyond Einstein?

Such was my introduction to string theory. And I fell in love. I understand it even less than I understand quantum mechanics, but damn it, Michio makes it exciting. He takes you right out on the cutting edge, and sends you careening through realms of possibility you didn't even know exist. Beyond Einstein? You betcha! Or at least, there's the possibility we're getting closer to that Theory of Everything Einstein spent the rest of his life pursuing.

Michio also wrote a book called Visions, which is an absolute boon to an SF writer who has a little trouble extrapolating the possibilities for the future. He's got a lot more books out there, all of them intriguing, all of them bringing incredibly complex subjects within the reach of ordinary folk.

His excitement about the cosmos continues to bubble over as he advises NASA to "Follow the Methane!"

The recent discovery of methane on Mars is more than a curiousity. It could be a game changer.

For the last three decades, NASA’s Mars exploration program has been based on a single mantra: Follow the water. Where there is water, there might be life. So far, this strategy has come up empty handed. But now, NASA might have to change course and follow the methane.
Seems like good advice to me.

Oliver Sacks, neurologist, New York City

I had no idea what to think of a book with a title like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Written by a man whose last name was Sacks, no less. I shelved copies of it many times before intrigue finally got the better of me and I finally bought the thing.

And I was in another world.

Oliver explores damaged minds, showing us the bizarre and fascinating things that happen when the wetware is nonfunctional (h/t Connie Willis). And he does it with glorious warmth, compassion, and wonder. This is a man who adores his work, adores the people he works with, and helps us view even the most damaged people as individuals who are more than the sum of their disorder. And the man who mistook his wife for a hat? Visual agnosia, brought on by a brain tumor.

In "The Abyss," Sacks discusses music, amnesia, and a profoundly amnesiac musician named Clive:
Though one cannot have direct knowledge of one’s own amnesia, there may be ways to infer it: from the expressions on people’s faces when one has repeated something half a dozen times; when one looks down at one’s coffee cup and finds that it is empty; when one looks at one’s diary and sees entries in one’s own handwriting. Lacking memory, lacking direct experiential knowledge, amnesiacs have to make hypotheses and inferences, and they usually make plausible ones. They can infer that they have been doing something, been somewhere, even though they cannot recollect what or where. Yet Clive, rather than making plausible guesses, always came to the conclusion that he had just been “awakened,” that he had been “dead.” This seemed to me a reflection of the almost instantaneous effacement of perception for Clive—thought itself was almost impossible within this tiny window of time. Indeed, Clive once said to Deborah, “I am completely incapable of thinking.”

Richard Fortey, paleontologist, London

When I was studying plate tectonics, I ran across a book called Earth: an Intimate History. And intimate it is. It reads more like a biography than geology, although you come away knowing more about geology than you'd ever imagined you could. The Alps take on a completely different meaning when you know how they formed. You discover that England and America have far more in common than our political history: the Appalachians were once part of Scotland. Other wonders await. I don't think I've ever quite been so absorbed by geology. Richard Fortey turns out to be one hell of a biographer.

He's also an enthusiastic fossil man, having written more than one book regarding life on earth. In the following YouTube video, he introduces us to his favorite fossil:

And in "The Ego and the ID," he gives Intelligent Design the thorough spanking it deserves.

I can assure you from experience that the authors I've explored here are well worth savoring. Here are two that I haven't yet had the pleasure of settling in with yet, but plan to in the very near future:

In "The Beasts Within," University of Chicago paleontologist Neil Shubin explores what made him fall in love with his inner beasties:
I’ve come to love my inner fish. My inner worm, jellyfish and sponge too. And I can tell you exactly when I first recognized this infatuation: in September 2003, the year I was pressed into teaching human anatomy to first-year medical students at the University of Chicago.
And astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson gives us "The Cosmic Perspective" and reminds us not to forget each other as we pursue the stars:
Yet the cosmic view comes with a hidden cost. When I travel thousands of miles to spend a few moments in the fast-moving shadow of the Moon during a total solar eclipse, sometimes I lose sight of Earth.
You know what, Neil? I think Professor Fortney can help you with that.


teacherninja said...

Great list, natch. I'll hit the ones I haven't already read asap! Zimmer's The Loom just had a similar list based on reader recommendations. Wonderful stuff, thanks.

george.w said...

Many of my most prized books are nonfiction works of science. As a child I reveled in Loren Eiseley's The bird and the machine, and Cousteau's Silent World made me weep with wonder. Perhaps even more important than knowing how to write is having something to write about.

Cujo359 said...

Not a terribly original thought, I know, but as a kid I loved reading Isaac Asimov's science books. He could describe things clearly enough that twelve year olds could understand him, and yet as an adult I could still get insights from his writing.