Do you find it difficult to remember how to solve a differential equation? Do probabilities and statistics drive you up the wall? Is your six year-old’s math homework giving you fits? If so, you may enjoy The Joy of X: a Guided Tour of Math, From One to Infinity by Steven Strogatz, a sophisticated and lighthearted refresher of some of the most basic and some of the most cutting edge mathematical concepts to ever grace our minds (or our bookshelf).
Strogatz starts with the easy stuff—addition, subtraction, the number line—and progressively moves on to more abstract and advanced subjects, like calculus, group theory, and analytics. Using diagrams, literary allusions, and Sesame Street, Strogatz draws you into each topic and before you know it the rather short chapter is over. Presto! You’ve learned something. While this is by no means a comprehensive picture of mathematics, Strogatz simultaneously enlightens and entertains with each successively more challenging chapter. Like a magician willing to share a few choice trade secrets, Strogatz invites us to peek behind the curtain and uncover the mysteries of long forgotten concepts, such as quadratic equations, infinity, and the elusive prime numbers.
The chapters, many of which have been adapted from Strogatz’s New York Times column "The Elements of Math", are brief, accessible, and threaded with his enthusiasm for the topic at hand. This is a fascinating, quick, and approachable read for anyone who would like a math reboot, including parents, the curious, and those interested in discovering what sine waves have to do with Romeo and Juliet’s love life.
Two intriguing new books tackle science, inventions, and diagrams, and are perfect for armchair scientists looking to learn a little more about those things that made the world what it is today. 100 Diagrams That Changed the World: From the Earliest Cave Paintings to the Innovation of the iPod by Scott Christianson takes on the world of diagrams and explores their value to society. Some significant diagrams stand on their own, such as the Rosetta Stone, but many are actual drawings or plans of something tangible, like the cotton gin. Each double-page spread of this interesting and quick read shares a different diagram that impacted the world profoundly. Christanson arranges the diagrams chronologically starting with the Chavet Cave Drawings and ending with the iPod. All the diagrams in between are clearly illustrated and accompanied by text containing information about the development and significance of that diagram. Readers will be instantly drawn in by these diagrams that transformed the shape of the world and impacted not only science, but culture and history as well.
Mad Science: Einstein’s Fridge, Dewar’s Flask, Mach’s Speed, and 362 Other Inventions That Made Our World, edited by Randy Alfred, offers a day-by-day calendar of science and technology tidbits from Wired Magazine’s popular This Day in Tech blog. Entries from forty contributors serve to highlight the each episode, discussing its history and value and sharing other notable events from the same day. From the Gregorian calendar, the breathalyzer, and the ballpoint pen, to the first coin operated café (the Horn & Hardart Automat in Philadelphia), the inventions are intriguing, entertaining, and momentous. Equal opportunity is afforded to all scientific fields, so there really is something for everyone, even those who absolutely dreaded high school science.
Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and most recently Fukushima have all made names for themselves in the history books, but lesser known is Rocky Flats, a secret nuclear weapons plant in Colorado. In Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, Kristen Iversen draws on her own experiences living in one of the neighborhoods close to the plant and later working there herself. The result is part family memoir and part historical account of Rocky Flats, which was quickly built after World War II. At first, Rocky Flats was seen as a boon to the community, bringing a myriad of jobs and stability to the region. Later, it became known as one of the most contaminated places in the U.S., with high rates of illnesses amongst workers and environmental threats to the surrounding neighborhoods. During its years of operation, several major accidents occurred, including a fire in 1969 that could have turned into a disaster on par with Chernobyl if not for a series of fortuitous actions on the part of plant workers. Activists and residents became increasingly vocal about problems, yet it wasn’t until the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Environmental Protection Agency conducted a joint raid of the plant in 1989 that truths finally came to light.
Iversen does an excellent job weaving together the stories of Rocky Flats and her own family with the common thread of secrecy: much like government and plant officials downplayed gross negligence and destructive environmental practices, her parents hid problems in their own home, including alcoholism and financial hardships. She also skillfully charts both her family’s history and Rocky Flat’s legacy to bittersweet conclusions, posing a question still being contemplated today: Are we living under the protection of the bomb, or under its shadow? Readers who enjoy narrative science books like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, disfunctional family memoirs like The Glass Castle, or environmental justice accounts like A Civil Action will all find reason to be intrigued with this book.
Good things come in small packages this time of year, as this delightful trio of recently published stocking stuffer-sized books demonstrates. From pondering the idiosyncrasies of domestic life with man's best friend (dog or cat) to a quirky collection of curious tidbits about our world, here are some lighthearted, quick reads to enjoy or give.
Feline lovers will cheer for Toby Jug, the enterprising black and white kitten in Denis O'Connor's Paw Prints in the Moonlight: the Heartwarming True Story of One Man and His Cat. Set in rural Northumberland, O'Connor rescues the badly injured kitten one snowy night and brings it back to his 18th century cottage, where he keeps the kitten in a large cotton ball-cushioned pitcher. The kindhearted nature lover and his Maine Coon form an inseparable bond through many of Toby Jug's escapades. Lovely descriptions of the English countryside and delicate color illustrations enrich this poignant and charming tale for young and old.
Unfortunately, it’s not all domestic bliss for Richard Cohen when the family pet gets in the way. His new book, I Want to Kill the Dog, chronicles in jest the master-versus-canine tug of war. The author is married to television journalist Meredith Vieira, definitely the animal lover of this long married couple. Jasper is the “dog of many flavors," whose many annoying habits (ear splitting bark, for one) threaten marital harmony. Pet peeves aside, Cohen’s story belies what is really important: marriage and family come with good and bad and even the dog.
A potpourri of trivia awaits readers of Alex Palmer's Weird-o-pedia: the Ultimate Book of Surprising, Strange, and Incredibly Bizarre Facts about (Supposedly) Ordinary Things. For instance, did you know that mosquitoes prefer people with Type O blood, or that humming is good for your sinuses? In 12 humorous chapters, each containing alphabetized entries, Palmer focuses on food and drink, friends and family, work, play, and so forth. A useful list of sources is also included. Parents beware, though; some mature topics are presented.
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen is a fascinating look into the world of infectious diseases, specifically those that travel from animals to humans, otherwise known as zoonosis or spillover. Humankind is all too familiar with zoonoses in the form of influenza, Ebola, SARS and AIDS. In order to get a sense of the scope of interspecies diseases, keep in mind that about 60% of all infectious disease cross between animals and humans. According to Quammen’s research, zoonosis has killed 30 million people since 1981. To investigate spillover viruses, he travels all over the world with virus hunters. He describes multiple mysterious outbreaks of disease, coming from a wide range of animals such as bats, gorillas and pigs. Quammen believes the next major pandemic will come from a nonhuman animal virus that will infect and spread into the human population.
David Quammen is a terrific science writer and he knows how to tell a good story. He is excited about his subject and takes a warm, personal approach with his readers. He makes this very complicated and frightening subject accessible and easy to understand. Spillover is thoroughly researched, includes an extensive bibliography and is chock-full of fascinating, engaging material. Although Quammen takes issue with Richard Preston’s Hot Zone, readers who enjoyed Hot Zone will love Spillover.
Our genes can be likened to a story, and the gray, sticky paste of DNA is the language in which the story is written, according to Sam Kean, author of The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code. Kean relates the history and function of DNA and genes and their effect on collective and individual human development.
Watson, Crick, and Mendel are familiar names linked to DNA and gene theory but few people have heard of Thomas Hunt Morgan and his assistant, ladies’ man Calvin Bridges, or Catholic Sister Miriam Michael Stimson. Kean fleshes out years of tedious research undertaken by lesser-known scientists that paved the way for the award-winning discoveries. RNA, DNA palindromes, Y chromosomes, and mitochondria—all hard science terms that could prove overwhelming—are balanced by Kean with humor and relatable anecdotes. DNA injury and resiliency is illustrated by the case of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a man unfortunate enough to be exposed to the bomb detonation in Hiroshima, who then travelled to Nagasaki in time to be blasted again.
The Violinist’s Thumb refers to virtuoso Niccolo Paganini, whose musical gifts were, in part, due to a genetic error inhibiting his body’s ability to produce collagen; his disease allowed him to stretch his hands to perform amazing violin feats. Unfortunately it also contributed to his poor health and early demise. Kean explains how cat hoarding behavior can be linked to careless litter box cleaning, and cautions the reader to avoid eating a polar bear’s liver should you find yourself stranded at the North Pole. The book ends by raising thorny questions about cloning and the implications of analyzing a single person’s genome. Readers who enjoy popular science writing, such as Mary Roach’s Stiff, will find a winner in The Violinist’s Thumb.
Seattle wildlife scientist John Marzluff partners with illustrator-naturalist Tony Angell to create Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans. While absorbing and fascinating, this is not the usual natural history of another species that shares our environment. Instead, the authors take an approach that delves deep into the neurological similarities between crows and humans, and look at numerous studies of the birds’ behavior that show how our noisy neighbors have adapted to our lives.
These birds share many characteristics of humans. In a chapter that discusses the emotional lives of crows and ravens, anecdotes describe these birds’ approaches to injured comrades, and particularly their grieving rituals. While crows often eat the dead of other species, they rarely if ever even touch their own, but instead come close and linger in a sort of respect-paying process. Also considered in great detail is the way that crows approach play. Scientists consider species that have incorporated play into their lives as highly advanced. The “social brain network” of these evolved mammals and birds is shown to be complex, and indicates multifaceted consideration of decision and realization. Crows have been observed playing “ring-around-the-rosy” with themselves and with unwitting humans who suddenly realize they too are part of the bird’s game.
Humans and crows have been watching each other for generations: cultures that laud crows as our forebears are plentiful worldwide, from India, to the American Southwest, and most famously the Canadian Pacific coast. While we have learned much about crows and their relatives through scientific and neurological study, there is still much more to understand. Our mutual ecologies and simultaneous evolution will continue to shape both our species moving forward.
Imagine waking up in the middle of the night on the floor, disoriented, clutching your leg in pain. How did you get there? Why aren’t you still asleep in bed? And what happened to your leg? After actually living through this frightening sleepwalking scenario, David K. Randall, a journalist for Reuters, decided to investigate his personal nightmare, determined to find out how he could prevent it from happening again. His book, Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, leads us into the mysterious and occasionally bizarre corners of neurobiology, psychology, and sociology that deal with how and why we sleep.
Each chapter in this fascinating book deals with a different sleep conundrum, from sleep exhaustion in the military to the effect of artificial light on circadian rhythms to whether you can commit murder while sleeping. Over the course of the book a deceptively simple formula emerges—what you do while you are awake affects your sleep, and how you sleep affects your mind and body while you are awake. Intriguing tidbits of information sneak their way into the pages with such frequency that the reader marvels at how little she seems to know about such a vital bodily function.
Though not a scientist himself, Randall’s forays into the realm of sleep science are well backed by an abundance of research, as evinced by the lengthy bibliography he includes at the back of the book. His prose remains accessible, captivating, and often humorous while still keeping science at its core. Dreamland provides an enigmatic taste of the often unsolved mysteries of sleep science that is sure to satisfy both the curious and the casual reader.
Frank Partnoy’s Wait: the Art and Science of Delay is a fascinating look into the various ways decisions are made. According to the author, the crux of delay is not only in deciding what we should do or how it should be done, but as importantly, when. This provides the thesis of this groundbreaking look into the timing of our decisions.
Partnoy frames the studies by first looking at decisions that must be made in a split-second, and as the book goes on, he looks at decisions that take longer and longer to make--some that could be termed procrastinations. Starting with athletes who must perform in what he calls “superfast sports”, the author breaks down the manner in which baseball and tennis players must react to a pitch or serve. These decisions are made in a matter of milliseconds. As fast as a tennis serve is hit, the returner’s preconscious skills kick in, combining visual and muscle acuity. The player who is able to wait the longest and still effectively return the serve has the greatest chance of success.
The decision-making of animals is also discussed. It was long thought that only humans could make future decisions. But recent studies have shown that many animals, including dogs, pigeons, monkeys, and rats have all shown that considering the future is within their abilities. Retaining a small bit of food knowing that they can trade it in for more in the future, storing food where it will be found later, and building tools not instantly needed are examples of how animals are aware of delay, and use it to their benefit. Wait is a thought-provoking yet accessible read, and is certain to be of interest to fans of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Dan Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Have you ever wondered how your email travels all the way from your computer to your mother’s laptop half way across the country in a few milliseconds? Or how a sports fan with a smartphone in LA can know the outcome of the World Cup in Spain moments before the live TV broadcast? Andrew Blum, author of Tubes: a Journey to the Center of the Internet, explores how the Internet works as a physical system, full of buried connections, rivers of wires, humming servers, and fiber optic transoceanic cables.
Blum journeys on a pilgrimage to the Internet’s most important data centers and information hubs in an effort to find ‘pieces of the Internet’, and to view the Internet as both a virtual and physical place. Along the way, he meets with many of the Internet’s unsung heroes and follows his nose to ferret out just where all our data goes when we press ‘send’. Through his surprisingly personal trek across the world in search of the Internet, Blum grapples with conflicting definitions and perceptions of the Internet that in the end help illuminate its many facets. With the emergence of cloud storage and wireless everything, it’s refreshing and relieving to realize that even something as amorphous as the Internet is grounded in the physical, real world.
A little bit history, a little bit philosophy, a little bit spiritual, Tubes is great for readers who are curious about the behind the scenes action of the largest connected interface in the world. Fans of James Gleick’s The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood and Tim Wu’s The Master Switch will certainly enjoy this thought-provoking new title.