Category Archives: Science

Reading Out Loud, Round 4

I’ve been using my blog to keep a log of the books I’ve read out loud to my husband over the past few years. This is the fourth posting. Click on this link to see the entire set.

We’ve branched out, reading books about social history and biography as well as science. Right now, we are in the middle of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, quite a change from physics and geology.

Reading out loud together is a way we exercise our brains together – something recommended by Nancy Andreasen in the book listed below.

Lightman, A. Ed. (2005). The Best American Science Writing 2005. New York: Harper Perennial.Greene, B. (2006). The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2006 (The Best American Series) . Houghton Mifflin.

Kolata, G. (2007). The Best American Science Writing 2007. Harper Perennial.

Winchester, S. (2003). The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press.
Sacks, O. (2008). Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Vintage Books.
Quennell, M. & C. H. B. (1918). A HISTORY OF EVERYDAY THINGS IN ENGLAND VOL. I 1066-1499. Originally published by B. T. Batsford, Ltd. London.History of everyday things like clothes, how houses were constructed, how windmills worked.
Quennell, M. & C. H. B. (1919). A history of everyday things in England, done in two parts of which this is the second, 1500-1799. London, B. T. Batsford.
Andreasen, N. (2005). The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius. New York: Plume Book.
Taylor, J. B. (2009). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Plume.
Ruse, M. & Travis, J. (2009). Evolution: The First Four Billion Years. Belknap Press.
Hazen, R. M. (2005). Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origins. Washington, D. C.: Joseph Henry Press.
Chown, M. (2001). The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms. Oxford University Press.This book was a complete delight. Not only did we learn about how atoms were formed and dispersed, from hydrogen to iron to uranium in the two furnaces of the big bang and very hot star interiors and supernovae, but we also had a tour of the science in process, personalities, life histories, deadend ideas, breakthroughs, politics, and all. It also read out loud well, which is not always true of books about science.
Stewart, Ian (2007). Why Beauty Is Truth: The History of Symmetry. New York: Basic Books.This was a challenge for me to read. It explored the mathematics of symmetry from its roots in the Babylonian solutions for quadratic equations through Galois and Group Theory through Lie Groups through dimensions and string theory. I don’t know how much stuck, but I have a new respect for creativity in mathematics.
Atkins, P. W. (1987). Atkins’ Molecules. W. H. Freeman & Co.
Carroll, Sean (2010). From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time. New York: Dutton.
Holmes, G. (Ed.) (1997). The Oxford Illustrated History of Italy (Oxford Illustrated Histories). Oxford University Press.Political, economic, and cultural history of Italy from Augustus to the present.
Fairbanks, J. K. (2006). China: A New History, Second Enlarged Edition. Harvard University Press.
Pesic, P. (2005). Sky in a Bottle. MIT Press.
Sobel, D. (2004). The Best American Science Writing 2004. HarperCollins Publishers.Several interesting articles, especially William Langewiesche’s discussion of Columbia’s last flight. It read like a mystery novel.
Lane, N. (2009). Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Rose, Steven (1992). The Making of Memory. New York: Anchor Doubleday
Feynman, R. P. (1995). Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics By Its Most Brilliant Teacher. Perseus Books.
Carroll, Sean B. (2009). Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species. Mariner Books.
Dreyfus, H. & Kelly, S. D. (2011). All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. New York: Free Press.
Weaver, K. (2005). The Violent Universe: Joyrides through the X-ray Cosmos. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
X-Ray observations of the universe. Many picture,
Villard, R. & Cook, L. (2005). Infinite Worlds: An Illustrated Voyage to Planets beyond Our Sun. University of California Press.
de Botton, Alain (1997). How Proust Can Change Your Life. New York: Vintage International.
Greene, B. (2011). The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Knopf.
Petroski, H. (2004). Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering. New York: Vintage Books.
Cairns-Smith, A. G. (1996). Evolving the mind: On the nature of matter and the origin of consciousness. Cambridge University Press.This book traveled all over the place, from quantum mechanics to brain physiology.
DeHaene, Stanislas (2010). Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read. Penguin.
Blackmore, S. (2006). Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human. Oxford University Press.Contains 20 somewhat structured interviews with researchers interested in the phenomenon of consciousness, from philosophers to neuroscientists, from Patricia Churchland to V. S. Ramachandran.
Ramachandran, V. S. (2011). The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human. New York: W. W. Norton.
Bellos, A. (2010). Here’s looking at Euclid: From counting ants to games of chance– An Awe-inspiring journey through the world of numbers. New York: Simon and Shuster.
Smith, John Maynard & Szathmary, Eors (1999). The origins of life: From the birth of life to the origins of language. Oxford University Press.
Sacks, Oliver (2001). Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. Vintage Books.
Levi, Primo (1975). The Periodic Table. Translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Schocken Books
Wolf, Maryanne (2008). Proust and the Squid. Harper Perennial.

This one didn’t have as much detail as Stanley DeHaene’s book, but one of her facts really stuck with me: that disadvantaged children may hear up to 23 million fewer words before entering kindergarten then children from other backgrounds. Wow!

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Reading Science Out Loud, Round 3

I have a stack of books on the floor to add to the catalog of science books I’ve read out loud to my husband. I may miss one or two that have gone back to the library. This is the third installment in this list of very interesting books that have fed our joint curiosity. Round 1 had an emphasis on evolution and paleontology, and Round 2 branched out from neurology and human biology to measuring time and observing natural disasters. This round is a little broader, including music, geology, astronomy, and even some cosmology. It’s fun when things we’ve read before come around again in different contexts.

Jourdain, R. (1998). Music, The Brain, And Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination. Harper Perennial.
From tone to melody to harmony to rhythm to … A systematic and cumulative exploration of how humans experience music, from the physics to the neurology to the differences that practice and training make. Great beginning for deeper study.
Levin, J. (2002). How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space. New York: Anchor Books.
This one was a bit of a mind bender for me, given my totally inadequate education in physics and topology. But what wonderfully big ideas, thinking about the size and topology of the universe and how such things can be explored.
planets Sobel, D. (2005). The Planets. New York: Viking.

When we finished an earlier book, my husband had all sorts of questions about planets and the formation of our solar system, and this book has many answers. It progresses systematically from the genesis of the sun out to the Kuiper belt and Pluto’s ambiguous status. For each planet, it explains what is known and how we know what we know.

canon Angier, N. (2008). The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.. New York: Mariner Books.

This was a real tongue twister to read out loud, since the author was trying both to inform and to entertain. Many very witty passages, but also a general exploration of the state of knowledge in physics, chemistry, geology, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, and astronomy. This book touched a lot of things we had already encountered, but introduced new ones. A new idea for me: the origin of the universe in the Big Bang is estimated at 13.5 billion years ago. Now I understand better news stories about how far back we can see.

Fortey, R. (2005). Earth: An Intimate History. New York: Vintage Press.
Using descriptions of rocks and geological history from Hawaii, Sicily, Newfoundland, Scotland, and several places around the globe, the author discusses the evolution of plate techtonics theory — as well as the rise and fall of oceans and continents. Bell Island off the west coast of Newfoundland is more similar to Wales in terms of fossils and rocks than it is to the east coast of Newfoundland. Lovely to think about how that can be.
chimps Fouts, R. & Mills, S. T. (1998). Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees. Harper Paperbacks.

Can chimpanzees learn language, if we use a gestural language like American Sign Language instead of a vocal language? Roger Fouts taught chimpanzee Washoe several hundred words in ASL that she combined in novel ways. She taught ASL to her adopted infant chimp, Loulis, who was not exposed to human signing, thus demonstrating that “language acquisition is based on learning skills we share with chimpanzees.” Very interesting exploration of language acquisition, and another chip away at our sense of human uniqueness.

August 2009 – time to add a few more books to the list.

Not quite as much fun as the book on the beginning of earth, perhaps because we weren’t crazy about the imaginary travels at the beginning and end of each chapter. But it was interesting to read again about multiverses and inflation. May 2012

Ferreira, Pedro (2006). The State of the Universe: A Primer in Modern Cosmology. Phoenix Paperback.

Dark matter, dark energy, cosmic microwave background, primordial sound, age of the universe and how we know. Another view of the topology of the universe to add to Janna Levin’s. Strange and wonderful stuff.

Fagan, Brian (1995). Time Detectives: How Archaeologist Use Technology to Recapture the Past. New York: Simon & Schuster.

How do we learn about humans in prehistoric times? How do we interpret the clues left behind? In the words of archaelogist Sir Mortimer Wheeler, “You dug it up boy. Make sure you describe it because you can’t undo your deed.”

McPhee, J. (2000). Annals of the Former World. Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux.

Exploring the geology of the United States through roadcuts along I80 from New Jersey to San Francisco. Plate tectonics, glaciation, ophiolites (sections of the ocean floor emplaced on land). This book was 20+ years in the writing – some of it published in articles along the way. The author traveled with 5 geologists and includes both his observations about their lives as geologists and their observations about what they saw in his presence.

Greene, Brian (2007). The Best American Science and Nature Writing: 2006. New York: Houghton Mifflin
Gaarder, Jostein (1991). Sophies World. New York: Berkeley Books. Read October-November 2011
Ferguson, Niall (2008). The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. Penguin Books. Read December 2011.
Meyer, A. (2005). The DNA Detectives: How the double helix is solving puzzles of the past. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press. Read December 2011.
Laubichler, M. & Maienschein, J. (2007). From Embryology to Evo-Devo: A History of Developmental Evolution. MIT Press.

This was a hard slog because the focus was more on the history — who did what when and why — than on the science of evo-devo, which is what really interests us.
Read January 2012
Seife, C. (2003). Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe. Viking.
This was pretty interesting, though occasionally he wrote in journalistic hyperbole. But we kept wishing we could get an update about the things he projected would occur around 2010!

Read Jan-Feb 2012

Salsburg, D. (2001). The lady tasting tea: How statistics revolutionized science in the twentieth century. Henry Holt and Company.
This was a delight to read.
Read March-April 2012.
Reader, J. (2011). Missing Links: In search of human origins. Oxford University Press.

This was another delight to read — beautifully illustrated with photographs of fossils and people who discovered them and the places where they were discovered, detailed discussions of the preconceptions and reasoning of the major contributors — even a lengthy discussion of the Piltdown man and the remaining mystery around it (whodunit?)

Read March 2012

Stewart, I. (2012). In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World. New York: Basic Books.

At first, we weren’t sure how interesting this book would be to my husband, who has a BS in Mathematics. I knew it would be interesting to me, being a member of C. P. Snow’s other culture who can’t (always) remember the second law of thermodynamics. Yet each chapter has something in it that neither of us knew. Ranging from the history to the impact for each of the 17 equations. A good read.

April 2012

Pendergrast, M. (2003). Mirror Mirror: A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection. New York: Perseus Group.
Hazen, R. (2012). The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet. Viking.

This was a wonderful exploration of many things we didn’t know about the genesis of the earth. Yes, we knew that the earth didn’t have a highly oxygenated atmosphere until after photosynthesis, but we gained a much clearer picture of the formation of the moon (from a collision with another planetoid, most of which was absorbed by the earth but also causing a big blob of earth-stuff to go flying off), the formation of first a basalt crust and then a granite crust, more ideas about the origins of life. Fun to read. May 2012.

Impey, C. (2012). How It Began: A Time-Traveler’s Guide to the Universe. W. W. Norton.
Firestein, S. (2012). Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Oxford University Press.

An interesting, but somewhat repetitive discussion of the importance of ignorance — being aware of what you don’t know — on the conduct of science. Based on a class taught by Dr. Firestein at Columbia. We particularly enjoyed the 4 case histories. Finished June 4, 2012.

Zuk, M. (2007). Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are Harcourt, Inc.

Fun! Except when it’s gross. But mostly fun. Finished June 26, 2012.

Steinhardt, Paul J. & Turok, Neil (2007). Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang. Broadway Books.

Finished Spring 2012. An interesting alternative to the Big Bang→Stretch Away picture of the universe’s evolution.

epic of evolution Chaison, E. (2006). Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos. New York: Columbia University Press
This is an interesting presentation of the history of the universe in terms of 7 evolutions: Particle, Galactic, Stellar, Planetary, Chemical, Biological, Cultural. This cuts a wide swath through science — including cosmology, chemistry, physics, biology, even anthropology and psychology. Interesting to have so much pulled together in one place. Finished November 2012.
hallucinations Sacks, O. (2012). Hallucinations. New York: Knopf.
We’ve enjoyed books written by Oliver Sacks before — from Musicophilia to Uncle Tungsten. This book carried a great many quotations from people experiencing various kinds of hallucinations. The focus was more on the experience, with just a few paragraphs discussing how the experiences were tied to neurological functioning. Finished Nov 2012.

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Reading Science Out Loud, Round 2

About six months ago, I wrote about a new entertainment that my husband and I had taken on: I was reading science books out loud to him. I had just finished reading the second book, where both were about paleontology and geological evidence for the evolution of living things.

Since then, we’ve completed 10 other books on a wider range of topics including neurology and memory, evo devo (evolutionary development), geological catastrophes and plate techtonics, e coli and what scientists have discovered using it as a model organism, and most recently, various techniques for establishing dates for everything from the solar system to tooth enamel of individuals born before and after atmospheric nuclear tests. I updated the original post whenever we finished a book, thus keeping a reading log for us. Today I decided to bring half of the books forward into this posting, since the other was getting too long. 5 to 7 book reviews seem enough for one posting.

I found I was overusing the word ‘fascinating’ as I wrote short blurbs for them. The things that scientists are figuring out are so interesting, and the techniques to explore them so ingenious, that it is hard to use any other word. We keep finish a chapter thinking, I didn’t know that!

Kandel, E. (2006). In search of memory: The emergence of a new science of mind. New York: W.W. Norton.
Gazzaniga, M. (2008). Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique. Ecco Publishers. A discussion of what distinguishes humans from other animals, including considerable insight into the way the brain functions. Not one picture!
Furnace of Creation Cradle of Destruction cover Chester, R. (2008). Furnace of creation, Cradle of destruction. New York: Amacon Press.

A fascinating exploration of earthquakes, volcanos, and tsunamis. Includes a lengthy discussion of plate tectonics and how the theory grew out of earlier continental drift and seafloor spreading theories. The descriptions of specific disasters — from the Krakatau volcano and tsunami to the the 2004 Indian ocean tsunami — are a good source of humility for humans.

Zimmer, C. (2008). Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life. New York: Pantheon Books.

Fascinating exploration of the social life of e coli in biofilms that are much hardier than single cells, as a wide variety of forms, from ones that live cooperatively in our guts to others that turn our immune systems against us, as factories for the insulin that I depend on, but most of all for the sheer number of biological discoveries that scientists have made from working with it.

MacDougall, Doug (2008). Nature’s Clocks: How Scientists Measure the Age of Almost Everything. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

This book was a complete surprise. Who would think that the techniques for measuring ages of things could be so interesting and could lead to so many insights about the history of the earth and all the things therein? From carbon-14 dating to uranium-lead dating to potassium-argon dating — as well as counting tree rings and ice layers in glaciers — all leading to new insights about how the earth formed, how its chemistry changed over time, and the way rocks form, break down, and form again, with zircon crystals from older rocks embedded in younger ones.


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