“From the perspective of a vast, seemingly indifferent cosmos,” do our lives really matter?
As might be expected, Carroll’s (Theoretical Physics/Caltech; The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World, 2012, etc.) answer is affirmative but not simple. “We are not the reason for the existence of the universe,” he writes, “but our ability for self-awareness and reflection make us special within it.” Furthermore, “understanding how the world works, and what constraints that puts on who we are, is an important part of understanding how we fit into the big picture.” In this fascinating book, Carroll explores “how and why, in the context of mindless evolution from the Big Bang to the present, the laws of physics brought about complex, adaptive, intelligent, responsive, evolving, caring creatures like you and me.” To effectively navigate these complicated matters, he turns to an area of his own research regarding how the emergence of increasing complexity in the evolving universe relates to increasing entropy, the second law of thermodynamics. Although intuitively, we associate entropy with disorganization and increased randomness, it plays a crucial role in the development of complex structures. For example, it is randomness and apparent disorganization—the role of chance variation and mutations—that are central to Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. At each successive level of complexity—from stars and planets to life and conscious beings—different levels of descriptive language are necessary. This introduces a poetic aspect into the language used by scientists in their attempts to understand our place in the universe. The author affirms his conviction that “nothing we…know about consciousness should lead us to doubt the ordinary, naturalistic conception of the world,” including the provisional nature of scientific theory. Carroll is the perfect guide on this wondrous journey of discovery.
A brilliantly lucid exposition of profound philosophical and scientific issues in a language accessible to lay readers.
Oliver Sacks meets Stephen King in a piercing study of one of psychiatric medicine’s darker hours.
Well known for recent takedowns of psychic charlatans, Esquire contributing editor Dittrich expands a feature story there to point an accusing finger at the old practices of lobotomy, electroshock, and other supposed therapies for mental illness. His accusation lands squarely on his own grandfather, a pioneer in the use of surgery to treat mental illness. “None would perform as many lobotomies as Freeman,” he writes of another leading doctor of the day, “who was as prolific as he was passionate. My grandfather, however, would come in a close second.” The problem was, no one in that day was sure why cutting into the frontal lobes had the effects it did or, indeed, how the brain really ticked. Dittrich’s story begins and ends, in frightening, graphic detail, with an unfortunate young boy who suffered an injury to his brain, which “sloshed forward in its watery womb, pushing up against the thin membrane of the pia mater and the thicker membranes of the arachnoid and dura mater, its weight compressing them all until it crashed against the unyielding barrier of his skull.” Surgery did not help; indeed, medical intervention played a role in what would become a textbook case of amnesia, made all the more tragic because the patient could not form new memories and could not remember who his aging mother was except against the index of the long-ago picture he held of her as a young woman, part of the “eternal limbo to which my grandfather’s operation had sentenced him.” Dittrich’s riveting tale turns up numerous other surprises, including a battle among academic giants over the ownership of the poor patient’s brain and a skeleton in the family closet involving, almost literally, a mad woman in the attic. Though long, there’s not a wasted word in the book, which should make readers glad we live in the age of Prozac and not the scalpel.
A mesmerizing, maddening story and a model of journalistic investigation.
New York Times Magazine writer Heffernan considers the mighty Internet in all its terrible beauty and power.
As a member of a pre-millennial generation that can rightly say its maturation process paralleled the Internet’s own, the author is in excellent position to declare early on, “if it’s ever fair to say that anything has ‘changed everything,’ it’s fair to say so about the Internet.” Heffernan’s digital odyssey began personally and warmly in the glow of an inchoate social networking platform at Dartmouth College called “Conference XYZ,” which the author used while still a preteen. The ensuing decades have only served to deepen the author’s initial wonder with the Internet. Deeply contemplating the aesthetic meaning behind the Internet’s early interface, Heffernan exercises the same sort of intellectual curiosity more commonly ascribed to things like string theory and quantum physics. She similarly treats popular time killers like “Angry Birds” and “Frisbee.” “But when things settle down in reality, the Frisbee game is too exciting,” writes the author. “It does nothing to teach the all-important patience and tolerance for boredom that are central to learning.” The author’s cerebral, literary approach also informs her discussion of YouTube’s inaugural clip from 2005, titled “Me At The Zoo,” in which one of the site’s founders vaguely talks about elephants at the San Diego Zoo. Heffernan, however, is also sober about the Internet’s negative aspects. At one point, she calls it a “graphic mess…designed to weaken, confound, and pickpocket you.” Still, the author steadfastly defends the Internet from myopic critics who are all too happy to jeer it. “Asking what’s to become of poetry in the age of Twitter is like asking what will become of music in the age of guitars,” she writes. In melding the personal with the increasingly universal, Heffernan delivers a highly informative analysis of what the Internet is—and can be.
A thoroughly engrossing examination of the Internet’s past, present, and future.
On the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s prediction that gravitational waves distort space-time, an acclaimed astrophysicist provides a thrilling insider’s look at the extraordinary scientific team that devised and built the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, which conducted the first experiment to ever observe gravitational waves.
In Einstein’s 1916 paper describing the general theory of relativity, he predicted that gravitational waves—such as those created when two black holes collide—would warp the fabric of space-time in predictable patterns. A century later, scientists at LIGO empirically verified his claim by detecting waves that have been “ringing” through space since the moment of collision over 1 billion years ago. Levin’s (Physics and Astronomy/Barnard Coll.; A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, 2006, etc.) authoritative account of the brilliant physicists and engineers who envisioned such a remarkable experiment places readers right in the middle of the action, tracing LIGO’s evolution from an inspired idea in the 1970s to the most expensive project in the history of the National Science Foundation. She perfectly captures the fast-paced, forward-thinking, bureaucracy-averse atmosphere of a large-scale scientific experiment, but she also lays bare the decades of interpersonal strife that, at times, threatened to undermine the experiment’s success. The author’s portrait of these pioneers is especially engaging for her ability to contextualize humanness not just within the scope of the physical experiment, but in the face of such dizzying stakes—surely a Nobel is on the line and has been since the beginning. Levin herself is also wondrously present in this narrative, nimbly guiding readers through scientific jargon and reminding us of the enormous profundity of modern physics. “A vestige of the noise of the [black hole] crash,” she writes, “has been on its way to us since early multicelled organisms fossilized in supercontinents on a still dynamic Earth.”
A superb alignment of author and subject: Levin is among the best contemporary science writers, and LIGO is arguably the most compelling experiment on the planet.
A panoramic history of the gene and how genetics “resonate[s] far beyond the realms of science.”
Mukherjee (Medicine/Columbia Univ.; The Laws of Medicine, 2015, etc.), who won the Pulitzer Prize for his history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies (2010), begins with Mendel and his “pea-flower garden,” and he never lets readers forget the social, cultural, and ethical implications of genetics research. Indeed, he dedicates the book to his grandmother, who raised two mentally ill children, and to Carrie Buck, the Virginia woman judged “feeble-minded” and sterilized according to eugenics laws passed in the 1920s. After Mendel, Mukherjee describes Thomas Morgan’s fruit fly studies in the 1900s, and he goes on to trace the steps leading to the discovery of the double helix, the deciphering of the genetic code, and the technological advances that have created ethical dilemmas. Early on, there was recombinant DNA, the insertion of genes from one species into another, and this led to mandates initially proscribing certain experiments. Then, there were the first disastrous attempts at gene therapy, which consisted of arrogant and sloppy science. Meanwhile, the human genome has been mapped, more and more genes have been associated with certain diseases (and even behaviors), and a new technique has been developed that permits the removing or replacing of specific genetic defects. Are we ready to apply that to an individual patient? Should it apply to sperm and egg cells so as to affect future generations? Mukherjee ponders these issues in the final chapters and epilogue, ultimately seeing the need for more research about the information coded in the human genome, since so much of it does not consist of genes. Throughout, the author provides vivid portraits of the principal players and enough accessible scientific information to bring general readers into the process of genetic lab science.
Sobering, humbling, and extraordinarily rich reading from a wise and gifted writer who sees how far we have come—but how much farther we have to go to understand our human nature and destiny.
How ill-conceived algorithms now micromanage America’s economy, from advertising to prisons.
“Welcome to the dark side of Big Data,” writes math guru O’Neil (Doing Data Science: Straight Talk from the Frontline, 2013, etc.), a blogger (mathbabe.org) and former quantitative analyst at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw. In this simultaneously illuminating and disturbing account, she describes the many ways in which widely used mathematic models—based on “prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias”—tend to punish the poor and reward the rich. The most harmful such models, which she calls “Weapons of Math Destruction,” often have devastating effects on people when they are going to college, borrowing money, getting sentenced to prison, or finding and holding a job. For example: credit scores are used to evaluate potential hires (assuming bad scores correlate with bad job performance, which is often not true); for-profit colleges use data to target and prey on vulnerable strivers, often plunging them into debt; auto insurance companies judge applicants by their consumer patterns rather than their driving records; crime predictive software often leads police to focus on nuisance crimes in impoverished neighborhoods. As the author notes, the harmful effects are apparent “when a poor minority teenager gets stopped, roughed up, and put on warning by the local police, or when a gas station attendant who lives in a poor zip code gets hit with a higher insurance bill.” She notes the same mathematical models “place the comfortable classes of society in their own marketing silos,” jetting them off to vacations in Aruba, wait-listing them at Wharton, and generally making their lives “smarter and easier.” The author writes with passion—a few years ago she became disillusioned over her hedge fund modeling and joined the Occupy movement—but with the authority of a former Barnard professor who is outraged at the increasingly wrongheaded use of mathematics. She convincingly argues for both more responsible modeling and federal regulation.
An unusually lucid and readable look at the daunting algorithms that govern so many aspects of our lives.
A valuable resource for those wondering whether there is a chance that cancer runs in their family.
Ross (Director, Cancer Genetics Program/Univ. of Texas Southwestern Medical Center) has the ideal background: oncologist, cancer survivor who carries a cancer gene mutation, and cancer gene researcher with a mission to help people. She sends an upbeat message that learning about a cancer mutation in one’s family history is not about coping with bad news; it is about taking control and making choices. Although readers learn about the author’s decision-making process when she discovered the risks of her mutant gene, she does not claim that they were the best choices at the time nor does she prescribe what choices others should make. She organizes her information with great care and clarity, and thankfully, she lightens the reading with her personal story and those of the cancer patients she has known. Ross explains how cancer mutations are passed through families, how to recognize the signs of a cancer mutation, how to create a revealing family tree, how to get genetic counseling and genetic testing, and how to tell family members that they may be at risk, often information they may not want to hear. Furthermore, she describes how to manage one’s risk when experts give conflicting information or when information is limited. The chapter on targeted treatments, subtitled “Realities, Myths, Possibilities,” is sometimes a bit technical, but Ross calmly advises readers to evaluate current research on new treatments in the same way they researched their family history: with persistence, honesty, and toleration for the discomfort of not knowing. Appendices provide additional practical information on inherited cancer syndromes and their risk management, and a resource list contains the names and websites of helpful support organizations.
Highly recommended: an exceptionally well-organized, authoritative, and readable resource book.
Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.
These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.
An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.
A troubling look at the systemic overdiagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a chilling analysis of the effect ADHD medications have on patients, especially children.
New York Times investigative reporter Schwarz (Once Upon a Game: Baseball's Greatest Memories, 2007, etc.) begins this hard-hitting book by making sure readers understand that, despite the prevalence of false diagnoses, ADHD is a legitimate condition that affects some children and adults; in these cases, appropriately prescribed medication may work wonders. However—a very significant however—in the 50 years since ADHD was clinically defined, it “has become, by far, the most misdiagnosed condition in American medicine.” Stunningly, in some states, 30 percent of school-age boys are diagnosed, the majority of whom are put on powerful stimulants such as Ritalin or Adderall. While the intentions of the prescribing doctors may have some merit, the fact remains that physicians and pharmaceutical companies alike assure parents that ADHD drugs are “safer than aspirin.” The author pulls no punches in his in-depth portrayal of this falsehood and the prevalence of the drugs in schools and colleges across the nation. Adolescents routinely and casually abuse stimulants to such an extent that school officials often shrug their shoulders at the problem rather than instituting rules to protect students. Worse, Schwarz describes how doctors misconstrue the dangerous side effects of stimulants as evidence of other maladies and prescribe additional drugs such as anti-anxiety medication. Tragically, many kids become quickly addicted and fall into a downward spiral they are helpless to prevent. The author, while vehement in his arguments, is no alarmist; his facts are meticulously sourced, and he relies on numerous first-person narratives from patients, parents, doctors, and pharma reps to make his argument. In no uncertain terms, he states that without immediate action to reassess the status quo, countless patients may face dire consequences.
In this powerful, necessary book, Schwarz exposes the dirty secrets of the growing ADHD epidemic.
The microbiome is one of the most talked-about topics in modern science, but it’s a complex and evolving field with important nuances often missed by the media. Atlantic science writer Yong refines the natural history of these microscopic wonders and breaks down the cutting-edge science that may soon result in revolutionary medical advances.
Simply put, the microbiome (or “microbiota”) is the vast collection of bacteria, viruses, and other microscopic organisms that live in and on the bodies of animals. While scientists have long been aware of the presence of some microbes, their abundance and significance have only been truly understood with the advent of tools that reveal their genetic identity. As a result, specialists around the world are focusing on exactly how microbes affect the health of their hosts. In this sweeping and meticulously researched book, the author introduces many of these pioneering researchers, and through their experiments, he elucidates microbes’ astonishingly wide-ranging roles. Prepare to meet some weird animals and weirder microbes, as Yong guides us through the animal kingdom to explain how microbes facilitate digestion, reproduction, and other functions integral to the survival of a species. In humans, microbes have been shown to regulate inflammation, an immune response linked to dozens of chronic conditions. In fact, in the absence of symbiotic microbes, life as we know it would quickly collapse—and yet it was only recently that microbes were understood to be more than disease-carrying bugs and more recently still that scientists have begun to understand their potential medicinal power. The author excels at objectively navigating the large body of research related to the microbiome without overselling its curative potential or sacrificing any of the deliciously icky details, and he delivers some of the finest science writing out there in language that will appeal to a wide audience.
An exceptionally informative, beautifully written book that will profoundly shift one’s sense of self to that of symbiotic multitudes.