Entertaining and elucidating—popular science done right, with enthusiasm and without dumbing-down.

THE ALCHEMY OF US

HOW HUMANS AND MATTER TRANSFORMED ONE ANOTHER

A user-friendly, wide-ranging history of material science.

A self-described “science evangelist,” Ramirez conveys enthusiasm for her field, which lies at the intersection of physics and chemistry and concerns how one can, in the words of an old mentor, “change the way that atoms act to make them do new things.” Timekeeping, for example, altered human behavior irrevocably. Extend Marshall McLuhan’s “extensions of man” theory of media, and you have an example of a technology that changed how we sleep. “Before the Industrial Revolution,” Ramirez writes, “our ancestors slept at night in two separate intervals,” going to bed around 9:00 or 10:00, awakening after midnight, staying up for an hour or so, and then returning to bed. This “segmented sleep” ended with the invention of not just the clock and its demand for regularity and punctuality, but also artificial light that allowed people to stay up later, turning night into day. (She doesn’t hit on it hard, but there was also the demand of factory and office owners that people show up and stay at work.) Material changes behavior, then—and that change evolves. For example, Samuel Morse missed arriving at his ailing wife’s bed as she lay dying, and she was buried without him, spurring the invention of the telegraph. Ramirez communicates gently but with depth of detail and meaning. One of the best moments in this satisfying book concerns how 43-year-old Carl Sagan came to decide what music should be sent into space on the Voyager mission to illustrate earthling sounds, an inventory that started off as European classical music and ended with a broad range of sounds from around the entire planet. Just so, Ramirez takes pains to include examples of innovators and scientists beyond the usual suspects (though Einstein and company do figure), making the text an inspiration to budding scientists of all backgrounds.

Entertaining and elucidating—popular science done right, with enthusiasm and without dumbing-down.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-262-04380-9

Page Count: 328

Publisher: MIT Press

Review Posted Online: April 5, 2020

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A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

THIS IS YOUR MIND ON PLANTS

Building on his lysergically drenched book How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan looks at three plant-based drugs and the mental effects they can produce.

The disastrous war on drugs began under Nixon to control two classes of perceived enemies: anti-war protestors and Black citizens. That cynical effort, writes the author, drives home the point that “societies condone the mind-changing drugs that help uphold society’s rule and ban the ones that are seen to undermine it.” One such drug is opium, for which Pollan daringly offers a recipe for home gardeners to make a tea laced with the stuff, producing “a radical and by no means unpleasant sense of passivity.” You can’t overthrow a government when so chilled out, and the real crisis is the manufacture of synthetic opioids, which the author roundly condemns. Pollan delivers a compelling backstory: This section dates to 1997, but he had to leave portions out of the original publication to keep the Drug Enforcement Administration from his door. Caffeine is legal, but it has stronger effects than opium, as the author learned when he tried to quit: “I came to see how integral caffeine is to the daily work of knitting ourselves back together after the fraying of consciousness during sleep.” Still, back in the day, the introduction of caffeine to the marketplace tempered the massive amounts of alcohol people were drinking even though a cup of coffee at noon will keep banging on your brain at midnight. As for the cactus species that “is busy transforming sunlight into mescaline right in my front yard”? Anyone can grow it, it seems, but not everyone will enjoy effects that, in one Pollan experiment, “felt like a kind of madness.” To his credit, the author also wrestles with issues of cultural appropriation, since in some places it’s now easier for a suburbanite to grow San Pedro cacti than for a Native American to use it ceremonially.

A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

Pub Date: July 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-29690-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 14, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2021

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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