UNDERSTANDING THE PRESENT

SCIENCE AND THE SOUL OF MODERN MAN

A withering indictment of modern science by, of all people, the science-and-philosophy columnist of The Sunday Times of London. Appleyard's blast is ferocious: Science has done ``appalling spiritual damage'' to modern human beings, for it rules the day but ``offers no truth, no guiding light, and no path.'' Enough is enough: ``We must resist and the time to do so is now.'' Appleyard's resistance takes the form, largely, of a history of how science came to be and the havoc it has wreaked. The crisis began in 1609, when Galileo peered through the telescope and ``invented the modern.'' Suddenly, observation and experiment replaced rational authority (exemplified by Aquinas's brilliant synthesis of Aristotle and Christianity) as the bastion of knowledge. This new way of seeing eschewed value and meaning, Appleyard says; it found its philosophy in Cartesian dualism, and its final, tragic expression in Darwinism. Appleyard runs through responses to this alleged debacle, from Nietzsche to Kierkegaard—all noble failures, he contends. Science's internal revolutions, especially quantum physics, may provide new life—but Appleyard doubts it. Nor does he have faith in New Age science (Bohm, Capra, Sheldrake) or the Green movement, which he describes as ``a religion of rejection.'' What, then, to do? Consider that science cannot understand self-consciousness or the soul, he says, although subjective experience indicates that we may possess both. These are clues that science is blinkered, that it poses its own questions and then insists these are the only ones that exist. The answer is to ``humble'' science, to see it as just one ``convention'' of knowing rather than as the royal road to truth. An old argument, but Appleyard attacks scientism with uncanny intelligence and heat (who else has managed to squash hard and New Age science with the same hammer, or has scorned Sagan, Hawking, and other scientific icons in such blistering terms?). This should crack a few test tubes.

Pub Date: March 8, 1993

ISBN: 0-385-42071-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1993

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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