An insightful look at the intellectual underpinnings of science.

WHY US?

HOW SCIENCE REDISCOVERED THE MYSTERY OF OURSELVES

British journalist Le Fanu (The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine, 2000) investigates some thus-far-unanswered questions in genetics and brain research.

Scientists have made earth-shattering discoveries in recent years, writes the author, but still face many mysteries. Despite the fact that the human genome was mapped in its entirety in 2001, for example, they are still baffled as to how genes actually work—that is, how they generate the different species’ incredible diversity of forms, shapes and behaviors. Le Fanu also singles out brain research for scrutiny. Thanks to advances in scanning technology, researchers have identified the functions of many parts of the brain, but so far have been unable to answer the most basic question: how the firing of nerve impulses actually produce the phenomena of perception and thought. Apparently convinced that scientists have hit a sort of intellectual wall in these areas, the author devotes the bulk of the book to documenting their unexplained mysteries. For example, why does a defective gene in one person cause horrible disease, while the same defective gene in another person does not? How does the brain produce what we would call a sense of self? Le Fanu doesn’t seem to believe that these questions are completely unanswerable, but he does think that scientists will have to undergo a radical alteration in the way they look at the problems. What they lack, he argues, is a sense of wonder: “They have interpreted the world through the prism of supposing that there is nothing in principle that cannot be accounted for.” Le Fanu stops short of supporting intelligent design, but he appears to understand the impulse of those who think that mind-bogglingly complex problems might require resolution by a higher power than humankind.

An insightful look at the intellectual underpinnings of science.

Pub Date: March 17, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-375-42198-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2009

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A media-savvy scientist cleans out his desk.

LETTERS FROM AN ASTROPHYSICIST

Tyson (Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, 2017, etc.) receives a great deal of mail, and this slim volume collects his responses and other scraps of writing.

The prolific science commentator and bestselling author, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History, delivers few surprises and much admirable commentary. Readers may suspect that most of these letters date from the author’s earlier years when, a newly minted celebrity, he still thrilled that many of his audience were pouring out their hearts. Consequently, unlike more hardened colleagues, he sought to address their concerns. As years passed, suspecting that many had no interest in tapping his expertise or entering into an intelligent give and take, he undoubtedly made greater use of the waste basket. Tyson eschews pure fan letters, but many of these selections are full of compliments as a prelude to asking advice, pointing out mistakes, proclaiming opposing beliefs, or denouncing him. Readers will also encounter some earnest op-ed pieces and his eyewitness account of 9/11. “I consider myself emotionally strong,” he writes. “What I bore witness to, however, was especially upsetting, with indelible images of horror that will not soon leave my mind.” To crackpots, he gently repeats facts that almost everyone except crackpots accept. Those who have seen ghosts, dead relatives, and Bigfoot learn that eyewitness accounts are often unreliable. Tyson points out that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so confirmation that a light in the sky represents an alien spacecraft requires more than a photograph. Again and again he defends “science,” and his criteria—observation, repeatable experiments, honest discourse, peer review—are not controversial but will remain easy for zealots to dismiss. Among the instances of “hate mail” and “science deniers,” the author also discusses philosophy, parenting, and schooling.

A media-savvy scientist cleans out his desk.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-324-00331-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.

THE ORDER OF TIME

Undeterred by a subject difficult to pin down, Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, 2017, etc.) explains his thoughts on time.

Other scientists have written primers on the concept of time for a general audience, but Rovelli, who also wrote the bestseller Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, adds his personal musings, which are astute and rewarding but do not make for an easy read. “We conventionally think of time,” he writes, “as something simple and fundamental that flows uniformly, independently from everything else, uniformly from the past to the future, measured by clocks and watches. In the course of time, the events of the universe succeed each other in an orderly way: pasts, presents, futures. The past is fixed, the future open….And yet all of this has turned out to be false.” Rovelli returns again and again to the ideas of three legendary men. Aristotle wrote that things change continually. What we call “time” is the measurement of that change. If nothing changed, time would not exist. Newton disagreed. While admitting the existence of a time that measures events, he insisted that there is an absolute “true time” that passes relentlessly. If the universe froze, time would roll on. To laymen, this may seem like common sense, but most philosophers are not convinced. Einstein asserted that both are right. Aristotle correctly explained that time flows in relation to something else. Educated laymen know that clocks register different times when they move or experience gravity. Newton’s absolute exists, but as a special case in Einstein’s curved space-time. According to Rovelli, our notion of time dissolves as our knowledge grows; complex features swell and then retreat and perhaps vanish entirely. Furthermore, equations describing many fundamental physical phenomena don’t require time.

As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.

Pub Date: May 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1610-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

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