There’s some chaff here, but also plenty of insights for the scientifically curious.

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WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT?

TODAY’S LEADING MINDS RETHINK EVERYTHING

Scientists, futurists and other pundits ruminate on roads not taken and missteps along the way.

Marvin Minsky, the pioneering cognitive scientist, once said that anyone interested in getting at the real answer to a question had better keep an open mind: “You have to form the habit of not wanting to have been right for very long.” He added, perhaps unhelpfully, that most other people won’t aid in the quest, since they’re “ignorant savages.” The contributors to Brockman’s edge.com salon are more kindly disposed, but they gamely address the annual question to which Brockman (Digerati, 1996, etc.) puts them—in this case, as the title says, how they’ve shaken off dogmas, preconceptions and misconceptions to rethink the Big Questions of Life. The noted musician and technologist Brian Eno remarks that doing this is important, just as it’s important for consumers of information to be interested in getting the facts right. In the greater scheme of things, he opines, it doesn’t really matter how many words the Eskimos have for snow, but “it does matter if they believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11.” In somewhat dour spirit, former hipster stalwart Stewart Brand, now approaching 70, discards his previous conviction that old things are authentic and desirable: “New stuff is mostly crap, too, of course. But the best new stuff is invariably better than the best old stuff.” With more depth, psychologist Steven Pinker rethinks his previous conviction that humans unhooked themselves from evolution at the dawn of agriculture; the findings of the Human Genome Project suggest otherwise. Neoconservative computer guru David Gelernter observes how smart he’s been all along about newfangled things such as cloud computing, owning to being wrong only about the public’s attitude to technology (“cautious but not reactionary”). And so on, ranging from the paradoxical and puzzling to the matter of fact (cyberspace is just a place to make a buck; the world is indeed warming).

There’s some chaff here, but also plenty of insights for the scientifically curious.

Pub Date: Jan. 6, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-06-168654-2

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Perennial/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2008

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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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