by John Long ‧ RELEASE DATE: April 3, 2012
Lively and intriguing.
Long (Cognitive Science and Biology/Vassar Coll.) traces his path from a doctoral student studying the evolution of fish vertebrae to his present position as director Vassar's Interdisciplinary Robotics Laboratory.
Although biologists depend on computer modeling to study neural networks, predator/prey relations and virus interactions, the author is frequently asked, “What do robots have to do with biology?” His short answer is that autonomous robots—even the simplest propeller-driven designs with an embedded computer and a sensor—have agency and can move around and interact with their environment. Long explains how a blunder in an early version of his doctoral thesis led to his later work with robots. His hypothesis was that vertebrae strength and flexibility evolved because it enhanced a fish’s ability to compete for food. He developed a computer model to correlate the relationship between the elasticity and flexibility of a marlin backbone to its swimming speed, but was dismayed to realize that he had inadvertently violated the laws of physics. His simplified assumptions had transformed the would-be marlin into a perpetual-motion machine. With a two-dimensional computer model, such an error was possible, but not with a three-dimensional one that actually moved. Long’s first self-propelled robot had a fairly simple design—an embedded minicomputer, one light sensor and a backbone built to mimic varying structural aspects of a marlin vertebrae. Natural selection would be modeled on the ability of a robot to reach a target first in a competition of six robots. His first model failed because his rules deducted points when the robot wobbled, which was accounted as an energy loss. In fact, as Long learned, wobble gave the robot greater flexibility in reaching a target and was a survival advantage. More complex robots allowed him to model predator/prey relationships and target acquisition more realistically, and he was able to consider broader issues such as the relationship between goal-directed behavior and animal intelligence.Lively and intriguing.
Pub Date: April 3, 2012
Page Count: 288
Publisher: Basic Books
Review Posted Online: Jan. 31, 2012
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2012
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A quirky wonder of a book.
A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.
Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.A quirky wonder of a book.
Pub Date: April 14, 2020
Page Count: 224
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020
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by Bill Bryson ‧ RELEASE DATE: May 6, 2003
Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...
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
Page Count: 304
Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003
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