A digestible, intriguing academic read on a complex subject.

BRAINSCAPES

THE WARPED, WONDROUS MAPS WRITTEN IN YOUR BRAIN―AND HOW THEY GUIDE YOU

A thorough delineation of neural representations, or brain maps, that affect our sensory, motor, cognitive, and emotional capacities.

Schwarzlose, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis, explores literal brain maps, within human and animal brains, comprised of cells. Unlike traditional geographical maps, they are dynamic by virtue of electricity and time. "Neighboring neurons in your brain represent neighboring plots of land on your skin,” she writes. “The result? A beautiful, honest-to-goodness map of the surfaces of your body built into your brain." The author uses the metaphor of subway tunnels in not only explaining  how brain maps affect our sight and feeling, but also to demonstrate that a map's inherent two-dimensional distortion sometimes makes it better at magnifying important information. "Vision as you know it is born in the darkness at the back of your skull, reflecting what is happening in your visual brain maps more than what is happening in your two eyes,” she writes. “This is why it matters so much exactly how your maps are warped: these maps, in turn, warp your conscious perception." Schwarzlose illuminates four primary themes of brain maps: their universality, respective uniqueness, the idea that they are created out of necessity, and their ability to give organisms the opportunity to adapt. Not only are brain maps spatial, but they can also use nonspatial phenomena, such as vibrations, to reveal where a source of sound is located. Human brain maps were discovered in 19th-century London through experiments on patients who experienced seizures and the study of their paths. The parietal lobe, writes the author, holds maps that do not belong to a single category: “They actually combine and align information from touch, vision, and hearing with information about body position and space around the body to which actions might be guided." The scope of the book is staggering, as is the potential of technology's role in decoding minds, and yet Schwarzlose successfully and enthusiastically relays the research in relevant, understandable, and absorbing language. The black-and-white illustrations are also helpful.

A digestible, intriguing academic read on a complex subject.

Pub Date: June 15, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-328-94996-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: April 7, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2021

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

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

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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A solid foundational education in a handful of lively scientific topics.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE UNIVERSE

Two science podcasters answer their mail.

In this illustrated follow-up to We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe (2017), Cham, a cartoonist and former research associate and instructor at Caltech, and Whiteson, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine, explain the basic science behind subjects that seem to preoccupy the listeners of their podcast, Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe. Most of the questions involve physics or astrophysics and take the form of, is such-and-such possible?—e.g., teleportation, alien visitors, building a warp drive, entering a black hole). The authors emphasize that they are answering as scientists, not engineers. “A physicist will say something is possible if they don’t know of a law of physics that prevents it.” Thus, a spaceship traveling fast enough to reach the nearest star in a reasonable amount of time is not forbidden by the laws of physics, but building one is inconceivable. Similarly, wormholes and time travel are “not known to be impossible”—as are many other scenarios. Some distressing events are guaranteed. An asteroid will strike the Earth, the sun will explode, and the human race will become extinct, but studies reveal that none are immediate threats. Sadly, making Mars as habitable as Earth is possible but only with improbably futuristic technology. For those who suspect that we are living in a computer simulation, the authors describe what clues to look for. Readers may worry that the authors step beyond their expertise when they include chapters on the existence of an afterlife or the question of free will. Sticking closely to hard science, they deliver a lucid overview of brain function and the debate over the existence of alternate universes that is unlikely to provoke controversy. The authors’ work fits neatly into the recently burgeoning market of breezy pop-science books full of jokes, asides, and cartoons that serve as introductions to concepts that require much further study to fully understand.

A solid foundational education in a handful of lively scientific topics.

Pub Date: Nov. 2, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-18931-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Sept. 7, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2021

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