A funny, irreverent tour through the salient points of scientific knowledge.
Hicken’s “leisurely expedition” around the “scientific turf of physics, cosmology, biology, psychology, mathematics, informatics, and neuroscience” follows in the best tradition of popular-science accounts from writers like Carl Sagan and Timothy Ferris, taking complex subjects, breaking them down into more basic elements, and presenting them in fast-paced, engaging prose. Between the short chapters, brief inserts offer scientific digressions in which pop-culture references from Jennifer Lawrence and the Twilight movies to Taylor Swift and Christopher Nolan’s Memento are enlisted in the cause of making science education entertaining. Although Hicken mostly sticks to the Richard Dawkins line of the “selfish gene” governing human behavior—“Genes build us to pass them along, and as long as we’re having sex they (not to mention we) are happy”—his text avoids Dawkins’ earnestness in favor of jokes (“If comparing Congress to jellyfish seems disrespectful, I’d like to apologize to the jellyfish”) and a very appealing Everyman tone (“I’m as close to enlightenment as I am to winning Wimbledon. I’ll pursue neither”). Larger science-inspired philosophical questions—“Are you a mind, or do you have a mind? If you are a mind, how could you know if you have one?”—are approachably rendered, leaving readers both more informed and more curious. But the book’s main focus is on the workings and oddities of evolution, a constant process of tiny adaptations with no “intelligent design.” “Evolution is a tinkerer, not an architect,” Hicken writes, “and though the human brain can be impressive, it evolved in exactly the same fashion as the rest of biological existence—via ongoing, imperfect, but somehow workable fine-tuning.” In the course of such discussions, the whole vital enterprise of modern science is given a very lively presentation.
A Science 101 manual that combines the inviting wonder of Carl Sagan with the dry wit of Stephen Hawking—a must-read for the scientifically curious.