Tokens of Science: Books

Sunday, December 01, 1996
There are a mere two dozen--a small and in no way exhaustive list--of the many intriguing books about science published in the last year or so.

Infinite Potential: The Life and Times of David Bohm. F. David Peat. Addison-Wesley, 1997, $16.

David Bohm was one of the most important--and controversial-- physicists of the twentieth century. After a brilliant beginning, his scientific career was nearly ruined when he lost his U.S. citizenship during the McCarthy era, largely because of a youthful flirtation with Communism and a refusal to name names. He eventually settled in England and continued to make important contributions to theoretical physics. Most of his intellectual energy was directed toward seeking a deep understanding of quantum mechanics, a pursuit to which he brought the passion of a spiritual quest. Bohm, whose interests spanned physics, art, philosophy, and other fields, is not an easy subject for a biographer. But Peat has managed to assemble the many complex elements of Bohm’s life into a compelling story.

Virtual Archaeology: Re-Creating Ancient Worlds. Edited by Maurizio Forte and Alberto Siliotti; translated by Judith Toms and Robin Skeates. Harry N. Abrams, 1997, $49.50.

The buildings of Washington, D.C., and myriad others that imitate Greco-Roman style might easily fool one into thinking that the classical marvels of ancient times were built entirely of plain stone. In fact, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian structures had vibrant facades, which Virtual Archaeology revives in all their painted glory, with false-color computer reconstructions of such wonders as the statues of Ramses II and the pillars of the Acropolis. The book ranges across five continents, showcasing many ingenious technologies. For example, some researchers use radiography to identify the clay from which ancient Chinese artisans made molds for casting bronze figurines. Others have reconstructed long-lost faces from skeletal remains, notably those of the Egyptian prince Wadji and the Macedonian king Philip II. Since each section was written by a leading archeologist from that particular locale, the writing can be academic. Nevertheless, the text conveys the process, and much of the excitement, of discovery.

Alexander Graham Bell: The Life and Times of the Man Who Invented the Telephone. Edwin S. Grosvenor and Morgan Wesson. Harry N. Abrams, 1997, $45.

A vivid sense of Bell’s era and hundreds of illustrations enliven this account of the inventor’s diverse, eerily prescient achievements. Among the raft of historical and family anecdotes (Grosvenor, by the way, is a great-grandson of Bell), we learn the role a dead man’s ear played in one of Bell’s early experiments in telephony, and we find the young Aleck teaching the family dog--literally--to speak, turning growls into words by manipulating its muzzle. The authors chronicle Bell’s most famous invention, from its roots in deaf education to the growth of the at&t; monopoly. But the phone was just one of this visionary’s pursuits. His omnivorous curiosity spurred experiments in genetics, hydrofoils, and aviation. Decades before the radio, Bell’s photophone used light waves to transmit sound, presaging fiber optics. And, anticipating the result of polluting the air with burned fossil fuels, Bell coined the term greenhouse effect.

Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Janine M. Benyus. William Morrow and Company, 1997, $24.50.

Humans have probably always been a greedy lot, but Western science has enabled us to begin depleting our natural resources at a horrific, apocalyptic speed. Benyus, who was trained as a forester, describes her odyssey into a scientific countermovement, one that urges us to revere, not rape, the natural world. These researchers, who make enough appearances in it to keep the story human, would like to pry from nature the secrets that keep ecosystems in balance, unlock energy from the sun, and make animals, bugs, and cells the best engineering designs around. Benyus’s story, a jargon-free blend of wonder and dread, makes technological innovation seem like an adventure.

Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave. Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Descamps, and Christian Hillaire; with an epilogue by Jean Clottes; translated by Paul G. Bahn. Harry N. Abrams, 1996, $39.95.

In January 1995 the world first got a glimpse of an artistic masterpiece that had been hidden in darkness for 30,000 years. A few weeks earlier, three explorers had stumbled into a cave in southern France decorated with dozens of paintings of horses, bison, lions, and other Pleistocene creatures. These spectacular images are scientifically revolutionary because they drop-kick the origin of art back many thousands of years before the earliest dates scientists had previously offered. This coffee-table book comes with a workmanlike narrative of the discovery of the Chauvet cave (named for one of the discoverers), as well as a long, fascinating epilogue by a leading expert on European cave paintings, Jean Clottes, that fleshes out the scientific study of the images. Since chances are that only archeologists will ever get to go inside the Chauvet cave, the rest of us are fortunate to have available the book’s many bright, crisp, and mesmerizing photographs.

The Island of the Colorblind. Oliver Sacks. Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, $24.

When Sacks heard of an island in Micronesia filled with color- blind people, he set off in a hurry, hoping to find a culture shaped for a colorless world. Instead he discovered his love for islands. Early in the book, the author and his color-blind friend Knut land on Pingelap, where excited children greet them, squinting and shading their eyes from the sun (achromatopes are extremely sensitive to bright light). The pair spend their time examining the color-blind, handing out sunglasses, and drinking sakau, the local hallucinogen. Sacks plays the parts of botanist, psychologist, historian, anthropologist, and travel writer, as he colors his island-hopping from every angle. The second half of the book finds him on the islands of Guam and Rota, studying a high incidence of neurodegenerative paralysis. Amazed by the surrounding vegetation, he discovers that one of his favorite plants, the cycad, may be partly to blame for the prevalent illness. Sacks’s fascinating, illustrated (!) footnotes make up the last 50 pages of this short book.

Yes, We Have No Neutrons. A. K. Dewdney. John Wiley & Sons, 1997, $22.95.

There seems to be as much interest in the blunders of great thinkers as there is in their triumphs: lists of dunderheaded pronouncements and misguided predictions are permanent fixtures on the Internet. Mathematician A. K. Dewdney’s latest book expands on this impulse, highlighting bad science from the mysterious N-rays of 100 years ago to the cold-fusion debacle of the late eighties to the flap over race and intelligence from a couple years back. Dewdney tries to show what separates proper scientific form from the hubris, fuzzy thinking, and paranoia that inevitably lead to embarrassment. While some of his targets (such as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) seem hardly worth the effort, there’s still a shameful pleasure in reading about the tripping up of what are otherwise great minds.

Discovering Dinosaurs in the Old West: The Field Journals of Arthur Lakes. Edited by Michael F. Kohl and John S. McIntosh. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997, $24.95.

Like the California gold rush miners who preceded them, American dinosaur hunters of the 1870s were a famously scrappy lot, competing mercilessly for the West’s spectacular fossils. Arthur Lakes, an Oxford- educated clergyman and geologist, picked his way among them with a sledgehammer, a keen eye, and a wry sense of humor. His field journals-- discovered in 1994 and published now for the first time, with friendly, informative footnotes--couldn’t be more charming. To illustrate the immensity of a femur he’s uncovered, he writes, Our little party of three used it daily as a bench to sit on whilst we eat our frugal dinner of beefsteak and apples cooked on the spot. Caught in a storm, Lakes takes shelter in a log cabin with a coal miner’s family; when he asks about a shock of hair hanging from a beam, which he assumes is an Indian scalp, his hostess tells him it’s her hairpiece. He describes a pair of entomologist colleagues: Professor Scudder pursuing grasshoppers with his butterfly net whilst Mr. Bowditch on his hands and knees turned over cowpats for beetles and examined rotten trees for a species of tree boring beetle called Buprestis. Though short on punctuation, the book is long on wonder.

Visual Illusions in Motion With Moiré Screens. Craig Cassin. Dover, 1997, $8.95 paperback.

When you look at a ceiling fan, do you chase the blades with your eyes to watch the patterns change? Do you yearn to create wild, swirling images without consuming illegal hallucinogens? With its three eight-and-a- half-by-eleven transparencies and 60 monochrome patterns, Visual Illusions can satisfy your psychedelic needs. The transparencies are simple designs-- one of straight lines, one of concentric circles, one of lines shooting out from the center--and the patterns are variations of the transparencies. When you slide a transparency slowly over a pattern, the difference between the two creates a spectacular, animated third image. Spiral down spinning vortexes, zoom through flashing tunnels, and make yourself generally dizzy as you explore the world of moiré patterns. Not recommended for epileptics.

Naked to the Bone: Medical Imaging in the Twentieth Century. Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles. Rutgers University Press, 1997, $35.95.

A great deal of the intellectual effort of the last hundred years has been spent visualizing what was once invisible, writes Kevles. Consequently, what used to be private--the brain and genitalia--is now public, an unexpected trade-off for the privilege of visually penetrating the deepest recesses of mind and body. As she tells it, the history of X- rays and their offspring, ct, mri, pet, and ultrasound technologies, is not always pretty--it took a while to learn that dentists better cover their patients with lead and leave the room before pressing that button. Kevles’s book is as insightful and risky as X-rays, illuminating the inner workings not just of technology but of twentieth-century law, culture, and art.

Planet Quest. Ken Croswell. Free Press, 1997, $25.

By now the story of the discovery of planets around far-off stars is probably familiar to all astronomy buffs who haven’t been dozing at their telescopes. But Ken Croswell adds details to the outline and flesh to the skeletal personalities reported on in the press. Central to the book is the hubbub surrounding the discovery of the planet orbiting the star 51 Pegasi, including accounts of how the British journal Nature muzzled its discoverers and of the Nightline interview during which a second (subsequently retracted) planet was announced. Croswell, a Berkeley-based astronomer, also tells the story of previous generations of planet hunters who looked for the tiniest wiggles in the nearby stars.

Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others. Martin Rees. Addison-Wesley, 1997, $25.

Many astronomers are beginning to take a very strange idea seriously: that our universe is only one of many. Advocates of this multiverse theory argue that it could explain some puzzling features of our universe, such as why various fundamental physical constants have the values that they do. At first glance, conjuring an infinite number of universes to explain the mysteries of the one we can observe might seem like a muddleheaded strategy. But Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, clearly explains why so many otherwise sober theorists are attracted to these arcane ideas. He also takes pains to separate the highly speculative theories from those more solidly grounded in theory and experiment, not always an obvious distinction in a subject dealing with the nature and origin of the universe.

Friday’s Footprint: How Society Shapes the Mind. Leslie Brothers, M.D. Oxford University Press, 1997, $25.

You couldn’t learn anything useful about social behavior, Brothers points out, by studying Robinson Crusoe. Yet that is the mistake neuroscientists have made: studying the brain in isolation. After all, the very effortlessness of most social behavior has made it easy for neuroscientists to ignore. Now a new wave of research is trying to bridge the gap between neuroscience and psychology--and the results show how much our appetite and aptitude for social behavior is inscribed into the very architecture of the primate brain. Brothers, a psychiatrist with a keen interest in neurobiology, presents a highly readable account of our brain- based capacity to interpret one another’s behavior, exchange social cues, and act as members of the organism we call society.

Beyond Star Trek: Physics From Alien Invasions to the End of Time. Lawrence M. Krauss. BasicBooks, 1997, $21.

Relax. If a 15-mile-wide mothership of aliens did arrive on Earth, the laws of physics dictate that you’d be dead from floods or earthquakes before you’d have time to worry about it. Krauss offers this comforting explanation in Beyond Star Trek, which, like his previous book, addresses some of the questions that drive both science and science fiction. Topics covered include why it’s silly for ufos to be Frisbee- shaped, why space travel costs so much, and what kinds of new propellants are being developed (such as seemingly fictional antimatter). Always upbeat, Krauss seems particularly keen on the myriad forces that can cause our death, good-naturedly listing all the ways our planet could be annihilated before its scheduled demise when the sun dies. Pairing solid science with lighthearted language, Beyond Star Trek will up your trivia score and annoy your friends as you debunk the physical impossibilities of their favorite films.

How the Mind Works. Steven Pinker. W.W. Norton & Company, 1997, $29.95.

Pinker, the director of mit’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, sets out to reverse engineer the mind: by observing what our minds accomplish, he reasons his way backward to how they work. His project couldn’t be more ambitious. He covers everything from esoterica like Magic Eye autostereograms to passions like mother love, laughter, and the appeal of music with wit and ingenuity. Mae West, Seinfeld, Shakespeare, and Winnie-the-Pooh put in appearances, as do dozens of pages of more scholarly references.

The Compleat Cockroach: A Comprehensive Guide to the Most Despised (and Least Understood) Creature on Earth. David George Gordon. Ten Speed Press, 1996, $12.95 paperback.

Gordon modestly protests that his guide is far from complete, but you could not possibly wish to know any more about la cucaracha after reading this book. He describes, in excruciating but nonetheless entertaining detail, the evolution (400 million years of it), anatomy, physiology (cockroach emissions are a major contributor to global warming), locomotion, sex life (singing, dancing, head-butting), and eating habits (they eat almost anything, including their own, and can survive weeks of starvation) of what a respected entomologist has called the most obnoxious insect known to man. Gordon also explores the cockroach’s considerable influence on human culture: the amount of money spent on extermination as well as the insect’s use in contemporary art, medicine, cuisine, Mexican folk music, and Japanese animation. Gordon’s enthusiasm-- if not his affection--for his subject is contagious.

Allergic to the Twentieth Century: The Explosion in Environmental Allergies--from Sick Buildings to Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. Peter Radetsky. Little, Brown and Company, 1997, $24.95.

Allergic to the Twentieth Century is an exploration of a controversial affliction, multiple chemical sensitivity (mcs), a sometimes debilitating reaction to chemical compounds that are almost impossible to avoid if you live in the modern world. Gulf War Syndrome may be a form of mcs, and about 40 million Americans may suffer from some degree of chemical sensitivity. The new discipline of environmental medicine has grown up to treat such people, yet some physicians and researchers doubt that mcs is a valid physiological problem. They consider it a psychogenic disorder, requiring psychotherapy. The field is clouded by bad blood between the two sides, with patients suffering in the middle.

At Large: The Strange Case of the World’s Largest Internet Invasion. David H. Freedman and Charles C. Mann. Simon & Schuster, 1997, $24.

At Large tells the weird, disturbing story of a string of computer break-ins involving universities, Fortune 500 companies, bank networks, military sites, and even nuclear weapons labs. When the fbi, assisted by an unlikely assortment of eccentric computer experts, finally tracked the cracker down, they found not a spy or malicious genius but a mentally impaired teenager who just wanted the contact. Rather than prosecuting, the government kept the case quiet, and the details have remained secret until now. Both a thriller and a cautionary tale, At Large explains in layman’s terms how the Internet has left our e-mail, finances, and databases vulnerable to anyone with a computer and a little time on his hands.

Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology. Robert Pool. Oxford University Press, 1997, $30.

Everyone knows that technology shapes society, but what shapes technology? Beyond Engineering looks outside the research laboratories and design studios to see how historical accident, social forces, institutional inertia, business strategies, and even personal vendettas determine which path a technology takes. It deals with issues as wide-ranging as how Bill Gates’s mother helped Microsoft gain its dominance in the software industry, and how the internal organization of a company affects its chances of shepherding a high-risk technology from the research lab to the marketplace.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Jared Diamond. W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, $27.50.

Throughout history and before, technology has been distributed unevenly among human societies, and when those societies come into contact, the ones with the more advanced tools and weapons generally have the upper hand. Diamond takes a broad yet detailed look at the technological and biological forces that have shaped human civilizations. He discusses such topics as the explosion of agriculture and how climate helped shape it; the domestication of animals, and the diseases they brought with them; writing systems and how they spread; and, of course, the guns of the title. Because so much of human history is brutal, Diamond’s discussions can make the heart sink, but they also make the mind expand.

The Trouble With Testosterone and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament. Robert M. Sapolsky. Scribner, 1997, $23.

When he’s not studying single neurons in petri dishes at Stanford or following an East African baboon troop around with a notebook and a tranquilizing dart gun, Robert Sapolsky likes to contemplate such questions as why people feel crummy when they’re sick, whether there’s a connection between mental illness and religious belief, how animals know what foods are good for them, and what makes gossip so deliciously appealing. The poignant, irreverent essays in The Trouble With Testosterone--many of which first appeared in Discover--emphasize the similarities between you and other primates you might encounter, whether on the subway or the savanna.

The Sacred Heart: An Atlas of the Body Seen Through Invasive Surgery. Max Aguilera-Hellweg. Little, Brown and Company, 1997, $50.

Photojournalist Aguilera-Hellweg lays bare the awesome, fragile beauty of the human body and documents the unsettling majesty of modern medicine. His intimate images demonstrate what doctors mean by invasive surgery, as dramatically lit surgeons’ hands and instruments cut and distort flesh, probe cavities, and handle organs. Not for the faint of heart, the photographs urge us to examine and comprehend while fighting the revulsion aroused by the gore that is our own bodies. Aguilera-Hellweg’s accompanying text testifies to his passion for the subject, and a postmortem explains the procedures depicted in the photographs.

The Loom of God: Mathematical Tapestries at the Edge of Time. Clifford A. Pickover. Plenum Trade, 1997, $29.95.

Discover’s resident mathematician and brain teaser takes on the greatest puzzle of them all: the relation of science to God and religion. From Pythagorus and his strange beliefs (Don’t eat food that causes you to flatulate) to Gödel’s mathematical proof of the existence of God, Pickover guides the reader through the history of metaphysical logic. He explains fractals, lists mathematicians who were religious, and explores Stonehenge, Inca counting, gargoyles, craters, and the Kabala. Playful and surreal, The Loom of God is accessible to anyone who’s mastered long division.

Why Is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality. Jared Diamond. BasicBooks, 1997, $20.

As a species, we have sex on our minds. Diamond invokes evolutionary theory to answer such puzzlers as why men don’t breast-feed babies, why women are the only animals who go through menopause, why men have such uselessly large penises, why couples continue to have intercourse even when the woman is already pregnant or past the age of fertility, and why we shut the door and draw the curtains before we have sex.
Comment on this article