Reviews

Dark truths about the rise of Silicon Valley and art made in a psychiatric hospital. Plus: the place to hear Earth sing.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

BRIGHT MINDS, DARK THOUGHTS
A new biography recounts how Silicon Valley rose in part from one scientist's bitter descent.

When William Shockley died in 1989, he might have wished to be remembered simply as the inventor of the transistor and as the father of Silicon Valley. Instead, many newspaper obituaries recalled Shockley's darker side: how in the 1970s he became one of the most hated people in America because of his vile eugenic theories, obsessively proclaiming the genetic inferiority of blacks and suggesting that anyone with an IQ below 100 should be sterilized. In Broken Genius (Macmillan, $27.95), Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Joel N. Shurkin describes a life of science gone sour, a scientist whose feelings of superiority drove the creation of his own legend and the collapse of his career.

Shockley believed in natural hierarchies of talent. There were those at the top, like himself, and there were the ordinary masses, like his colleagues at Bell Labs in the 1940s, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. According to Shurkin, it was Bardeen and Brattain who did the key work in creating the first transistor. Only by a nimble manipulation of office politics did Shockley manage to take over the press conference announcing their new product and take credit himself. Aghast at the success of his supposedly simpleminded colleagues and afraid of the competition, Shockley persuaded senior management to assign Brattain and Bardeen to months of brainstorming with patent lawyers, keeping them from the lab. When they tried to return, he threatened to cut their budget or declare them cheaters if they attempted research similar to his own.

Shockley's true moment of innovation—inspired by jealousy—came in 1951, when he devised the crucial next stage in microelectronics, the junction transistor. Soon, however, it became clear even to him that his pure research abilities were tapped out, and he moved to the quiet apricot groves south of San Francisco to launch a transistor business. The Shockley Semiconductor Company became a magnet for top engineers eager to work with the legendary inventor. When Shockley yelled like a spoiled child and proved incapable of bringing quality products to market, many of these bright minds—including Intel founder Gordon Moore—abandoned their supposed guru. Instead, they started their own industrial revolution next door. Shockley's company became a centrifuge, pulling in talent and then distributing it efficiently nearby in what is now Silicon Valley. Once again Shockley had failed where lesser minds (by his measure) prevailed brilliantly, earning millions.

When his company tanked in the 1960s, Shockley left electronics altogether, became a professor at nearby Stanford University, and in the view of many, went off the deep end. His fascination with largely outdated genetics research (epitomized by his famed association with a Nobel laureate sperm bank) transformed his elitist worldview into full-blown racism. In the last years of his life he was utterly isolated from his former colleagues, left to harangue strangers on the inadequacy of the Negro race.

With unprecedented access to the private Shockley archives at Stanford, Shurkin fills out this portrait of a flawed giant with pathos drawn from Shockley's letters, revealing a man crushed under the weight of his own pathological insecurities. -Susan Kruglinski

BOOK
All things crawly and beautiful

The Animal Series from Reaktion Books ($19.95 each) is an eclectically illustrated romp through both the biology and the meaning of creatures, from cockroaches to salmon. Running 200 pages or so apiece, these books make the world of organisms seem as fascinating as it did when you first learned to distinguish a quack from a moo. Think of the Animal Series as storybooks for grown-ups.

Thirteen books have been published so far (six more are due out by the end of the year), each one revealing a wealth of artistic, scientific, and cultural detail about its subject. In Bee, you learn that the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus "asked to be buried in honey at his death, probably because as the first practical anatomist he knew that it is an excellent preservative for organic specimens." More recently, NASA space-shuttle research has found that bees assemble perfect hives even in the absence of gravity. According to Parrot, "budgie smugglers" is Australian slang for tight men's swimming briefs, and Snake reveals that Malayan pit viper venom is being studied as a treatment for stroke.

The series is beautifully designed and smartly written. (The author of Whale is a conservation biologist; the author of Falcon is a research fellow at the University of Cambridge as well as a falconer.) These books pull together disparate facts and interpretations into satisfying narratives that really know a crow. If only there were one called Human.   -Jessica Ruvinsky

BOOK
Sour truths about modern food

Confectioners once lured children to the candy store with brilliant red, green, and yellow sweets dyed with toxic mercuric sulfide, copper arsenite, and yellow lead chromate. These 19th-century additives caused anemia and bone disease, but as British biophysicist Walter Gratzer demonstrates, the modern food supply may not be much safer. Milk from industrial dairy farms contains traces of some 50 antibiotics and hormones, not to mention blood and pus from infected cow udders and hooves. Even organic fruits and vegetables are suspect, often bearing residues of the toxic pesticide copper sulfate.

In Terrors of the Table: The Curious History of Nutrition (Oxford University Press, $30), Gratzer chronicles the checkered record of nutritional research, showing just how often we have been led astray.  The Roman-era physician Galen advised his readers to avoid fruit entirely and so contributed to 1,500 years of malnutrition. In the 1970s, Japanese food researchers invented high-fructose corn syrup, a cheap soft-drink sweetener that Gratzer calls "an unmitigated catastrophe." Six times sweeter than glucose, it wreaks havoc with metabolism and has been linked to rising rates of obesity and diabetes.

A few heroes appear along the way, like the nutritionists whose detective work led to the discovery that vitamin deficiencies cause serious disease. And Gratzer leavens his historical narrative with intriguing anecdotes. Who knew that the word grog came from the nickname of the first British admiral to issue his men a scurvy-averting ration of rum, water, and lemon juice? Or that the French once treated constipation by swallowing large tablets of toxic antimony—and then recovered the excreted metal pills for future use? But these tales pale beside his indictment of modern food production and its noxious brew of trans fats, fillers, emulsifiers, colorings, and chemical flavorings. -Heather Pringle

MUSEUM
Where Geophysics Sings

To the 285 residents of Kaktovik, a remote Eskimo village in Alaska, the unwieldy name of Naalagiagvik translates as "the place where you go to listen." It refers to a quiet stretch of snow named by the Inupiat people who live nearby. Sleepy white on the surface, the location is alive with geologic and celestial activity, including tremors, northern lights, and magnetic disturbances—a silent but pervasive bustle.

Naalagiagvik is the inspiration for The Place Where You Go to Listen, a new environmental installation by experimental composer John Luther Adams at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks. In a small white room pocked with 14 high-fidelity speakers, real-time local geologic, astronomical, and meteorologic data are fed into a computer that translates the information, using filters of Adams's creation, into sound and light. Magnetic flutters in the atmosphere, caused by the same storms that create nighttime auroras, manifest as a shimmering synthesized carillon. When the deep earth rumbles, drums ascend at a frequency that is almost too low to hear but can be felt in the gut. -Amy Mayer

MUSEUM
A psychiatric center is home to a stirring collection of patients' art

"People with mental illness are ahead of the game," says Janos Marton, the psychologist who runs the Living Museum. "The average artist has to work very hard to get to this level." He is speaking of the jaw-dropping collection of paintings, sculptures, photographs, and room environments amassed in the two-story former cafeteria on the campus of the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, New York. Since 1982 Marton has been involved with the production of art by psychiatric patients, not as art therapy, he says, but more as occupational training and as an aid in distracting the patients from symptoms that can worsen with the monotony of rehabilitation.

With an appointment, visitors may tour the somewhat disorganized facility. Art is stacked against and hung from every inch of wall space. Found materials are used not because they are in vogue but because they are available. Patients sculpt with industrial wax, vintage medical equipment, broken mannequins, and bath-size soup cauldrons from the days when Creedmoor was required to feed 5,000 patients. (Today only about 420 are in residence.)

As Marton suggests, the artists at Creedmoor effortlessly capture a disturbing vision that for many trained artists, burdened by self-consciousness, remains out of reach.  A sparkle-covered Styrofoam head with yarn hair and a sloppy, girlish face drawn in brown crayon disarms the viewer with her one glass eye. Painted canvases depict nightmarish demons, childlike animals, and sophisticated expressionist portraits. Carved clay figurines trimmed with tin and cheap plastic beads could pass for the overpriced outsider art found in some of the most prestigious auction houses. Instead, they are among thousands of pieces created by everyday people whose insider understanding of illness allows them a naturally distorted way of reflecting on the world. 
-Susan Kruglinski

 

MUSEUM
A crash course in cosmic accidents

Planetarium shows, like tourists' postcards, tend to be long on scenery and short on action: Saw some beautiful galaxies, wish you were here. Cosmic Collisions, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, takes a more dynamic approach, exploring the universe not as a bunch of destinations but as a series of processes linked by the theme of collisions. One sequence depicts the massive asteroid strike that helped wipe out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Another shows energetic particles from the sun slamming into Earth's magnetic field and unleashing the delicate glow of an aurora. The centerpiece of Cosmic Collisions is an eye-popping re-creation of the Mars-size body that crashed into Earth during the early days of the solar system, giving birth to the moon. All of this is rendered from more than a million hours' worth of computer-crunched data and translated into a $2 million 20-minute computer-animated spectacle. -Corey S. Powell 

 

SCIENCE BEST SELLERS

1. An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergence of Global Warming
and What We Can Do About It Al Gore (Rodale Books)

2. The Last Season Eric Blehm (HarperCollins)

3. Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside Katrina Firlik (Random House)

4. Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish G. Bruce Knecht (Rodale Books)

5. Decoding the Universe: How the New Science of Information Is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, From Our Brains to Black Holes Charles Seife (Viking)

6. Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement John Brockman (Vintage)

7. In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind Eric R. Kandel (W. W. Norton)

8. Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors Nicholas Wade (Penguin)

9. Unknown Quantity: A Real and
Imaginary History of Algebra John Derbyshire (Joseph Henry Press)

10. The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth Tim Flannery (Atlantic Monthly Press)

 

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