Reviews: Book List

Why people choose terrorism, the birds that beat human engineering, and more.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Of Doilies and Disease
"Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it," said Confucius. Two sculptors are uncovering beauty in unexpected places: one by forging the formulas of mathematics into metal constructions, one by weaving the structure of deadly viruses into delicate lace (opposite).

The steel-bronze works of Bathsheba Grossman, a mathematical sculptor from Santa Cruz, California, often depict a "minimal surface," which is the smallest possible area that can occupy a given boundary. A triply periodic shape, like the gyroid above, divides three-dimensional space into equal but tangled halves. Its intricate patterns are common in the microscopic world, from the matrices of liquid crystal molecules (like those in laptop displays) to the intracellular compartments of living organisms.

Brooklyn-based artist Laura Splan also swathes scientific observation in elegance. Inspired by microbiology, Splan has crafted what are perhaps the world's creepiest doilies. Layers of stitches form delicate portraits of pathogens: HIV (depicted above), herpes, SARS, influenza, and hepadnavirus, which causes hepatitis B. The genetic material of the virus is depicted in the doily's center, and viral surface proteins appear as protuberances around the edge. The discs retain the dainty grace of an antique armrest cover. Splan says she aims to inspire "beauty and horror, comfort and discomfort." In previous projects, she has made pillowcases that look like skin and has painted delicate patterns of neurons with her own blood.

Grossman's sculptures and Splan's creations demand a double take—a second look that reveals the scholarly rigor behind the pretty surface. Solid metal contortions emerge from equations; embroidery is begotten by blood-borne disease. —Stephen Ornes

Cranking Out Code
We clatter away on our computers, blissfully unaware of the layers of programming that separate us from the cold binary world at the core of these machines. But a small community of eggheads spend their lives in that nebulous space. Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software (Crown, $25.95) follows a team of such programmers as they try to change the world with an open-source "personal information manager" called Chandler—a potential rival of Microsoft's Outlook. Through interviews with team members, a seemingly endless stream of office meetings, and excerpts from the developers' blogs, Salon cofounder Scott Rosenberg chronicles the venture's halting progress, interspersing flashbacks into the history of computing.

Philosopher-programmers debate whether coding is an art or a science—or perhaps a form of witchcraft—and place bets on whether a computer will ever pass the Turing test: convincingly imitating a human in an instant messenger–style exchange. At the book's end, Chandler remains a work in progress, and solutions for the universal conundrums of software development are nowhere in sight. But the next time you open up an application that (mostly) does what it's supposed to, you may find yourself giving silent thanks for the dogged programmers who cobbled together millions of cryptically arranged numbers, letters, and punctuation marks so that our work, and our lives, could run a little more smoothly. —Jennifer Barone

Decisions, Decisions
What factors go into a suicide bomber's decision to blow himself to smithereens in a crowded marketplace? Why do our brains respond to product brands? Why do humans, unlike other animals, choose to go on hunger strikes or commit mass suicide?

The answers, according to neuroscientist Read Montague of Baylor College of Medicine, can be found through computational neuroscience, which uses digital simulation and mathematical techniques to examine how the brain functions. He details this burgeoning field in Why Choose This Book? How We Make Decisions (Dutton, $24.95).

In a renowned experiment known as the Pepsi Challenge, Montague and his partner probed the neural response to "brand image." Using brain scans that reveal the activation of pleasure centers, the researchers showed that a subject's soda preference in a blind taste test could be completely reversed in a repeat taste test, this time with the labels shown. People genuinely prefer Pepsi—until they see the Coke logo on their drink. Then they genuinely prefer Coca-Cola. We wouldn't expect our minds to prioritize brand over quality, but that just shows how little conscious control we have over our decisions. Montague speculates that similar research may "shed light on how the messages of terrorism, the cultural messages, are processed and prioritized by our minds."

The fascinating implications span everything from the politics of fear in post-9/11 society to the impact of ads on children's brains. —Christopher Carbone

Bird's-eye View
Raptor Force is a documentary filmed in part, by birds. In this episode, part of PBS's Nature series (airing February 18, 8 p.m. EST), filmmakers saddle red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, and peregrine falcons with tiny video cameras. The glimpses from on high are transcendent. But they give more than just a pretty view: Raptorcams show in real time the constant minute adjustments of the best fliers' tails. Smooth sailing, it turns out, is rough work.

Contrasting avian technology with the capabilities of military aircraft, Raptor Force could make even the Blue Angels jealous. The American F22A jet is nicknamed Raptor because it makes the sharpest turns of any fighter aircraft, but a peregrine falcon is far nimbler. Pulling out of a 250-mile-per-hour vertical dive, the bird experiences a g-force three times stronger than an Air Force pilot normally would. "If fighter pilots could choose their reincarnations, they would come back as falcons," the narrator concludes.

Human engineers do their best to keep up with the birds. A radical new morphing wing, shown in tests at NASA's Langley Research Center, imitates a raptor by changing shape to help a plane shift from a glide to a dive. Similarly, trainer jets for beginning fighter pilots are built like young red-tailed hawks, with longer wings and bigger tails that provide more lift and stability at the expense of speed and maneuverability. Engine noise may have fallen by half in the last quarter century, but spy planes are still outdone by bird adaptations: Comb-shaped feathers smooth the air, and pliant tails eliminate vibrations, allowing great gray owls to fly in near-absolute silence.

Even if mounting a television station on the back of a bird offered no benefit to national security, the whimsy of it, as seen in this program, would easily justify the effort. —Jessica Ruvinsky

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