Review of The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Gene: An Intimate History

by Siddhartha Mukherjee

(Scribner, 608 pages plus 8 page photo insert, $30, May 17, 2016)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz
Dr. Fred Bortz


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Note: This review is the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies, please contact the author by e-mail.


coverLearn more about The Gene at Amazon.com.


When oncologist and Columbia University Medical School professor Siddhartha Mukherjee completed his Pulitzer Prize-winning epic “biography” of cancer, coverThe Emperor of All Maladies, in 2010, he expected it to be his one and only book. He was wrong.

As is often the case for a gifted writer, another book found him. The Gene, he writes, is “the prequel to Emperor‘s sequel.” It is the story “of normalcy before it tips into malignancy…. of the search for normalcy, identity, variation, and heredity.”

The book is as compelling and revealing as the earlier work. It begins with a very personal Prologue about nature and nurture. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder run through Mukherjee’s father’s Bengali family. For two of his father’s brothers, the illness manifested itself against the turbulent background of the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. Theirs is a classic story of the interplay of genetic inheritance and external triggers, and it provides a touchstone to which Mukherjee returns at various points in the narrative.

On one level, The Gene is a comprehensive chronological compendium of well-told stories with a human touch. But at a deeper level, the book is far more than a simple science history. It includes another narrative thread that is, by design, discomfiting.

That thread catches readers by surprise. For its first few chapters, the book seems to be a more or less standard historical narrative as it tells the stories of Gregor Mendel in the garden breeding peas and Charles Darwin mining his trove of samples from his epic voyage on the Beagle which led him to The Origin of Species. Then readers encounter Francis Galton, who took his cousin Darwin’s ideas in an unexpected direction.

In 1883, the year after Darwin’s death, Galton published a provocative book with a plan for improving the human race by selective breeding, which Mukherjee calls “unnatural selection.” Galton thought “he could achieve over just a few decades what nature had been attempting for eons.” He called it eugenics, combining a Greek prefix meaning good with the root of genesis.

By 1912, eugenics had become a topic worthy of a prestigious international conference, with the United States taking the lead. Mukherjee’s almost matter-of-fact prose leaves readers squirming:

Bleecker Van Wagenen, the young president of the American Breeders’ Association, gave a rousing presentation. Unlike the Europeans, still mired in theory and speculation, Van Wagenen’s talk was all Yankee practicality. He spoke glowingly about the operational efforts to eliminate “defective strains” in America. Confinement centers—”colonies”—for the genetically unfit were already planned. Committees had already been formed to consider the sterilization of unfit men and women epileptics, criminals, deaf-mutes, the feebleminded, those with eye defects, bone deformities, dwarfism, schizophrenia, manic depression, or insanity.”

Even more chilling is the title of the next chapter, “Three Generations of Imbeciles is Enough.” It comes not from a Nazi court but from a notorious 1927 U.S. Supreme Court opinion by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., authorizing the sterilization of twenty-year-old Carrie Buck (who shares the book’s dedication with Mukherjee’s father).

From that chapter forward, readers view the narrative through a different lens. Mukherjee celebrates the acquisition of scientific knowledge of DNA and how it guides the development and functioning of an organism. He makes clear that the technological application of that knowledge offers major benefits to human health. But readers now engage with his discussion of each advance by asking their own ethical questions. That engagement is what makes the history, as the subtitle notes, intimate.

Genetics has now brought us to a pivotal moment. A new technology known as CRISPR/Cas9 enables us to edit DNA with precision. Mukherjee compares the current state of affairs in genetic technology with another ethics-laden technological choice.

In the spring of 1939, Albert Einstein, mulling over recent advances in nuclear physics in his study at Princeton University, realized that every step required for the creation of an unfathomably powerful weapon had been individually completed…. All that was required was sequence: If you strung these reactions together in order, you obtained an atomic bomb….

We are at a similar moment—a quickening—for human genome engineering. Consider the following steps in sequence…. and you arrive, rather effortlessly, at genetically modified humans.

That brings him to this culmination. “We need a manifesto—or at least a hitchhiker’s guide—for the post genomic world…. The task of writing that manifesto belongs to another generation, but perhaps we can scribe its opening salvos by recalling the scientific, philosophical, and moral lessons of this history.”

There the narrative ends, and a list of thirteen points follows, including many loose ends. It is left as an exercise to the reader, and to future generations, to try to tie them together.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of numerous science books for young readers, to whom he often offers this advice: “Follow your questions!”

Book Review: Herding Hemingway’s Cats by Kat Arney

Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work

by Kat Arney

(Bloomsbury Sigma, 288 pages, $27, March 1, 2016)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz
Dr. Fred Bortz


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Note: This review is the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies, please contact the author by e-mail.


coverLearn more about Herding Hemingway’s Cats at Amazon.com.


We all know the story. Darwin launched modern biology in 1859 with his theory of evolution as set out in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

Seven years later, Gregor Mendel, a monk cross-breeding pea plants in his garden, laid down the principles of inheritance in an obscure publication that was not rediscovered for more than three decades.

Finally, in 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick published a landmark paper showing that the double-helix molecule of DNA encodes the recipe for life in a four-letter alphabet. If you can read the code, you can create an organism. It’s that simple.

Or is it? In her debut book, Herding Hemingway’s Cats, British broadcaster and science writer Kat Arney goes beyond that bare bones story to explore what we know–and don’t know–about how the inner workings of the DNA “Black Box” determine what an organism looks like and how it functions.

“When the human genome sequence was first published more than a decade ago,” she writes, “many scientists believed–and frequently told the public–that once we knew all the letters of our DNA the secrets of life would suddenly become clear….” But that view is too simplistic. “Just as a cake recipe in a cookbook can’t control the precise temperature of your erratic oven, know the exact size of your eggs or guarantee the taste and texture of the crumbs on your tongue, there’s many a slip ‘twixt the genetic recipe in our cells–our genotype–and the living, breathing reality of our phenotype.”

The book explores the cake-baking process in all its detail and how we have reached our current understanding, including the slips, surprises, and loose ends that fuel current research.

Given the technical detail that underlies its main topic and subtitle (Understanding How Our Genes Work), the book could easily bog down in the hands of a less skillful writer, But Arney’s organization into an Introduction and 22 brief chapters and her clear and lively style make it easy to follow.

Arney structures the book as a shared adventure, and readers soon see her as a witty, knowledgeable, and skillful tour guide. Her audience follows her on research visits to laboratories of distinguished scientists in North America, Europe, and Australia. Her adept interviewing allows those scientists to speak to readers in their own words, interspersing science with personal stories.

Along the way, there is much to learn. Genes are far more than their usual portrayal as biological recipes for building proteins from amino acids. And DNA is far more than the genes it contains. As the result of billions of years of evolution, an organism’s DNA contains relics that have hung around without doing anything for generations yet sometimes turn out to be suddenly and conveniently useful.

And what about Hemingway’s cats of the title? “The story goes that an old sea captain gave Ernest Hemingway a six-toed cat…. Her prowess as either mouser or deckhand is unknown, but today a clowder of her descendants–many with extra digits–roams Hemingway’s estate on Key West…. They’re as much of an attraction as the old man’s house itself.”

Yet, if you look at the portion of Hemingway’s cats’ DNA responsible for paw formation, it is no different from normal felines’. The thumblike addition is the result of a variant in a control switch for a gene known as Sonic Hedgehog (yes, there’s a story about that name as well) that turns out to be surprisingly far away–about DNA 800,000 letters distant–from the gene itself.

It also turns out, as Arney reveals at the end of the book, that there is more to the story of the famous cats than the legend of the old man and the sea captain. To some readers, that new information may come as a disappointment. But to others, it will be the perfect capstone. As Arney notes, “If you were hoping for a neat conclusion wrapping everything up and explaining how your genes work, I’m afraid there isn’t one.”

In science, you never know what you will find when you tug on a loose end. And that’s what makes this topic and Arney’s presentation of it such a treat.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of numerous science books for young readers, including the Revolutionary Discoveries of Scientific Pioneers series that includes books on Darwin, Mendel, and the DNA double helix.

Book Review: Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe

by Lisa Randall

(Viking, 416 pages, $28.95, July 28, 2015)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Note: This review was originally published in The Dallas Morning News and is the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies, please contact the author by e-mail.

coverLearn more about Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs at Amazon.com.

Sixty-six million years ago, a mountain-sized space rock struck Earth. For the previous 100 million years, dinosaurs had thrived, rising in the Jurassic Period to become the dominant land animals on the planet. Their reign ended abruptly in the environmental catastrophe that followed the impact. They left no successor species other than birds.
To scientists like Harvard Physics Professor Lisa Randall, the real excitement about that event is its scientific backstory. The seemingly outrageous hypothesis of an extraterrestrial impact ultimately proved to be the most plausible explanation of the mass extinction. The key evidence came from a team led by Geologist Walter Alvarez and his Nobel-laureate father Luis Alvarez, who discovered an anomalously high iridium content in a thin layer of clay deposited at that time.

Randall writes in her new book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs that the scientific method “allows us to think about crazy-seeming concepts, but with an eye to identifying the small, logical consequences with which to test them.”

The quest for knowledge is rarely a direct route. It’s usually a meandering but often challenging hike, and it helps to share it with friends. That’s been Randall’s experience, and this book is her invitation for readers to join her on the trail to a surprising follow-up to the Alvarezes’ work.

Randall studies the theory of the very small–subatomic particles–and the very large, the origin and evolution of the universe. Those two seemingly different realms are actually intimately connected through the Big Bang from which our cosmos emerged.

Her current work centers on the quest to understand dark matter. Normal matter consists of subatomic particles that interact through electromagnetic and two types of nuclear forces to form nuclei, atoms, and molecules. They also carry mass, which, according to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, creates a distortion of spacetime. When enough mass is gathered in one place, that distortion is detectable as gravity.

Normal matter’s properties cause it to interact with and produce light and, more generally, other electromagnetic waves. It can absorb light, reflect light, or refract light. It glows with a spectrum that depends on its temperature.

Dark matter, on the other hand, is oblivious to electromagnetic and nuclear forces. It reveals itself to us by its gravitational effects, which are apparent in the structure of the universe, the internal motion of galaxy clusters (where it was first detected), and the rotation of individual galaxies.

Astonishingly, though we are only aware of dark matter through those massive structures, there is approximately five times as much of it in the universe as normal matter.

But what is it? And what does it have to do with the demise of the dinosaurs? That is where the meandering begins. After beginning the book with questions of dark matter and its relationship to our galaxy, Randall’s narrative diverts in what appears to be a completely different direction.

She writes about the formation of our solar system, life on Earth, and how long-period comets originate in the distant Oort cloud. She explains why astronomers think that those comets, rather than asteroids or short period comets that come mainly from the Kuiper Belt (home of Pluto), are most likely the source of major impact events. And she explores the tenuous but credible evidence that both mass extinctions and increased cosmic impacts occur at periodic intervals of roughly 30 million years.

Then she returns to her latest work and its unexpected connection to the doomsday comet. She and her colleagues have developed a model of dark matter that suggests that some of it would concentrate within a thin disk aligned with the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy. Whenever the solar system’s up and down motion took it through the galactic plane, the excess of dark matter could induce a greater than average influx of Oort cloud comets.
That passage through the galactic plane occurs at roughly 30 million year intervals. It was happening 66 million years ago.

Is that timing coincidental, or did dark matter unleash the dinosaur-doomsday comet? A soon-to-be-launched spacecraft called GAIA will study the distribution of mass of the galaxy. No one planned for it to address that question, but it may soon tell us whether that crazy-seeming hypothesis is worth pursuing further.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of numerous science books for young readers, including an updated Kindle version of Collision Course! Cosmic Impacts and Life on Earth available in English and German.

Review of Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard

Nagasaki Life After Nuclear War

by Susan Southard

(Viking, 416 pages, $28.95, July 28, 2015)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Note: This review was originally published in The Dallas Morning News and is the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies, please contact the author by e-mail.

coverLearn more about Nagasaki at Amazon.com.

Looking at the title of Susan Southard’s Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, many readers are likely to ask, “Hasn’t this story been told many times before?”

The answer, surprisingly, is no. Though the first atomic bomb attack on Japan and its aftermath have been well documented, the story of the second target city has, until now, remained in Hiroshima’s literary shadow.

So what better time to remedy that deficiency than next week’s 70th anniversary of the twin attacks? Southard’s book, the result of more than a decade of detailed research, follows the lives of five teenage hibakusha (bomb-affected people) from the hours immediately before the explosion of “Fat Man” above Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, to the present.

In the first chapter, readers meet the central characters. Streetcar driver Wada Koichi survived because of a twist of fate. A derailment elsewhere in the system diverted him from his normal route which would have taken him to the heart of the devastation.

Nagano Etsuko spent most of her lifetime blaming herself for persuading her parents to bring her younger siblings home from their grandparents’ home outside the city where had been evacuated for safety. Her brother died almost immediately after the attack; her sister weeks later when radiation sickness set in. She finally forgave herself after exchanging apologies with her mother in 1995.

“Wild child” but fashion-conscious Do-oh Mineko left the safety of her home five miles inland to work in a Mitsubishi Arms Factory plant. She was wearing her hated wartime clothing when the blast hit a mile away.

Night-shift postal worker Taniguchi Sumiteru awoke from a nap on a tatami (mat) on the post-office floor. Instead of having time off until noon, he covered a superior’s route. At 11:02 a.m., he was riding his red bicycle in the Northwest of the city when the bomb exploded about 1.5 miles to his south.

Of the five, Yoshida Katsuji was the youngest and closest to the blast, only a half-mile from ground zero. He was lowering a bucket into into a roadside well near the Urakami River when he looked upward and saw something falling from the sky. Southard uses his to words bring the chapter to an ominous close: “‘The parachutes floated down saatto,’ he said. Quietly, with no sound.”

Then with the turn of a page, Southard plunges her readers—and the protagonists—into horror. In gruesome detail, she describes the fireball and its aftermath: Total destruction of neighborhoods, factories, places of worship, and human bodies; survivors with burned flesh and seeping wounds that will not heal for years; radiation-induced illnesses that appear unnanounced weeks, months, or even years later; revulsion in the faces of others.

The survivors’ anger is palpable, directed only not toward the Americans who dropped the bombs but also toward their own militaristic leaders who had “fed propaganda to the Japanese people about their country’s supremacy and its innate destiny ….”

That destiny turned into defeat, occupation, and particular humiliation to the hibakusha. The Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission offered medical care but treated them as experimental subjects. Southard notes that “Autopsy… tissues, slides, and body parts… were extracted, examined, and quickly dispatched to the United States,” where they were treated as classified information. As a result, ABCC’s own physicians were unable to get medical reports that were essential for proper treatment of their patients.

Late in life, many hibakusha took on a new identity. They became “karatibe–storytellers in the centuries–long Japanese tradition by which selected individuals pass on historical information to their fellow citizens and future generations.”

They had a mission and a message: No one should ever again become a hibakusha. Do-oh died of cancer in 2007 but left behind a collection of essays entitled Ikasarete ikite (Allowed to live, I live).

In 2010, a rapidly speading cancer claimed Yoshida as well. Before his final illness, he had been planning to speak at that year’s United Nations Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. Hayashida Mitsuhiro, an eighteen-year-old activist and grandson of a hibakusha, took up Yoshida’s mantle. He now shares Yoshida’s story with American audiences, closing every speech with Yoshida’s signature words: “The basis of peace is for people to understand the pain of others.”

Through this book, Southard has also become a karatibe, enabling her readers to understand the hibakusha‘s pain and commitment that no one should ever again experience what they did. It is not easy reading, but it is essential in today’s world.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of numerous science books for young readers, including the newly released eight-book series Exploring the Subatomic World.

Review of Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett
Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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This review originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News and is the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies of any of the materials on this site, please contact the author by e-mail.

coverDiscover more about Rain: A Natural and Cultural History at Amazon.com.

“I, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas,… do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.”

Thus at a time when more than 8000 wildfires burned across the Lone Star State, destroying more than 400 homes, engulfing 1.8 million acres, and bringing about numerous business failures, the governor responded to a drought that rivaled the 1930s Dust Bowl by calling for Easter weekend prayers.

Environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett, who highlights that proclamation in the opening of a chapter called “Praying for Rain” in her new book, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, was not criticizing Rick Perry’s personal faith. Her concern was the rejection by a Presidential candidate of the findings of his state’s leading atmospheric scientists who declared that human-caused global warming was exacerbating their state’s already difficult situation.

The political controversy over global warming and its cause persists despite an overwhelming scientific consensus. Although that is not Barnett’s central theme, it echoes in the background throughout the book and returns dramatically at the end.

In less skilled hands, that gloomy sub-theme could doom the book to failure. But Barnett never loses her readers as she weaves together a compelling set of human tales that carry them through millennia and around the world, often in vivid and lyrical prose and leavened with humor.

Rain, usually in tales of flood or scarcity, is part of the central narrative of every culture as well as many of their everyday conversations. “With its hurly-burlies and nor’easters,” Barnett writes in a chapter about meteorologists and other weather watchers, “rain’s eccentric vocabulary connects to the soggy literary landscapes of Ireland and England: Jonathan Swift is credited with the earliest published version of ‘raining cats and dogs’ in 1738, though an English dramatist named Richard Brome had his dialogue raining ‘Dogs and Polecats’ a century earlier.”

Those phrases, she continues in a long paragraph tracing vocabulary around the world, “seem practically ordinary compared with ‘raining young cobblers’ in Germany. It rains shoemakers’ apprentices in Denmark, chair legs in Greece, ropes in France, pipe stems in the Netherlands, and wheelbarrows in the Czech Republic…. Afrikaans-speakers have a version that rains old women with knobkerries (that would be clubs),… and the Spanish: esta lloviendo hasta maridos–it’s even raining husbands!…”

Those colorful colloquialisms are no doubt in the mind of readers in the last section of the book where they encounter a chapter on “Strange Rain.” The chapter features anecdotal and documented instances of frogs or fish plopping from the sky, as well as colored rains. In that chapter we meet one of the book’s many colorful characters, Charles Hoy Fort, who gained minor fame in the early twentieth century for his books of oddities.

“Fort spent years digging up reports of strange rain,” Barnett notes. “He would meticulously source his weird findings…that corroborated rains of toads, frogs, snakes, eels, spiders, stones, pebbles, salt, cinders, coal, and gelatinous goo.”

But that chapter is not all about natural curiosities. It leads up to the story of how acid rain caused by human activity led an environmentally conscious U.S. Congress to enact the Clean Air Act of 1970. Still, as Barnett notes, the world’s environmental problems are hardly solved. “If Fort is right that society shall be judged by the health of its frogs, we’re in for a harsh adjudication. Frogs have survived in more or less their current form for the past 250 million years…. Today they are vanishing…. The rain-loving little bioindicators are definitely trying to tell us something.”

In a brief but pointed final chapter, Barnett describes the political obstacles we face in responding to the challenges of climate change, particularly criticizing powerful Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, whose fundamentalist religious position on climate and his “sense of duty” to the oil and gas industry stands in the way of action.

Barnett’s epilogue is a quiet call to action. Written as a travel essay, it takes readers to a resort that celebrates the rain in India’s state of Meghalaya during monsoon season. But there, as in most locations of the world, previously unusual and extreme weather conditions have become almost commonplace. The historically rain-cooled region is sunny, hot, and oppressive. Barnett titles that epilogue “Waiting for Rain.”

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of nearly thirty books for young readers, including the newly revised Dr. Fred’s Weather Watch: Create and Run Your Own Weather Station, coauthored by the host of TWC’s “Weather Geeks” program, Prof. J. Marshall Shepherd.

Review of Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik

Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pages, $26.00, July 2014)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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This review is the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz.
Individuals may print single copies for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies, please contact the author by e-mail.

coverLearn more about Stuff Matters at Amazon.com.



We live in a remarkable high-tech world, surrounded by objects with extraordinary properties that are only possible because of fabricated materials. We have silicon microchips, fiberoptic glass cables, airplanes made from ultralight but ultrastrong composites and alloys, and of course, chocolate.

That is the take-away message from Mark Miodownik’s entertaining and informative Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World. Miodownik holds two titles at University College London, both of which will evoke a curious smile: Professor of Materials and Society and Director of the Institute for Making.

Those titles alone are enough to make readers want to know him better. And to their delight, the book delivers on both the scientific and personal levels. Its anecdotes, inviting prose, and unusual choice of chapter titles introduce both the author and his field of research, materials science.

It is a field that is inseparable from the roots and evolution of human civilization. It goes back to a time when discoveries were empirical, long before scientific and engineering approaches had emerged.

It goes back to our earliest technology. With its Greek root “techne-” for making things, technology leads to both artistry and craftsmanship, to beauty and utility. Miodownik puts it this way: “The material world is not just a display of our technology and culture, it is part of us. We invented it, we made it, and in turn it makes us who we are.”

He goes on to note the importance of materials to civilization underlies “the names we have used to categorize the stages of civiliztion—the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age—with each new era of human existence being brought about by a new material.”

Today, materials both new and old are being transformed by science and technology, and they continue to reshape the way we live. To tell that story, Miodownik invites his readers to his London rooftop where he sits wearing a comfortable sweter and sneakers, reading a book, sipping tea from an heirloom china cup, surrounded by potted plants, with antennas and multistory buildings in the background.

Each chapter opens with that same picture with an arrow highlighting a particular man-made material, followed by a personal story that leads in a sometimes circuitous but always fascinating path to his main point about a class of materials.

The titles of each of the first ten chapters are evocative adjectives. It opens with the arrow pointing to the “Indomitable” steel support of his table and an anecdote about meeting a man named Brian in a Dublin pub who had invented an electronic machine to sharpen blunt razor blades.

It may have been a crackpot idea, but it was possible that Brian had stumbled upon a useful process, just as our Stone, Bronze, and Iron Age ancestors had. “He explained that he had invented his machine by trial and error, with no appreciation for the physics and chemistry at play,” Miodownik writes, “and yet it seemed he had somehow succeeded. What he wanted from me was to measure the sharpness of the razors before and after they had been through his process.”

From there, Miodownik moves to the science of various iron-carbon alloys, decribing how each one’s properties depends on details of its composition and crystal structure, and to the history of metallurgy and its empirical roots.

Other chapters include materials from “Trusted” paper to “Fundamental” yet remarkably high-tech concrete, to “Imaginative” plastics, “Invisible” glass, and “Unbreakable” yet soft and slippery graphite and its multitude of carbon cousins.

“Delicious” chocolate and “Refined” porcelain are also on the menu, followed by a dessert of “Synthesis,” which notes that materials are “complex expressions of human needs and desires. And in order to create those materials,… we have had to master the complexity of their inner structure.”

The book ends with a repeat of the rooftop photograph above a caption noting the author’s hope that “as a result of reading this book, you’ll see it a little differently.” Neither Miodownik nor his readers will get up from that table disappointed.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of nearly thirty books for young readers, including the American Institute of Physics Award-Winning Techno-Matter: The Materials Behind the Marvels.

Why all the buzz about inflation?

If you are not a physicist, you may be asking yourself why so many science reporters are suddenly abuzz about gravitational waves and the phenomenon known as Cosmic Inflation. Perhaps this blog post can help answer that question.

As an author of nearly 30 science books for young readers, I may be well equipped to simplify and clarify both without losing too much depth. If you want more after this, I recommend this link from Stanford University, which includes a video of a key scientist, Andrei Linde, getting the news in person from one of his colleagues.

Let’s start with the idea of Cosmic Inflation, which is represented by the lower portion of the Stanford University graphic below. The horizontal axis is time from the Big Bang, which is at the extreme left end. The vertical spread represents the size of the universe.

As proposed originally by Stanford Postdoctoral Fellow Alan Guth (now a professor at MIT), inflation happened less than 10-32 seconds after the Bang Bang. At that point, the universe abruptly inflated faster than the speed of light would permit. The explanation is that space-time itself emerged from the Big Bang, and it was space-time rather than matter or energy that inflated.

Inflation is needed to solve a cosmic puzzle. When we look at deep regions of the universe in opposite directions, we are seeing parts of the universe that are too far apart to have communicated with one another, even with signals that travel as fast as light. Yet somehow, they are at the same temperature; that is they are in thermal equilibrium. Inflation explains how that can be possible. The entire universe was in thermal equilibrium in the tiny bit of time before inflation began.

The idea of that faster-than-light inflation did not sit very well with some physicists, who wanted observations that directly showed evidence of the inflationary event. The upper part of the graphic helps explain that evidence. According to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, changing the distribution of mass or energy in space creates ripples in space-time known as gravitational waves. Linde, then living in Russia, proposed that if the gravitational waves created by inflation could be detected, they would reveal details of that brief but critical period in the history of the universe. A remarkable collaborative observation of the Cosmic Microwave Background in a project known as BICEP2, has done precisely that.

I predict that this discovery, if confirmed, will win a Nobel Prize for Physics for Guth and Linde very soon–if not the next one, then the one after that. No wonder this announcement is creating such a buzz!

ADDENDUM: Confirmation seems to be unlikely, given that serious doubt has now been cast on these results. See this article in Scientific American for a clear explanation of why dust may be responsible for the BICEP2 results.

Nobel Laureates Debate the Future of Nuclear Power

At a Nobel Forum in December 2013, several past laureates discussed the future of nuclear power. Their conclusions were far from unanimous. All agreed that nuclear power is the only current technology capable of replacing fossil-fuel plants on a large enough scale to mitigate the risk of global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

But as I note in my 2012 book for young readers,
Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future
, the shadow of the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns hangs heavily over the future development of the industry. The political and technological questions are intertwined. These include:

Should we continue to use uranium reactor technology or replace it with thorium breeder reactors?

Are we capable of properly assessing the risks of nuclear power?

Should we consider nuclear technology a permanent piece of our energy future, or should we consider it a bridge to a late 21st-century electric power industry dominated by wind turbines and solar energy–or perhaps even nuclear fusion reactors?

For people seeking clear answers, the forum might be considered a disappointment. To them, I respond that the most important issues of technology and society rarely have clear-cut approaches. The best we can do is to continue to raise open questions and compare them to the physical, political, and economic environment not only of the present but of the future in which those technological approaches will be applied.

The forum raised those open questions. It will be up to future leaders, who make up the target audience for my books, to grapple with them.

Book Review (Physics): Farewell to Reality by Jim Baggott

Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth by Jim Baggott
Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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This review is the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies, please contact the author by e-mail.

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Modern physics is in trouble. Just when we think we are on the verge of sewing everything up, we tug on a loose end and whole sections of the tapestry unravel.

This is not a new phenomenon. A century ago, thanks largely to breakthrough ideas of Einstein, physicists were replacing space and time with spacetime. Mass and energy, once so obviously different, became a single property related by the world’s most famous equation, E=mc2.

Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect was the first glimmer of an emerging new subfield, quantum physics. Meanwhile the first subatomic particles had been discovered, and many more were to follow.

Great minds proposed new theories. And those theories were challenged and shaped by great experiments. Gradually, physicists accepted the evidence that both relativity and quantum mechanics are valid descriptions of nature, and they developed the “Standard Model” to describe the properties of emerging array of subatomic particles.

Together, those remarkably successful descriptions of the physical universe comprise what physicist and author Jim Baggott calls “The Authorized Version,” which he describes in detail in the first half of his critique of current physics, Farewell to Reality.

The Authorized Version has flaws and missing pieces as well as strengths. For example, it suggests ways to unify electromagnetism with the strong and weak nuclear forces, but gravity remains in its own realm. Likewise quantum mechanics and relativity should both apply to the extreme conditions of the Big Bang and Black Holes, but their mathematics do not mesh.

And although the recent (apparent) discovery of the Higgs boson has strengthened the Standard Model, the latest astronomical measurements suggest that the model leaves out most of the universe. Approximately 95 percent of the cosmos is either “dark matter,” which we observe through its gravitational attraction on the scale of galaxies and galaxy clusters, or “dark energy,” which produces a kind of anti-gravity on the cosmic scale.

Those defects in The Authorized Version are not the reason for Baggott’s challenging subtitle, How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Truth. Rather, he asserts that modern physics has said “Farewell to Reality” in the attempts to fill in The Authorized Version’s gaps with theoretical leaps and multiple conjectures that he calls “fairy-tale physics.”

He uses that characterization to take on Stephen Hawking directly. In a 2010 book, Hawking calls Superstring or M-Theory The Grand Design, presenting it as his favorite candidate theory of everything. Baggott, however, contends that M-Theory is built on an astonishing sequence of speculative assumptions, with no supporting experimental evidence for any of them.

He argues that M-Theory’s proposal of a “multiverse” is implausible in the extreme. The M-Theory multiverse is a vast set of universes with different physical constants. By chance, a few of those turn out to be suitable for the formation of stars, planets, and the atoms and molecules of life.

What bothers Baggott and attracts Hawking is that the number of possible universes in the multiverse is approximately ten to the five hundredth power! The advantage of such a large number is that even an exceptionally unlikely event, such as the evolution of a living world with intelligent life, becomes inevitable.

Baggott looks at it differently. “Scientists (even theoretical physicists) should not be afraid to say they don’t know…. We want them to speculate, to push the frontiers of their science. But when their ambition to give answers drives them to tell fairy tales,… let us all be clear that we have left science far behind.”

Loose ends, he argues, are not a bad thing. And he eagerly begins to tug.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of twenty books including Physics: Decade by Decade, a history of physics in the twentieth century.

Is this the year for Peter Higgs?

A little more than a year ago, I blogged about the possibility of a Nobel Prize for Peter Higgs and others. I was premature, probably because the deliberation about the 2012 prizes was well underway when the researchers announced the likely discovery on July 4, 2012.

Also, the committee probably wanted to wait for subsequent announcements that would strengthen the discovery and provide more insight into the presumed particle’s properties. Many are now calling it the Brout-Englert-Higgs boson because of a slightly earlier publication by Robert Brout and François Englert (August 1964 vs. Higgs’ October paper) that discussed the mass-giving field but did not specifically include the boson.

Now the speculation about the winner of this year’s Nobel Prizes has begun. Thomson Reuters, which publishes an index of research paper citations, predicts that this is the year for Higgs and Englert. (Brout is deceased and the prize is only awarded to living scientists.)

Since others contributed significant papers soon after (notably Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagen, and Tom Kibble, who published their contribution in December), and since the Nobel can be shared up to three ways, I have to wonder whether there will be an additional winner.

Since physics is an interplay between theory and experiment, I also wonder how the experimentalists who designed and conducted the experiment that ultimately led to the boson’s discovery will be honored. I think it is likely that another Nobel Prize for that work will be forthcoming before the end of this decade.

Stay tuned.

P.S.: Recommended reading about the quest for the Higgs Boson, The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science by Ian Sample

P.P.S.: If you are interested in my perspectives on the recent history of Physics and a look ahead to the discoveries waiting to happen in the next several years, please look for my 2007 book Physics: Decade by Decade in the Twentieth-Century Science collection from Facts on File.