New book reviews at The Science Shelf

Dear Science Readers,

As noted in the previous Science Shelf update, we were looking forward to two books related to politics and global warming. We have now received copies of both and have written a review of one.

My review of Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming by journalist Chris Mooney doesn’t explicitly call the book “important,” but the book review editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer added that adjective to the version published there with my consent. As a member of the National Book Critics Circle, I have sent e-mails to some of the nominators for our annual award that Storm World definitely deserves consideration.

Here’s the opening of the Science Shelf review:

On May 23, 2005, three months before Hurricane Katrina started churning the Atlantic Ocean, Chris Mooney, Washington correspondent for Seed magazine, published an article in the American Prospect Online warning about the vulnerability of his native New Orleans to a direct hit by a powerful hurricane.

Katrina was not quite the storm Mooney had envisioned in his article. It was powerful–category 5 at its peak–but it had weakened to category 3 by the time it made landfall. And it wasn’t quite a direct hit.

The levees were supposed to withstand such a storm, but they failed. In the aftermath, Mooney’s “piece ricocheted around the internet,” bringing added attention to his just published first book, the meticulously researched and provocative The Republican War on Science (RWOS).

Now a new hurricane season has begun with the publication of Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, Mooney’s latest foray into the contentious intersection of science and politics. This time, his research produced a much less partisan conclusion. (read more)

I have just begun reading A Contract with the Earth by former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and conservationist Terry L. Maple. I still think the book will make an important contribution to the debate on global warming, but I am disappointed so far in what it fails to say.

It implicitly–not explicity–accepts the scientific consensus that significant global warming lies ahead and that human activities are largely responsible for the changes. It is particularly disingenuous when it discusses how partisan politics have distorted the argument on global warming: It correctly criticizes “doomsday scenarios” as ineffective but never mentions the distortions on the other side, such as calling global warming a “hoax,” which have impeded public acceptance of the urgency of the issue.

In other words, Gingrich seems to be taking a “Who, me?” attitude toward past Republican foot-dragging while calling for honesty on both sides. I may yet change my mind as I go further into the book, so stay tuned. It publishes in November.

Another new review on the Science Shelf recommends The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. As a self-described “serious science reader,” I found it a bit simplistic and “too clever by half” in its colorful prose, but I am sure it will have an enthusiastic audience of readers who want something lighter and more enticing than, let’s say, Storm World.

One of my favorite books from last year has now appeared in paperback. Its subject is about as light as you can get, but there’s plenty of substance as well as good story telling. Take a fresh look at my review of The Cloudspotters Guide.


As I write this, my newest book is at the bindery and should be available within days. If you are interested in the history of physics, ask your librarian to order the new Facts On File Twentieth-Century Science reference set, including Physics : Decade by Decade by Alfred B. Bortz, Ph.D.. Clicking the link gets you to a description of the book as well as an academic colloquium that I am hoping to offer on the topic, as viewed through the lives of ten exemplary scientists.

Happy science reading!
Fred Bortz