Updates to the Science Shelf Book Review Archive

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News about the Science Shelf archive of book reviews, columns, and comments by Fred Bortz

Issue #22, August-September 2007

Dear Science Readers,
As noted in the previous Science Shelf update, I was in the midst of reading A Contract With the Earth by Newt Gingrich and Terry Maple, which I hoped would move the discussion of global warming in a productive direction. Having a conservative voice call for environmental action is unusual in today’s United States, but it shouldn’t be. After all “conservative” and “conservation” have the same root.

I’ve completed my review, which states in part: “I assumed that I would disagree with Gingrich’s proposed political approaches. But I also assumed that the book will make an important contribution to the debate on global warming. I was correct on both counts. A Contract With the Earth has the potential to move the debate away from whether global warming is occurring and whether human activities are causing it, and move toward issues where conservatives and liberals argue about how best to deal with the problem. However, I am disappointed that… (click to read more).

On a much lighter note, I’ve reviewed The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught, and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You by British author Mark Buchanan, who “like most physicists, has an unusual view of complexity. Rather than assuming that a complex result has a complex cause, he recognizes that simple objects interacting through a simple set of rules can produce a rich array of arrangements and events.

“Physicists understand and describe phenomena from the subatomic to the cosmic on the basis of a few straightforward (‘to them,’ you say) formulas and some rather brash simplifications. Neglect all the details you know about the Sun, the planets, and their moons. Simply consider them point masses, unleash Newton’s laws of motion and gravity, tweaked with Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and you can predict their future positions for milennia.

“And if that approach works for everything from atoms to galactic clusters, it should also work for people. It’s all a matter of understanding the patterns.” (read on)


I’ve got a variety of new books on my to-be-reviewed list. One seems to have distinct similarities to The Social Atom, including a long, enticing subtitle and an author who brings insights to the social sciences from a hard-science background. Oakland (MI) University engineering professor Barbara Oakley has written Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend. Stay tuned for my review (I feel a limerick brewing) or click the cover to preorder or learn more.

I’m well into Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade by Linda Perlstein. The landmark “No Child Left Behind” education program is falling short of expectations, and politicians are struggling to understand not only what has happened but also whether it is reparable. Perlstein spent a year in a poster-child school for the program. Her experiences reveal why that school has been so successful in meeting the goals as well as the hidden flaws in its offerings.

In my review, I plan to park my political inclinations and approach the book as a parent, grandparent, scientist, and writer for young readers seeking to understand what works. I hope my readers will share this message with their representatives in Congress who will soon have to vote on what we might call NCLB 2.0. I’ll send out a special alert when the review is online.


A controversial title that I reviewed in 2006 is now available in paperback. Ian Wilmut and Roger Highfield produce a solid history of mammalian cloning in After Dolly, I think one of their recommendations for future developments is somewhat woolly-headed. Still, it’s a great read. Don’t sheepishly accept my conclusions. Read it for “ewerself” instead. (Ba-a-a-a-d jokes are de rigeur in some Science Shelf reviews).


Last month, I touted my new high school/adult book on the history of physics in the Facts On File Twentieth-Century Science reference set, Physics : Decade by Decade.

This month I have a very different new title for middle graders in Lerner’s “Cool Science” series called Astrobiology. I’m pleased to say that it has featured treatment on the NASA Astrobiology Institute Web Site.


Thank you to the people who have been kind enough to buy some of the books that they discovered here through the Science Shelf links. They’ve even used the link on the Science Shelf homepage to enter Amazon.com and buy other products from tube socks to a Razr scooter.

I never find out who is buying; I just find out what they have bought, how much they paid, and how much my commission amounts to. At the current pace, commissions cover the cost of the web address and web hosting. I’ll never expect commissions to cover the time I spend maintaining the archive of book reviews and sending out messages like this. That’s a labor of book- and science-love, and your feedback (in terms of increasing numbers of clicks) tells me you appreciate it.

As always, happy science reading, and thanks in advance for your support!