Latest Additions to the Science Shelf book review archive


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

Issue #29, Back from Hiatus edition, February 2009

NOTE: Links that follow take you to the review of the book in question. Each review has a link to buy at if you are interested.

Dear Science Readers,

I wrote in the previous Science Shelf newsletter that I was putting this newsletter on hiatus. I have finally reached a quieter time. I can once again go beyond reviewing books and adding them to the Science Shelf website. This long overdue newsletter is the result.

Happy Birthday Charlie D.!

With Darwin’s bicentennial birthday this month, I have seen a number of books about evolution, and I was able to persuade my newspaper clients to let me review Why Evolution is TrueWhy Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne. That review prompted two e-mails by readers of the Dallas Morning News, one telling me that I should review a book by Dembski on Intelligent Design, and the other telling me how brave I was for giving Coyne high marks in Big D., especially since Texas was revisiting the issue of how to describe evolution in the state curriculum.

To the first, I responded that with limited space on newspaper book review pages, I generally review books that I can recommend to some readers, even if I didn’t particularly like them myself. Coyne’s book makes a strong case for evolution, while the recently reviewed Only a Theory by Kenneth Miller, an observant Catholic, did an even better job demolishing Intelligent Design. Sorry, Dembski! Find a different reviewer.

To the second, Ronald Martin Wade, I replied that I was not as brave as he thought, since I live in the Pittsburgh area, not Texas. Then my hometown Pittsburgh Post-Gazette picked up the review and headlined it, “Breaking News! Darwin was Right.” No one picketed my house or sent a nasty e-mail, so I can’t claim any bravery here, either.

More about Mr. Wade below.

The Great Pluto-versy

Until I read Neil deGrasse Tyson’s The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet, I had never thought about the peculiar American passion for Pluto’s status as a planet. Apparently, the rest of the world is more comfortable with its “demotion” to the rank of “dwarf planet.”

To Tyson, Pluto will always reign as “the undisputed King of the Kuiper Belt.” And his book is rich in humor and story, not to mention wonderful scientific insights, about a distant icy world that remains as interesting scientifically as ever.

To Your Health!

During the hiatus, I also reviewed a pair of books that I would classify as potentially life-saving. The link takes you to a comparative review of Anticancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D., and Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst, M.D.

The comparative review focuses more on psychiatrist and brain-cancer survivor Servan-Schreiber and his remarkable approach to his own disease than on the Singh and Ernst book. So I also posted a full-length review of the latter. If you don’t know the difference between complementary medicine (Ernst’s field) and alternative medicine, I highly recommend Trick or Treatment.

Meet Max

My correspondence with Ron Wade was entertaining. Despite our different backgrounds, we share an appreciation for irreverent humor and a good intellectual tussle. Without expecting anything in return, he sent me a copy of his self-published The Max Parallax: Things You Should Know.

I’ve only had a chance to scan the book, but I know that it is a collection of entertaining rants by Ron’s alter-ego, Max Gross. At least I think Max is Ron’s alter-ego. Ron remains coy about that, perhaps fearing that I suspect he may have a split personality.

In any case, you will probably enjoy agreeing and disagreeing with Max at the same time. I think that’s the point of the book, which Ron describes as follows on
An atheist-libertarian and a lukewarm Christian Republican with common backgrounds in security and intelligence work argue their personal views of the human condition; an irreverent and hilarious glimpse of religion, politics, morality and government, an unexpected parallax view.

I rarely recommend a self-published book, but this one earns an exception. I’m sure both Ron and Max will be surprised to read this, since it was truly offered as a gift to a kindred spirit. But I always tell my young readers to follow their questions, and that’s exactly what Ron uses Max to do.

My Usual Thanks

Thank you to the growing number of people who are 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 and buy books and other products including, most recently, a bread-making machine and cook book.

I’ll never know who those buyers are unless they tell me, thanks to Amazon’s very sensible privacy policies. I just find out what they have bought, how much they paid, and how much my commission amounts to.

At the current pace, monthly commisions cover the cost of the web address, webhosting, and enough to buy me a two-topping large pizza (no anchovies, please). 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!

Fred Bortz

14 thoughts on “Latest Additions to the Science Shelf book review archive”

  1. Tyson is wrong in his statement that only Americans are bothered by the demotion of Pluto. This is simply not the case. There are Internet groups, songs, and poems by people all over the world supporting Pluto’s planet status. I run a blog advocating Pluto’s reinstatement, and I have heard from people all over the world, in places such as Singapore (where one person started a two-year online petition), the Philippines, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and more strongly expressing their belief that Pluto is still a planet. Tyson is also wrong in his claim that people’s affinity for Pluto is about the Disney dog. It is not. Most people who support Pluto retaining its planet status are people with an interest in astronomy and the solar system. The outrageous, flawed process used by four percent of the IAU in adopting the planet definition that demoted Pluto only generated more support for its reinstatement.

    Tyson is also incorrect in calling Pluto a comet. It is not a comet. Pluto is much bigger than any known comet, and its orbit never takes it into the inner solar system. It is both a planet and a Kuiper Belt Object because it is in a state of hydrostatic equilbrium, meaning it has enough self gravity to pull itself into a round shape. When this happens, objects become geologically differentiated into core, mantle and crust, just like the larger planets and unlike shapeless KBOs. Tyson’s minimizing of the importance of hydrostatic equilibrium is quite problematic.

    Interestingly, over 300 professional astronomers signed a petition saying they will not use the new planet definition. Many even now are working to get the demotion overturned.

    I plan on writing a book of my own on this subject, and I hope you will consider reviewing it when it is completed. In the meantime, you can find my Pluto blog at

  2. Laurele,

    You are overreacting to a summary of a book review. That’s two steps removed from the source, namely the book itself.

    (1) It’s full of good humor, which you unfortunately seem to lack, at least on this issue

    (2) It doesn’t say that Plutophiles are restricted to the U.S.A., but they are peculiarly prominent here (see next point)

    (3) The argument over Pluto’s status is more a “pop culture” phenomenon in the U.S. than elsewhere.

    (4) Tyson relishes good scientific argumentation. To quote the end of my review:

    Scientists love science far more for the quest–its open questions and the uncharted path to discovery–than for the facts that ultimately end up in scholarly journals, popular books, and museum exhibits. The Pluto Files, with its eclectic approach and informal tone, captures that spirit better than any book in recent memory.

    Your Pluto-passion is a good thing. But it needs a little humor for leavening.

    If you’re writing a book for the popular market, that’s an important consideration. If you succeed in getting it published, I’d be glad to look at it for review purposes. Tell your publisher that I have a much better chance of selling a review if I get an advance reading copy. I usually pitch my reviews to newspapers about two months before the book is due to appear.

    Fred Bortz
    Children’s Science Books
    Science Book Reviews

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