Science Shelf Blog, Year End 2017

My standard opening disclaimer:

Due to the shrinking freelance book review market, my opportunities to publish full-length reviews of science titles in major metropolitan newspapers are now few and far between. Because I do not want to leave that territory completely, I have decided to develop a blog that publishes short reviews of science books that I receive as examination copies. The frequency of my posts will depend on how many click-throughs I get on, so if you like this service, I would appreciate your using the Science Shelf portal to make your purchases at That will generate referral fees that will support my efforts to keep my reviews available. I never know who is making the purchases, so I will not be able contact any buyer, not even to say, “Thank you for your support.”

I will also be posting this on my Science Shelf website, where you can find nearly two hundred science book reviews that I have written over the last 20 years.

I will begin by featuring two books by favorite scientist/authors that came out late last year, and that I had hoped to review for a newspaper but never won an assignment.

The first is coverA Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves by Walter Alvarez. Geologist Alvarez and his father, Nobel Laureate physicist Luis Alvarez, along with nuclear chemists Frank Asaro and Helen Michel*, transformed our knowledge of the mass extinction by discovering that an asteroid impact was the likely cause of the demise of the dinosaurs and many other species at the end of the Cretaceous period. He wrote about that literally Earth-shaking event earlier in T-Rex and the Crater of Doom.

Now he goes beyond that example of “Big History” to look at the unlikely emergence of our species on this life filled planet, dividing the book into four interrelated regimes: Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity.

(* This link takes you to a webpage about my book To the Young Scientist: Reflections on Doing and Living Science, which profiles Asaro and Michel in Chapter 2.)

The second is coverEarth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future by David Grinspoon. Grinspoon is an Astrobiologist whose scholarship and quirky personality shine through in his writing. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak about the new geological epoch that we humans have imposed on our planet, the Anthropocene.

In my next blog, I will feature a look ahead at some excellent books that will publish in the first few months of 2018. But I have two recently published titles on my shelf that are worth mentioning here.

Math lovers should consider coverA Most Elegant Equation: Euler’s Formula and the Beauty of Mathematics by David Stipp. I remember my own astonishment when I first encountered the equation that combines the base of natural logarithms known as e, the square root of -1 or i, and the remarkable and well known constant pi in one compact equation that reads “e to the i pi plus 1 equals zero.” It takes at least one book to fully grasp the implications of that formula, and Stipp’s is a good place to start.

And, finally, for technology buffs, there is the challenging coverDesigning Reality: How to Survive and Thrive in the Third Digital Revolution by Neil Gershenfeld, Alan Gershenfeld, and Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld. As the publisher notes, “Two digital revolutions–computing and communication–have radically transformed our economy and lives. A third digital revolution is here: fabrication. Today’s 3D printers are only the start of a trend, accelerating exponentially, to turn data into objects: Neil Gershenfeld and his collaborators ultimately aim to create a universal replicator straight out of Star Trek. While digital fabrication promises us self-sufficient cities and the ability to make (almost) anything, it could also lead to massive inequality. The first two digital revolutions caught most of the world flat-footed, thanks to Designing Reality that won’t be true this time.”

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