Science Shelf Blog, Pi Day 2018 edition

At the Science Shelf, our favorite dessert is pi. So although it is a week past Pi Day 2018, we offer these recently released book treats to our readers (along with my picture in my Pi Day bowtie).

I archive my book reviews at my Science Shelf website, so you may want to visit there to find reviews of about two hundred science book reviews that I have written since 1997, plus a few guest reviews as well.

This posting includes five books that have appeared in print during the past few weeks.

The first is by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, whose books are always challenging and at least a little bit controversial. (See the earlier Science Shelf reviews of How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature for examples.) His latest effort,coverEnlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, is likely to stir up a vigorous debate about the state of modern civilization. Challenging the pessimism that seems to have taken over much of our scientific and political discourse, Pinker sees a bright future if we follow our better angels. The front dust jacket flap concludes, “With intellectual depth and literary flair, Pinker makes the case for reason, science, and humanism: the ideals we need to confront our problems and continue our progress.”

Taking a very different approach the future of humanity, University of California, Riverside, anthropology professor Sang-Hee Lee (with Seoul-based science journalist Shin-Young Yoon) examines how Homo sapiens is evolving in coverClose Encounters with Humankind: A Paleoanthropologist Investigates Our Evolving Species. Based on her work in an unusual specialty that examines human history through the fossil record, Lee offers a series of short, readable chapters with clever titles (some samples: “Are We Cannibals?”; “Big-Brained Babies Give Moms Big Grief”; “Meat Lovers R Us”; “King Kong”; “The Molecular Clock Does Not Keep Time”; “Seven Billion humans, One Single Race?”)and builds toward the ultimate chapter, “Are Humans Still Evolving?” Any scientifically literate reader knows that the answer to that question is a clear affirmative, so this nit-picky reviewer would prefer a different title for that chapter, where Lee explores how humans are evolving and the ways in which our evolution is unlike that of other species.

Another new and very different book on the theme of human evolution is coverTurning Points: How Critical Events Have Driven Human Evolution, Life, and Development by Kostas Kampourakis. Kampourakis, a biologist and researcher in science education at the University of Geneva, takes a more scholarly but still readable approach. His emphasis is on dramatic events, many of which were coincidental, that marked the development of our species, or as the dust jacket flap notes, “Life is thus a continuous interplay between unforeseeable events and their decisive consequences.” For this reviewer, that is a fascinating genetic parallel to the view of influence of geological and astronomical events on the evolution of our planet’s species through sustained periods of uniformity punctuated by catastrophes.

Of particular personal interest because I wrote a book for young readers on the same subject 20 years ago is coverMachines That Think: The Future of Artificial Intelligence by Toby Walsh. I called my book Mind Tools: The Science of Artificial Intelligence, and I was pleased to be able to include the thoughts of Herbert Simon and Allan Newell, two of the founders of the field, who spoke directly to my teenage readers. My central point was that computer intelligence and human intelligence are very different and complementary. AI will enable computers to function as tools to complement and enhance our minds just as electro-mechanical tools complement and enhance our dexterity. In Walsh’s view, even though AI has advanced considerably since then, and will be expected to continue its rate of advance for many years ahead, we will always be looking to complement our own abilities and enhance our lives. Readers will especially want to watch how well the “Ten Predictions” of his final chapter hold up in their futures.

I close with a new book that is particularly relevant to the cultural awakening we seem to be experiencing through the #MeToo movement. Although that hashtag targets sexual abuse, it is also helping to highlight the important role that women play in science and technology and the struggles they face in order to make their mark. In coverA Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War, Cambridge University science historian Patricia Fara focuses on a critical period in Europe during which women emerged prominently in areas normally dominated by men. At the same time, the women’s suffrage movement was playing out in Europe. The back cover notes that “2018 marks a double centenary: Peace was declared in war-wracked Europe, and women won the vote after decades of struggle.” I was especially drawn to this book because of my admiration for the story of Lise Meitner’s quest for a lab of her own, which predated World War I and continued through World War II. Meitner was my choice for scientist of the decade of the 1930s in Physics: Decade by Decade (Twentieth-Century Science).

(My own contribution to the topic of women in science, besides my featuring Meitner, is coverBeyond Jupiter: The Story of Planetary Astronomer Heidi Hammel.)

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