The arrival of Spring 2018 in my area has been marked by an unusually large outburst of pollen. In the science book world, it has been marked by an outburst of varied, interesting titles. And that is certainly nothing to sneeze at.
One of the perks of being a reviewer of long standing is the regular arrival of new titles to look at. I don’t have time for a thorough reading and reviewing of most of them, but I can select a few of the most promising titles to share with readers of this blog.
I’m certainly not alone in my selection of Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon as best science book of the season. (The link takes you to my review.) Most reviews of that title, which I did not read until after publishing my own, share my view that it is a thrilling adventure story told by a gifted writer and an intrepid planetary scientist. Don’t miss it!
Speaking of adventures in space travel, no planet has been beckoning us to explore it longer than Mars. As David A. Weintraub notes, human missions to the Red Planet have moved from the imagination to the drawing board. In Life on Mars: What to Know Before We Go, the planet’s greatest allure has always been that could be home to living beings. And if there is indeed life on Mars, what can it tell us about life elsewhere in the Solar System, especially life on our own planet? With the Mars INSIGHT lander currently on its way to join an array of orbiters and rovers, this book is particularly timely with its look at the history and future of Mars exploration.
Common to both Chasing New Horizons and Life on Mars are stories of human ambition and drive. The thirst for knowledge is a powerful motivator, but so is the quest for recognition. In the top echelons of research, there is no more powerful motivator than the possibility of the Nobel Prize. In Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Honor, physicist Brian Keating, writing from personal experience, challenges the notion that competing for such a prize is good for science. The book’s publicist describes Keating’s thesis as follows: “(T)here’s something rotten in Sweden. LOSING THE NOBEL PRIZE… is a shot across the bow from one of America’s most well-regarded scientists, and a plea to reform the award that has captivated generations–often at the expense of the disciplines the prize purportedly promotes.”
Nobel Prize winners are often considered geniuses. Certainly, they have minds that work in unusual–perhaps even weird–ways, producing insights that can transform our thinking. Noted science writer David Darling discovered such a mind in young Agnijo Banerjee. Together, they have produced Weird Math: A Teenage Genius & His Teacher Reveal the Strange Connections Between Math & Everyday Life. It’s obvious from the title and subtitle that Darling and Banerjee were enjoying themselves as they put their ideas down on paper. Readers are invited dive into the weirdness and join in on the fun.
As a young adult in the 1960s, I had many classmates who took weird thinking in an entirely different direction. I was never tempted to sample psychedelic drugs, and that was probably a good thing. Apparently, however, those drugs are making a comeback for a new generation of researchers who are less leery (or, dare I say it, Leary) of them. I’m still not tempted to read all 450+ pages of best-selling food writer Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, but I suspect some of my readers will be. You’ll find a variety of recommendations at the link.
Another massive tome–more than 500 pages–explores another aspect of the human mind that my scientific nature finds difficult to understand. Belief: What it Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling by James E. Alcock. The publicity gives me reason to sample at least parts of this book and to realize that many of my readers will want to immerse themselves in it: “The author, a social psychologist who specializes in the psychology of belief, elucidates how the brain and nervous system function to create the perceptions, memories, and emotions that shape belief. He explains how and why distorted perceptions, false memories, and inappropriate emotional reactions that sometimes lead us to embrace false beliefs are natural products of mental functioning. He also shows why it is so difficult to change our beliefs when they collide with contradictions.” That summary makes me wonder whether this book will help me find better ways to respond to people who refuse to accept the evidence of climate change!
This round-up has gotten very long, so I will stop at this point and follow up with a supplement in a few days. I have three books to share about catastrophic issues that we have had to face or may face in the future.