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Science straight up, or with a human twist

by Evan | Sep 26, 2016
Evans Recommendations

Whether you like your popular science books "dry"or "wet," there are plenty of good ones to choose from these days. By dry, I mean a book that mostly tries to explain a difficult subject; by wet, I mean one that gives a lot of attention to the living, human side of the science. My preference is dry, but I've been working my way through four pop sci books this month, and I'll start with the decidedly wet one I already finished.

Janna Levin's very human Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space is maybe 10 percent about black holes science and 90 percent about quirky, brilliant black hole scientists. Working through one adversity after another -- theoretical, technical, financial and, especially, emotional -- they put together over 30 years an amazing pair of gigantic devices that last year reportedly heard the unfathomably faint and brief sound ripple from the collision of two black holes in a galaxy far, far away. Levin herself is a black hole scientist, but in this project she writes little about how the universe works and much about how imperfect human beings try to understand it. 

Jane Goodall's Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants is a very personal plea by a famous zoologist who dearly loves botany. She urges people to appreciate plants on both emotional and practical levels. Like many scientists, she warns that we are rapidly destroying plant species at the possibly imminent peril of our own. 

Somewhere between wet and dry is Frans de Waal's Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? The renowned primatologist's latest book is full of the recent findings about animal intelligence, but it's also full of stories about scientists believing a lot of stupid things in regard to animals' abilities.

One of my favorites is that scientists said elephants were too dumb to get bananas that were too high to reach with their trunks. This ruling was based on the fact the elephants would not use a stick to reach them as some other animals do. But an intelligent human realized that holding sticks confuses elephants' sensory perception. When sturdy blocks were put in the elephants' reach, they pushed them to spots underneath the bananas, raised themselves by putting their forelegs on the blocks, and got their reward. Plenty smart.

My current favorite, however, is Sean Carroll's The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. Monty Python's Meaning of Life this is not. Even with hardly any math, it is a big book on the big stuff, and I'm admittedly taking a lot of time to work through it. I'm thinking about actually buying it, which, for this life-long library addict, is high praise.

Carroll is a physicist, but he demonstrates a deep understanding of many other challenging subjects, including philosophy and brain science. Ultimately, though, the book is less about the knowledge he conveys and more an explanation of why the scientific process itself -- for all its uncertainties -- is our best hope to understand our universe, our world and ourselves. 


EvanEvan - Married, three children, two grandchildren, formerly a newspaper journalist, now a public librarian, at all times a board game nut.

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