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Café Sci's Recommended Books

(Authors in UPPER CASE have spoken at the Denver Café.)

Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization
by Spencer Wells.
2010, Random House . ISBN : 978-1400062157 . Hardcover

Author, human geneticist, and National Geographic explorer-in-residence Spencer Wells writes that humanity took a wrong turn when we opted for agriculture about 10,000 years ago. We should have remained hunter-gatherers, he says; we evolved that way. Accorning to the Hygiene Hypothesis (discussed by JJ COHEN at the Café in 2008 ) when we changed our diet, we lost "old friends," organisms that we need in our intestines to keep our immune system working right. Also, by domesticating animals that we then live intimately with, we make it easy for wild animal (especially bird) pathogens to get into human populations. And since one person can grow enough to feed hundreds, there are now just too many of us. A very interesting argument—can we, do we want to, turn back the clock?

The Honest Broker. Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics
2007, Cambridge University Press. ISBN : 9780521694810. Paperback

Roger talked about the need for scientists to maintain some distance between themselves and the policy-makers, in order to stay as effective as possible. Once one declares an opinion about policy, there is a risk of being categorized and, by people who choose to do so, marginalized. Hence, one tries to be an "honest broker." The book has been very well received. "The book's direct language and concrete examples convey the concepts to a wide audience." (review in Science, 17 August 2007)

Weighing the Soul
by Len Fisher.
2004, Arcade Publishing. ISBN : 1559707321. Hardback

By the same author as the next book. It's about everyday science--as it was for, say, Galileo. In fact its long chapter on Galileo is one of the best stories about historic science I've ever read. It points out, for example, that he was his own worst enemy; that his first major work was a map of Hell; and that he didn't drop stuff from the Leaning Tower (too short) or St. Mark's (OK height, but landings too likely to be lethal). Very well annotated, too. A really fun book.

How to Dunk a Doughnut
by Len Fisher.
2002, Arcade Publishing. ISBN : 1559706805. Hardback

The author, a British physicist and popular teacher, first came to prominence when he published an article with the name that now applies to this book. That is, he won the IgNobel Prize" for work that cannot, or should not, be reproduced." But it's actually a pretty interesting topic. Why, for example, will hot coffee run into a cookie, which then almost immediately crumbles into the liquid, ruining both, while a doughnut stays intact? It's all capillary action and gluten chemistry and a bunch of other cool stuff. Also, for those of you who wonder about it, a long, take-no-prisoners chapter on the Physics of Sex.

Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Weere Kidnapped by Aliens
by Susan A. Clancy
2005, Harvard University Press. ISBN: 06740018796. Paperback

The author is a psychologist who was studying the difficult issue of "recovered memories," in which people with the help of psychologists or hypnotists remember childhood events, often abusive, which may or may not have happened. Because this is so difficult, she decided to extend her studies to people who claim to have been abducted by aliens, frequently accompanied by various forms of naughty probing. At least in these cases, she feels, the likelihood of the events being true are small (she cites the evidence for that). Her conclusion, in this well-written and always fascinating book, is that these people are not crazy in any acceptable sense of that term, but they have a greater tendency to believe all sorts of things that did not happen. The description of her lab test for this is wonderful--try it on your own friends! [JJC review]

The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry
by Larry Gonick & Craig Criddle
2005, HarperCollins. ISBN: 0060936770. Paperback

Many of us are familiar with Larry Gonick's other Cartoon Guides (to Genetics, Physics, and Statistics). I got the Chemistry one because I wondered whether anything was now clearer than when I was in college, and the answer is, Yes. Maybe that's because Gonick and Criddle are very clear, or maybe there just is new understanding of old concepts. In any event, I think I understood the periodic table for the first time. Most of the chemistry is physical, but that's fundamental to all other chemistries. The book features some pretty corny humor as always (is a nobel gas the result of a heavy meal at Buckingham Palace?) but it's a very good book for going back to basics, or even learning them for the first time. [JJC review]

The Ig Nobel Prizes
by Marc Abrahams
2004, Plume. ISBN: 0452285739. Paperback

From The Annals of Improbable Research people. These are accounts of the ceremony held in Cambridge MA to award the Ig Nobel Prizes for the most improbable or downright ridiculous research. There is none of the meanness of Senator Proxmire in these awards, which are often gratefully received by their recipients (some nominate themselves). You'll be pleased to hear that Deepak Chopra got one, as did Dan Quayle. Coloradoans can be rightly proud of our own Buck Weimer of Pueblo, who won the 2001 Biology prize for inventing Under-Ease, airtight underwear with a replaceable charcoal filter (“wear them for the ones you love.”) Now you can read about the just-awarded 2005 Ig Nobels as well as the full archive.

The Brave New World of Health Care
2003, Fulcrum Publishing. ISBN: 1555915108. Paperback

This short book makes compulsive reading; most people finish it in one go. It is amazingly quotable. Doctors and scientists have developed the most technological, competent health care in all of history. But it is very expensive, too often substitutes technology for healthier strategies, and misses many Americans. Lamm believes widespread rationing is inevitable within the next 20 years. “We cannot hope to solve the problems facing health care until we synchronize our social policy with our medical ethics,” says Lamm. To confront these new realities, Lamm proposes six essential elements of health care reform:

  1. Providing access for all to a base level of health care.
  2. Developing a means of limiting the use of procedures that are ineffective or marginally effective, or that are effective but too expensive.
  3. Coming to a consensus on social and individual health care priorities.
  4. Placing limitations on malpractice suits.
  5. Controlling the health care bureaucracy.
  6. Placing limitations on the supply side of health care.

Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids
2004, Joseph Henry Press. ISBN : 0309089875. Hardback

Digital People examines the ways in which technology is inexorably driving us to a new and different level of humanity.  As scientists draw on nanotechnology, molecular biology, artificial intelligence, and materials science, they are learning how to create beings that move, think, and look like people.  Others are routinely using sophisticated surgical techniques to implant computer chips and drug-dispensing devices into our bodies, designing fully functional man-made body parts, and linking human brains with computers to make people healthier, smarter, and stronger.  Science has long been the lens through which we peer into our future.  In Digital People , scientist and acclaimed author Sidney Perkowitz examines the achievements of contemporary science at the highest level, makes bold predictions about the evolution towards the next level of humanity, and contemplates what this development means for our vision of ourselves. This thoughtful and provocative book shows us just where technology is taking us, in directions both wonderful and terrible, to ponder what it means to be human

Chaos to Cosmos: A Space Odyssey
by LAURA DANLY, Donald Goldsmith, and Leonard David.
2003, Graphic Arts Center Publishing Company. ISBN : 1558687009. Paperback

Curious minds of all ages will love exploring the ever-expanding universe in CHAOS TO COSMOS: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Co-published with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, this elegant volume is chock-full of fascinating facts, remarkable art and photographs, and amazing information about the nature of the universe. Uncover the secrets of black holes, comets, nebulae, and quasars. Explore the sun and nearby planets, then take a peek at what lies beyond. Learn how scientists are leading the search for life beyond Earth, and what they hope to find. This book is a treat to leaf through by itself, and it's excellent preparation for a visit to DMNS to see the amazing Space Odyssey permanent exhibit, which Laura curated.

Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods
by NINA FEDOROFF and Nancy Marie Brown
2004, Joseph Henry (National Academies) Press. ISBN: 0309092051 Hardcover

"Finally, we hear from scientists in the public debate on genetically modified foods. Geneticist and molecular biologist Fedoroff and science writer Brown present the history of genetic engineering and the advancements that have been made in plant breeding since Gregor Mendel's experiments with peas in 1866. The authors respond to critics and shatter myths by explaining what genetic engineering is, the role it plays in crop improvement, and the successes and failures that have occurred along the way. The result is a real learning experience for readers who want to know more about hybrids, gene splicing, crossbreeding, mutagenesis, and other procedures that have been the mainstay of genetic engineering. Overall, the authors clearly show that when applied responsibly with appropriate scientific oversight, genetic engineering plays a vital role in sustainable agriculture. It has the potential to produce enough food for a growing world population and improve nutrition while protecting biodiversity and ecosystem balance. A necessary acquisition for all collections with biotechnology resources." Irwin Weintraub, Brooklyn College Library. From the Library Journal, New York. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Note, though, that there are differeing views about this most complex question, which we plan to explore in an upcoming Café.

Hacking Matter
2004, Basic Books. ISBN: 0465044298. Paperback.

Wil's book, HACKING MATTER: Levitating Chairs, Quantum Mirages, and the Infinite Weirdness of programmable atoms, came out in 2004. It is one of the best science books I (JJ Cohen) have read in a long time. It reads like a novel, not surprising since Wil has written a slew of novels. In fact, after getting to the part where he describes what might be done in the future with "wellstone" (large 3D arrays of quantum dots, each of which can be programmed to express the properties of any atom you choose) (whether that atom exists in nature or not!), I next got hold of his science fiction novel, The Wellstone . Now I've got and read the others in that series.

Lonely Planets : The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life
2004, Ecco. ISBN: 0060959967 . Paperback

David Grinspoon's new book: Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life (Ecco, 2004) won the 2004 PEN literary award for nonfiction . It is available widely. Reviews for it have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. "After a pretty interesting history of belief in extraterrestrials, Grinspoon offers an excellent summary of all the branches of science that are involved with this new field of "astrobiology," or the study of possible alien life. Comparative planetology, physics, and geology play a large role in determining how many worlds out there would be capable of supporting life (Jupiter's moon Europa is the current local favorite). From biology we find that we don't really know exactly what life is, and we should not necessarily expect aliens to be dependent on water and oxygen. The final parts of the book, dealing with religion, psychology, and sociology (including some debunking of ufology and other fads) show that we cannot expect aliens to be similar to us in any of those areas, and they may be so different from us culturally, mentally, and physically that we may not even recognize them as other intelligent life forms, especially when they are likely to be more advanced than us". "His style is conversational and friendly, which is not a bad trick for a rocket scientist." One reviewer mentioned, though it's not certain whether in protest or admiration, an " endless supply of cheesy jokes ."

Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness
by John S. Rigden
2005, Harvard University Press. ISBN: 0674015444. Hardback.

Between March and September 1905, Einstein wrote five Annalen der Physik papers that would greatly influence 20th-century physics. These present the argument, from considerations of entropy, that light consists of quanta; Einstein's dissertation on the determination of molecular dimensions; his theory of Brownian motion; the theory of special relativity; and the derivation of m = E /c 2 . For each paper, Rigden discusses the background, underlying ideas, content, and organization before surveying its reception and impact. General readers who wish to understand the magnitude of what Einstein accomplished during his annus mirabilis will find this lucid, nonmathematical account ideal. [Review © Science, Vol. 307, 11 February 2005, p. 853. All rights reserved]

Dreaming: An Introduction to the Science of Sleep
by J. Allan Hobson, MD
2002, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192803042. Hardback.

A very interesting book by a professor at Harvard. He quotes extensively from a collection of his own dreams; if you think your dreams are weird you'll probably be comforted. Very up to date with the latest science.

The Promise of Sleep: A Pioneer in Sleep Medicine Explores the Vital Connection Between Health, Happiness, and a Good Night's Sleep
by William C. Dement, MD, PhD, and Christopher Vaughan
2000, Dell. ISBN 0440509017. Paperback

Warmly recommended by Dr. Michael Weissberg, our Sleep Café discussant (who calls him “Dr. Sleep”), as well as almost every reviewer. One said: “My own sleep problems were helped the very night I skipped ahead to the sleep hygiene chapter (the closest things to tips in the book). My understanding of jetlag and ‘prime time' for creative work will help me in the future. My respect for sleep has grown and will change my decisions. My realization of how close I have been to falling asleep at the wheel is terrifyingly clear.”

How to Win the Nobel Prize
by J. Michael Bishop
2003, Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674016254. Paperback.

[Suggested by Dr. Jill Slansky] This is a wonderful book by a very interesting and appealing man (you may have heard him a while ago on Science Friday on NPR) who won the Prize in 1989 for his work on oncogenes, normal cellular genes that can become unregulated and cause cancer. He describes his life and his work in a way that makes it understandable and exciting, without a trace of condescension. The final section is excellent, on the difficulty of transmitting information about science to students, the public, and Congress. “I once wrote an article about cancer genes for Scientific American. I took great pains to make the text readily accessible: I consulted students, journalists, laity of many stripes…One week later, the manuscript came back with a message: “I have read your paper and shown it around the staff here. No one understands much of it. What exactly is a gene?”

Woman : An Intimate Geography
by Natalie Angier
2000, Anchor Press, ISBN 0385498411. Paperback.

[Suggested by Dr. Jill Slansky] Ms. Angier, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biology writer for the New York Times whose previous books include The Beauty of the Beastly and Natural Obsessions , writes here of the biology of women. The strengths of Woman begin with Angier's witty and evocative prose style, but its real contribution is the way it expands the definition of female ‘geography' beyond womb, breasts, and estrogen, down as far as the bimolecular substructure of DNA and up as high as the transcendent infrastructure of the human brain. Very highly thought of by many reviewers, with a few, both male and female, able to find all sorts of things to complain about, which must mean it's good.

Noah's Flood : The New Scientific Discoveries About The Event That Changed History
by William Ryan and Walter Pitman
2000, Simon & Schuster. ISBN: 0684859203 . Paperback

[Suggested by Dr. Jessica Bondy] You may have seen a PBS program about this theory that flood mentioned in so many early accounts from Gilgamesh to the Bible may have been a real event. Geologists Walter Pitman and William Ryan propose that the Black Sea was a freshwater lake until about 5600 B.C. When the rising waters of the Mediterranean broke through the Bosporus, "ten cubic miles of water poured through each day, two hundred times what flows over Niagara Falls." They present their evidence for this model, and it certainly convinces an immunologist. The book is erudite and fun to read.

The Mummies of Urumchi
by Elizabeth Wayland Barber
2000, W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN: 0393320197. Paperback

Several people have suggested this book. Urumchi is as far away from everywhere else as it's possible to be, on the northern rim of the dreaded Taklamakan desert. In that climate buried bodies are frequently mummified. Barber describes an excavation of some 3,000 year old mummies, fully clothed in remarkably well-preserved garments. perhaps the oldest such ever recovered. She is a historian of weaving, and is able to reconstruct the people and their lives by understanding their technology. The discussion ranges over who they were, what languages they spoke, how they lived. And if you like textiles this is your book. It is a tour de force.

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© 2004 Colorado Café Scientifique