Category Archives: Books

Mark Miodownik – Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World

Mark Miodownik – Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World

A highly enjoyable introduction to materials science. Miodownik is an academic at the University College London. He is also a fantastic popular-level writer. The ten chapters each cover a different type of solid material, from steel to glass ceramics to concrete to diamonds and carbon fiber. To explain why these solids are interesting and important, Miodownik incorporates the history of invention, how they have affected industry and architecture. He gives comprehensible explanations of how different molecular shapes can make a substance brittle or malleable, or can affect its friction coefficient, as with Teflon or graphene, and more.

As a layman reader with no expertise in materials science and limited understanding of molecular chemistry, I learned more per page of this book than from anything else I’ve read in years, and sparked my interest in an entirely new discipline. This is just about the highest praise I can give a book, and I could not recommend it more highly. Miodownik’s just-released sequel on liquids, Liquid Rules, deserves similar praise.

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Matt Ridley – The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature

Matt Ridley – The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Alice races against a red queen. They have to run faster and  faster just to stay where they are. This paradox is a common analogy in science books to the point of being a cliché. But it got that way for a reason. Predators and prey are constantly evolving sharper teeth, adaptive defense strategies, hunting techniques, camouflage, new ways to exploit food sources, and more. The result of all this effort and adaptation is to keep survival rates pretty much the same. A similar red queen story can be told about our immune systems, which must constantly adapt to fight microbes, who are themselves constantly adapting to keep up with our immune systems.

Ridley, a top-notch science writer and something of a polymath, develops the red queen conceit as well as anybody. While The Rational Optimist is his best book, The Red Queen takes a strong second place. Red queen stories, Ridley notes, also appear in public policy, such as in arms races, where governments spend billions of dollars per year building weapons and researching new ones. This is all so they can keep geopolitical dynamics more or less the same as they are now. Elections are the same way, as billions of dollars get spent every cycle for just a few percentage points swing one or the other, which can easily be reversed the next time around. In the private sector, companies have to adapt and innovate just to keep the doors open.

Ideology, Evolution, and In-Groups

Joel Mokyr points out a strange tendency among ideologies on p. 51 of his 2016 book A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy:

Cultural beliefs tend to occur in clusters. For instance, those Americans who adhere to evangelical religion commonly also think that widespread gun ownership is desirable, that marriage should be confined to heterosexual couples, that climate change is not a reality, and object to large scale federal redistribution policies, although logically these beliefs are not all obviously connected.

This tendency is not specific to religious conservatives. Other groups across political, national, and religious identities have their own similarly odd belief clusters. For many people, affirming their group identity is more important than evaluating the merits of a given policy.

We’re evolved to think that way, and it won’t change anytime soon. Even those of us without religious or partisan affiliation think that way; we’re human, too.

A big part of the greater Enlightenment project is raising awareness of this cognitive tendency among people. If people are more aware of what they’re doing, they are more likely to take a step back and evaluate policies with a cooler, more rational head. There are healthier ways to feel part of a group.

Institutional Economics in a Nutshell

Long-term structures matter more for policy outcomes than electing a preferred candidate.

Or as Geoffrey Brennan and James Buchanan put it in the closing paragraph of The Reason of Rules: Constitutional Political Economy, p. 167:

Good games depends on good rules more than they depend on good players.

James S.A. Corey – Caliban’s War (The Expanse Book 2)

James S.A. Corey – Caliban’s War (The Expanse Book 2)

The second book in The Expanse series. While it has the same general story arc as the second season of the tv series, there are plenty of differences in how events happen, and how characters meet and interact. It also introduces my two favorite characters in the series, Chrisjen Avasarala and Sgt. Roberta Draper.

Avasarala is a high-ranking UN politician. She is intelligent, cynical, and conniving, and has a surprisingly creative potty mouth, which is often a bit shocking, coming as it does from a septuagenarian in a sari. As the novel progresses, her character is filled out with little details such as a fondness for pistachios, which she always keeps in her purse, and a loving relationship with her husband, whose gentle personality could not be more different than hers. While highly observant about political strategy and personal dynamics, she can also be oblivious to what is going on right in front of her.

Draper is a physically imposing Martian marine, who even ancient Spartans might have considered a dedicated soldier. She is the lone survivor of an attack by human-alien protomolecule hybrid, which sparks a Mars-UN war. She is sent to Earth to appear in diplomatic hearings while still dealing with the trauma from the attack, and Earth gravity and culture are a bit of a shock to her, as is her obvious use by her superiors as a pawn. Events lead to Avasarala hiring her as an assistant, and they develop a nice rapport. Despite Draper’s conflicted feelings about working for the enemy, she realizes they both want peace, and are on the same side. Draper and Avasarala also have some amusing culture clash moments, both with each other and with the other characters.

William Manchester – The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

William Manchester – The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

This book has come under fire for being loosey-goosey with the facts, so take it with a grain of salt. The larger story is true, though, and a lot of fun to read about. The Oxford English Dictionary is one of Britain’s proudest cultural accomplishments. It took 70 years to compile. One of its largest contributors was also an American. Worse, he was literally a crazy person who committed murder and worked his lexicographical magic from prison.

Charles Darwin – On the Origin of Species

Charles Darwin – On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life

There is something to be said about reading primary sources. In this case, it is surprisingly readable. For a book about theory, Darwin is heavily empirical. Every facet of natural selection he brings up in the book is illustrated by real-life examples from nature, including animals, plants, fungi, and more. In a way it’s an Attenborough-esque nature tour, with more depth and a unifying theme.

The book stands up better than I expected. Science has advanced much in the last 160 years, but those advances are more updates and expansions than a wholesale rebuilding of natural selection theory. The biggest advances have been in genetics; the Origin of Species’ biggest shortcomings are in that area, though that isn’t necessarily Darwin’s fault.

Darwin also had a charming humility. His personality was more shy and retiring than brash and combative, and it showed in his writing. He’s hard to hate as a person, and his lack of dogmatism and certainty would in most cases be disarming. But considering the uproar he caused, that turns out not to have been the case. Darwin went noticeably out of his away to avoid mentioning the God hypothesis, though he does allude several times to the need for longer-than-biblical time scales for natural selection processes to operate. Even so, critics pounced. Even today, some people reject evolutionary thinking, though nearly always for religious rather than scientific reasons.

As with Adam Smith, the ratio of people who have strong opinions about Darwin to the people who have actually read him is very large. As a result, popular conceptions of his views tend not to be entirely accurate. I encourage interested readers to improve that ratio and read the book. The Origin of Species turns out to have literary value as well as scientific, and there is something to be learned from the delivery as well as the content.