Category Archives: Science

Tim Peake – Ask an Astronaut: My Guide to Life in Space

Tim Peake – Ask an Astronaut: My Guide to Life in Space

A book-length Q&A session with an astronaut who spent six months on the International Space Station. The tone is friendly and conversational, and the questions are good—Peake drew from public responses using the Twitter hashtag #askanastronaut.

His answers cover everything from training, liftoff, the various irks and quirks of life on the ISS, from food to using the bathroom, what space smells like, what happens when you sweat inside a spacesuit in zero-gravity, and the scary thrill of reentry. I can see this book appealing to younger space enthusiasts, too.

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Sharon Bertsch McGrayne – The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy

Sharon Bertsch McGrayne – The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy

Really good. Bayesian reasoning isn’t as complicated as it sounds—it’s an approach, not a standardized equation. It is a way of calculating the odds of something happening when you don’t know much about it, and learning as you go.

Bayes himself, part of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment, used the example of dropping a ball on a random spot on a flat table, and finding out blind where it is. Have a friend drop other balls at random and report whether they are to the left or right of the original ball. With each drop, you learn more and can use that to better suss out where the original ball is. For example, if every dropped ball is to the original’s left, then you know it is somewhere on the far right of the table.

This way of thinking turns out to have many applications, from population censuses to deciphering codes to finding lost airplanes and submarines, to making more accurate cancer diagnoses, to the autocorrect in your smartphone, to Google’s language translators and targeted advertisements.

It also has enormous implications for certainty in quantitative reasoning—it is often more useful to have an approximate answer to the right question than a precise answer to the wrong question. But this lack of pure certainty has led many quantitative analysts to reject Bayesian reasoning, to the point where his name has until recently been almost unmentionable in polite circles. This mindset is similar to the Nirvana Fallacy in economics.

Besides putting this old boys’ club mentality its proper place, McGrayne tells the stories of Bayes and Simon LaPlace, the French Enlightenment mathematician who independently discovered Bayesian reasoning and probably deserves most of the credit.

She also introduces and humanizes many of the other major and minor personalities involved in Bayesian reasoning’s long and treacherous history, from Alan Turing, who cracked the Enigma code during World War II, to some of the more tradition-minded scientists who preferred precision at accuracy’s expense.

But she keeps in mind that Bayesianism is one useful tool among many in the scientist’s toolkit. Bayesianism is not gospel, and there is a need for human judgment too, a point Stephen Ziliak and Deirdre McCloskey make in their book The Cult of Statistical Significance.

Lawrence Krauss – The Greatest Story Ever Told–So Far: Why Are We Here?

Lawrence Krauss – The Greatest Story Ever Told–So Far: Why Are We Here?

Strong on science, weak on philosophy. Krauss correctly observes that science can answer all manner of how questions, but not the why questions. But he misses a golden opportunity to explain in depth that this is okay.

People, especially those given to strong religious or political beliefs, should admit when they don’t know certain things, instead of making answers up. Such assertions signal confidence and boost self-esteem, but stifle discovery and progress.

In a book of more than 300 pages, Krauss spends just the occasional paragraph or two addressing the question he thought important enough to ask in the title of his book. Instead, readers get a tour of the discoveries and personalities in modern physics from roughly Maxwell and Faraday to the present.

As a survey of modern physics leading up to the discovery of the Higgs boson, it’s pretty good. But this book could easily have been much more.

Jeffrey Kluger – Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon

Jeffrey Kluger – Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon

This one was hard to put down. An exciting account of the first time men flew to the moon and orbited around it. Less than a year later, Apollo 11 would actually land on the moon and Neil Armstrong would utter his famous words. But he couldn’t have done it without the Apollo 8 team paving the way through many difficulties, both physical and political.

Stephen Hawking – A Brief History of Time

Stephen Hawking – A Brief History of Time

A much easier read than its reputation suggests, though it helps to have a little background knowledge first. Hawking’s intent for this book was to make theoretical physics accessible to everyone. Few have surpassed his efforts, or his sales figures.

Stephen Hawking – Black Holes

Stephen Hawking – Black Holes

This Kindle single is based on a pair of lectures Hawking gave on the BBC in 2016. Firmly aimed at a general reader, this makes a good introduction to some of the mind-bending concepts underlying black holes, and can be read in a single sitting.

Richard Feynman – “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character

Richard Feynman – “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character

Feynman was both a renowned physicist and a fun-loving eccentric. This collection of short biographical essays covers’ Feynman’s life and exploits from childhood to old age. He got his start tinkering with radios and electronics as a kid during the Depression, which led to a prank involving a homemade door alarm his parents did not appreciate. Feynman worked at Los Alamos early in his career, where he pranked colleagues by cracking open their office safes.

To make a point about security, he once broke into the nine safes containing all of the government’s top-secret Manhattan Project classified documents and scared the bejeezus out of a general.

Other highlights include faking his way into a prize-winning samba band as a percussionist while on sabbatical in Brazil, hosting an art exhibition and selling his own work after teaching himself to draw, and performing in a ballet orchestra despite no musical training.

Feynman also makes serious points about how to work both hard and smartly—he describes several mental shortcuts he used to do complicated math in his head, and other useful heuristics. To Feynman’s credit, he also treats his Nobel as an afterthought, thinking of it as almost a nuisance since everyone suddenly started taking him seriously. Many laureates have less humble views of their prizes.