Category Archives: Science

Dava Sobel – Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Dava Sobel – Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

John Harrison gets his due. Even now his name is virtually unknown, but he made one of the most important discoveries in the history of exploration—how to find longitude. It’s easy to find one’s latitude. If you can see the North Star, you’re in the northern hemisphere. The higher up in the sky it is, the farther north you are. Ditto for the Southern Cross and other features in the southern hemisphere’s night key.

Longitude is also easy in concept—just compare when noon local time is with noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), and you’ll know exactly how far east or west you are. The trouble is that building a clock that kept accurate time while enduring rough shipboard conditions was impossible for all of human history. Everyone from Phoenician sailors on up through Columbus and Magellan had no idea what longitudes their discoveries were located at. They could only guess, and they often did a lousy job of it.

The key to finding accurate longitude was a centuries-long pop culture joke, similar to pre-1969 “they’ll put a man on the moon before that happens” jokes. The longitude joke’s currency ended in the mid-1700s when a watchmaker named John Harrison, spurred on by a £20,000 prize sponsored by the Royal Society, invented a series of clocks that were finally up to the task.

Sobel tells the story masterfully, setting up the history of the problem and why it matters, the origins of the Royal Society and prizes for inventions, the significance of the Scientific Revolution, John Harrison’s life story and his chase of the prize, and fascinating descriptions of the materials and craftsmanship that went into Harrison’s remarkable inventions. He made five clocks, each outdoing the last, though H-4, as it is known, is the most famous.


Dava Sobel: Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love

Dava Sobel: Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love

A joint biography of Galileo and his daughter, and a good history of early modern Italy and the Scientific Revolution. Galileo had three children, all illegitimate. He was in a loving lifelong relationship, but social conventions of the time said that academics could not marry. As a result, Galileo’s children grew up under an unjust stigma and were denied opportunities they might otherwise have had. Both of his daughters ended up in convents. One of them, the well-named Maria Celeste (think celestial, and remember that Galileo was an astronomer), inherited her father’s intellect. Though she was not allowed to put her gifts to much use, she was about as accomplished as a woman in her time was allowed to be—though almost entirely uncredited, naturally.

She also left behind a long trail of correspondence with her father, from which Sobel quotes extensively. From this, Sobel tells Maria Celeste’s life story, and Galileo’s, goes into the science of his discoveries, and, for good measure, gives a cultural history of the time. Sobel gives a good flavor of what daily life was like in convents, in universities, in the town and in the country, and how repressive medieval religion was for men and women alike. Women got the short end of an already short stick.

Frans de Waal – Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are

Frans de Waal – Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are

De Waal is the world’s most famous expert on bonobos, who along with chimpanzees are humanity’s closest relatives. Here, he shows how observing primate behavior can shed light on human behavior. This book takes an informal, almost chatty tone, with de Waal often writing in the first person about his personal experiences with both apes and with humans. Even though our species branched apart a good 6 or 7 million years ago, we still have very much in common with chimps and especially bonobos. Our resemblance is more than physical. It is also cultural. Moreover, the two are often intertwined.

Chimps form complex alliances in the same way humans do, forming 2-against-1 relationships where possible, and scheming to divide enemies where so they don’t put up a united front. In a 2-against-1, don’t be the 1. As de Waal points out, human diplomacy follows similar strategies, just on a global scale. Nation-states play the same roles as individual chimps.

De Waal also offers some insight on biology and anatomy, especially sexual dimorphism. Species with drastically different male-to-female size ratios tend to have male-dominant cultures. Similarly, testicle size is related to promiscuity. Gorillas and human cultures tend towards monogamy, and this manifests itself in smaller testicles. Promiscuous chimps and bonobos have more competition, so they have larger testicles to produce more sperm. These dynamics show up in their behavior. Male chimps will often commit infanticide when they know the child is not theirs. Females intentionally confuse matters by having several possible fathers. This strategy changes male behavior, saving young lives.

De Waal goes off the rails toward the end, when he makes it uncomfortably clear that his expertise does not extend to economics or public policy. Here, the discussion is on par with a Facebook or Twitter political rant, lacking of command of either emotions or facts. That awkwardness can be safely skipped. The rest of the book is excellent.

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan – Comet

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan – Comet

The first edition of this lavishly illustrated book coincided with Halley’s comet’s 1986 appearance, and the second edition was timed for 1994’s Hale-Bopp comet. A further 20 years of observation—not to mention landing freaking satellites on comets and returning samples to Earth—make some of the science here dated. But Sagan and Druyan’s book contains their trademark accessibility and sense of wonder, which will never be obsolete.

Brian Switek – Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone

Brian Switek – Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone

A history of bones that makes for a fun read. The stuff initially began as armored plating for fish nearly 500 million years ago. It also turned to be a good protector for the spinal cords that were starting to appear, and eventually became spines with separate vertebrae. Bones made possible complicated nervous systems, our sense of hearing (ears have bones to shape and conduct sound), and more. Ribcages guarded organs. Without them, lungs would never have evolved, and neither would air-breathing animals like us. Bones do not move, but they make movement possible. Bones gave structure to fins. Their radial structure turns out to also have been perfect for land-dwellers’ limbs, and fins gradually became feet with toes and hands with fingers and knuckles. The bone structure was already there in fins; they just needed to lose the webbing and add some new muscles to control the articulation points.

Switek also shows how much bones can tell us from both archaeological and paleontological finds, and even among the living. He also briefly discusses bones in literature in popular culture near the beginning. People associate bones and skeletons with death, and rightly do. Switek’s goal is to bring some life to the subject, and mostly succeeds.

Venki Ramakrishnan – Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome

Venki Ramakrishnan – Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome

Ramakrishnan won the 2009 chemistry Nobel for figuring out the structure of ribosomes. DNA and RNA contain instructions for protein molecules; ribosomes use that information for actual protein assembly. Ribosomes are an organelle that exists in every cell. There are more than a trillion ribosomes in your body right now; they are not rare. But getting a handle on their structure and how they go about their work was a longstanding mystery. It took Tamakrishnan more than two decades to suss out. Along the way he pioneered the use of x-ray microscopy and crystallography. Some of the science went over my head, but this career autobiography still offers plenty for a layman. As I so often find with these sorts of books, it unintentionally confirms the arguments in the economist Gordon Tullock’s 1966 book The Organization of Inquiry (free PDF), a public choice analysis of professional scientific behavior.

Ed Yong – I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

Ed Yong – I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

Every human being contains a good pound or two worth of microbes, and we could not live without them. Yong gives a good popular-level account of who these little guys are, what they do, and shares plenty of insights about symbiosis, evolution, and more, while puncturing a few common myths about health and microbes. It’s a good way to see the world a little differently, and hopefully dispels the common notion that all bacteria are bad.