Category Archives: Science

Neil Shubin – Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body

Neil Shubin – Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body

Animals all come from the sea. Spinal cords, backbones, bones themselves, our familiar trunk-and-limb anatomical structure, all evolved from fish. Even today, human embryos briefly have gills early in development, which is something to think about the next time you touch the side of your neck. Lungs and swim bladders are evolutionary cousins, and fish could not have made the move to land without them. Eyes first developed back in our seafaring days, and our lenses are still better adapted to seeing through water than air. As distant and diverse as life can be on Earth, we have more in common than we think. Shubin makes that point as well as anyone, sometimes in amusing fashion.

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Richard Dawkins – The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design

Richard Dawkins – The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design

Possibly the best book ever written on evolution, for the delivery as much as the content. Dawkins uses compelling, relatable examples, grounded partly in his own experiments, to show how elaborate designs can emerge without a designer. He does it bit by bit, working with the reader to tease out insights, revealing more as he goes until everything ties together. Dawkins can sometimes be a bit strident, but he is a master educator. His illustrations of biomorphs and his explanation of how something as complex as the human eye can arise without an intelligent designer are two of the standout discussions in the book. Highly, highly recommended.

James S.A. Corey – Abbadon’s Gate: The Expanse, Vol. 3

James S.A. Corey – Abbadon’s Gate: The Expanse, Vol. 3

The best of the series so far. The protomolecule that was the major plot axis of the first two books forms a 1,000 km-wide ring between Uranus and Neptune’s orbits. The space inside the ring seems to be some kind of wormhole leading to a million-kilometer wide space with more than a thousand other rings spread along its edges. Earth, Mars, and the Belt waver between war and peace, both inside and outside the ring space. Protagonist James Holden  and his crew, along with a few other characters try to keep the peace, and try to ward off a vengeful character whose father and sister figured prominently in the first two volumes. The drama of a continually worsening situation keeps building and building, with some elaborate physics involved—gravity and inertia turn out to be excellent plot devices. The final battle scene is fantastically done—one of the best I’ve read.

Matt Ridley – Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters

Matt Ridley – Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters

This is an older book, from 1999, and some parts are dated now. It is still excellent. The book has 23 chapters, one for each pair of chromosomes in the human genome. Ironically, this organizational conceit gives Ridley the freedom to take a more scattershot approach. He tells about genes found in each chromosome that affect certain traits. Since our genes were designed without a designer, chromosomes don’t have individual themes, and genes controlling certain traits can be found in multiple chromosomes.

Ridley does what he can with what the material provides him, but this randomness actually makes some of his evolutionary arguments stronger, a fact he takes full advantage of. He also goes on frequent tangents about how a given chromosome’s traits might be useful or not, how they have impacted human history, how they connect various species and common ancestors, how mutations work, and many other concepts in evolutionary biology.

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.

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.

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.