Category Archives: Science

Nathan H. Lents – Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes

Nathan H. Lents – Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes

A book that can be amusing, but also points out the limitations of design without a designer. That said, organisms as they are almost certainly far better off than if they were the products of design with a designer. Well worth a read for that reason, but mostly because it’s fun to know about bodily quirks and maladies we all share for no apparent reason. Part of reading this book is taking a bit of delight in our own misfortunes.

We humans are doomed to have bad knees and back problems because the human body is not fully adapted to bipedalism. Our lack of a protruding snout (facial prognathism), such as most other animals have, dooms us to endless colds and sinus infections. We have the same piping back there as other animals, but in us it is compressed and shifted around in ways no plumber would design. This evolutionary quirk is why we get sick so often, even as our household cats and dogs rarely do.

One minor, Seinfeld-esque example I found personally relevant is that some people have the ability to voluntarily control a small muscle near the ear drum, causing a low rumbling sound kind of like muffled thunder. I am one of those people. The weird part is because it’s just a small muscle flexing inside one’s head, nobody else can hear the rumbling, even though to the hearer it can be loud enough to drown out conversation. It also has an involuntary component, in my case triggered by yawning, sneezing, and bright lights–those mouth and eye movements also work the muscle in question. I’ve silently wondered since childhood what causes this; it’s apparently just a random mutation some people have. Other readers will likely have similar “oh, that’s what that is!” moments.


David Quammen – The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

David Quammen – The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

A book on evolution that is causing some waves. In standard Darwinian evolution, genetic traits and mutations are passed on to the next generation only if they affect gametes—sperm and eggs. This is called vertical evolution. A mutation in someone’s skin cells, for example, is non-heritable. Lamarckian evolution, long since disproved, posited that such things could, in fact, be passed on. Some Lamarckians even posited that things like memories or learned aversions could be genetically passed on from one organism to another.

This turned out not to be true. But as scientists are now discovering, there actually is a mechanism for genetic change during the same generation, and a way to pass genetic information horizontally from one cell or organism to another during the same generation, rather than vertically through the generations. This is not Lamarckian evolution in the old sense, but it is conceptually related.

The key to this horizontal evolution is in the large swathes of junk DNA in every organism’s genomes. These lengthy patches don’t activate any traits or seem to do anything. A few do, but most don’t. The new thinking, since 1980 or so and still being tested, is that much of our junk DNA, though not all of it, does not come from mutations. It comes from retroviruses that invade cells and merge with local DNA.

This happens all the time throughout the body. Such mergers are usually genetic gibberish and do nothing. But occasionally the additional code can accidentally cause new characteristics to emerge. But these aren’t passed on to descendants unless they happen to hit the lottery by merging not just with a gamete, but the rare gamete that ends up being fertilized. Despite odds of less than one-in-a-trillion-trillion, these lightning strikes have happened often enough that retroviral junk DNA makes up a sizable portion of every plant and every animal’s genetic code, though the process has taken about two billion years. It’s a good the odds of this happening are so small, otherwise our DNA would be almost endless by this point!

This revelation, especially as concerns non-gamete cells, may someday have significant medical applications, from HIV treatment to cancer. The line between viral diseases and genetic diseases may be a blurry one. But it is too soon to tell, and Quammen could go a bit further in tamping down speculation. Lamarck isn’t vindicated, but he wasn’t entirely wrong, either.

Quammen explains, far better than I can, that this discovery has profound implications for our place in the tree of life, and even the very shape that tree takes. All life is even more deeply interconnected than we already thought. Quammen also tells the story of how this theory of horizontal evolution was thought to be quackery just a few years ago, but is rapidly becoming mainstream thinking among evolutionary biologists. Much of the research happened in Wisconsin, where I was born, and in Illinois, where I now live, which is a nice little coincidence.

Note, however, that horizontal evolution does not displace traditional natural selection over generations. It adds to it.

Daniel C. Dennett – From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds

Daniel C. Dennett – From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds

Dennett’s ostensible goal is to explain how consciousness emerged. But he mostly offers a lively tour of modern evolutionary thinking, with extended discussions of language, memes and other topics. This book isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but evolutionary thinking offers valuable insights to a number of disciplines, from traditional biology to artificial intelligence and self-improving algorithms, to the spontaneous order that animates quality social science work. Dennett has written earlier well-regarded books about consciousness; perhaps I’ll turn to those.

Andy Weir – Artemis

Andy Weir – Artemis

A heist story set on a moon colony, by the author of The Martian. Plenty of smart-alecky humor, and an entertaining way to learn some science about gravity, vacuums, and explosives. There is also a surprising amount of economics content, ranging from private currency to rent-seeking to spontaneous order. Might be good supplemental reading for an undergrad-level econ or physics course.

Alan Stern and David Grinspoon – Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

Alan Stern and David Grinspoon – Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

An inside history of the New Horizons mission, which sent a satellite past Pluto. Stern is the Principle Investigator (head honcho) for the mission, and Grinspoon assisted with PR as well as some of the mission science. The photographs are beautiful, the science is awe-inspiring, and the amount of work the team put in is admirable.

I was especially struck by the amount of politicking, bureaucratic infighting, turf wars among contractors, and backroom-dealing that went into the mission, delayed it for years, and almost killed it altogether. I found a similar theme in Steve Squyres’ book about the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers (Squyres was the PI for that mission).

Public choice theorists will find a vindication of Gordon Tullock’s The Organization of Inquiry, which is an economics-based analysis of how scientists behave.

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.

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.