Category Archives: Science

Mark Miodownik – Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives

Mark Miodownik – Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives

The follow up to Miodownik’s delightful Stuff Matters, which is about solids. That book was my introduction to materials science, which as it turns out is darn interesting. Liquid Rules adds liquid materials to the picture. Miodownik has an academic background, but is an excellent popular writer. For this book, he uses the narrative device of a plane ride to segue from liquid to liquid, and to give the reader frequent short breaks from scientific explanations and the occasional molecular diagram. Various chapters cover water, gasoline, coffee, chocolate, wine, glues, ink, magma, and more. Hopefully Midownik will complete the trilogy with a book on gases.

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Brian Switek – My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs

Brian Switek – My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs

A good part of the early part of this book is about taxonomy, which though a useful discipline, fails to excite much interest. This book’s title comes from a famous example of why. The Brontosaurus species we all remember from our childhoods turns out to have been made from mismatched body and skull fossils. When scientists corrected the error, they decided on a name change as well, to Apatosaurus. They could have just as easily kept the old name; there is no solid argument one way or the other. Much species designation is improvised and arbitrary.

Readers more interested in taxonomy than I am would profit from the chapter in Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker on the subject, which defends a tree-of-life organizational scheme based on genes, rather than the old Linnaean scheme based on physical features, which can classifying distant relatives too closely based on convergent characteristics that evolved separately.

Switek’s larger goal with this book is to convey his boyish enthusiasm for dinosaurs and paleontology, and here he does inspire interest. Also, perhaps in an effort to be provocative, he repeatedly insists that dinosaurs never went completely extinct. Today’s birds and crocodiles are descended from dinosaurs, and should be considered dinosaurs. Again, this is an arbitrary distinction without an objectively right or wrong answer. Switek also gives considerable space to similar controversies regarding triceratops, in which a newer species was arbitrarily folded back into the original, and a few other species, including the allosaurus, a Jurassic precursor to the tyrannosaurus rex.

There are some amusing throwaway lines, as when he remembers thinking about the Thanksgiving dinosaur in the oven one holiday season, or describing a Las Vegas museum’s not-very-tasteful rendering of a feathered deinonychus as “a Cretaceous version of Robert Smith from the Cure.”

The bulk of the book is a tour of various facets of dinosaur biology, with from reproduction, anatomical changes throughout their life cycles, social lives and hunting strategies, parenting, diet, dentition, how they got so big (lightweight bones helped), health problems, and more. Switek’s tour is interesting enough to make it worth the useless semantic arguments he keeps going back to, but the book would have improved with fewer of them.

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.

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.