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
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
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.
Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut – How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution
Coauthored by one of the lead scientists on a still-in-progress 60-year fox domestication experiment in Russia. They tell a compelling story filled with ups and downs, joy and heartbreak, backroom politicking, and all manner of close calls. They also offer a trove of insights into genetics and the process of domestication they have learned from domesticating a new species.
The researchers bred wild foxes and selectively bred the tamest ones. Selecting for this single trait came with an entire package of other new traits in just a few generations. Besides increased docility, the descendants of tame foxes also developed different coats and markings, smaller brains and jaws, reduced stress hormones, and changed vocalizations. They also retained youthful traits longer, or even permanently–geneticists call this neotony. The process exactly mirrors what happened to dogs as they were domesticated from wolves.
Strangely enough, some humans also exhibit neotonous traits, such as retaining blue eyes or blonde hair into adulthood.
Non-tame foxes bred from the same parents were also kept for breeding as an experimental control. They developed none of these traits.
Another insight is that humans are a domesticated species—we did it to ourselves, and reap the benefits to this day. Domestication is arguably a two-way process, with other species such as wheat domesticating us at the same we domesticated it. The story of the great fox experiment also shows the love that people and animals can have for each other, which warmed this pet owner’s heart.
A Gordon Tullock-esque insight about the law of demand and why bats hunt at night, on p. 30 of Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker (thanks to Don Boudreaux for the recommendation):
Bats have a problem: how to find their way around in the dark. … But the daytime economy is already heavily exploited by other creatures such as birds. Given that there is a living to be made at night, natural selection has favored bats that make a go of the night-hunting trade.
In other words, animals are careful shoppers. Bats, or their ancestors, moved from higher-priced daytime hunting to lower-priced night-time hunting. Prices, in this case, being not money, but effort, food availability, and amount of competition. Had night and day’s hunting “prices” been the same, bats’ nocturnalism, and related traits such as sonar, would likely not have evolved.
Economics is everywhere, day and night.
Economics is everywhere. Physicist Richard Feynman, while working at Los Alamos laboratory, re-discovered Adam Smith’s division of labor after some computer troubles and apparently didn’t even know it (he never mentions Adam Smith or the division of labor in this story):
In this particular case, we worked out all the numerical steps that the machines were supposed to do–multiply this, and then do this, and subtract that. Then we worked out the program, but we didn’t have any machine to test it on. So we set up this room with girls in it. Each one has a Marchant [old-timey calculator]: one was the multiplier, another was the adder. This one cubed–all she did was cube a number on anindex card and send it to the next girl.
We went through our cycle this way until we got all the bugs out. It turned out that the speed at which we were able to do it was a hell of a lot faster than the other way, where every single person did all the steps. We got speed with this system that was the predicted speed for the IBM machine.
In Carl Sagan’s essay “In Praise of Science and Technology,” which appears as chapter 4 of his book Broca’s Brain (see location 682 of the Kindle edition), he writes:
There are many people alive today who were born before the first airplane and have lived to see Viking land on Mars, and Pioneer 10, the first interstellar spacecraft, be ejected from the solar system.
Sagan wrote that essay in the 1970s. This got me thinking about my daughter, born in 2015. She will almost certainly live to see the year 2100. What marvels will she have witnessed by that time? It sure is a good time to be alive.