Category Archives: Science

Stanley Kim Robinson – Green Mars (Mars Trilogy, Book Two)

Kim Stanley Robinson – Green Mars

The second volume of Robinson’s Mars trilogy, and more enjoyable than the first. The characters, style, setting, main plot points, and stylistic conventions were established in the first book, so this book can get to the point more quickly. Red Mars began with a barren, untouched planet with its first hundred colonists just getting started in 2026 (the series came out in the 1990s). By the end, 35 years of active terraforming and immigration were making a noticeable difference in habitability, and Mars even had its first political revolution in 2061. Green Mars starts several decades after that revolution.

Political stability and ongoing terraforming lead to Mars being able to sustain first lichens, and then plants in its thickening atmosphere and warming climate. Robinson shines as he describes the various terraforming methods they try, ranging from solar arrays in space that increase Mars’ solar gain to inducing volcanism to release greenhouse gases. By the end of the book, Mars has warmed enough to have some liquid surface water here and there—hence the third book’s title, Blue Mars. The atmosphere has also thickened and warmed enough for humans to breathe with only the aid of a breathing mask and some warm clothing. This comes in handy, as the book ends with another revolution and Mars declaring its independence from Earth.

Sabine Hossenfelder – Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray

Sabine Hossenfelder – Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray

Hossenfelder brilliantly covers the intersection of philosophy, hard science, and social science. She has a lot of wisdom about certainty, error, doubt, and why quantitative analysis is important and useful, but also prone to abuse. Her thesis is that a scientist’s proper goal is to understand the natural world. In that pursuit, many scientists get a little too caught up in constructing elegant mathematical models. Models and equations are useful when they add to understanding, which they often do. In fact, they are often vital to it. But models are a means, not an end.

To Hossenfelder, it is disconcerting how often scientists describe their models and equations as elegant. The word is everywhere. It appears constantly in scientific papers and conferences, in the classroom, and in popular-level books, magazine articles, and documentaries. Scientists sometimes even judge their theories and experimental results to be true or false based on whether they are viewed as beautiful or elegant. Even Einstein fell into this trap with his famous “God does not play dice” remark to express his unease with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

This is a problem because the universe does not care if people think it is beautiful or not. f=ma is either true, or it isn’t. Ptolemy’s laws, or Keplers, or Newton’s, or Einstein’s, or the string theorists’ ideas, are each either true or false. The answers do not depend on whether someone thinks they are elegant. Rather than chasing elegant ghosts, a scientist’s goal should be to get as close to objective understanding as possible, given human limitations.

Hossenfelder is a deep enough thinker to realize that our aesthetic sense likely evolved in response to our universe; causality runs both ways. It is not a coincidence that our eyes are most sensitive to the very E-M frequencies the sun sends our way, or that our ears respond precisely to the most common sound frequencies around us. In addition to our sensory organs’ capabilities being determined by evolutionary processes, so too did the way we interpret those sensory inputs.

Aesthetically, people tend to find beauty and elegance in evolutionary success, and ugliness in threats or failures to reproductive success. it is not a coincidence that signs of beauty are almost universally signs of youth, health, and fertility. Most people consider symmetrical faces more beautiful because symmetry correlates with good health, and with good genes. We prefer cleanliness over filth because bacteria and disease are bad for survival and reproductive success. So it makes sense that scientists, as humans who evolved in just this way, both have the aesthetic sense that they do, and that they feel compelled to find it in physics and other sciences.

If a symmetrical face is elegant and beautiful, so is a scientific equation that exactly has a given symmetry, or exactly fits a certain exponent. e=mc2 is much more appealing than, say, e=mc2.1. Some laws, such as this exchange rate between matter and energy, do have this elegant precision. This is fortunate, otherwise humans might never have discovered them! Other phenomena that are just as true are less elegant, such as entropy, the probabilism of quantum mechanics, or the way friction coefficients, alloys, and engineering tolerances all defy perfect precision in practice.

Our search for elegance in scientific research is a longstanding natural impulse redirected in a new and foreign direction. Humans have been a species for perhaps 200,000 years, and proper scientists for just a few hundred years–just a thousandth or two of that time. Our 200,000 years is in turn perhaps a touch more than one three thousandth of the animal kingdom’s existence. Our evolved aesthetic sense is very, very old. As such, it will be some time before evolution is able to adapt to our new social environment and address Hossenfelder’s concerns. Until then, the least we should do is be aware of our elegance problem.

While reading the book, I kept thinking it had just the sort of message that my former economics professor Russ Roberts would enjoy. One of the hallmarks of his approach is a conscious avoidance of certainty, and keeping in mind the difference between good and bad uses of statistics (Russ is also a keen and humble philosophical thinker). As it turns out, Russ had an excellent conversation with Hossenfelder on his EconTalk podcast. It’s worth a listen, especially for those who don’t have time to read the whole book.

Though Hossenfelder’s home is in physics, in several points during the book she acknowledges how her thinking applies to the social sciences. She’s right. Economists in particular would do well to consider her arguments. Her arguments about the parallel uses and abuses of mathematical modeling has some intersection with Jerry Z. Muller’s recent book The Tyranny of Metrics, though Hossenfelder’s arguments are more nuanced and broader-ranging, and have a deeper philosophical foundation.

Lost in Math also reminded me of F.A. Hayek’s The Counter-Revolution in Science, which distinguishes between science and scientism. As Hayek defines the terms, science is the process of learning about the universe and the beings who live in it. Scientism is more about method-worship, valuing mathematical rigor and elegance as its own end. When taken too far, scientism can color results and potentially stunt entire research programs and lines of inquiry.

This has happened in economics. Crudely, science and scientism can be personified as Adam Smith vs. Paul Samuelson–though again, very crudely. Peter Boettke contrasts mainline vs. mainstream economics to make a similar point. Smithian mainline economists are interested in the human condition; mainstream Samuelsonians are a little too interested in technical proficiency and elegant modeling. They would do well to focus a little less on Homo economicus, and a little more on the admirable and real, though admittedly less elegant, Homo sapiens.

Richard Panek – The Trouble with Gravity: Solving the Mystery Beneath Our Feet

Richard Panek – The Trouble with Gravity: Solving the Mystery Beneath Our Feet

More philosophical than I expected. Panek gives an excellent history of gravity, from Aristotle on down through Philoponus, Galileo, Newton, and on down the line. Philoponus, an Egypt-born 6th century Byzantine philosopher, was someone I was unfamiliar with, and it was a treat learning about a new figure in the history of science. He figures prominently early in the story, and more or less came up with the modern understanding of inertia, which he called impetus.

Unusually for his time, Philoponus was not content to rely on Aristotle and Plato’s works as settled fact. He preferred some measure of empiricism. He did not go as far as Francis Bacon’s audaciously titled New Organon (intended to replace Aristotle’s Organon, which was all but an eternal sacred text), but Philoponus’ empiricism was still controversial.

While Panek ably explains the science of gravity at a popular level, he is clearly more interested in the philosophy surrounding it. In particular, if you ask a scientist not what gravity is, but why it exists, they have no choice but to tell you they do not know. That, more than anything, is what interests Panek, and what drove him to write this book.

A good scientist has no problem admitting they do not know something, of course. A lifetime of study and experiment tells even the most brilliant scientist nothing about why, only about the what. Maybe someday we’ll gain that level of knowledge. But after so many attempts from Aristotle to Philoponus through today’s sophisticated experiments, Panek is not optimistic.

Kim Stanley Robinson – Red Mars (Mars Trilogy, Book 1)

This lengthy 1992 sci-fi novel is the story of the first permanent colony on Mars, founded in 2026. Rather than a Star Wars-style shoot-‘em-up in space, this book is more a mix of science and philosophy. The main conflict is about terraforming. Should the colony be permanent?  At what point can terraforming be said to begin? Is it ethical to terraform a planet that might have native life? What if it is the only opportunity we’ll likely ever have to observe extraterrestrial microbes? Should that life be made extinct, or does it have the right to be preserved? Is Mars a stepping stone to the outer planets, or is this going to be the only colonized planet?

The colony is initially made up of a First Hundred, a mostly American and Russian contingent which includes John Boone, the first man to walk on Mars on a previous mission. Other countries are also represented, though to a lesser degree. His Neil Armstrong-like celebrity give him a high status, and though he is a good person and has a decent head on his shoulders, he at times does have a little but of an ego about it. The extreme pro-terraforming position, called the “Green” or ‘Russell” position, is personified by Sax Russell, while Ann Clayborne personifies the extreme anti-terraforming “Red” position. Other characters take intermediate positions. Another character, Hiroko Ai, who is in charge of many of the farm operations, injects a bit of mysticism into her philosophy of nurturing and spreading life wherever possible.

There is also a lot of science content—much more than one would expect in a novel. I enjoyed this immensely, and for me was one of the book’s draws. Other readers might feel differently. To that point, several explanatory passages run too long or feel forced in, and don’t always tie in with the plot or Robinson’s larger philosophical, social, and political themes. Red Mars is still a great way to learn about radiation, gravity, regolith, Martian atmosphere and geology, and how life can survive in hostile conditions. As far as I can tell, most of its science has held up pretty well, though obviously we now know much more about Mars thanks to the rover missions and growing collections of satellite and telescope data. Red Mars also touches on longevity treatments and genetic engineering. And, of course, the speculative science of terraforming.

Robinson is also interested in how social and political dynamics would work in such a colony—and how they impact things back on Earth. Most of the First Hundred have become household names on Earth, where their daily lives on Mars are daily news. After a rough-and-tumble first few years of construction, establishing infrastructure, and creating a self-sustaining food supply, a rough first few years become gradually easier. A lot of this book’s appeal is in seeing the progress.

Once the hardest of the pioneer phase is over and the habitats have enough room, the First Hundred are joined by more and more colonists, and after a few decades the population has boomed into the thousands. There are now the equivalent of multiple cities, each with neighborhoods and even ethnic enclaves as immigrants from Earth self-sort to be closer to people like themselves. The First Hundred had envisioned a more cosmopolitan growth.

There are also jostling governments and corporations, a space elevator, and a revolution. I liked it enough where at some point I will read the next volumes, Green Mars, where the terraforming has progressed to the point where plants can survive outside in the thickened atmosphere, and Blue Mars, where Mars has warmed enough to have liquid surface water.

Robert L. Wolke – What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained

Robert L. Wolke – What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained

A book-length series of bite-size vignettes on food science; fans of the celebrity chef Alton Brown will find much to like here. For example, if Teflon doesn’t stick to anything, how does it stick to a non-stick pan? The pan surface is roughened at a micro-level by either blasting it with tiny droplets of molten metal (stainless steel pans) or DuPont’s Autograph process (aluminum pans), and these tiny rough teeth hold onto the Teflon molecules and keep them in place.

Why is water boiled in a microwave not as hot as water boiled in a tea kettle? Because the microwaves only penetrate about an inch into the water, while a tea kettle takes better advantage of convection to heat the entire body of water more evenly. Heated water rises, pushing cooler water to the bottom. It then itself gets heated, and then rises up, and so on. Bubbles also aid the convection process.

Wolke, a chemist, also goes into nutrition science, explaining at a molecular level the different types of fats, sugars, and oils. He explains what makes some foods tasty, how they can be ruined, and why fish doesn’t have to smell fishy—they actually have a neutral odor while alive, but begin to decay extremely quickly in air, so they gain that fishy smell just a few hours  after being caught. At this point they are not toxic, just smelly, so don’t worry about it too much while grocery shopping.

Though I enjoy foodie-style culinary experiences, I’m not exactly a food sophisticate. Material like this makes me a better cook even for everyday meals because knowing why something works means I’ll remember it far better than rote memorization of the what, without greater context. In that sense, Wolke’s book is not just entertaining, but useful.

Jennifer Wright – Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them

Jennifer Wright – Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them

Wright has an irreverent, slightly offbeat sense of humor that is perfect for her topic, reminding me a bit of a more restrained Mary Roach. Wright takes a mostly chronological tour of disease, starting with the Antonine plague in ancient Rome, up through the bubonic plague, and on to the present day. In the 19th century, tuberculosis was oddly fashionable, in much the same way that the sunken, desiccated features associated with heroin chic are stylish today among fashion models. It was a glamorous disease, except that it very much wasn’t. Jonas Salk and his polio vaccine get a chapter, and Wright discusses the depth of the anti-Semitism he faced.

The chapter on encephalitis lethargica was poignant. The disease, which briefly flared up in the 1910s and 1920s, would essentially turn its victims into bed-bound, non-responsive zombies for years, and in some cases decades. The neurologist Oliver Sacks was able to revive some of his patients, who had no memories from after falling ill. One woman who fell ill during the 1920s flapper craze at age 21 woke up in 1960s an old woman, still exhibiting 1920s-era speech patterns and with no life experiences beyond early adulthood. Worse, Sacks’ treatments only worked for a few years. Patients would eventually revert to their former state, their revival a temporary one. Was it worth it? Different patients may have had different answers to that question.

Wright’s treatment of syphilis and other STDs, on the other hand, is often hilarious. The most recent major plague, HIV/AIDS, is less humorous, but is on track to have a happier ending, though not without millions of lives being destroyed first, and with social conservatives causing their usual intended harm.

Brian Switek – Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature

Brian Switek – Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature

A wide-ranging history of fossilized life, from early marine life to modern man, full of insights and a little bit of mirth that makes for more fun than one would expect in a book about fossils. Switek is a dinosaur specialist, so dinosaurs figure more prominently than perhaps they should. But post-Cretaceous chapters use elephants, horses, and other mammals to illustrate how evolution works, how archaeologists can suss out surprising details from fossils, including the color of dinosaur feathers and how well some species were likely able to hear.