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The planet's thin covering of air is acclaimed in the new book by popular science journalist Gabrielle Walker. The title is An Ocean of Air : Why the Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere .

The book is abundant in the use of people-stories. For example, in reading about the tendency of radio waves to travel around the world by means of reflection by ionosphere, we really didn't need to know about the family life and hobbies of radio inventor Marconi [pages 160-161]. However, I am discovering recently about myself -- the more I learn about science the more pleasure I take in the mixture of biographical characterization and historical intrigue into the presentation of scientific material.

For me, a fascinating part of the book is the story of scientific misconceptions. It was in an age of astrology and alchemy that some of the cornerstone work was done. Surprising to me was the fact that Torricelli overcame a misconception by disproving an assumption of Galileo. The author says: "Galileo believed that our atmosphere as a whole is incapable of pushing. It was one of the few occasions when the great man was wrong." [7]

Other misconceptions involved the fact that air contains a specific element that life uses, the one that we now call oxygen. Prior to the work of Lavoisier, it didn't seem obvious to anyone that an animal deprived of air dies for the same reason that a flame deprived of air is extinguished, just as it wasn't obvious that the purpose of food to an animal was the same as the purpose of fuel to a flame. [42-43]

With the permission of publisher Harcourt, Inc., we have reproduced a BOOK EXCERPT from the beginning of chapter 1, pages 3-7.


Two physics professors from the University of California at Santa Cruz have teamed up to investigate the aspects of quantum mechanics that Einstein once called "spooky". Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner seem particularly fascinated with the physics profession's "skeleton in the closet" -- the proposition that it's the observation of an event that makes it real, and that seeing an object over there is the very act that has put it there. As to practicality, "one-third of our economy" [chapter 8] relies on the truth of QM, with products ranging from your CD player's laser to your hospital's MRI machine, but let me not imply that it isn't also a practical issue to consider whether human beings can really act out of free will. Quantum Enigma : Physics Encounters Consciousness presents such abstruse subjects as the Copenhagen interpretation, Schrödinger's Cat and entanglement in plain English, so the reader won't be tormented with any mathematical equations. Relatively new concepts, such as the anthropic principle, the Many Worlds hypothesis, and the prospect of making quantum computers, are covered as well. (Hardcover, 224 pages, June 2006 from Oxford University Press)

May I Quote You on That?


"This political movement has patently demonstrated that it will not defend the integrity of science in any case in which science runs afoul of its core political constituencies. In so doing, it has ceded any right to govern a technologically advanced and sophisticated nation.""

-- Chris Mooney, in
The Republican War on Science


"Religious behavior may be a misfiring, an unfortunate byproduct of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful."

-- -- Richard Dawkins, in
The God Delusion

Hopefully, since we are in the age of genetic engineering, Better For All the World will have a wide readership. When author Harry Bruinius looks at the history of eugenics, he does more than cover the fascist idea of "racial purity", and the cruel practice of forced sterilization in the U.S. and several other countries. He also looks at the sincere idealism of the early 20th century that the world's problems can be solved by designing a better kind of human being. The idea was bound to grow out of the discovery of evolution by natural selection; in fact it was Leonard Darwin, son of Charles, who organized a "scientific" conference in 1912 to call for social problems to be solved by means of mandatory sterilization of the "inferior" among us. Four years later, in 1916, I.Q. tests were introduced in the U.S. with the original purpose of identifying the "morons" -- so that we might do something (but what?) with the knowledge about which among us have "defective" genes. The book made me ponder how easy it is to slip from a vision of utopia (a very good society) into an actual dystopia (a very bad society). I am fearful that, in the new age of biotechnology, the road to hell may be paved not only with good intentions but also with laboratory apparatus. (416 Pages, hardcover, published by Knopf in Feb. 2006.)

A cultural characteristic continues, if it does continue, not because it's useful, but because whatever it does sets people up in such a way that we tend to continue it. A traditional behavior is like a virus in that, having no plan of its own, it finds in human beings a place where it can keep reproducing. Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is the latest book by philosopher and Tufts University biology professor Daniel C. Dennett. The scientific method is applicable to anything that displays observed patterns, and therefore religion as a human process, apart from any concerns about whether its teachings are true or false, can be analyzed in terms of what's going on (the topic of Part I). Whether religion is in nice symbiotic connection with humans, or whether it's a parasite that eats us inside, either way, it is a replicating entity that has found a lush breeding spot in us. We keep feeding it because it seems to relieve us of certain fears and indecisiveness, and it's a somewhat good placebo for pain. We are seeing a type of survival of the fittest, in the sense that certain folk beliefs and rituals have great fitness in the area of getting us to keep on doing them. While we're making a habit (or even an institution) of such a traditional practice, it doesn't outright kill us, it's host, and therefore it thrives. Note that this hypothesis differs from that presented in The God Gene by geneticist Dean Hamer, who postulates a genetic basis for performing rituals and the sensation of mystical revelation. (464 pages, Feb. 2006, in hardcover from Penguin-Viking Books.)

Notes about science books, continued below (scroll down)....

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Notes about science books, continued ....

Ann Finkbeiner discloses the story of a U.S. military project in her new book, The Jasons : The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite . The Jasons (an unofficial nickname, not an acronym) were a committee of scientists, most of them theoretical physicists, Freeman Dyson among them, assembled in 1960 by the Department of Defense. The group was told to choose its own members and projects. The laser guidance system was one of their inventions. Some of the members participated because they hoped to push for the banning of nuclear weapons, and later resigned as conscientious objectors to the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction as a deterrent. (Viking Books, April 2006, hardcover, 336 pages.)

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From The Beaten Track is a collection of letters written by Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988). Michelle Feynman, daughter of the famous Caltech physicist, edited the anthology, which she gathered from family and friends in addition to using the Caltech archive of his correspondence with science and education colleagues. The approximately 400 correspondences selected to produce the book display Feynman's thoughts about science, philosophical and social issues as well as intimate family subjects. Feynman wrote several of these letters at historical moments, disclosing his feelings about his work with Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project, his winning of the 1965 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on quantum electrodynamics, and his participation in the presidential commission that investigated the 1986 disaster aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Feynman's famous sense of humor comes through in his letters, and even when discussing serious matters he plays with word choices and sentence structure. Foreword by Timothy Ferris , author of more than a dozen popular science books. Reference books by Richard P. Feynman . (April 2005 from Basic Books, hardcover, 486 pages.)

...To be continued ....

Mike Lepore · owner of nonfiction book reviews · August 12, 2007