Before I begin talking about this book I need to apologize. The book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum deserved so much more of my attention than I was able to give it. As the recent lack of blog entries might suggest, this semester has been very busy for me. I’ve tried to maintain sanity with some non-work related reading, but finding slots of time for casual reading has been difficult.
Unscientific America is a review of how the America culture views science. Unfortunately, the view isn’t pretty. In recent years, the average American has developed a somewhat negative outlook on science. This is unfortunate because science plays a central role in education and it’s a central driving force in industry. Science earns its keep by supporting the economy through innovative breakthroughs that allows American companies to sell new and desirable technologies to consumers. This is only one benefit of science. Other benefits are medical advances (wouldn’t we all like to live longer), improving communications (before the internet scientific advances produced the printing press, radio and television), and expanding our understanding of the Universe (some of us like to know our place in the Universe) just to name a few. Greater than all of these outcomes, science teaches us how to think critically—to investigate the world through skeptical eyes.
If science is so important, it’s important to keep its street cred up. When science isn’t respected, it looses support and funding. This is why books like Unscientific America are so important and I feel ashamed I didn’t give it the attention it deserves.
The book gives a brief review of the importance of science in culture. It also outlines recent historical events that got us to our present view of science. In some respects, the book is specifically dated for its publication date of 2009, as it often refers to the Obama administration as a (potential) turning point for science. If I had a complaint with the book, it would be that it often feels like a politically driven discourse aimed at attacking the political right. (One of the authors also wrote the book The Republican War on Science which I’ve admittedly not read, but gives you sense of the author’s political views.)
After placing the problem of scientific illiteracy into context, the book delves into a series of chapters describing reasons why Americans no longer place science as high as it once did (for example, during the days of Apollo). Here, there is some room for controversy—specifically how religion and politics may be involved in causing a rejecting opinion of science. The writing is not presented in a controversial manner, but whenever politics and religion are in the conversation, toes can be stepped on. (In fact, the preface to the paperback version defends itself on its review of how some atheists have attacked religion.) Regardless, I like how the book explores a number of possible origins for scientific illiteracy, including Hollywood.
The final section of the book is the most important. It’s here that the authors suggest a solution to America’s scientific illiteracy. The fix largely starts with the scientific community. Specifically, scientists and journalist must become better communicators. Through a proper dialog scientists can educate and inspire the general public. For this to occur, scientists and science communicators must go to the public on the public’s terms and present science in an invited way (i.e. non-technical and even sometimes entertaining). As I scientist that interacts with the public quite often, I can anecdotally say that even a short discussion will often lead to a positive result. One of my favorite statistics presented in the book is how few American’s actually know a scientist personally (only 18%). This is something I hadn’t appreciated because I’m constantly surrounded by professional scientists.
I would suggest Unscientific America to all scientists as a reminder that our work is not done in a vacuum. Research is largely funded through public support—via the government—and therefore, the public deserves to be involved in the outcomes. It’s also important that scientists communicate their work to the general public for no other reason but to inspire the next generation of scientists. Without a continuing body of new scientists entering the laboratory, we will find ourselves running out of new ideas and new avenues of research. Moreover, the purpose of doing scientific research is for the better of humankind, not to publish results and then to move onto the next project.
In teaching astronomy and physics to general education students, I’ve come across my fair share of students with a math anxiety. It’s really unfortunate. Not only are the top paying jobs in America highly dependent on mathematical reasoning, but a fear of math can prevent a deeper appreciation of Nature. This is the point being made in The Calculus Diaries: How Math can Help you Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse by Jennifer Ouellette.
Ouellette is a self proclaimed owner of a math phobia, or at least she had one before writing her book. The Calculus Diaries is a series of self contained narratives on how math, specifically calculus, has historically shaped our culture, and even how it’s prevalent in what we do on a daily basis. What’s amazing and so inviting about this book is that the descriptions are done without the use of mathematical expressions. Instead Ouellette, a professional science writer, uses easily understandable proses to convey the often difficult concepts of derivatives, integrals, tangents, and even the brachistochrone.
For those like me, that also want to see the equations, there are two appendices chalk full of the mathematical expressions that support the main material. However, the appendices are written with the calculus student in mind, not the science professor. This doesn’t mean the target audience is necessarily the college student suffering through calculus. This book is really for anyone interested in learning how calculus really works, and recognizing what’s it’s really used for (as opposed to those tables and tables of integrals found at the back of a calculus textbook).
Naturally, the three topics listed in the subtitled (dieting, gambling, and zombies) are included as an attention getter. I won’t lie. I wanted very much to learn how to survive a zombie apocalypse using math—and now know. But there’s so much more to the book besides these there topics (which do not disappoint). Written between the lines, the book demonstrates how a math phobia can be approached by breaking through the abstract variables and crazy mathematical symbols to present relatable examples of calculus. (I know, the zombie apocalypse really hasn’t happened … yet.) As Ouellette describes Archimedes eureka moment, the development of statistical analysis to gambling, learning how to surf, and other math related topics, you get a sense of how she was able to come to terms her own math anxiety. It seems that seeing math in action was the key for her. Maybe this is how calculus should be taught, with regular field trips to Las Vegas, amusement parks, and the gym.
Besides interesting applications of calculus, I found the historical context by which the examples were presented to be entertaining. I never knew about the seventeenth century Holland tulip trade let alone how similar it was to our twenty-first century American housing crisis. I definitely won’t look at tulips this same anymore. Also, coincidently I read about Archimedes’ death ray in The Calculus Diaries just days before I heard about President Obama’s challenge to Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, the hosts of Mythbusters.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading The Calculus Diaries. Even though I’m a survivor of multiple calculus classes—and a few other math courses as well—I was still a student reading this book.
If you had Albert Einstein’s brain what would you do with it? Would it be a burden similar to Frodo’s ring? Would it be a trophy to show off to your friends? I never wondered these questions before reading Driving Mr Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain but now I find myself thinking of these absurd questions a little too often.
The book’s central narrative is simple. It’s the true-story of a cross-country journey of two unlikely companions. There’s the author, Michael Paterniti, a young writer trying to define himself. The other is the elderly Dr Thomas Harvey, the pathologist that performed Einstein’s autopsy in 1955 and the current possessor of Einstein’s brain. The impetus for their road trip from New Jersey to California is to return the iconic brain to Evelyn Einstein, a descendent of “Albie”.
This is the obvious central story, but there are also three others themes woven in and out of the book. The first is the small and tangential story of the author’s rocky relationship with his girlfriend. The second is a retelling of Harvey’s history with the brain and the unusual circumstances that result from it. The third story anecdotally describes Einstein’s celebrity status both in life and in death. In reading Driving Mr Albert I found the last two story lines the most interesting.
Before reading this book I guess I’d always assumed that Einstein’s brain was cremated with the rest of the body. I’d never heard of the weird and somewhat controversial way in which Dr Harvey became the possessor of the brain. Dr Harvey’s original intent was to study the brain in hopes of uncovering the physicist’s apparent intellectual superiority. However, as the book reveals, owning that single organ led to a unique combination of a troublesome responsibility while also having an alluring appeal. Besides the idea that the smelly jars of brain lumps carries a monetary value that some unscrupulous individuals may want to have for themselves, there are the many scientists and pseudoscientists that want access to the brain for their own interests. Being the guardian of Einstein’s brain appears to be more of a burden more than an honor.
The second story line I found intriguing is the various ways Einstein was viewed as an icon. For some, especially the non-scientific, they simple see him as a genius even if they have no idea what he actually studied. For others, Einstein is a marketing figure. Someone that can sell products even in death. And then there are those that respected Einstein for his contributions to science. I had not put all of these views into perspective until the chapter summarizing a meeting between the author and Roger Richman, the president of a celebrity-licensing agency that represents the beneficiaries of the Albert Einstein estate. During their conversation Richman points out that many of the dead celebrities we think of (e.g. John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, etc.) are typically only of interest to Americans. But Einstein, he has global appeal, even if so many people have no idea what he really did. Consequently Einstein’s image has a world wide appeal and ultimately makes considerable amounts of money.
As a theoretical astrophysicists I’ve always admired Einstein for his contributions to science. I’ve always regarded him as extremely intelligent and insightful individual, but for me, Einstein sat on the same shelf as other great minds like Newton, Darwin, Hume and many others. What is different about Einstein is that he lived in our modern times. He had correspondences with contemporary governments. He traveled to many of our familiar locations. He found himself in front of the camera a lot. He became a member of the celebrity world because it was what we do to popular icons.
At the beginning of the year I became aware of the skeptical community. Skepticism is a way of viewing the world through the use of critical thinking. It’s intimately related to the scientific method which is why I find it appealing.
My introduction to skepticism came through reading Dr Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog. His blog regularly discusses issues such as the anti-vaccination movement, intelligent design in the classroom, the moon hoax, and a few other topics addressed by skepticism.
His blog was only the start. After poking around the internet I found the Skeptics Society, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, numerous skeptic related blogs, and a handful of interesting podcasts with a skeptical theme. In exploring these resources I quickly realized that there’s a few central figures and texts associated with skepticism. Among them is Dr Michael Shermer and the many books he’s written. Clearly anyone interested in skepticism should read Dr Shermer’s work.
As a starting point I began with Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and other Confusions of our Time. Admittedly I started with this book because I thought it would investigate the psychological mindset of individuals that believe fringe ideas. The book does do this but most of the explicit explanations for the psychology of beliefs are contained in the last chapter of the book. This chapter is well written and definitely satisfied my appetite for wanting to learn about why people believe weird things. As I scientists I especially liked the possible correlation analysis of variables—such as gender, age, education, and intelligence—on accepting pseudoscientific ideas.
The book starts off with an excellent description of science, the scientific method, and the many fallacies we typically make in examining phenomena. The first chapter can be found on the Skeptics Society’s website under the Skeptical Manifesto. The initial chapters should be standard reading for incoming science majors. (Really, I wish everyone would read them but at a minimum future scientists should.)
The intermediate chapters are dedicated largely to case studies. Even though I expected the whole book would be dedicated to the psychology of believing weird things, I enjoyed learning about the various ways critical thinking has gone awry. Among the topics discussed in the book are near death experiences, alien abductions, creationism, and pseudohistory.
While I found each chapter enlightening it was the discussion on pseudohistory, specifically the description of holocaust deniers and their beliefs, that I learned the most. I had heard in passing about holocaust deniers but I had no idea what their claims were. The book does a nice job giving the background and then critically analyzing the beliefs of those that dispute certain ideas about the holocaust.
Overall I enjoyed reading Why People Believe Weird Things. I can see myself returning to it again in the future. For now I’m off to read other titles by Dr Shermer and other books about skepticism. High on my list is The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan.
The book is broken up into one page summaries of common astronomical objects, such as the Sun, constellations, and dark matter to name a few. The object descriptions are done in the first person voice from the viewpoint of the objects themselves. For example, Betelgeuse remarks, “Call a doctor! I’m swelling up and running a temperature of 6,500 °F (3,600 °C)! Oh no! This is just how red giants kick the bucket. My problem is certainly not old age. At only ten million years old, I’m a mere baby star.” The first person voice makes the book unique and enjoyable. Many times I thought how nice it would be to just quote some the descriptions in my university level Astro 101 class.The object descriptions are accurate and frequently includes little known facts. Even I learned a few new things.
The publisher recommends the book for ages 10 and up which I agree with. There are some big and technical words used in the book. I wonder if the average parent reading this book to their child, or especially a 10 year old reading to themselves, would know the meaning of a degenerate astronomical object, or even plasma. At times it felt like the author was willing to sacrifice pedagogy to use fancy words that made for a whimsical flow.
My only other concern with the book is that the stated facts are random with no apparent connections. It leaves the reader asking “why does that happen?” or “how do astronomers know that?” I used this book as a bedtime read for my five year old. As we made our way through the book he would often stop me and ask great, inspired questions. It was obvious the book piqued his interest and got him thinking about astronomy. However, I had to use my own knowledge to answer him.
Astronomy: Out of this World is one in a series of similar books by Basher Laboratories. Other topics in the series include topics such as physics, math, and planet earth. Overall my son and I enjoyed reading the astronomy book—enough so that we’re interested in buying other books in the series.
The author’s name, Herman Wouk, is what made me pull the book The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion off the self. Wouk wrote one of my favorite fictional works of all time, Don’t Stop the Carnival. I haven’t read his other, more famous fictional works, such as War and Remembrance or The Caine Mutiny, nor have I read his non-fictional piece This is My God. Ultimately my lack of Wouk’s prior work meant that I didn’t have a lot to work with in reading his latest book.
The Language God Talks is an autobiographical sketch of Wouk’s views on the line between science and religion. As the dust jacket notes—and reason two for me reading this book—much of the scientific writing is motivated by Wouk’s own personal meetings with nobel laureate Richard Feynman. It was this part of the book that I did enjoy. Through multiple encounters with Feynman and his own personal interest in the physical sciences, Wouk developed an appreciation and respect for science. It was interesting to read his summaries of some of the greatest and deepest scientific findings of the 20th century. Typically such writings are delivered from a trained scientist, not someone whose life centers around fictional writing. You can pull out of the writing the admiration Wouk has for science and the many wonders it has addressed.
The last third of the book is a stroll through some of Wouk’s more cherished characters with backstories describing their development. In this narrative you see the development of Wouk’s own version of the great universe and how his own characters are voices to some of his beliefs and quandaries. Without familiarity with most of his prior work I was at a loss attempting to grab meaning from this portion of the book. I cannot necessarily fault the author on this, but rather my own ignorance of his other works.
The book ends with an interesting fictional dialogue between Wouk and Feynman. It is here that much of Wouk’s views on the division between science and religion become evident. I did enjoy this last piece, if for nothing else, it seemed so real and genuine.
I wouldn’t necessarily suggest this book to someone else, but its brevity and unique telling of an old science story would make for a good read.