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BOOK REVIEW

Me & Isaac Newton, Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture, and more . . .

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In Me & Isaac Newton, a First Look Pictures film by Michael Apted (director of the acclaimed Seven-Up series), seven scientists reflect on their lives and work and on the role of science in society: Gertrude Elion, pharmaceutical chemist (pictured); Ashok Gadgil, environmental physicist; Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist; Maja Mataric, computer scientist; Steven Pinker, cognitive scientist; Karol Sikora, professor of cancer medicine; and Patricia Wright, primatologist and conservationist. Hearing them speak about their aspirations and inspirations from childhood on, their hopes and achievements, is surprisingly moving.

Highlights include Elion's description of the satisfaction of saving children's lives; Gadgil's infectious delight in finding a simple, inexpensive way to disinfect water in developing countries; Kaku?s figure skating ("When things go wrong, I get on the ice and all of the problems just melt away. . . . It's just me and Isaac Newton"); and the turns in Wright's unusual career path, from her impulsive purchase of an owl monkey in a pet shop to her role in founding Madagascar?s Ranomafana National Park with her MacArthur Fellowship money. The film opens November 3.

Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture (Bloomsbury USA, $19.95), by Apostolos Doxiadis, is fiction that is bound to appeal to scientists and engineers. The novel weaves a brief history of 20th-century mathematics, complete with cameo appearances by such luminaries as G. H. Hardy, Srinivasa Ramanujan and Kurt G?del, into the absorbing story of a contemporary Greek family's own eccentric genius, Uncle Petros. The author explores the delicate line between genius and insanity through the eyes of Petros's merely gifted nephew as the young man clumsily struggles to make sense of his uncle's life. It is a cautionary tale about the cost of indulging in the single-minded pursuit of a potentially insoluble problem. Doxiadis's straightforward, thoughtful writing captures the exhilaration that deep concentration on a difficult research question often brings and will thus stir recognition and nostalgia in many readers.

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The bathtub has always been a great place for exploring physical phenomena, from vortices to waves to propulsion. Physicist-writer Sidney Perkowitz would remind you to add some bubble bath next time. His Universal Foam: From Cappuccino to the Cosmos (Walker, $24) explores in lay language all the work bubbles do at home and out in the cosmos, and the strong possibility that they helped make a universe happen from nothing. A frothy tale, perhaps, but intentionally so.

On opening Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival (University of California Press, $27.50), a practitioner of extreme activities might expect a recitation of familiar themes in a scientific script. Not so. Frances Ashcroft, a professor of physiology at Oxford, goes far beyond the better-known details of mountaineering, diving, polar exploration and other activities at the fringes of both the environment and human capability. In a clear and entertaining way, she relates not just the what of human limits but also the why. For example, have you ever wondered why immersing yourself in water brings on the urge to urinate?

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When you are standing upright on the seashore, there is a pressure gradient down your body due to the force of gravity, which causes the blood to pool in your legs. If you now immerse yourself in the sea up to your neck, this effect is counteracted by the external pressure of the water so that about half a litre of blood shifts upward from the legs to the chest, distending the great veins and the right atrium of the heart and increasing your cardiac output. One consequence of stretching the atrial wall is that it alters the level of two hormones that influence water uptake by the kidney, and thereby stimulates urine production.

Anyone, extremist or not, will find frequent enlightenment on both the familiar and the unusual.

Turn Right at Orion (Perseus, $25), by astrophysicist Mitchell Begelman, is a fictional travelogue of one man's journey through our Galaxy (and then some) in a relativistic spacecraft. The traveler, a 21st-century human, describes the celestial exotica he visits in such a way that the reader learns something about astrophysics without even realizing it. High school students who dream of traveling to the stars will appreciate Begelman's approach to science writing.

The Chronological Encyclopedia of Discoveries in Space (Oryx Press, $85) is no passionless compendium of information. Robert Zimmerman's fact-filled reports, which cover virtually every spacecraft or probe to have ventured into the heavens, relate the scientific and technical adventure of space exploration enthusiastically and with authority. Who knew, for example, that the privately owned Galaxy 11 communications satellite (launched December 22nd of last year, making its description the final entry in Zimmerman?s book of 20th-century achievements) has ion engines?a sophisticated means of space propulsion that NASA regards as experimental. Short summaries of the many scientific missions prove just as interesting, because Zimmerman relates the research results that each of these forays into space provided. Three appendices reference the various space probes and crafts by name, type, and country of origin, allowing readers to find entries relevant to their interests within the massive chronological list.

Nanoviewers: Rosalind Reid, Linda Schmalbeck, David Schneider, David Schoonmaker, Michael Szpir, Flora Taylor


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