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On the Bookshelf

Civil Liberties and the War on Smallpox

Ryan Seals

A review of Pox: An American History, by Michael Willrich. Willrich describes a five-year wave of smallpox epidemics that swept the United States starting in 1898 and discusses the violence, social conflict and political contention those epidemics generated when authorities began using force to compel vaccination

Mr. Melville’s Whale

Phillip J. Clapham

A review of The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean’s Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature, by Richard Ellis. Drawing on the historical observations of whalers and on recent research on living whales, Ellis discourses on fascinating aspects of sperm-whale biology and behavior; his chapters on the devastation wreaked by whaling are particularly absorbing

Flip Flop Fly Ball

Brian Hayes

A review of Flip Flop Fly Ball: An Infographic Baseball Adventure, by Craig Robinson. If you’ve ever wondered how tall A-Rod’s 2009 salary would be if it were a stack of pennies, or how many miles Barry Bonds has walked in the course of his 2,558 career walks over 22 seasons, this is the book for you

Information and Human Society

Andrew Odlyzko

A review of The Information, by James Gleick. Gleick’s ambitious goal is to present information as an independent force that has been harnessed through the efforts of brilliant pioneers such as Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, Norbert Wiener and Claude Shannon

"Curiouser and Curiouser"

Brian Ogilvie

A review of Intellectual Curiosity in the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective, by Toby E. Huff, and Cross-Cultural Scientific Exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1560–1660, by Avner Ben-Zaken. Huff considers why the Scientific Revolution happened in Europe and not in China or the Islamic empires. Ben-Zaken addresses three questions: What knowledge circulated between European and Muslim realms, why did it do so, and how was it received?

Darwin's Garden of Earthly Delights

Robert J. Richards

A review of The Darwin Archipelago:The Naturalist’s Career beyond Origin of Species, by Steve Jones. In the lively essays that make up this volume, Jones selects theoretical judgments and experimental observations found in Darwin’s less well-known books and then discusses comparable concerns in contemporary research

A Climate of Ill Health

Noel Castree

A review of Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about It, by Paul R. Epstein and Dan Ferber. By using an account of Epstein’s career as a framework for describing and explaining the links between climate change and spreading health risks, this book humanizes and personalizes the issues involved

Making Sense of the World

Brian Hayes

A review of Pattern Theory: The Stochastic Analysis of Real-World Signals, by David Mumford and Agnès Desolneux. Mumford and Desolneux try to identify and understand characteristic themes and features in patterns that appear frequently in our environment

Reciprocity, Reputation and Nepotism

Peter Nonacs

A review of SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other To Succeed, by Martin A. Nowak with Roger Highfield. Nowak and Highfield argue that cooperation drives the evolution of many features of biological complexity. Using computer models, mathematics and experiments, they examine the mechanisms by which cooperation evolves, with particular emphasis on how the Prisoner’s Dilemma plays out in evolving populations

How the Desert Got into California

Alan Graham, Peter H. Raven

A review of Chuckwalla Land: The Riddle of California’s Desert, by David Rains Wallace. Wallace presents a history of the various hypotheses scientists have come up with over the decades to explain when and how the California desert originated and its inhabitants evolved

Grading Candidates

Steven J. Brams

A review of Majority Judgment: Measuring, Ranking, and Electing, by Michel Balinski and Rida Laraki. Balinski and Laraki propose a system in which voters give every candidate for election a grade (Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair, Poor or Reject, for instance) and the candidate with the highest median grade is declared the winner

Bird Bonding

Sarah Kocher

A review of The Nesting Season: Cuckoos, Cuckolds, and the Invention of Monogamy, by Bernd Heinrich. As he describes each step of the nesting process from mate selection through the fledging of nestlings, Heinrich interweaves his own observations of birds with the latest scientific findings and ponders why birds parent their young in so many different ways

Scientists' Nightstand: Patricia Churchland

Greg Ross

The University of California philosopher reviews her recent reading and favorite authors

An Interview with Cordelia Fine

Anna Lena Phillips

The author of Delusions of Gender discusses the problem of "premature speculation" about the origins of sex differences

A Neoliberal Economics of Science

Sheldon Krimsky

A review of Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science, by Philip Mirowski. Mirowski explores the historical and ideological roots of the growing commercialization of academic science.

Fun with Fysiks

Peter Woit

A review of How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival, by David Kaiser. Kaiser maintains that members of the Fundamental Fysiks Group—New Age physicists who held brainstorming sessions at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in the late 1970s—planted seeds that later blossomed into today’s field of quantum information science

Connecting the Dots

Cosma Shalizi

A review of Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning about a Highly Connected World, by David Easley and Jon Kleinberg. This wide-ranging and thought-provoking textbook explores social networks (especially those defined by transactions), computer networks, and places where these intersect

A Life of Serial Self-Invention

Brian Hayes

A review of The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, by Oren Harman. George Price, “a real-life Forrest Gump,” was present at the making of the bomb and the development of the transistor but is best known for reformulating the idea of kin selection in evolution

Making Sense of the Brain’s Mysteries

Simon Baron-Cohen

A review of The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human, by V. S. Ramachandran. By showing how neuroscientists set out to make sense of the brain’s mysteries, this book may inspire a new generation of students to enter the field

Encounters with Vanishing Species

Daniel Simberloff

A review of Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act, by Joe Roman. Using the Endangered Species Act of 1973 as a springboard, Roman explores a number of conservation issues, using disputes over various species to reveal problems and conflicts that are pervasive in conservation worldwide

Thinking About Looking

Alix Cooper

A review of Histories of Scientific Observation, edited by Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck. The essays in this collection explore the rich history of difficulties, problems and dilemmas that have beset the practice of scientific observation over the past 15 centuries

Digital Dystopia

Jacqueline Olds

A review of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, by Sherry Turkle. Turkle reflects on the ways we are being changed by technology that provides us with substitutes for face-to-face connections with real people

Beautiful Brains

Michael Szpir

Galileo’s Discoveries After 400 Years

Noel M. Swerdlow

A review of Galileo, by J. L. Heilbron, and Galileo: Watcher of the Skies, by David Wootton. These two fascinating biographies of the famous scientist contain many incidents that will be new to nearly every reader; Heilbron’s excels in its detailed account of Galileo’s scientific work

Visualizing Disciplines, Transforming Boundaries

William J. Rankin

A review of Atlas of Science: Visualizing What We Know, by Katy Börner. Börner presents 18 maps of science meant to serve as tools for understanding scientific literature. These graphic portrayals of scientific authorship show that clear disciplinary boundaries are the exception rather than the rule, says Rankin

DNA Evidence

Simon A. Cole

A review of The Double Helix and the Law of Evidence, by David H. Kaye, and Genetic Justice: DNA Data Banks, Criminal Investigations, and Civil Liberties, by Sheldon Krimsky and Tania Simoncelli. Both of these books are valuable, says Cole, but they’re quite different: Kaye provides a history of the disputes over the legal admissibility of DNA evidence during the early and mid-1990s, and Krimsky and Simoncelli address the privacy and civil-liberties concerns associated with law-enforcement DNA databases

Of Passion and Polonium

Mary Jo Nye

A review of Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout, by Lauren Redniss. Redniss’s extraordinary visual art illuminates a spare and poetic biography of the Curies, which is interspersed with vignettes on the uses and perils of the radioactive elements they studied

Finding Meaning in the Martian Landscape

David H. DeVorkin

A review of Geographies of Mars: Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet, by K. Maria D. Lane. The Mars canal craze that seized the public imagination around the turn of the 20th century has a surprising amount to teach us about ourselves, our institutions and what constitutes evidence and argument

Feynman’s Legacy

Silvan S. Schweber

A review of Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, by Lawrence M. Krauss. This biography has much to recommend it, says Schweber. He praises Krauss’s treatment of those parts of Feynman’s physics having to do with QED, weak interactions and quantum computing, but criticizes him for portraying Feynman as a mythic hero and minimizing the importance of the contributions of other remarkable individuals


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