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HOME > SCIENTISTS' NIGHTSTAND

Holy Heathen Rhapsody

Pattiann Rogers

A poem


Social Justice: Is It in Our Nature (and Our Future)?

John T. Jost

A review of The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice, by Peter Corning. “At this moment in history,” Jost writes, “when our problems are so much clearer than their solutions, it is a genuine contribution to offer clearheaded analysis and moral encouragement to take much-needed steps in the direction of social and economic justice.”


Race Finished

Jan Sapp

A review of Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth, by Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle, and Race and The Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth, and Culture, edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Kathleen Sloan. The notion of race as a biological construct has long been out of scientific favor, but the idea persists in medicine and law enforcement, among other areas, leading to inaccurate assessments and inequitable treatment. These two books discuss this problem with critical acuity, says Sapp


Skeletons in the Biomedical Closet

Hugh Gusterson

A review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. This story of medicine, genetics, ethics and race has received much acclaim, and appropriately so, says Gusterson; readers who have not picked it up yet should add it to their reading list


Do I See What You See?

Colin Allen

A review of Mindreading Animals: The Debate over What Animals Know about Other Minds, by Robert W. Lurz. The question of whether animals have a “theory of mind,” the ability to attribute mental states to themselves and to other animals, is a contentious one. Lurz suggests an array of experiments designed to show whether an animal is relying on a theory of mind or simply making judgments based on the behavioral cues given by another animal. The experiments are intriguing, says Allen, but they do not fully answer the question of whether animals can “mind read”


Well-connected Brains

Terrence Sejnowski

A review of Networks of the Brain, by Olaf Sporns. The vast amount of data that neuroscientists are collecting about the brain requires equally complex systems to analyze it. Sporns relates neuroscience to network science, detailing significant advances in brain imaging, especially for the human brain, and describing what remains to be done in order to understand how our minds work


Sneaky Silk Moths

Anna Lena Phillips

A review of Giant Silkmoths: Colour, Mimicry and Camouflage, text by Philip Howse, photographs by Kirby Wolfe. The family Saturniidae includes the giant silk moths, which are found in locations around the world and are known for their bold markings. Howse and Wolfe offer descriptions and photographs of many species, grouped according to their mimetic and camouflage strategies


Bridging the Millennia

Colin Renfrew

A review of Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present, by Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail, with Timothy Earle, Gillian Feeley-Harnik, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Clive Gamble, April McMahon, John C. Mitani, Hendrik Poinar, Mary C. Stiner and Thomas R. Trautmann. The articles in this volume stress the very remote past of the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic era, says Renfrew, and then leap to modernity without sufficiently considering the mediating effects of ancient civilizations.


A Drier and Hotter Future

Donald Worster

A review of A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, by William deBuys. DeBuys reports on how and why the precipitation and ecology of the Southwest are changing in unpredictable and nonlinear ways


Exploring the Dark Universe

Jonathan L. Feng

A review of The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality, by Richard Panek. Panek has a talent for elucidating difficult concepts and explains the history of dark energy beautifully, says Feng


The Battle Between Intuition and Deliberation

Steven Sloman

A review of Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman explores the capabilities, faults, biases and pervasive influence of intuitive thought


Two Journeys Through the Human Past

Greg Laden

A review of Born in Africa: The Quest for the Origins of Human Life, by Martin Meredith, and The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution, by Dean Falk. Both of these books focus on controversies over how to distinguish what is apelike from what is humanlike in early hominin species


Two Mavericks

Silvan S. Schweber

A review of Ordinary Geniuses: Max Delbrück, George Gamow, and the Origins of Genomics and Big Bang Cosmology, by Gino Segrè. Segrè insightfully narrates the personal and professional lives of Delbrück and Gamow and explains their scientific contributions


The Folly of “Sustainable Cities”?

Kent E. Portney

A review of Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, by Andrew Ross. Ross shows how power, class, greed and prejudice shape the micropolitics of the pursuit of urban sustainability in Phoenix


Everyman’s Physics

Michael D. Gordin

A review of Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything, by Margaret Wertheim. Wertheim wants mainstream scientists to give the work of “outsider physicists” the same sort of attention that folk art has gotten from the elite art community


Trust in Neurons

Robert J. Richards

A review of Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells us about Morality, by Patricia S. Churchland. Churchland regards oxytocin as fundamental to morality, but what is that hormone’s role in a decision to send a $50 check to Oxfam, wonders Richards


Murkiness in Numerical Computing

Brian Hayes

A review of Handbook of Floating-point Arithmetic, by Jean-Michel Muller, Nicolas Brisebarre, Florent de Dinechin, Claude-Pierre Jeannerod, Vincent Lefèvre, Guillaume Melquiond, Nathalie Revol, Damien Stehlé and Serge Torres. In the borderland between mathematics and computer science, correct answers are not always to be had, says Hayes—particularly if we demand efficiency


Tackling Infinity

Michael Riordan

A review of The Infinity Puzzle: Quantum Field Theory and the Hunt for an Orderly Universe, by Frank Close. The book’s core strength, says Riordan, is its discussion of how the electromagnetic and weak forces were combined into the electroweak force


Harms to Health from the Pursuit of Profits

Philip E. Mirowski

A review of Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself—and the Consequences for Your Health and Our Medical Future, by Harriet A. Washington. Washington offers vivid narrative vignettes of various travesties that have resulted from the commercialization of science and health care


An interview with Marianne LaFrance

Anna Lena Phillips

The author of Lip Service talks about investigating the social function of the smile


Four Experimental Lives

Lorraine Daston

A review of The Philosophical Breakfast Club, by Laura J. Snyder. “Snyder succeeds famously in evoking the excitement, variety and wide-open sense of possibility of the scientific life in 19th-century Britain,” says Daston


Exploring Matter and the Cosmos

Peter Pesic

A review of Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World, by Lisa Randall. Randall brings her audience up to date on the status of her theory of warped geometry in extra dimensions as the Large Hadron Collider begins its work; she also reflects on the nature of science, emphasizing the importance of issues of scale. The book’s high point, says Pesic, is her description of the LHC, and in particular her lucid and compelling explanation of how it will detect the fleeting events it generates


The Geography of Illness

Christopher Hamlin

A review of Disease Maps: Epidemics on the Ground, by Tom Koch. Koch’s chronological review of the practice of medical mapping shows that its flourishing in the 19th century involved a reconceptualization of disease as essentially and not merely incidentally spatial. The book is beautifully produced, says Hamlin, with fascinating maps, but it is less substantive than it should be


Quantum Subversives

Eric Cavalcanti

A review of Coming of Age with Quantum Information: Notes on a Paulian Idea, by Christopher A. Fuchs. Fuchs’s e-mail correspondence with friends and colleagues from 1995 to 2000 about philosophical ideas in quantum physics shows that debates about the fundamental nature of our world are very much alive. The book is not easy reading and is not a coherent treatise, notes Cavalcanti, “but in it readers will find a delightfully poetic vision for our world”


Inverting the Turing Test

Stuart Shieber

A review of The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us about What It Means To Be Alive, by Brian Christian. Christian uses the hook of pursuing the “most human human” award in the Loebner Prize competition among chatbots to explore a wide range of topics related to issues of language use by humans and computers, including Markov chains, information theory, text compression, phonagnosia, speed dating, and the coherence of personality


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





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