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HOME > SCIENTISTS' NIGHTSTAND

Scientists' Nightstand

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


"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





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