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Scientists' Nightstand

Machines, Minds and Madness

Brian Hayes

A review of The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future, by Andrew Pickering. Pickering has deeply engaging stories to tell about the lives and work of six men who were key members of the British cybernetics community


A Fantasy Future

David Satterthwaite

A review of Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future, by Matthew E. Kahn. Kahn is confident that market forces, human ingenuity and economic growth will support adaptation to climate change and has little use for the idea that government could have a constructive role to play


Crossing the Danube

Peter Pesic

A review of Dance of the Photons: From Einstein to Quantum Teleportation, by Anton Zeilinger. In a tour de force of exposition, Zeilinger explains with verve and charm how quantum effects are made visible and measurable in experiments


Of Birds and Bureaucracy

Jared Farmer

A review of Seeking Refuge: Birds and Landscapes of the Pacific Flyway, by Robert M. Wilson. Wilson recounts the history of governmental efforts to provide wetlands where birds can sojourn during migration


Speaking for the Data

Elsa Youngsteadt

A review of Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter, by Nancy Baron, and Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work, by Dennis Meredith. Baron and Meredith offer tips for scientists wanting to improve their ability to explain and promote their research


Honor Among Thieves

Cosma Shalizi

A review of The Calculus of Selfishness, by Karl Sigmund. Sigmund provides an excellent introduction to the use of evolutionary game theory to investigate reciprocity, says Shalizi


Golden State Ecology

Anna Lena Phillips

A review of A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California, by Laura Cunningham. Drawing on 30 years of research and field observation, Laura Cunningham uses paintings and sketches to portray California’s ecological history


Scientists' Nightstand: Melvin Konner

Greg Ross

The Emory University biological anthropologist reviews his recent reading and favorite authors


Embracing Nature’s Imperfections

Lee Smolin

A review of A Tear at the Edge of Creation, by Marcelo Gleiser. Is the search for a theory of everything fundamentally misguided?


A Forgivably Flat Classic

Colin C. Adams

A review of Flatland: An Edition with Notes and Commentary, by Edwin A. Abbott. Edited by William F. Lindgren and Thomas F. Banchoff. The plot is creaky, says Adams, but Flatland is great mathematical literature—required reading for anyone who wants to be culturally literate in mathematics


Imagining the Invisible

Jeremiah James

A review of Image and Reality: Kekulé, Kopp, and the Scientific Imagination, by Alan J. Rocke. Figuring out how atoms connect to form molecules was one of the landmark achievements of 19th-century science. Rocke chronicles the emergence of structure theory through the efforts of a network of chemists in several countries


Plant Portraits

Sandra Knapp

A review of The Art of Plant Evolution,by W. John Kress and Shirley Sherwood, and Flora Mirabilis: How Plants Have Shaped World Knowledge, Health, Wealth, and Beauty, by Catherine Herbert Howell. Kress and Sherwood explain the evolutionary interrelationships of plants depicted in paintings by contemporary botanical artists; Howell uses botanical art of the past to explore the history of plant exploration and exploitation


Electrifying Language

Brian Hayes

A review of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, by Dennis Baron. Virtual paper is displacing the real thing. Will this shift be a positive development in human culture?


Beauty and the Beast

Joan Roughgarden

A review of Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology, by Erika Lorraine Milam. As Milam’s history of sexual selection demonstrates, the subject of how secondary sexual characteristics evolve has been contentious and politically loaded ever since Darwin first theorized about it. Roughgarden notes that the science is still far from settled


The Joys of Speculation

Mark Denny

A review of Glimpses of Creatures in their Physical Worlds, by Steven Vogel. If you’re looking for food for thought, this book about biomechanics provides a feast, says Denny


Learning to “Fly” Biology

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

A review of Biology Is Technology: The Promise, Peril, and New Business of Engineering Life, by Robert H. Carlson. Is a future in which people will be able to build synthetic biological systems in their garages out of BioBricks just around the corner?


A Life Devoted to Quantitative Reason

Theodore M. Porter

A review of The Pleasures of Statistics: The Autobiography of Frederick Mosteller, by Federick Mosteller. Edited by Stephen E. Fienberg, David C. Hoaglin and Judith M. Tanur. Despite its flaws as an autobiography, this narrative provides a fascinating view of statistics, Porter says, particularly when Mosteller "almost inadvertently" reveals the personage of the statistician.


Power Failures

Phillip F. Schewe

A review of When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America, by David E. Nye. Nye explores the effects of blackouts as a disruption of social experience and describes the overhaul of the power industry that followed deregulation


Scientists' Nightstand: Massimo Pigliucci

Greg Ross

The philosopher of science reviews his recent reading and favorite authors


How the Sky Became Digital

W. Patrick McCray

A review of A Grand and Bold Thing: An Extraordinary New Map of the Universe Ushering in a New Era of Discovery, by Ann Finkbeiner. In Finkbeiner’s hands, the story of the creation of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey is both gripping and fascinating


Manufactured Ignorance

Robert Proctor

A review of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Extremist scientists, funded by trade associations and fearful of a regulatory state, have attacked all efforts to trace environmental maladies back to corporate chemicals, say Oreskes and Conway


The Sorrows of Old Werner

Michael D. Gordin

A review of Beyond Uncertainty: Heisenberg, Quantum Physics, and the Bomb, by David C. Cassidy, and Heisenberg in the Atomic Age: Science and the Public Sphere, by Cathryn Carson. Cassidy traces the life of Werner Heisenberg in detail from birth through the end of World War II, and Carson focuses on the three decades that followed; both explore the tension between public and private that made Heisenberg such a fascinating and perplexing figure


Disillusionment

Ernest Davis

A review of The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. Chabris and Simons take as their theme two types of errors, Davis says: those that result from various kinds of gaps in our cognitive abilities and those that arise from the difficulty we have in recognizing those gaps


The Jewels in the Crown

Roger L. Geiger

A review of The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensible National Role, and Why It Must Be Protected, by Jonathan R. Cole. Cole lists the things that make for a great research university, documents discoveries made by university researchers that have changed everyday life, and offers excellent advice that no one is likely to follow, says Geiger


Planet Stewardship

Benjamin K. Sovacool

A review of Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, by Stewart Brand. Brand maintains that in order to solve our pressing environmental problems, we need to focus on three key technologies: cities, nuclear power and the genetic modification of crops


Techno-Dystopia

Marilyn Lombardi

A review of The Cultural Logic of Computation, by David Golumbia. We are so much under the spell of technology, warns Golumbia, that it’s hard for us to even recognize the ethical, cultural and political costs of computing—let alone address them satisfactorily


Making Historical Comparisons

John R. McNeill

A review of Natural Experiments of History, edited by Jared Diamond and James A. Robinson, and Why America Is Not a New Rome, by Vaclav Smil. When done rigorously, comparisons between and among societies can be quite useful, particularly for understanding causation, say Diamond and Robinson. Smil decries the lack of rigor in the common comparison of the United States to ancient Rome


The Deceptional Life

Steven Vogel

A review of Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage, by Peter Forbes. Forbes first shows how biologists came to understand the significance of mimicry and camouflage in nature and then branches out to discuss the use made of nature’s visual patterns by artists and the military


The Disappearing Spoon and The Elements

Fenella Saunders


The Shallows

Anna Lena Phillips

What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains





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