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Scientists' Nightstand

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


How We Make Knowledge About Climate Change

Noel Castree

A review of A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming, by Paul N. Edwards. Edwards’s monograph relates in detail the effort, ingenuity and informed guesswork required to make sense of weather and climate


The Best Seats in the House

Robert L. Dorit

A review of The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins lays out the evidence for evolution and writes engagingly about the mechanisms that drive the evolutionary process. But the book’s great virtue, says Dorit, is that it reminds the reader of the power of a single idea: descent with modification


The First Proliferation: Waiting for the Soviet Bomb

Frank N. von Hippel

A review of Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly, by Michael D. Gordin. Offering a new perspective on the early U.S.-Soviet nuclear relationship, Gordin describes the key decisions made about nuclear weapons policy while the United States had the only bombs


Darwin’s Islands

Rick MacPherson

A review of Darwin in Galápagos: Footsteps to a New World, by K. Thalia Grant and Gregory B. Estes; Galápagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists, and Creationists Battle for Darwin’s Cradle of Evolution, by Carol Ann Bassett; and Galápagos: Preserving Darwin’s Legacy, by Tui De Roy, editor and principal photographer. These three books offer a portrait of the beauty, diversity and fragility of the islands where Darwin did so much of his evolutionary thinking.


Erosion of Trust

Jared Farmer

A review of Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country, by Marsha Weisiger. U.S. government officials in the 1930s told the Navajos that they needed to drastically thin their flocks in order to save the Colorado Plateau from severe overgrazing. But this well-intentioned program had dire consequences


The Paisley Leopard

Brian Hayes

A review of Nature’s Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts, by Philip Ball. This trilogy of books about the modern science of shape, pattern and form is a grand tour of self-organizing systems, says Hayes


An Urge to Understand and Predict

Ralf Dahm

A review of Science: A Four Thousand Year History, by Patricia Fara. It’s hard to imagine compressing 4,000 years of scientific history into 400 pages, but Fara succeeds at it, says Dahm, and “compellingly shows how insightful a backward glance can be”


Archangel with Aqua-Lung

Craig McClain

A review of Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King, by Brad Matsen. Matsen portrays Cousteau as a complex man of contradictions, a legendary figure whose life was on a downward arc for the two decades leading up to his death in 1997


Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler

David Schoonmaker


What on Earth Evolved?

Christopher Brodie


Darwin Tried and True

Robert J. Richards

A review of What Darwin Got Wrong, by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini misunderstand the history of evolutionary biology, says Richards, and they draw the evidence for their arguments against natural selection from scientists whom they believe to be confused about the fundamental mechanisms of evolution


Weathering Nuclear War

Sean L. Malloy

A review of A Nuclear Winter's Tale: Science and Politics in the 1980s, by Lawrence Badash. In this intricately detailed history, Badash examines both the scientific origins of the concept of nuclear winter and the debate over its relevance to nuclear policy and the Cold War arms race


Science Fact, Climate Fiction—Clarifying the Debate

Dimitri Zenghelis

A review of Science as a Contacts Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate, by Stephen H. Schneider; Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, by James Hansen; and Climate Cover-up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming, by James Hoggan with Richard Littlemore. Schneider, Hansen and Hoggan all say that their efforts to communicate the urgency of the problem of climate change to policy makers and the general public have met with powerful resistance. The consequences, Zenghelis warns, could be tragic


Romantic Discoverers

Frederick Gregory

A review of The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes. This is a wonderfully engaging narrative, says Gregory; Holmes’s biographical storytelling shows the impact of science on the hearts as well as the minds of Humphry Davy, Joseph Banks, Mungo Park, and William and Caroline Herschel


Where Is Everybody?

Gregory P. Laughlin

A review of The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence, by Paul Davies. We’ve been searching for extraterrestrial intelligence for 50 years now but haven’t found it. Could it be the case that civilizations inevitably destroy themselves before they evolve to the point of being able to colonize the galaxy?


Pleistocene Pioneers

Douglas K. Charles

A review of First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America, by David J. Meltzer. When did the first humans arrive in the Americas? What route—or routes—did they take? Was there more than one wave of settlers? What did they do when they got here? Meltzer explains why archaeology has not yet been able to provide very precise answers to such questions


Enigmatic Wisps

David Kaiser

A review of A Brilliant Darkness: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genius of the Nuclear Age, by João Magueijo. In addition to examining theories about what became of Majorana when he disappeared permanently in 1938, Magueijo explains why Majorana’s ideas about the neutrino are once again on the minds of physicists, now that evidence has begun to accumulate that the elusive neutrino has some tiny but nonzero mass


Newton’s Toolbox

Paolo Mancosu

A review of Isaac Newton on Mathematical Certainty and Method, by Niccolò Guicciardini. Guicciardini reconstructs Newton’s mathematics and his conception of mathematical methodology. Convinced that only geometrical proofs can be considered certain, Newton favored using geometrical techniques to inject certainty into natural philosophy; he was an antimodernist in that he considered the techniques of the ancients to be a paradigm of correct methodology


Scientists' Nightstand: Steven Weinberg

Greg Ross

The prizewinning physicist reviews his recent reading and favorite authors


Fellow Feeling

Joan Silk

A review of The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society, by Frans de Waal. De Waal sets out to demonstrate that empathy is "a biologically grounded capacity that all people share"


Ready or Not

Cosma Shalizi

A review of Predicting the Unpredictable: The Tumultuous Science of Earthquake Prediction, by Susan Hough. As recently as the 1970s, it seemed feasible that scientists would soon be able to say precisely when and where earthquakes would strike and what their impact would be, but most geologists now believe that that goal is almost certainly unattainable


Explicating Gould

Kim Sterelny

A review of Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on His View of Life, edited by Warren D. Allmon, Patricia H. Kelley and Robert M. Ross. Because Stephen Jay Gould was ambivalent about or perhaps even hostile toward cladistics, population genetics and ecology, he was only partially connected to the mainstream of developing evolutionary thought, says Sterelny


The Science of Parenting

Ethan Remmel

A review of Nurtureshock: New Thinking about Children, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Bronson and Merryman point to scientific findings that challenge some common assumptions about young people and parenting


The Godly Scientist

Jan Golinski

A review of Boyle: Between God and Science, by Michael Hunter. Hunter places Boyle’s scientific accomplishments in a context of lifelong piety and serious moral concerns, says Golinski


Land Portraits

Brian Hayes

A review of Mapping the World: Stories of Geography, by Caroline and Martine Laffon





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