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HOME > SCIENTISTS' NIGHTSTAND > Scientists' Nightstand Detail

BOOK REVIEW

Bradford Washburn, I'm Just Here for More Food and The Infinite Book

Christopher Brodie, Amos Esty

BRADFORD WASHBURN: An Extraordinary Life. Bradford Washburn and Lew Freedman. WestWinds Press. $27.95.

By the age of 18, Bradford Washburn had already written three books, published several magazine articles and climbed two of Europe's most famous mountains, Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. All this before his freshman year at Harvard! He kept up this exhausting pace for many decades, and now, at the age of 94, has published an autobiography, Bradford Washburn: An Extraordinary Life.

From <em>Bradford Washburn: An Extraordinary Life</em>Click to Enlarge Image

During his 40 years as director of the Boston Museum of Science, Washburn helped transform it from a small, poorly run facility into a world-class museum. This, he says, was his life's work. But he still managed to find time to pursue his other passion, exploration. Washburn's mountaineering exploits include first ascents of several Alaskan peaks and three trips to the summit of Mount McKinley. During World War II, he served his country by testing cold-weather gear for the Army. Whenever possible, he has incorporated scientific work into his expeditions, as when he mapped the depths of the Grand Canyon and helped measure the height of Mount Everest (finding in 1999 that it stands 29,035 feet above sea level, slightly higher than a previous measurement had shown).

Perhaps because there are so many stories to tell, Washburn does not spend much time reflecting on his accomplishments or offering what he has learned from his many years of work and play. The underlying message of his book might be summarized best by the observation of another chronic overachiever, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, "It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing."—Amos Esty

 

I'M JUST HERE FOR MORE FOOD: Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking. Alton Brown. Stewart, Tabori and Chang, $32.50.

From <em>I'm Just Here For More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat= Baking</em>Click to Enlarge Image

Celebrity chef Alton Brown, host of the Food Network television show Good Eats, is noted for his wit and the clear scientific explanations he offers for his culinary mastery. His latest book, I'm Just Here for More Food, which focuses on baking and is a sequel to the award-winning I'm Just Here for the Food, offers far more than just recipes: Brown provides a down-to-earth, detailed tribute to the relevance of science to our daily lives.

The opening chapter of the newer book sets the tone with a quotation from Einstein and then launches into pithy explanations of the fundamental concepts needed to understand the technical side of baking, describing among other things the properties of components such as proteins, fats, carbohydrates and water. Brown flits from basic biochemistry to the similarities between eggs and wheat berries to the workings of chemical leaveners and yeast, and along the way he peppers the text with piquant one-liners ("I love cooking with rhubarb because it's poison"). He groups the recipes by the method used to combine their ingredients. Thus carrot cake is filed under "the muffin method," but bran muffins are listed with the cakes under "the creaming method."

Unapologetic for his unorthodox approach, Brown expresses a cool, take-it-or-leave-it attitude, saying, "Maybe you're not the kind of person who needs to know how things work, but if you have your eyeballs on this page, I'm betting that you are." Spoken like a scientist.—Chris Brodie

 

THE INFINITE BOOK: A Short Guide to the Boundless, Timeless and Endless. John D. Barrow. Pantheon Books, $26.

From <em>The Infinite Book: A Short Guide to the Boundless, Timeless and Endless</em>Click to Enlarge Image

"In mathematics you don't understand things," wrote the Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann. "You just get used to them." That's especially true of infinity, a disorienting concept whose properties have been fascinating and bedeviling thinkers for millennia. (The ancient symbol of the Ouroboros shown at right appeared as early as 1600 B.C.) The Infinite Book, by Cambridge physicist John D. Barrow, makes an entertaining field guide to this strange animal, spotting infinity and its attendant conundrums as they pop up in physics, philosophy, theology, literature and even ethics: How far should we expect to travel before we find a duplicate Earth? Do positive interest rates prove that time travelers do not exist? In an infinite universe, does a good act still "count"?

The whole book is remarkably lucid and not the least mind-boggling. Barrow, who has lectured at the Vatican about infinity and has even staged a play about it, clearly loves his subject, and he unpacks dense theories with the disarming enthusiasm of a learned uncle. He leavens his discussions with references to Jorge Luis Borges, Johnny Appleseed, Douglas Adams and Immanuel Kant, and his clear, engaging style manages to illuminate abstruse matters without patronizing or oversimplifying. This is a useful guide to an endlessly fascinating subject.—Greg Ross


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