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BOOK REVIEW

Future Evolution, How the Other Half Thinks, and more...

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Geologist Peter Ward, the author of Future Evolution: An Illuminated History of Life to Come (Times Books, $35), happens to think that we are extremely resilient creatures, nearly “unkillable,” but he and illustrator Alexis Rockman paint a bleak picture of the future on our planet. It’s a world in which we are the governing species and the landscape is more or less “littered” with domesticated animals—our companions and food sources. Jumping genes leap out of the laboratory and create super forms of ragweed and pesticide-resistant horseflies. The wildlife that survives—hideously altered future rats, walking snakes and ostrich-sized crows—will evolve to root around for leftovers in our expanding cities, giant farms and omnipresent garbage dumps. That there may be a logical progression from current trends to the “life to come” portrayed here is a chilling prospect that we would do well to consider.

Mathematics enthusiasts can often name the book that first turned them on to the subject—perhaps Constance Reid’s From Zero to Infinity or Eric Temple Bell’s Men of Mathematics or one of Martin Gardner’s collections. Sherman Stein’s new book, How the Other Half Thinks: Adventures in Mathematical Reasoning (McGraw-Hill, $18.95), is one that future mathematicians might well cite as inspiration. The emphasis is on mathematics as a style of thought, not as a body of knowledge. Eight amiable chapters work through problems in topology, probability, combinatorics and set theory. And the problems are not mere puzzles with pat answers. What’s of interest is not the answer but the path leading to it, including the false starts and occasional missteps.

One mark of a good author is the ability to make a successful book out of an unpromising subject. Over the years, Donald E. Knuth has produced a slew of bestsellers on topics that might seem to have only limited appeal, most notably the arts of computer programming and mathematical typography. His latest book takes on a subject so challenging it has to hide behind a coy title: Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About (CSLI Publications, $35). What is this subject that dare not speak its name? Not sex, but religion. The book is based on a series of lectures on “interactions between faith and computer science.” The main topic is Knuth’s approach to Bible study through random sampling (which led to an earlier book as well, titled 3:16); there is also some musing on the programmer’s role as god of a created universe. It’s a very unpromising subject, but Knuth is a very good author.

In How to Build a Time Machine (Viking, $19.95), Paul Davies makes a liar of Einstein, who figured out that gravity slows time. Here Davies is riding the weightiest of subjects—relativity, quantum physics and time travel—through a century’s worth of theory at near light speed with little discernible increase in mass. “The future is out there all right,” Davies writes, “and it can be visited. All you need as an effective time machine is a spaceship that can travel at very close to the speed of light.” Visiting the past is a little more problematic. You need also to build a wormhole from scaled-up quantum foam, stuff it manicotti-style with antigravity to avoid being crushed as you traverse its shortcut through spacetime, then zip back across conventional time and space in your spaceship to arrive before you left. This notion unleashes all manner of titillating weirdness and contradiction. If you went back in time and killed Mom before she got together with Pop, where would that leave you? Maybe you’d have to check your free will at the wormhole gate. Or what if, say, two years ago you’d gone to the future (now) to buy a copy of Davies’s thought-experiment-of-a-book, then went back to the past to present it all shiny-new to its future author? Maybe this happened: Time and again, Davies traverses the trickiest of terrain with what seems like no effort at all.

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Imagine that after you have eaten a meal at a restaurant on plastic plates, using plastic knives and forks, the plates, utensils and any remaining food scraps are tossed in a garbage bag, which is collected, pasteurized and fed—plates, knives, scraps, bag and all—to farm animals! This may be a vision of our not-too-distant future, because the search is now on for bioplastics (biodegradable plastics made from renewable resources) cheap enough to replace conventional petroleum-based plastics. (Many different bioplastics have been formulated for various applications, but whether they will supplant traditional plastics is largely a matter of economics.) Green Plastics: An Introduction to the New Science of Biodegradable Plastics, by Eugene S. Stevens (Princeton, $29.95), as its subtitle promises, does offer an introduction to the subject, along with a brief overview of the chemistry of plastics. Rounding out the book are a helpful glossary, a reading list for those interested in exploring the topic in greater depth and an appendix of recipes for making your own bioplastics from common ingredients. Shown here is the 1941 prototype for a Ford automobile made of a soybean-based plastic.

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Scientists probably won’t learn much from The Age of Science: What Scientists Learned in the Twentieth Century (Basic Books, $40), but almost anyone can appreciate Gerard Piel’s masterful achievement in having compiled it. His narrative approach to physics (about half the book) and life and earth sciences will find a grateful audience among devotees of his magazine (he is former publisher of Scientific American) even if they’ve heard much of this before. The generous explanations, with more than 100 warm illustrations, offer a refreshing departure from the slice-and-dice encyclopedia-speak that usually encumbers treatments of such broad, factual material. Although it is unlikely anyone would read it cover to cover, there’s every chance that scientists and nonscientists alike might actually want to. The Stone Age fertility effigy shown is discussed in a chapter on “Tools and Human Evolution.”


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