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HOME > SCIENTISTS' NIGHTSTAND > Scientists' Nightstand Detail

BOOK REVIEW

Impossibility, The User Illusion and more . . .

John D. Barrow's Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits (Oxford, $27.50) presents an accessible and entertaining big picture on the unknowable aspects of life, the universe and everything. Read this book instead of certain other books about "the end of science."

Tor N?rretranders, a Danish science writer, suggests in The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (Viking, $29.95) that the stream of consciousness is no more than a rivulet in the ocean of mind. It's not a new idea, but N?rretranders ventures farther afield than others in search of supporting evidence—from psychology and neuroscience to information theory, thermodynamics, mathematics and computer science. Along the way we get accounts of the Turing machine, chaos, the Gaia hypothesis, black holes, the Sermon on the Mount and even a dash of Marxism. Even if the book adds up to less than its parts, the parts are good parts.

For a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, see John McPhee's latest, Annals of the Former World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $35), an epic compilation of McPhee's writings over the past 20 years on the North American continent's formation. Such now-classics as Basin and Range and Rising from the Plains are assembled here with more recent material on the midcontinent and together constitute a literary geological record that echoes the grandeur of McPhee's subject.

The Astronomy Cafe (Freeman, $14.95) is bedtime reading for stargazers from Sten F. Odenwald, a scientist who loves his work. It's also an honest career guide for anyone considering astronomy as a profession. Check Odenwald's superb Web site for a preview of the question-and-answer format of the book .

Robert Cortright offers his second collection of bridge photography titled Bridging, this one distinguished from his 1994 work by the subtitle Discovering the Beauty of Bridges (Bridge Ink, $29.95). Although Bridging has the feel of a self-published summer-vacation photo album and contains little about how bridges work, it does document a stunning diversity of designs while delivering tons of, pardon the expression, drop-dead gorgeous spans such as Italy's Treponti (circa 1634).

McGraw-Hill has crunched its most recent 20-volume science encyclopedia into a single volume, its 4th-edition Concise Encyclopedia of Science & Technology. This heaping helping of information (2,318 pages) may not be the most affordable ($125) or up-to-date reference going ("Mars," for instance, is lacking information on the controversial fossil-microbe meteorite), but it is nonetheless comprehensive (7,800 articles and 1,200 biographies), authoritative (19 Nobel Prize winners are among the hundreds of contributors), attractive and easy to use.

In The Transparent Society (HarperCollins, $25), physicist and science-fiction writer David Brin suggests that information technology could lead to unprecedented openness in society, which could in turn foster a greater accountability for one's actions. Imagine something like peer review projected onto the conduct of every person in a village of six billion-plus. We may yet avoid an Orwellian future, but do we want it to be Brinian?

How would you describe color to a sightless or color-blind person? Not so fast. First, try describing color to anyone, as basically and precisely as possible. This is what editor Kurt Nassau and his contributors attempt in Color for Science, Art and Technology (North-Holland/Elsevier, $132), lighting on a delightful spectrum of topics from "the 15 causes of color" and color imaging and encoding to color’s role in art and culture.

Sanjida O'Connell's Mindreading (Doubleday, $24.95) is for those interested in a popularized account of human social intelligence, in particular the ability to empathize and to understand the intentions of others. The subject takes shape through discussions on autistic children, Aperger's syndrome (a mild form of autism) and animal (especially primate) thinking. Plenty of references to popular culture, with some interesting anecdotes and case studies.

From Max F. Perutz, the man who mastered the hemoglobin molecule: 28 red-blooded essays, reviews and tributes, plus a commonplace book in I Wish I'd Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity (Cold Spring Harbor, $39). The best of the lot, most of it previously published, is wartime memoir apparently unpublished elsewhere. In 1940 the British expelled Perutz as an enemy alien, then invited him back to try making an aircraft carrier out of an ice floe. He recounts both experiences with equal good humor.

Take some simple building blocks, add a few rules of engagement, and what emerges is something unexpected and complex. In Emergence: From Chaos to Order (HarperCollins, $25), computer scientist John Holland explores how (and maybe why) the universe does this by identifying the qualities that characterize emergent systems. This is an introduction to a question that should be of interest to many scientists.

New-in-paper picks: Macroevolution: Pattern and Process, Steven M. Stanley (Johns Hopkins, $29.95); The Whole Shebang, Timothy Ferris (Touchstone, $14); Life's Splendid Drama, Peter J. Bowler (Chicago, $22); Richard Feynman: A Life in Science, John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin (Plume, $13.95); Oxford Archaeological Guides series (Scotland, Spain, Rome, The Holy Land), Barry Cunliffe ed. (Oxford, $17.95 per guide); The Horned Dinosaurs, Peter Dodson (Princeton, $19.95).

Nanoviewers: William J. Cannon, Brian Hayes and Michael Szpir


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