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BOOK REVIEW

Servants of Nature, The Mysterious Flame and more . . .

In the latest installment to the Norton History of Science series, Servants of Nature: A History of Scientific Institutions, Enterprises, and Sensibilities (Norton, $32.50), Lewis Pyenson and Susan Sheets-Pyenson offer a panorama of the conditions under which modern science came into being over the past four centuries, the sites where such activity has taken place, the relation of science to other dimensions of culture, and its fortunes outside Europe. Although somewhat diffuse, this is a wide-ranging and informative introduction to how science and technology became the dominant feature of modern society.

Philosopher Colin McGinn's The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World (Basic Books, $24) explores the wildly improbable fact that meat can think. No, the author isn't contemplating the inner life of a clever pork chop, but rather the remarkably similar meat inside the human skull. How does brain meat do its thinking? The fact that we've been asking this question for so long suggests to McGinn that our meat has met one of its limits. Still, it's a pretty impressive limit for a piece of meat.

In Between Inner Space and Outer Space (Oxford, $30), cosmologist John Barrow offers a collection of previously published short essays that include some delightful anecdotes. In one story, highlighting the everyday value of mathematics, the Russian physicist Igor Tamn is captured during the Russian revolution by Ukrainian anti-communist vigilantes who doubt Tamn's assertion that he is merely a mathematician rather than a communist agitator. The leader of the vigilantes poses a challenge to Tamn: "Calculate the error when the Taylor series approximation of a function is truncated after n terms. Fail and you will be shot." Tamn got the right answer and later won the 1958 Nobel Prize for physics. He never discovered the identity of the mathematical vigilante.

Author Stewart Brand wants us to think about time and our responsibility to the future in The Clock of the Long Now (Basic Books, $20). Brand and some of his colleagues are on a mission to build a clock—a monument for the ages—that will measure 10,000 years and inspire pilgrims to reject the merely short-term view of progress and civilization. The best quote in the book comes from performance artist Laurie Anderson who asks, "Is time long or is it wide?" Find out more about the project at www.longnow.com.

Try to imagine the deepest "deep time"—say 10100 years—and you will begin to appreciate the scale of the past and the future as described by astronomers Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin in The Five Ages of the Universe (Free Press, $25). It all begins with radiation and ends in darkness, which sounds pretty bleak, but there’s a lot of fun stuff in between for sentient beings who find themselves alive during the good times. (For a fuller review of the authors' ideas see "This Too Shall Pass," Science Observer, American Scientist, May-June 1997.)

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Repetition characterized mathematically—by geometry, algebra or arithmetic—is endlessly fascinating to many scientists. In Gnomon (Princeton, $29.95), Midhat J. Gazale describes clearly the concepts underlying gnomic patterns such as continued fractions, Fibonacci sequences, whorls, spirals and fractals. Gazale uses high-school-level math in providing many interesting illustrations of symmetry in plants, animals, tiling patterns and electrical circuits.

If you know someone who finds basic mathematics boring and generally irrelevant, get that reluctant student a copy of Why Do Buses Come in Threes? (Wiley, $22.95). Rob Eastaway and Jeremy Wyndham describe how to solve many puzzles of everyday life (such as coincidences, sports rankings and traffic jams) by using clear thinking and simple math.

Those unable to get enough of James Burke's "connections" may find a cure in his new book, The Knowledge Web: From Electronic Agents to Stonehenge and Back—and Other Journeys through Knowledge (Simon & Schuster, $25). Contrived as a hard-copy version of the Internet, it feeds bites of information on random topics, with suggested links to other anecdotal bites elsewhere in the book that may or may not have something to do with each other. Knowledge is doomed if this is what future learning channels will look like.

Natural History of the Islands of California (California, $45) is a long-overdue reference on America's most accessible of isolated ecological laboratories, the island chain off the nation’s most populous state. Allan A. Schoenherr has completed this handy, illustration-laden guide, begun by C. Robert Feldmeth and Michael J. Emerson, who both died before they could see it published. (Illustrations by Emerson and David Mooney.)

The Harvard Guide to Psychiatry (Harvard, $75), edited by Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., has just been released in its third edition. An important and sweeping reference (856 pages with index) for any mental health professional, this volume will also be of value to anyone interested in how the profession classifies, treats and otherwise thinks about the brain and associated disorders.

The Practical Guide to the Genetic Family History (John Wiley, $44.95) by Robin L. Bennett presents family history as a practical screening tool for assessing who will benefit from more extensive genetic evaluation and testing. Spiced with personal and historical vignettes, this book provides a complete review of numerous disorders and suggests specific detailed medical and family history questions that can lead to accurate diagnosis, prognosis and recurrence risk.

Nanoviewers: William J. Cannon, Mordechai Feingold, Kathryn Steinhaus, Michael Szpir, William Thompson


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