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The scientist’s guide to summer reading

0603_collection_coverBENEDETTO CRISTOFANI

Convinced that the secret to a sniper’s success is all in his aim? You may be underestimating the role of Velcro. Think that artisanal cheesemakers represent the ultimate rejection of mainstream science? Think again. From an upbeat meditation on death to a snarky critique of economics, this year’s picks offer delightfully unconventional perspectives on a range of scientific topics. Join a birdsong expert as he ditches academia for a cross-country bicycle tour, embrace the unknown in an exploration of the cosmos, and get lost (pun intended) in a quest to uncover the implications of modern mapping technologies.


A birdsong expert ditches academia for a cross-country bicycle tour

Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific

Donald Kroodsma
Princeton University Press
2016
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Two bicycles, camping gear, and a shotgun microphone—this is what Donald Kroodsma, the illustrious ethologist, used to tune into nature’s soundscape in 2003. Accompanied by his son, Kroodsma embarked on a trans-American cycling adventure, carefully documenting and decoding an incredibly diverse voice calling out across the country—birdsong—along the way. Blurring the lines between travelogue and casual scientific observation, Listening to a Continent Sing recounts their journey and transports the reader into the mind of a scientist renewing his awe of nature through an endearing portrayal of avian vocal communication and behavior.

Research using songbirds has undergone tremendous growth since its beginnings in ornithology, becoming a preeminent model for studying the neural, genetic, and behavioral underpinnings of vocal learning, development, and communication. Songbirds learn their vocalizations from conspecifics, vary them depending on who is listening, and use fine acoustic differences in song to recognize other individuals and make social decisions. Although this book does not go into scientific depth on these topics, the author’s anthropomorphic portrayal of bird behavior renders avian ethology accessible to a larger audience.

Over the course of their 71 days of travel, Kroodsma acts as a cross-species translator. He tells us what changes in tone, pitch, vibrato, and song repetition mean in birdsong: from barred owls serenading each other in Virginia to a western tanager signaling dawn in the Grand Tetons. He draws connections between geographical changes in human accents and within-species dialects demonstrated by birds like the dickcissel. He also performs a number of spontaneous scientific observations: counting which songs a mockingbird imitates to deduce its favorites or wondering why female blackbirds risk giving away their nest location just to vocalize.

Donald Kroodsma reflects on the beauty and purpose of birdsong in Listening to a Continent Sing.JANET GRENZKE

Donald Kroodsma reflects on the beauty and purpose of birdsong in Listening to a Continent Sing.

Raising the topic of animal intelligence, Kroodsma contrasts his own navigational troubles on the road with the remarkable sense of direction demonstrated by purple martins that migrate from Brazil to the United States and back each year. Scattered with illustrations of bird species and QR codes that link to sound samples, the book offers both a visual and auditory exploration of the fascinating avian world.

During his journey across the United States, the author also finds himself on a metaphorical road of self-reflection. His tranquil admiration of fauna, flora, and human characters met along the way (many just as colorful as the birds) conveys a mindful appreciation for life in all its forms. He leaps from descriptions of Civil War battlefields and the Louisiana Purchase to daydreams of Pangea to the Pleistocene ice age, all the while contemplating the immense evolutionary tree that links all living species back to common ancestors.

In its refreshing mix of history, linguistics, biology, and ethology, Listening to a Continent Sing brings back the joy and enthusiasm for scientific pursuits that can sometimes wane with time. Kroodsma reminds the reader that science goes beyond the pressure to produce significant results and publications. It is a lifestyle filled with curiosity, fascination, and appreciation for the world we live in. And for anyone hoping to do the same, he provides concise advice: “[T]he more I listened the more I heard.”

About the author

The reviewer is in the Integrated Program in Neuroscience, McGill University, Montreal, QC H3A 0G4, Canada.


A snarky critique dresses down the “economic man”

Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner?: A Story about Women and Economics

Katrine Marçal
Portobello Books
2016
Translated by Saskia Vogel
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If I asked you to close your eyes and picture an economist, “pale, male, and stale” might come to mind. The “dismal science” is not only overwhelmingly composed of men (1) but also built around a hypothetical economic man, known as homo economicus. H. economicus was never cared for by others, nor does he care for others, engaging in his pleasure-maximization calculations without being influenced by those around him. In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, Katrine Marçal recounts how economics came to rely on this calculating and self-in terested man as the prototype of human behavior. Luckily, this is not your standard economics text and Marçal, a Swedish journalist who writes in snappy (and often spirited) prose, focuses on what an alternative, and more inclusive, economics should look like.

Marçal weaves the history of mainstream economic doctrines with pop culture references to tell the story of economic man’s construction and his rise to dominance. By focusing on a selfish and market-oriented man, she argues, the discipline has created a self-fulfilling prophecy, limiting itself to market analysis of self-interested individuals.

Marçal begins her story in the 18th century with Adam Smith, the father of modern economics. Smith famously pointed out that we owe our dinner not to the kindness of “the butcher, the brewer, or the baker” but rather to their self-interest. When everyone acts selfishly, he maintained, the market is so elegantly coordinated that it’s as if it were led by an “invisible hand.”

However, Marçal argues that Smith omits an important actor in this framework: the person who transforms the meat, beer, and bread into an actual meal. As a well-off, never-married man, Smith likely did rely on the market to secure cooking services on occasion, but Marçal’s point is well taken: A slab of meat doesn’t magically become dinner. That process requires significant labor and expertise.

This nonmarket work, and the disproportionately female population that does such work, is unaccounted for in Smith’s reckoning of the economy. Even today, it’s not captured by gross domestic product (GDP), our standard measure of economic well-being.

Marçal concludes with a plan for dismantling economic man by redefining economics as a discipline dedicated to the study of wellbeing: one that considers not only the butcher but also the butcher’s wife; not only the cost of meat but also the time costs of cooking dinner. Although feminist economists have been making this argument for decades, Marçal’s book serves as an accessible and lively primer on the topic.

Marçal, and the feminist economists she cites, would likely argue that the feminist lens can’t focus solely on remedying the exclusion of unpaid provisioning activities but must be applied to all aspects of mainstream economics. Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? is a well-written and thoroughly researched call to change economics into a discipline that makes “room for the entire human existence” that all economists would do well to heed.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Economics, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA


A zoologist offers an upbeat meditation on death

Death on Earth: Adventures in Evolution and Mortality

Jules Howard
Bloomsbury USA
2016
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Death. It happens to all living things, from the tiniest of cyanobacteria to the most enormous of elephants and everything in between. In a universe spiraling toward chaos (see the second law of thermodynamics), life is a rare bastion of order, but we living things can’t stave of the inevitable forever. From the moment we are born, the chaos starts to build: Telomeres shorten, free radicals accumulate, and we encounter things that want to eat or maim us from inside and out. Sooner or later, the chaos wins, and we die—bleak, I know, but hear me out.

I’m ashamed to admit that, as an evolutionary biologist, I’d never thought too deeply or thoroughly about death as a scientific phenomenon. I just sort of took it for granted, much as I presume most other biologists do. But Jules Howard’s Death on Earth made me see death from many new angles, introducing such topics as the physics and thermodynamics governing the maintenance of life, human and animal perceptions of dying, and the evolutionary pressures that act on senescence and death itself. Howard spends each chapter digging into (sometimes quite literally) different aspects of death, from longevity to suicide, mourning, and decomposition, just to name a few. What results is an altogether eye-opening, engaging, and enjoyably humorous (but never distasteful) guided tour through the world of death.

Howard’s curiosity and keen eye for the unusual within the natural world take this book to places that few other writers would willingly go. In one scene, he leads the reader through a farm full of decaying pigs in northern England in order to provide a fuller appreciation for the successional living communities that benefit from death: from the bluebottle blowflies that lay their eggs in decaying flesh to the beetles and wasps that feed and parasitize on the flies’ of spring. In another, he plants a magpie corpse in the woods and patiently waits to see whether local crows and jays will host a “funeral” (a cacophonous gathering observed after a death in some corvid populations). The mourners never show.

Humor runs throughout the book (often as parenthetical asides), adding depth to what is already a wonderfully written piece of nonfiction. Unusually absurd imagery is peppered throughout the book, including a scene in which Howard must smuggle a dead magpie across England (for the aforementioned funeral experiment) and another in which he engages in a shouting match with his 3-year-old daughter in an ultimately vain attempt to get her to grasp the concept of death.

Howard’s self-aware commentary makes the book feel less like a rigid science text and more like a fast-paced conversation with an eccentric, death-obsessed friend. Readers who enjoy the quirky narrative writing styles of Mary Roach or Bill Bryson will be happy to have picked up this book.

Overall, Death on Earth provides a multifaceted treatment of the many aspects of the science surrounding mortality (and immortality). It’s an incredibly approachable and oddly enjoyable exposition of a topic about which many of us would rather not think (probably because it scares us to death).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.


Convinced that a sniper’s success is all in his aim? You may be underestimating Velcro.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War

Mary Roach
Oneworld Publications
2016
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Early on in my military career, a high-ranking officer made the decision to introduce black berets to the entire U.S. Army. Up until that point, those who wore the black berets were members of the elite Army Rangers. By having every soldier wear the headgear of the Rangers, the officer reasoned that morale and professionalism would increase exponentially. Unfortunately, that wasn’t exactly how things panned out; the berets were woolen and hot, required an extensive fitting and shaping process, lacked the sun-blocking ability of the traditional patrol cap’s bill, and were rarely worn properly.

Enter Mary Roach and her brilliant exploration of military science, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. Roach is quick to explain that she will not be investigating the science of killing; there are already countless volumes dedicated to that subject. Rather, she is “interested in the parts no one makes movies about—not the killing but the keeping alive.”

In researching this book, Roach traveled around the globe, attending briefings and exercises with both researchers and military operators. She visits the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center, where everything from the melting point of fabrics to the design and placement of zippers is explored with an eye to functionality and comfort. She travels to Camp Lemonnier in the African nation of Djibouti to learn about the alarming frequency with which diarrhea affects deployed troops and learns what types of education and research are being performed to reduce and mitigate this debilitating condition. In a somewhat cringe-inducing pair of chapters, Roach visits the Urology Department at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, recounting every painful detail of phalloplasty and reconstructive surgery of the reproductive organs.

Soldier facedown on the groundGAMMA/GETTY IMAGES

“Heat exhaustion is embarrassing but not particularly dangerous,” writes Mary Roach in Grunt.

Throughout Grunt, Roach employs a quick wit, at times bordering on cynicism. Her humor does not detract from but rather adds to the message by introducing a human (read: civilian) element to what could easily be a dry and daunting topic of discussion.

Where a casual reader would be turned of by the technical jargon, acronyms, and minutiae of military research and development, Roach is able to retain the attention of the audience by connecting with them on a personal, relatable level. In each chapter, her ability to weave her experiences with researchers into the nature and necessity of their studies drives the topic and allows for an easily understood narrative.

From my own military experience and from what I learned in Grunt, I know that there will always be decision-makers within the Army who disregard the science. But with every decade there are advancements made in military technology, and the capabilities and effectiveness of the force are strengthened. Our ability to wage war or maintain peace requires countless machinations behind the curtains of bureaucracy. It is not only the senior echelons but also the researchers working behind the scenes who ultimately move us forward.

About the author

The reviewer is in the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15206, USA.


Embrace the unknown in an exploration of the cosmos

The Unknown Universe: What We Don't Know About Time and Space in Ten Chapters

Stuart Clark
Head of Zeus
2016
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Every clear night, 300 quadrillion particles of light are fired by an enormous laser at mirrors less than half a meter wide on the Moon, allowing scientists to measure the Moon’s orbital motion with extreme accuracy and precision. The handful of particles that make it back to Earth deliver vital information: whether or not Einstein’s theory of gravity continues to correctly describe nature. So far, it does. But as Stuart Clark suggests in The Unknown Universe, breakthroughs happen when a “brave scientist [throws] away a cherished assumption,” rather like Einstein himself did in overturning Newton’s understanding of gravity.

As the current gravitational framework has been verified to one part in 1013, the scientists conducting the lunar laser ranging experiment are certainly brave for maintaining confidence that there’s “a deeper theory of gravity to be found.” According to Clark, they exemplify “the true gold standard for science: constant self-questioning.”

The book’s scope is admirably broad: Instead of delving directly into modern cosmology, Clark journeys outward through concentric circles of human discovery of the cosmos, highlighting unknowns at every scale: from the Moon, whose origins are still uncertain, to the Sun, whose magnetic cycles remain baffling. He proceeds from our solar system—which, according to some astronomers, likely contains undiscovered giant planets—to galaxies and the universe at large, whose dynamics are so perplexing that scientists have invoked “dark matter” and “dark energy”—so named because of their wholly mysterious nature—as explanations. Clark’s narration is accessible to any reader with basic mathematical understanding, but it is also enriching for specialists, providing ample references to technical papers for further reading.

Multiple eras of human history inform Clark’s description, connected by common threads: continual subversion of established scientific dogma and deep, lingering questions. A central theme of the book is the incompleteness and necessary dynamism of science: that ever-shifting landscape where the only constant is the “unknown.” By emphasizing the “hole[s] in our understanding of the Universe,” Clark provides an incisive critique of scientific entrenchment: the tendency of some modern scientists to describe our theories as “almost perfect” even when mysteries remain.

A laser beam is fired into the night sky from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.lbirke

A laser beam is fired into the night sky from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Eschewing the simplistic “lone genius” narrative, Clark details a broad cast of players, emphasizing their interconnectedness. For example, he discusses how Isaac Newton’s foundational theory of gravity rested upon a serendipitous visit from Edmond Halley (of Halley’s Comet fame).

Female scientists could have been treated more prominently, however. For instance, while Clark lauds William Herschel for contributing to our understanding of the universe’s structure through his observations of galaxies, which he called “nebulae,” Hershel’s sister Caroline, who actually made the first observations of “nebulae” with William’s telescope, is described merely as her brother’s “amanuensis.” Jocelyn Bell, discoverer of pulsars—small, rapidly rotating remnants of exploded stars—is also conspicuously absent.

While the strength of the book is its comprehensive treatment of the history and nature of the astrophysical sciences, readers hungry for exotic theories will be sated. The book discusses other universes, 11-dimensional worlds, and the notion of a “timescape,” a universe where time runs differently in each location, such that some parts may be 5 billion years older than others.

Physics and cosmology are often triumphantly presented as staid things. Clark recounts their charged history and cites instances of scientific “hubris run aground,” instead painting a portrait of a universe that continues to surprise, defy understanding, and derail popular belief. The Unknown Universe reminds us that the quest for knowledge demands uncompromising skepticism and abundant humility alongside the insatiable curiosity that has always characterized the human heart.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Rudolf Peierls Centre for Theoretical Physics, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3NP, UK.


Get lost (pun intended) in the implications of modern mapping technologies

Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Our World

Greg Milner
Granta Publications
2016
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Today, the Global Positioning System (GPS) is so precise, it can home in on a single beet in a field. And that, according to Greg Milner, is just the beginning. In his book Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds, Milner lays out the history of GPS, examining its emergence as a military project that eventually became a crucial part of the technological infrastructure of the world. Through a multitude of examples—from Polynesian navigation to precision agriculture to the U.S. military—the world according to GPS emerges, and with it a new way to understand our own sense of place and time.

Our navigational story begins aboard the Endeavour, a research vessel in service of the British Royal Navy in the 18th century. Here, we meet Tupaia, a Polynesian navigator aboard the ship. While on board, Tupaia generated a map of the Pacific that included his home island of Tahiti, as well as 130 other islands spanning a distance of more than 2500 miles. Milner uses the stories of Tupaia and Tevake, a 20th-century Polynesian navigator with a similar gift for orientation, to examine traditional forms of navigation and to explore the subjective experience of geolocation. Milner draws on these stories as the basis for his assumptions regarding navigation, space, and time that emerge throughout the book.

Pinpoint is broken into two parts. Much of part one is dedicated to the story of how GPS grew out of military navigational projects in the late 20th century. In telling the stories of the various military projects that contributed to the development and dissemination of today’s technology, we come to understand its complex nature as an infrastructure system, as well as the political, economic, and social stakes that rest upon accurate and timely data gathering. In one example, Milner describes how GPS was used to keep American soldiers safe and reduce civilian casualties in the Gulf War, as compared to Vietnam, when it was not yet available.

A canoe sailing on the waterHONGKONGHUEY/FLICKR CC BY 2.0

Crews aboard the Polynesian voyaging canoes Hōkūle’a (shown above) and Hikianalia are in the midst of circumnavigating the Earth without the aid of GPS or other modern navigational instruments.

But Milner’s more interesting provocations appear in part two. Here, he explores cognitive mapping and the effects of GPS on our relationship to space, privacy, and security. Cognitive maps, first introduced by Edward Tolman in 1948, are mental representations of our spatial environments. Milner cites evidence that widespread use of GPS has altered our cognitive mapping abilities, creating greater reliance on the technology. This can prove deadly, as he shows, when people follow GPS directions into a lake or off a main road, hoping to find a shorter route.

Whether it is used in tracking potential criminals, aiding commercial planes in difficult landings, or monitoring for earthquakes, GPS produces a sense of security and safety against the unknown and the dangerous. But civilian GPS has created scenarios that exist outside of black-and-white legal definitions of privacy and security and mostly hinge upon safety concerns of individuals and societies as a whole. Milner’s detailed examples will leave you questioning the ways in which GPS has infiltrated our lives.

Milner concludes by chronicling a trans-Pacific voyage that combined etak, a traditional system used by navigators from Micronesia, with a Western process known as dead reckoning. In doing so, he reminds us that our understandings of place and space, though now mostly defined through GPS, remain subjective. Like Tupaia and his map of the Pacific, our location is defined both by objective data and by our own assumptions about the world in which we live.

About the author

The reviewer is in the Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA.


Think that artisanal cheesemakers represent the ultimate rejection of science? Think again.

Groovy Science: Knowledge, Innovation, and American Counterculture

David Kaiser, W. Patrick McCray
University of Chicago Press
2016
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Long-haired surfers catching waves on handcrafted shortboards at Laguna Beach. Women practicing home births as a form of “spiritual midwifery” on the famous Tennessee commune, The Farm. Psychologist Timothy Leary, “the most dangerous man in America,” imploring us to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” These are quintessential images of American counterculture. But Groovy Science will make the reader see them in a surprising new way: as significant scenes of encounter between counterculture and science.

By yoking together the words “groovy” and “science,” editors David Kaiser and W. Patrick McCray refute three durable notions about science in the 1970s: that the counterculture was antiscience, that science was languishing in a rather moribund phase during this period, and that mainstream researchers lived and worked apart from the counterculture that seemed to spurn them. Instead, the 12 essays that make up Groovy Science demonstrate that people and groups strongly ensconced in the counterculture also embraced science, albeit in untraditional and creative ways.

Groovy science was hardly a singular, coherent movement, but the book’s four sections create some conceptual order around the ways that people connected science and counterculture. In “Conversion,” neurophysiologists, chemists, and physicists recast Cold War science by simultaneously rejecting “the megamachine” and adapting its “resources and forms of knowledge … toward new ends.” Those engaged in “Seeking”—the book’s second section—pursued science as a path to countercultural virtues such as authenticity, cooperation, and environmentalism. The “Personae” in part three—Immanuel Velikovsky, Timothy Leary, and Hugh Hefner—seized mass media to fashion themselves as science-minded iconoclasts. And in “Legacies,” we discover the unacknowledged influence of groovy science on contemporary commonplaces such as sustainability, innovation, and organic food.

In “Blowing Foam and Blowing Minds: Better Surfing through Chemistry,” Peter Neushul and Peter Westwick dramatize the period’s “shortboard revolution,” when surfers resisted mass-produced surfboards and extolled handmade, customized boards. The movement may have been fueled in part by psychedelic drugs, but as Neushul and Westwick show, it also wouldn’t have been possible without polyurethane foam, polyester resin, and fiberglass: cheap products of industrial-scale chemistry.

Despite its rejection of mainstream values, the counterculture was intertwined with the seemingly antithetical force of consumerism. In “When Chèvre Was Weird: Hippie Taste, Technoscience, and the Revival of American Artisanal Food Making,” Heather Paxson shows that although the rise of artisanal chèvre may have been inspired by a desire for natural products, even hippie cheesemakers were creating a product to sell. Moreover, their handcrafted goods relied on scientific resources, including acidometers, pH probes, bacterial cultures, and coagulants.

Scientists were also shaped by countercultural concerns, including environmentalism, antimilitarism, and nonconformity. In “Santa Barbara Physicists in the Vietnam Era,” Cyrus C. M. Mody tells the story of three public-spirited physicists—Philip Wyatt, David Phillips, and Virgil Elings—who founded start-ups to explore new interdisciplinary collaborations and lines of research in areas that had been neglected during the focus on defense research during the Cold War.

Chèvre isn’t weird anymore. Start-ups are conventional. And rallying for environmental causes through science seems all but natural. Even in this age of technoscience, perhaps we’re still groovy after all.Amer

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA.