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Autumn books to fall for

collection_coverILLUSTRATION: BENEDETTO CRISTOFANI

A mother sets out to discover how her late son’s organs helped to advance scientific research. A data scientist reveals how invisible algorithms perpetuate inequality. A citizen scientist delights in the contributions of enthusiastic volunteers. Taking a cue from the season, the books on this year’s fall reading list are poignant, crisp, and reflective. Learn how to combat medical science denial and why we tempt fate by building in disaster-prone areas. Join an awe-inspiring journey through the cosmos, delve into a light-hearted exploration of profanity, or contemplate the path forward for autonomous vehicles and animal agriculture.


A citizen scientist delights in the contributions of enthusiastic volunteers

Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction

Mary Ellen Hannibal
Workman Publishing
2016
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The bighorn ram lounging on a rock watched as a group of people searched the desert floor. “I hear a signal!” someone shouted. The small group scurried around, never looking up, intent in their search for a radio-collared desert tortoise. This expedition in 1998, sponsored by the Earthwatch Institute, served as my introduction to citizen science, a growing phenomenon in ecological research wherein noncredentialed observers participate in scientific data collection.

Public involvement in scientific fieldwork is hardly new. From the “armchair” naturalist Charles Darwin to the California couple who spotted sea otters returning to Big Sur in 1938, Citizen Scientist frames the participation of both professionals and casual observers as an essential part of ecological science history.

Author and avid citizen scientist Mary Ellen Hannibal traces an astonishing diversity of volunteer-enabled projects from tidal pool surveys to databases such as Nature’s Notebook, Fern Watch, Bee Watch, and Cricket Crawl. She also reveals how smartphones have given citizens the power to contribute to huge data sets, linked in time and space. Newer cellphone apps like iNaturalist or eBird, for example, use crowdsourcing to verify and document biodiversity.

Efforts to recruit more participants are on the rise as citizen science gains traction as a tool to document planetary biodiversity. Citizen Scientist made me want to jump off the couch and download everything from the Spotter Pro app, intended to keep ships from colliding with whales, to Story Maps, which allows users to create and annotate interactive maps.

Two scientists participate in the National Park Service Centennial BioBlitzCARRIE LEDERER

Citizen scientists participate in the National Park Service Centennial BioBlitz at Bandelier National Monument.

Citizen scientists are not limited to counting dead birds or scanning wildlife cams. “Extreme citizen science” initiatives seek to connect western science and indigenous cultures to create new kinds of knowledge. Hannibal describes one such project, in which archaeologists have partnered with the Amah Mutsun tribe of the San Juan Valley to restore cultural and ecological connections that have been lost over time.

Back in Joshua Tree National Park, the bighorn ram got to his feet, dislodging a chuckwalla. The sound caught our attention, and we watched as it disappeared into the desert haze. Just then, the radio-collared desert tortoise moved out of the shadows and, with whoops of joy, we pounced to collect data. Examples of the wonder and excitement I felt that day dance from every page of Citizen Scientist.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA.


A data scientist reveals how invisible algorithms perpetuate inequality

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Cathy O'Neil
Penguin Books
2016

Are data neutral? In Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil, a math blogger, former Barnard professor, and former quantitative analyst for the hedge fund D. E. Shaw, answers with a resounding “no.”

In this extremely approachable book, O’Neil looks closely at how invisible algorithms and Big Data are used to make decisions for and about us in almost every arena of our lives. The result, she argues, further disenfranchises those with the least power in our society and entrenches the “comfortable classes in their own marketing silo.”

The least transparent and most troubling algorithms she terms “weapons of math destruction” (WMDs). She describes such models as black boxes that cannot easily be challenged but that, nevertheless, can have devastating consequences, particularly for the poorest and most marginalized groups and individuals.

O’Neil begins by discussing her own professional work with the development and deployment of mathematical models. She then describes her disillusionment following the housing crash that led her to quit her hedge fund job, launch a blog to combat sloppy and biased statistics, and join the Occupy Wall Street movement. The rest of the book delves into specific cases of troubling data practices in areas including credit scores, predictive policing, auto insurance pricing, the for-profit college industry, and work scheduling.

O’Neil’s talent for breaking down complex issues is enviable for its narrative power; I finished reading each chapter enlightened but disturbed. She weaves together the actions of relevant industries with stories of the real effects of algorithms on the lives of individuals, distinguishing potentially “good” uses of data analytics from WMDs throughout. This approach gives nuance to the problems she is addressing. She concludes with some concrete prescriptions for bringing more regulation, transparency, and equity to mathematical models and Big Data.

As someone who is familiar with the discourse of models, algorithms, and data, I had no trouble jumping right into the book, but a formal introduction to these terms as she is using them might have been useful for readers who are less familiar with this terrain. However, this structural issue is minor, and overall the book is an excellent overview of a large and complex topic.

About the author

The reviewer is at the School of Information and Communication Studies at University College, Dublin, Dublin 4, Ireland.


A mother sets out to discover how her late son’s organs helped to advance scientific research

A Life Everlasting: The Extraordinary Story of One Boy's Gift to Medical Science

Sarah Gray
HarperCollins
2016
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“I don’t believe in putting anything of value in the ground. Whether it’s a diamond ring that can be passed down to another generation, or if it’s tissue for transplant or for research,” Rebecca Cummings-Suppi, a manager at the Philadelphia-based Gift of Life Donor Program, told Sarah Gray at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Association of Tissue Banks. “That’s how cures happen.”

In A Life Everlasting, Gray recounts her journey to learn how donating her late son’s organs might have helped advance scientific research. The book is heart-wrenching at times, to be sure, but those who would pass it over for this reason are denying themselves the opportunity to meet Sarah’s son, Thomas Ethan Gray, and learn about his ultimate gift to science.

Throughout the book, Gray expertly weaves the story of her son’s terminal condition—anencephaly, diagnosed in utero—and the decision to donate his organs with her quest to determine the donation’s effect on research. The cord blood of Thomas and his healthy twin, Callum, was used in the search for the genetic roots of anencephaly. Thomas’s liver went to a laboratory working to develop a liver-cell transplantation technique, a treatment suitable for newborns too small for liver transplants. His corneas were included in a study to help regenerate certain eye cells and prevent vision loss.

Gray’s desire to find meaning in personal tragedy, and her motherly pride in her late son’s contributions to research, permeate every page. So does her belief in science: Interspersed throughout the book are references to research studies; organ, tissue, and eye banks; organ procurement organizations; and institutions specializing in donations for research, training, and education. A comprehensive resource list for future donors is included in the appendix.

Both poignant and uplifting, A Life Everlasting is not just the story of Thomas Gray; it is also the story of researchers and donation facilitators. Most of all, it is a story of how science can give meaning to both life and death.

NOTES

This material should not be interpreted as representing the viewpoint of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health, or the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

About the author

The reviewer is at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA.


An insider’s guide to animal agriculture

Chickenizing Farms and Food: How Industrial Meat Production Endangers Workers, Animals, and Consumers

Ellen K. Silbergeld
JHU Press
2016
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On a Sunday morning trip to the farmer’s market, I joyfully saunter up to a woman selling local free-range organic poultry: The chickens run free for the duration of their lives! No antimicrobial drugs or growth hormones are administered! The chickens are slaughtered as humanely as possible! How could I not support this alternative to industrial agriculture?

I am what Ellen Silbergeld calls a “wet.” In terms borrowed from Margaret Thatcher, Silbergeld describes wets as valuing agriculture systems that emphasize “social and biological ecology.” “Dries,” on the other hand, see economic efficiency as the main goal and therefore place value on industrial production methods and new technologies. Silbergeld uses this analogy to set the stage for the conflict between these factions in modern animal agricultural practices.

Throughout 12 chapters, Silbergeld’s book touches on topics inexorably linked by modern food production: industrial practices, veterinary practices, the roles of government regulatory agencies, superbugs, worker safety, food safety, and food security.

Animal agriculture is in desperate need of reform, argues Ellen Silbergeld in Chickenizing Farms and Food.ROIBU/ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

Animal agriculture is in desperate need of reform, argues Ellen Silbergeld in Chickenizing Farms and Food.

Although the title would suggest otherwise, Silbergeld does not take a firm stand against industrial meat production; rather, she makes the case that this model will ultimately prevail. She describes how the wets’ plan to feed the world through alternative practices focused on rural communities fails to recognize that the world is becoming increasingly more urbanized.

In chapter 9, Silbergeld’s discussion of worker safety features a processing plant worker, Olga, covered in animal parts as she clocks out for the evening. In keeping with her frequent references to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, here Silbergeld aimed at (and hit) my heart. Her goal, however, was not only to reach my heart but also to “connect heart and stomach” and reconcile discussions of worker and food safety. “Simply put, by eliminating the humanity of workers in food production and reducing food safety to an engineering principle, neither food safety nor worker safety was protected,” she writes.

Silbergeld devotes two chapters to the growing danger of antimicrobial resistance. She describes how and when the use of veterinary drugs as a prophylaxis for disease became commonplace in food animal practices and the impact that this practice has had on global public health. Here, the reader would have benefited from a more thorough discussion of how, exactly, a farmer lacing animal feed with antimicrobial drugs can lead to life-threatening drug-resistant infections in humans.

Little doubt exists that meat production is fraught with problems. After reading Silbergeld’s book, my next visit to the farmer’s market will be a more enlightened one.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Food Safety and Inspection Service, United States Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC 20250, USA.


Combating medical science denial

Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us

Sara E. Gorman, Jack M. Gorman
Oxford University Press
2016
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When Thomas Duncan died from Ebola in a Dallas hospital on 8 October 2014, Americans panicked: calling off work, avoiding public transit, closing businesses and schools. In their new book, Denying to the Grave, authors Sara Gorman and Jack Gorman introduce the concept of medical science denial by demonstrating how the actual risk of contracting and dying from Ebola in America was negligible compared with the risk of dying from heart disease, cancer, automobile accidents, and gunshot wounds. Citing an estimate calculated by NPR journalist Michaeleen Doucleff, they write that “the risk of contracting Ebola in the United States was one in 13.3 million, far less than the risk of dying in a plane crash, from a bee sting, by being struck by lightning, or being attacked by a shark.” And yet, the panic persisted.

In Denying to the Grave, Gorman and Gorman outline the reasons for this disconnect. In six chapters, the authors describe how conspiracy theories, charismatic leaders, confirmation bias, ignorance, complexity, and risk perception contribute to the problem and how our emotions, neurobiology, and psychology make us susceptible to misguided health decisions.

Gorman and Gorman illustrate how our psychology has influenced our perception of everything from HIV and human papilloma virus to childhood vaccinations, gun violence, nuclear power, antibiotic treatment, and electroconvulsive therapy. They show that, in the face of irrefutable evidence, the public reaction to these issues is largely fear-based and outline both the underlying emotions and the anatomical locations in the brain that are associated with these responses.

The book suggests that scientists and medical professionals must change how they communicate health risks to address the factors that influence how people make decisions. The authors argue that those of us in these professions need to challenge people to think for themselves by asking them to imagine a range of scenarios in which the issue at hand could play out, including those with which they disagree.

One way to do this might be to ask skeptics how they would handle a given situation if the scientific evidence were indeed correct. The authors suggest encouraging these individuals to write down what they think would happen, how they would feel, and what the consequences would be. The next step is to help them recognize when their emotions are guiding their decisions.

The authors correctly assert that, without a change in how we communicate health-related science, the public will remain vulnerable to influences that could negatively influence life-and-death decisions.

About the author

The reviewer is at the UCLA School of Medicine, Department of Neurology, Los Angeles, CA 90045, USA.


Contemplating the path forward for autonomous vehicles

Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead

Hod Lipson, Melba Kurman
MIT Press
2016
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Everyone is talking about driverless cars. Recent advancements in power storage, computational power, sensory technology, communication bandwidth, algorithm efficiency, and more have moved autonomous vehicles from the realm of science fiction into the real world. In Driverless, authors Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman delve into these and other contributing technologies.

Included is an exhaustive review of one such advance, “deep learning,” that allows a computer to learn from experience. One boggling potential application in the context of driverless cars is “hive learning,” in which everything a vehicle learns about road conditions can theoretically be instantaneously shared with all other vehicles, enabling a new vehicle to possess the experience of millions of miles of driving. Yet, deep learning is only as comprehensive as its training. The deadly Tesla accident that occurred in May seems to have resulted from an encounter with a “corner case,” a condition not included in training.

Humans are vulnerable to corner cases, too. A driver who faces a new situation without preparation is experiencing a corner case. And human information sharing is not instantaneous, meaning that any lessons learned will benefit only the individual driver.

Unlike traditional computer algorithms, deep learning creates a nonexplicit, black-box intelligence that cannot be reverse-engineered. For this reason, trying to determine why a driverless system made a decision can be as difficult as ascertaining a human’s decision process. This, write the authors, will have implications for liability assessment.

The book also delves into advances in machine vision. Only recently have we developed pattern-recognition software and hardware capable of recognizing real road challenges such as shadows. The Tesla accident, which appears to have involved difficulty discerning the side of a turning tractor-trailer, highlights that there is still work to do.

“Human-in-the-loop” computation automates most, but not all, functions. It is the approach used by pilots and surgeons. But the authors contend that drivers will be unable to maintain sufficient alertness over the course of a lengthy trip. It was reported, for example, that the driver of the Tesla was watching a movie at the time of the fatal accident.

The authors acknowledge that an autonomous future is not guaranteed and discuss potential problems, both in technology and in policy. Yet they are clearly rooting for it. After reading this book, you will be knowledgeable enough to make your own informed opinion.

About the author

The reviewer works in software reliability and accident reconstruction for Engineering Systems, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI 48108, USA.


Delve into a light-hearted exploration of profanity

What the F: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves

Benjamin K. Bergen
Basic Books
2016
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“F bombs” come in and out of earshot as I walk down the hallway of my school. I ask my students if they are going to talk like that in their jobs. Would they say that word in front of their mothers? They shrug. If I’m lucky, I get an apologetic “my bad” or at least a look of embarrassment.

In What the F, a self-proclaimed “book-length love letter to profanity,” cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen succeeds in bringing me around to appreciate the broader context, as well as the finer points, of the role “bad” words play in human society. Bergen takes the reader through the many dimensions of swearing—from definitions, etymology, and usage trends to the relationship between profanity and language more broadly. He even addresses the merits of ignoring profanity, as well as many other questions I have had over the years, such as, where do swear words come from? Is swearing harmful to children? And should people—whether a mother in a grocery store or an athlete on the basketball court—be punished for using profanity?

As one might expect given the provocative title, What the F is often very entertaining. At times, however, the book can be quite “in the reeds,” as Bergen admits, and will appeal more to linguists than to casual readers. However, nonexperts will likely still enjoy Bergen’s skillful use of analogies and pop-culture references and learning about the unique challenges of doing research on a taboo subject.

Although Bergen admits to having a “special affection” for swearing, he does an admirable job of staying objective throughout his analysis. He also voices concern about a troubling trend in the increased use of slurs and name calling and offers guidance for how individuals and society might respond to minimize the insults while still enjoying an expletive now and again.

About the author

The reviewer teaches chemistry at Falls Church High School, Falls Church, VA 22042, USA.


Tag along on an awe-inspiring journey through the cosmos

Welcome to the Universe

J. Richard Gott, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss
Princeton University Press
2016
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“Every time we make an argument that we’re special in the cosmos … we learn that the opposite is true. In fact, we occupy a humble corner of the galaxy, which occupies its own humble corner in the universe.” The grand size and scale of the cosmos is one of the recurring themes of Welcome to the Universe.

Written by three astrophysicists—Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott—the book is based on a course the authors cotaught for several years at Princeton University. It is organized into three sections—the first (Stars, planets, and life) largely belongs to Tyson, the second (Galaxies) to Strauss, and the third (Einstein and the universe) to Gott. Along the way, the reader is taken on a journey from relatively familiar territory—the organization of the solar system and galaxies and the life cycles of stars—through discussions of the Big Bang and the early universe and into recent hypotheses about the future of the universe and our little corner of it.

It is easy to imagine these authors presenting their chapters as lectures to introductory students. All three write in informal, conversational tones, and the text is sprinkled with genuinely funny non sequiturs, such as a brief rumination on dwarfs versus dwarves and commentary on English-speaking aliens in Star Trek.

“In the universe, we're always looking back in time,” writes Neil deGrasse Tyson in Welcome to the Universe.ESA/HUBBLE

“In the universe, we’re always looking back in time,” writes Neil deGrasse Tyson in Welcome to the Universe.

At the same time, the casual reader may find it difficult to follow some of the book’s quantitative arguments, which are largely presented in the narrative rather than being set apart. In these instances, pulling out pencil and paper may help. In addition, in some sections the authors assume prior knowledge of concepts familiar only to those who have had some introduction to modern physics.

What this book does very well is to present not just what we know about the universe but how we know it. The chapter “Why Pluto is not a planet” is particularly good at showing how our organization of knowledge about the universe changes as that knowledge grows. The last third of the book does a wonderful job of presenting some very complex theories, such as inflation and density fluctuations in the cosmic background radiation.

Despite the almost incomprehensible vastness and complexity of the universe, Tyson’s observation that understanding astrophysics can be empowering resonates. “No, I don’t feel small,” he writes. “I feel large, because the human brain … figured this stuff out.”

About the author

The reviewer is dean of the college and in the Department of Physics at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY 10708, USA.


Why do we tempt fate by building in disaster-prone areas?

The Cure for Catastrophe

Robert Muir-Wood
Oneworld Publications
2016
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In the opening pages of The Cure for Catastrophe, the author describes a harrowing scene from the aftermath of a devastating earthquake: “Ruins spilled into the street. Second-floor rooms missing a wall, wallpaper torn, a child’s artwork flapping, a bed covered with debris. Clothes, a saucepan, school bags, family photographs strewn in the dirt.…” Mother Nature provides a rich source of material for novelists. But this is no work of fiction.

The book, by Robert Muir-Wood, is a welcome and long-overdue addition to the disaster literature that recognizes and confronts the paradox of societies’ mostly sluggish approach to dealing with vulnerabilities to natural hazards. This is in stark contrast, for example, to our rapid response to aviation safety or terrorist threats. “Repetitive loss” is common for floods, for example.

In eloquent prose, Muir-Wood recounts disasters of the past millennium from a variety of perspectives: historical accounts; natural process science; structural engineering; building codes; land-use regulation; risk estimation; risk management; insurance and reinsurance; and, perhaps above all, political processes and priorities. His message for the future is hopeful but demands changes in both policy and culture.

Is it realistic to believe there is a “cure for catastrophe?” Muir-Wood acknowledges that it won’t happen soon. Changing a culture takes time and political will. Even where resources are abundant, there are plenty of incentives to maintain the status quo. For example, the wealthiest individuals and communities often choose to live in harm’s way so as to enjoy the benefits it confers. As Kaye Shedlock noted, “active tectonics makes for beautiful landscapes,” and, despite the risks, oceanfront property is undeniably desirable.

The Cure for Catastrophe is beautifully written, thoughtful, and rigorous. Although the book includes 63 pages of notes, which will serve future scholars, the main text is accessible to a general audience. I found it a pleasure to read.

About the author

The reviewer is in the Office of Surface Water at the United States Geological Survey, Reston, VA 20192, USA.