News about the Science Shelf archive of book reviews, columns, and comments by Fred Bortz

Issue #37, Fall, 2010

Dear Science Readers,

Late summer and early fall are always busy times for me as a book reviewer. Lots of new releases cross my desk, and I have a hard time deciding which ones to pitch to book review editors. The editors also tend to offer more assignments without a pitch. So just in time for the holiday gift season, this issue of The Science Shelf Newsletter has a lot more links than usual, and plenty of variety to choose from.

I've also had quite a bit of fun with the reviews I've added since the last newsletter. Let's start with those and see if you agree.

Four New Reviews Plus One

I'll begin with one review from the last newsletter, because it will make a great gift for space enthusiasts and readers with quirky senses of humor. Mary Roach's Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. It was on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list for five weeks, rising as high as number six.

Just as Roach's book dropped off the top 15, another book that I reviewed made its debut at number 1. As I write this, The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow has been on the list for 6 weeks and is still at number 11.

The book has gotten a lot of attention for its statement that a supreme being is not necessary to have created the Universe as we know it, but as my review notes, that is not the most important theme. You don't have to be a theist to take issue with the book on other grounds, namely its redefinition of science to include questions beyond its traditional territory. As the review puts it:
Traditionally, science has been considered descriptive, not explanatory. Yet Hawking and Mlodinow declare, "To understand the universe at the deepest level, we need to know not only how the universe behaves, but why. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some others?"

When Hawking and Mlodinow (his collaborator on A Briefer History of Time) do deal with descriptive science, they do it well, making a strong case that a form of String Theory known as "M-theory" may be The Grand Design that scientists have been seeking. However, my review disputes their assertion that M-theory "provides a better answer to the key question of existence--why our universe behaves as it does--than either religion or philosophy can," closing on this note: "A lot of scientists, theologians, and philosophers will beg to differ."

Coming out just in time for one of the nastiest elections in recent memory is Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception by Charles Seife. The book is full of humor and clever coinages that Seife includes under the umbrella term "proofiness: the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true--even when it's not."

But even though the book includes such amusing examples as a formula for "Callipygianness,... derived by a team of academic psychologists after many hours of serious research into the female derriere," it has a meaty, serious bottom line: "Armed with bogus mathematical arguments and underhanded tactics, politicians and their judicial allies are working to stack the electoral deck to get their party into power and keep it there. They are succeeding," Seife warns, then concludes, "[O]ur degree of knowledge will determine whether we succumb to proofiness or fight against it. It's more than mere rhetoric; our democracy may well rise or fall by the numbers."

I am writing this on the Sunday before the 2010 midterm election. On Monday, I will be making get-out-the-vote phone calls for a Senate candidate I truly believe in. The polls say it is too close to call, but the campaign says, echoing Seife's chapter on "Poll Cats," that the polls' sampling undercounts younger voters who are more likely not to have a land-line phone and thus not be in standard phone books. If the campaign is correct, the Republican gains in Congress will be much smaller than projected. I won't edit this statement so readers can compare it with actual events.

My most recently published review praises Steven Johnson's exploration of Where Good Ideas Come From, subtitled A Natural History of Innovation.

The book opens with a vivid present-tense description of a breakthrough moment for the 27-year-old Charles Darwin on one of the two Indian Ocean atolls the comprise the Keeling Islands:
Darwin is on the precipice, standing on an underwater peak ascending over an unfathomable sea. He is on the edge of an idea about the forces that built that peak, an idea that will prove to be the first great scientific insight of his career. And he has just begun exploring another hunch, still hazy and unformed, that will eventually lead to the intellectual summit of the nineteenth century.

As my review notes, "Especially enlightening is Johnson's frequent juxtaposition of natural and human creativity--biological and technological evolution. This is a book that will stick with its readers. Just as data, samples, and notebooks from Darwin's stint as naturalist on the Beagle provided intellectual grist for many years after his return, this book's readers are likely to find its greatest value in discoveries that arise after months or years of applying Johnson's insights to their own experiences."

Soon to appear in the Dallas Morning News (and then to be added to the Science Shelf) is my review of Massive: The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science by Ian Sample.

"This book is the story of how the universe got its mass, and how an idea written down in a notebook nearly half a century ago became the focus of a global, multibillion-dollar hunt involving thousands of scientists and the largest, most complex machines ever built," Sample writes. "Whichever way you look at it, this story is massive."

The machine Sample refers to is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) deep underground on the French-Swiss border, and the scientific and human stories he weaves together are compelling. I am partial to this book in part because I have also written about the LHC for young readers. It is the culminating chapter of Seven Wonders of Exploration Technology (Lerner, 2010)

A Look Ahead

I've got some interesting assignments for the winter months, so stay tuned for these in the next newsletter (or follow the links to get an advance peek at

I have already begun reading The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization by Geerat J. Vermeij, distinguished professor of geology at the University of California, Davis. The subtitle lays out his interesting thesis, and the first two chapters have me hooked. What makes the book even more remarkable is that Vermeij has been totally blind since age 4, and yet his descriptions are vivid and rich in textures, aromas, and sounds. The book will be out in December. My review will appear here and in the Dallas Morning News.

For January, I have two assignments. One sounds like it covers similar territory as Massive and takes a similar approach by interweaving human and scientific stories. The title is The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek, and I will be reviewing it for the Dallas Morning News. If you follow the link, it will take you to the page, which includes the following enticing description:
Over the past few decades, a handful of scientists have been racing to explain a disturbing aspect of our universe: only 4 percent of it consists of the matter that makes up you, me, our books, and every star and planet. The rest is completely unknown.

Richard Panek tells the dramatic story of the quest to find this "dark" matter and an even more bizarre substance called dark energy. This is perhaps the greatest mystery in all of science, and solving it will bring fame, funding, and certainly a Nobel Prize. Based on in-depth reporting and interviews with the major players-from Berkeley's feisty, excitable Saul Perlmutter and Harvard's witty but exacting Robert Kirshner to the doyenne of astronomy, Vera Rubin-the book offers an intimate portrait of the bitter rivalries and fruitful collaborations, the eureka moments and blind alleys, that have fueled their search, redefined science, and reinvented the universe.

The stakes couldn't be higher. Our view of the cosmos is profoundly wrong, and Copernicus was only the beginning: not just Earth, but all common matter is a marginal part of existence. Panek's fast-paced narrative, filled with original reporting and behind-the-scenes details, brings this epic story to life for the very first time.

I will also be reviewing Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Its subtitle makes it sound like something we can all relate to--just don't expect too much from me! ;) The review will appear in the Seattle Times in anticipation of Turkle's Town Hall lecture on January 26, 2011.

Now in Paperback

Many of my previously reviewed books have come out in paperback, but I want to call attention to one that I found particularly thought provoking: Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham.

A Little Bragging

I mentioned my Seven Wonders of Exploration Technology above. It appeared last year at this time with a 2010 copyright date, and the editors were pleased enough with it to offer me a book in the new space set of Seven Wonders books for 2011. Seven Wonders of Space Technology has now been printed and will soon be available through Lerner publishing. I also have a few copies that I can autograph and sell, so e-mail me if you want to get a special gift for a middle-grade space nut in your life.

A Sampling of my In-Box

As has become my custom, I am happy to share a list of books that look interesting. I have pitched a few of them for assignment but with no takers (as of this date). They are listed in order of publication date. Note that I have a prepublication copy of one in particular that I would like to see reviewed. I'll be glad to send you that copy and request a finished book for you from the publisher in exchange for your commitment to write a 500-1500 word review within a month.

A Grand and Bold Thing: An Extraordinary New Map of the Universe Ushering in a New Era of Discovery by Ann Finkbeiner

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (paperback) by Richard Dawkins

The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse (paperback) by Jennifer Ouelette

Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future by Matthew E. Kahn

The Shape of Inner Space: String Theory and the Geometry of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions by Shing-Tung Yau and Steve Nadis

The $1,000 Genome: The Revolution in DNA Sequencing and the New Era of Personalized Medicine by Kevin Davies

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives by Annie Murphy Paul

The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won't Tell You About Global Warming by Roger Pielke Jr. REVIEW WANTED. If you commit to a review, I will send you a prepublication copy. Send e-mail to begin the process.

The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future by Laurence C. Smith

How Fast Can A Falcon Dive? Fascinating Answers to Questions about Birds of Prey (Animal Q&A Series, Paperback) by Peter Capainolo and Carol A. Butler

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly

Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley

Life of Earth: Potrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed Out World by Stanley A. Rice

The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages by Nancy Marie Brown

The Darwin Awards: Countdown to Extinction by Wendy Northcutt

The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Switching to Solar: What We Can Learn form Germany's Success in Harnessing Clean Energy (paperback) by Bob Johnstone

The Instant Physicist: An Illustrated Guide by Richard A. Muller (ONE OF MY FAVORITE AUTHORS), Illustrated by Joey Manfre

The Lust for Blood: Why We are Fascinated by Death, Murder, Horror, and Violence by Jeffrey A. Kotler

Acceleration: The Forces Driving Human Progress by Ronald G. Havelock

How Old is the Universe? by David A. Weintraub

The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human by V. S. Ramchandran)

World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humans and Machines by Michael Chorost

Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind by Robert Kurzban

An Optimist's Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets Out to Answer "What's Next?" by Mark Stevenson

My Usual Thanks

As in past newsletters, I offer my thanks to the people who are kind enough to buy some of the books that they discovered here through the Science Shelf links. Many use the link on the Science Shelf homepage to enter every time they shop for books or other Amazon products (someone recently bought an inkjet printer). It's their way of thanking me for these archiving these reviews and occasionally publishing reviews by other people with varying points of view.

I never know who's buying, only what they bought. Sometimes their purchases prompt me to look at the same books. Sometimes a shopping list indicates my website is a useful entry point for a topic of interest, such as weather and climate.

I'll repeat a standing offer to thanking you for your support. If you want to order some of my books directly from me, I may be able to offer a substantial discount on a few titles where I overbought. Just send me an e-mail and I'll let you know if I have the titles you are interested in.

As I have often said, I don't expect commissions to cover the time I spend maintaining the archive of book reviews and sending out messages like this. The Science Shelf is a labor of book- and science-love, and your click-throughs still tell me you appreciate it.

As always, happy science reading, and thanks in advance for your support!

Fred Bortz