Science

Family Secrets

ISBN: 
9780670025558

Remember reading the Old Testament and seeing the list of “begats” that seemed to last forever?  This book examines human history as recorded in our DNA.  It’s full of fascinating lore: recently geneticists and statisticians have proved that African countries where the slave trade was rampant  have not only a much higher sense of distrust toward friends and strangers, but also have much poorer economies today over a hundred fifty years later.

And Genghis Khan really did father thousands of children, yet at the same time he lived up to his name as the Destroyer. During the two centuries of the Mongol raids that he initiated, 40 million people died. So many that much of the inhabited earth became reforested. This was the only time in recorded history that the CO2 in the atmosphere actually dropped enough to measure.

Genghis Khan also lives on for his particular Y chromosome. Not only did he pass this on to countless sons, but he and his armies killed so many men with different Y chromosomes that his became the predominant one in many parts of Asia. Read more »

From the color of Your Eyes to Your Type of Earwax

ISBN: 
9781440567643

If the last thing you learned about genes was Gregor Mendel’s pea pod experiments, you might want to try this easy to read science book to get up to speed about many fascinating changes in hereditary theory.

For instance, humans have only 20,000 to 25,000 genes, downgraded from a previous estimate of 100,000.  In comparison, a tiny water flea--barely visible to our naked eye--has about 31,000.

You’ve heard the word genome in the news and on PBS. Your genome is your full set of genes. Every cell in your body gets a copy of the full set although each cell cannot read all of them.  By the way, the word “cell” came from Robert Hooke, the first person who saw them in the 1600s. When he first discovered them under a microscope, they reminded him of monks’ cells.

Other interesting facts about your genome.  The chromosomes scientists have discovered have something to do with either inherited diseases or traits. For instance, chromosome 1 is associated with deafness, schizophrenia and maple syrup disease.  (You read that right!) If you have red hair, thank chromosome 2.  Blue or green eyes?  Chromosome 19 is for you.  And yes, previously scientists thought that there were only two possibilities for eye color: brown or blue.  Those green eyes, they just tagged as a variant of blue. Read more »

Earthquake Storms

ISBN: 
9781605984957

This is the kind of interesting read that can make you dream of switching fields. Both the title and subtitle are misleading, it’s about much more than earthquake storms (a series of large quakes that strike the same fault close together in time), or even the San Andreas Fault, famous for being that volatile line that runs from the California redwoods to its southern deserts.

Although it does focus on ground shaking in California, it’s also a compendium of earthquake lore that describes quakes in Turkey, Italy, and other places. One intriguing section describes how recent research confirms that the famous Delphi of Greek mythology was a site of earthquakes. The priestesses there supposedly sat before a crack in the earth and made prophecies.  Scientists have found that the earth nearby released ethylene, a gas that is now known to cause trances.

The book begins with the narrative of a young San Franciscan mechanic who took a daily swim in the ocean. One morning he walked to the beach as always and after being whacked repeatedly by waves, then thrown upon the Read more »

America's First Tornado Scientists and What They Taught Us

ISBN: 
9780307378521

I was afraid this would be another macho book about reckless men roaming the plains chasing tornadoes during storm season. Instead it turned out to be a wonderful compendium of tornado lore through the centuries. Also included are biographies of some of our most  important weather scientists.    

Storm Kings begins with a description of how during the 1600s New England settlers called any phenomenon that happened in the sky meteors including: meteors (of course), lightning, thunder, rainbows, comets, clouds in the shape of hands and faces, etc.  Although the science behind tornadoes was not understood and barely documented then, many colonists recognized that the weather in America was much more violent than in their home countries.

When a tornado swooped down near Cambridge, MA in 1680, two farming families were shocked when one lost a servant and another a barn during the storm.  They were so frightened by this event that one wrote to Increase Mather (the father of Cotton) asking about it. Increase, who was a self-educated weather expert, had no answers so he wrote to a scientific association in Europe. No one replied to his inquiry, but Benjamin Franklin found this letter seventy years later when he became interested in the study of weather and electricity. Read more »

The Violinist's Thumb

ISBN: 
9780316182317

OK, I selected this book based solely on its title, but boy did I luck out. What an incredibly gifted writer Sam Kean is.  In The Violinist's Thumb: and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius as Written by Our Genetic Code, he translates dense scientific concepts into lucid, beautiful prose.

He also knows how to tell stories. The first chapter contrasts the biographies of two of DNA's discoverers, Mendel and the less well-known, Johannes Friedrich Miescher, who because he studied fish slime had to work in very cold conditions so that his material would not deteriorate before he could examine it. And who knew that Mendel joined a monastery so he could secure a university education? His passion for raising peas taught us so much about human inheritance.

This book tackles and at least partially answers many of life's great questions including: Why did it take eons for life to become complex? What is our most ancient DNA? Why do humans have no more DNA than so many smaller, less complex creatures?  Why did we almost become extinct?  Why did we break away from monkeys? Is the impulse for art conveyed by our DNA? Why are identical twins not identical? Read more »

Light and Shadow: Preschool Science and Math

Light and Shadow

Groundhog's Day has come and gone, but the shadow of its promise of longer, warmer days lingers! For preschool science in February, we explored the world of light, reflection, and shadow. These activities are meant to promote lively discussions between children and their adult partners, which builds vocabulary and knowledge of the world.

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Animals in Winter: Preschool Science and Math

ISBN: 
9781429622004

 

As any parent knows, young children are curious about the world. At the library, we explore a range of topics during Preschool Science and Math. When the weather turns cold, I turn to one of my favorite themes for preschool science: Animals in Winter. Here are some of the activities we did in December!

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The Transit of Venus--Books

ISBN: 
9780307700179

Tonight if you are lucky and the sky doesn't cloud up, you will be able to observe one of astronomy's rare celestial events, the transit of Venus. But be careful, and don't look directly at the sun without using safe viewing glasses or lenses. If you don't own those, you can attend one of the free events listed below. If you miss tonight's transit, alas, you won't catch another in your lifetime because the next one won't occur until 2117.

I've been reading about the transit of Venus and how an earlier one in the 18th century really expanded our knowledge of the solar system. It also was the earliest example of a large and cooperative international scientific expedition.

We have two new books that report on this scientific quest. Andrea Wulf's Chasing Venus: the Race to Measure the Heavens reports on the work and incredible adventures that were undertaken by scientists worldwide in trying to observe and make measurements for the transit that occurred on June 6, 1761. In an age when it took several months for a letter to cross the oceans and a few more months for a response, a scientist in England organized this great scientific undertaking. In remote corners of the world, scientists from Britain, Russia, India, Germany, the Read more »

Good Pop Psych Reads

ISBN: 
9780374275631

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow is still a bestseller and heavily in-demand at the library, after receiving lots of publicity late last year. This exploration of intuitive vs. deliberate thinking makes fascinating points about what motivates decisions both personal and business-related. It's top notch popular psychology, a genre I really love for the way it forces you to examine actions and thoughts that seem simply natural or logical. Here are a few other great examples.

  • Another newish title that's making a splash is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. The subtitle pretty much sums it up. It explores the differences between introverts and extroverts and makes the case for the values of introversion, which are often ignored in a society that holds extroversion to be the ideal.
  • Malcolm Gladwell is a giant in this area. One of his great books is Blink, which, like Kahneman's, uncovers what's really going on in our heads when we make decisions, illuminating everything from how prejudice works to why marriages fail.
  • Oliver Saks, a neurologist, also has several great books. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, for example, demonstrates how complex the brain is by showing how weirdly things can go wrong. It's more neuroscience than psychology, perhaps, but seeing how knocking out one little area can cause hallucinations or destroy one very limited function, is fascinating.
  • Steven Pinker recently wrote a book (The Better Angels of Our Nature) proposing that humans are becoming less violent, but I really like his 2003 book The Blank Slate. It touches on the emerging field of evolutionary psychology, arguing that people aren't born with completely plastic minds, but that we all have certain (possibly very powerful) innate tendencies and capabilities.
  • In The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson teaches us how to spot a psychopath, and finds that, far from being universally confined to mental hospitals, they are all among us--especially, it seems, in the world of business.
  • The Believing Brain takes a critical look at how belief--not just religious, but in general--is formed and reinforced. Michael Shermer argues that it is natural, but that we need to temper such instincts to see the world clearly.
  • Snoop has a fun (and kind of unsettling premise): the things we surround ourselves with and the way we arrange them speak volumes about who we are. Our personalities leak through in what seem like insignificant places.

For more similar books, here's a nice Goodreads list, and a LibraryThing one.

The Sun's Heartbeat

Sun's HeartbeatBrowsing the new science books, I came across The Sun's Heartbeat. I picked it up expecting a rather dry collection of facts and was immediately engaged by a chapter titled "The Wild Science of the Bearded Men."

Not only can Bob Berman write but he also has that gift shared by all the best science writers: the ability to translate complex scientific terms into language that anyone can understand.

This book provides a compelling overview of several thousand years of sun research including the great sunspot controversy of the 17th century. The invention of the telescope in 1608 spurned a race to discover facts about the sun. Johannes Fabricius and his father discovered little spots on the sun and excitedly watched them for days until they burnt out their retinal cells. An English astronomer who had voyaged to Roanoke with the English explorers also began recording sunspots. And Galileo himself entered the fray. In fact, Galileo engaged in a decades-long fight with the German professor Christoph Scheiner over sunspots. Over who discovered them first--in fact, neither had, over whether the sun has an atmosphere, and many other topics.
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