Category Archives: science

Books about science.

Review 169: The Disappearing Spoon

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

One of the prettiest books I have on my shelves right now is Theodore Gray’s The Elements, a visual collection of all the elements that make up the physical universe. “Everything you can drop on your foot,” as he says. In it, he provides wonderful pictures and descriptions of the elements that we know, arranged as they would be in the periodic table. It’s a gorgeous book, one that everyone should have – especially if you have children. If you want your kids to become interested in science and investigating the world around them, you could do far worse than to have this book on your shelves.

Eventually, though, they’ll be old enough and canny enough to ask, “Well, how do we know all this? Where did we find these things, and how? And why are they in this order?” That’s the point where you hand them The Disappearing Spoon, sit back, and let Sam Kean take over.

Ytterby. By all accounts, a lovely place. Photo by Bertil Nelson on Flickr.

The story of the elements, and our understanding of them, is governed just as much by personality as by p-shells, as much by competition as by charge, as much by ego as by electrons. While the elements themselves don’t pay any attention to human affairs, the quest to understand the building blocks of matter have sent us to the hearts of stars, the depths of the earth and, for various reasons, Ytterby, Sweden. [1]

Kean starts with how he got into the elements, with a story that would horrify modern-day parents: mercury. When he was a kid, his mother would collect the mercury from broken thermometers and keep it in a little bottle on a high shelf. If they were lucky, she would let her children play with it for a while, swirling it around and watching while this shiny liquid metal split apart and fused back together perfectly, never leaving a bit of itself behind. It was a metal that flowed like water, and it was fascinating. If he had known at that age that ancient alchemists thought there were spirits living in mercury, he would not have been surprised.

Oh, mercury, How can anything so pretty be so dangerous? Photo by Len Gatey on Flickr.

Keeping an eye out for mercury, he learned that modern scientists are able to follow the expedition of Lewis and Clark using mercury. The explorers carried with them a good quantity of Dr. Benjamin Rush’s Bilious Pills, a “cure” for any illness that mainly contained mercury chloride. It was vile stuff, poisoning everyone who took it, but without an FDA around to stop this kind of nonsense, Rush made plenty of money. It probably didn’t hurt his credibility that he was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In any case, he gave samples to the Lewis and Clark expedition, and their latrine sites can still be found today by the unusually high levels of mercury that were deposited there as the men’s bodies tried to get rid of the heavy metal as quickly as possible.

Mercury also taught Kean about mythology – the Roman god of communication, modeled on the Greek message-bearer. It taught him etymology – the chemical symbol for mercury is Hg, which is derived from the Latin hydragyrum, which means “silver water.” It informed him on literature, especially the Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland, who was based on the poor crazies who used to breathe in the fumes of mercury while setting felt for their hats.

This one weird, eerie element was a door into so many other topics that he figured there must be others. And so he started work on this book, a collection of histories and tales, gossip and hearsay, all centered around the 118 physical elements that make up our universe. “As we know,” he writes, “90 percent of particles in the universe are hydrogen, and the other 10 percent are helium. Everything else, including six million billion billion kilos of earth, is a cosmic rounding error.” Within that rounding error, though, some amazing things have been found.

One look from this bearded madman and the elements fell into place right quick.

In the 19th century, the Russian Dimitri Mendeleev examined the common properties of different elements and was able to sort the elements in such a way that took advantage of their similarities. The violent alkalies along the far left, which will explode if given half a chance, and their cousins, the halogens on the far right, some of the most reactive elements in nature. Separating them are the noble gasses, which don’t react with anything unless pushed to extremes. Without knowing about electron shells and the weird quantum things that happen on the atomic level, Mendeleev managed to put together a table so good that he was able to leave gaps in it that corresponded to elements that hadn’t yet been found. And by telling the world that these gaps existed, the race to isolate and discover the elements was on.

Kean’s book is a great look at the way science works on a human level. How the search for high-quality porcelain led to the discovery of an entire class of elements, how Marie Curie would get into trouble by dragging her (male) colleagues into dark closets to show them how radium glowed, how nitrogen kills with kindness and lithium quiets an unsettled mind. The competition to not only find these elements but to name them and find uses for them has driven science forward in all fields, from geology to neurology, for the last two hundred years. Those 118 squares on the periodic table have driven men to travel the world, to create economic and political empires, to love, to hate, and to murder.

If this kind of thing were taught in high school chemistry class, there would probably be a lot more kids interested in science as a career.

A quantum jump is exactly like this, except in that it's nothing like this. Not even remotely. But otherwise, yes.

The book is very readable, even if it does drift from time to time into more technical areas. One of my colleagues, who doesn’t have an extensive background in science, said she was a little slowed down by talk of electron shells and quantum jumps, which I guess were not aided by Kean’s elevator similes. But it did get her asking the right questions – how do we know atoms exist if we can’t see them? How can we be sure that what is in this book is true?

Those are the questions that Kean tries to answer in the book, but it’s also the kind of book that may bring up more questions. It’s “gateway science,” one of those books that pulls away the cold, rational veneer of the scientist and his or her endeavors, and shows what an exciting, weird, messy and dramatic place science can be. What’s more, it shows how science is deeply ingrained not only into our technology, but our language, history and politics. An understanding of science, even at an amateur level, is a wonderful way to open your eyes to the great, complex and bizarre world in which we live.

“We eat and breathe the periodic table; people bet and lose huge sums on it; philosophers use it to probe the meaning of science; it poisons people; it spawns wars. Between hydrogen at the top left and the man-made impossibilities lurking along the bottom, you can find bubbles, bombs, money, alchemy, petty politics, history, poison, crime, and love. Even some science.”
– Sam Kean, The Disappearing Spoon

[1] The town has the distinct honor of having four elements named after it: yttrium (Y), ytterbium (Yb), terbium (Tb), and erbium (Er). What has your hometown got?


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Review 166: Sex at Dawn

Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

Hey! Hey, baby, baby, waitwaitwaitwait. Wait. Wait! Baby, don’t… don’t freak out

Okay, okay, I know what this looks like, but I can explain! Quiet, Chad, let me handle this. I can explain! I’m just – please, stop crying and listen – I’m just fulfilling my evolutionary heritage and helping to cement social bonds with… um… the pizza boy, but that’snotthepoint!! That’s not the point! Look, before you do anything, y’know, drastic, you just need to read this book….

Image from - buy their stuff.

Humans are really good at figuring things out. As far as we go, we have a real knack for taking things apart and figuring out how they work. Though determined curiosity and perseverance, we know what’s happening at the center of the sun, we know how the continents slide across the surface of the earth, how plants turn sunlight into potatoes. We can smash atoms and cure disease and peer back to the moment of creation itself. There is almost nothing that humans cannot comprehend if we put our minds to it.

Except ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong – we have made great strides in philosophy and psychology, and come very far in understanding human origins and our spread across the planet. But there is a fundamental problem that we have when we study ourselves, and that is that we cannot do so objectively. Try as we might, it is impossible to completely put aside our own biases, judgments and backgrounds when we study how humans behave and try to understand why they do what they do. They are still there, if you look for them, and nowhere are they more evident than in the search for the origins or foundations of human sexuality.

The standard model, as it’s often called, goes something like this: ancient men and women established a pattern of monogamy based on mutual self-interest. The man would keep to one mate in order to be absolutely sure that he was dedicating his efforts towards raising his own kids and not someone else’s. If a man had multiple partners, he wouldn’t be able to provide for them all, and his genetic investment would die out. So, in terms of efficiency, it is much better for the man to keep himself to one woman, focusing all his attention on the children he knows he has fathered and making sure they live to have children of their own.

Not all women need the protection of a man, however.

As far as women are concerned, they require the resources that the men bring. When pregnant, a woman’s physical capacities are reduced and she is in a vulnerable state, so by staying monogamous, she is essentially purchasing security and resources that would otherwise be unavailable to her in a world that brought quick and merciless death. If she slept around, the man wouldn’t be sure that the child she bore was his, and would therefore have less interest in taking care of the both of them. Thus, monogamy is the best bet to assure the survival of herself and her child.

This is the story that’s been told for a long time, and it’s considered by most to be the truth. Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, however, disagree. Not only do they think the standard model is wrong, but they think it is nothing more than a relic of our own modern biases and hang-ups. The process, they say, can be referred to as “Flintstonization.”

As you know, the characters in “The Flintstones” were more or less just like us. They went to work, they had houses and appliances and domestic disputes. They had the same issues and amusements as we did, because we overlaid our own society onto a prehistoric setting. Now in cartoons, that’s good entertainment, and in the right hands it can be used as powerful satire and commentary. In science, though, it’s just no good.


Starting with Darwin, people have imagined prehistoric humans to have the same sexual values that we have: a demure, reluctant female who is very choosy in deciding which male she will mate with. A bond forms, and they are faithful to each other until the end of their days. Later researchers, looking at our ape cousins, have plenty of observational research to support the idea that very early humans were monogamous. They look at chimps and gorillas and baboons and confirm what they had always suspected – that our natural sexual state is one of monogamy.

The logical conclusion, then, is that our modern attitude towards sexuality, with the rising rates of divorce and teen sexuality, represents a deviation from the way things “should” be, and must therefore be fixed. A loveless marriage, a man’s roving eye, a woman who cuckolds her husband, serial monogamists, all of these, according to the standard model, result from our attempts to go against our nature.

Or is it the other way around?

Ryan and Jetha have put together a very compelling argument that the standard model of pre-agricultural human sexuality is not only wrong, but dangerously so. By looking at modern foraging tribes and the way they live, as well as doing a comparative analysis of humans against our nearest ape cousins, they have come to this conclusion: our “natural” sexual state is one of promiscuity. Back in the day, communities were small and tightly bonded, and sex was one of the things that held those bonds tight. Rather than one man and one woman struggling to protect their own genetic line, their entire community made sure that children were cared for and raised well. Everyone was everyone else’s responsibility, and in a world of plenty there was no reason to try and enforce any kind of sexual exclusivity.


It was only with the rise of agriculture that it became important to know what was yours, as opposed to someone else’s, and that quickly extended from fields and livestock to wives and children. Now that people were keeping their own food and making sure to divide their lands from their neighbor’s lands, sharing went out of style. With so much work put into growing crops, that’s where the standard model of economic monogamy settled in, and it’s been with us ever since. The advent of agriculture changed everything, and not everything for the better.

In addition, the very biology of humans, from the way sperm behaves to the shape of the penis, to the anatomy of the clitoris to the noises women make in the throes of orgasm – all of these point to an evolutionary history of sexual promiscuity. The evidence of our bodies tell us that being locked into a lifetime monogamous pair-bond is not what we evolved to do.

Ryan and Jetha know that their view of the fundamental nature of human sexuality will not be popular, mainly because it completely undermines our vision of who we are. So much law, tradition, education, entertainment and just plain common sense relies on humans being naturally monogamous. It’s something that seems so obvious to us that we cannot imagine a society built any other way. Unfortunately, if Ryan and Jetha are right, society is the problem. We have established a cultural norm that goes completely against our biological and evolutionary nature, and which makes people miserable on a daily basis.

I bought this book mainly to stop Dan Savage from nagging me about it. If you listen to Savage’s podcast – and you should – you will soon realize that monogamy is something that a lot of people aren’t good at. We look at other people with lust in our hearts, we cheat, we stay in relationships where we’re sexually miserable just because that’s what we “should” do. For most people, our sexual urges are to be fought against, with everything from self-restraint to social shame to law itself. It seems like staying monogamous is one of the hardest things for many people to do.

This, of course, raises the question: if it were natural, would it really be so hard?

My mother is a SAINT!!

It is a fascinating read, which covers a lot of ground and makes some very compelling arguments. It’s also quite funny in places, which was quite welcome. In discussing the standard model the authors note that this is, fundamentally, prostitution, wherein the woman uses sex for material resources. This sexual barter system has been assumed to be true for years, leading the authors to write, “Darwin says your mother’s a whore. Simple as that.” They also put in some special notes for adventurous grad students in the field of sexual research (especially genital to genital rubbing, something popular in bonobo apes, but which is rarely studied in humans) and re-titling the extremely popular song “When A Man Loves a Woman” as “When a Man Becomes Pathologically Obsessed and Sacrifices All Self-Respect and Dignity by Making a Complete Ass of Himself (and Losing the Woman Anyway Because Really, Who Wants a Boyfriend Who Sleeps Out in the Rain Because Someone Told Him To?)”

I don’t really know what can be made of the serious information proposed in this book. No matter how it may seem, the authors are not proposing a dissolution of marriage or compulsory orgies or anything like that, nor is this book a “Get Out of Cheating Free” card. We’ve spent thousands of years putting these restraints on human sexuality, and they’re not going to come off anytime soon. The best we can do right now is to be aware of where our ideas about relationships come from, and stop to think about the difference between what is true and what we wish were true. This understanding might help to save relationships that would otherwise fail. People cheat not because they’re scum or whores, but because they’re human. Being monogamous is really hard not because we’re weak or flawed, but because it’s not what our bodies want for us.

The search for a better understanding of human nature should lead us to being better humans, and nothing should be left out. Not even our most sacred beliefs. Not even sex.

“Asking whether our species is naturally peaceful or warlike, generous or possessive, free-loving or jealous, is like asking whether H2O is naturally a solid, liquid or gas. The only meaningful answer to such a question is: It depends.”
– Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, Sex at Dawn

Okay? Okay, baby? So you see, I wasn’t really cheating – okay, I was, but you can see why, right? I was just acting in accordance with my fundamental humanity, following the biological impulses as determined by millions of years of evolution when we… Hey, where are you going? Where are you? Oh, hell, he’s going for the shotgun. Run, Chad, leave your pants, you don’t have time, run!

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Review 157: The Elements

The Elements by Theodore Gray

When I was a kid, my father had the entire Time/Life science series. For you young whippersnappers, Time/Life books were educational series that covered all kinds of topics – history, science, literature, you name it. The idea was that you sign up and they send you books, once a month, until the series was finished or you decided you no longer wanted to receive it.

The Science series focused on, of course, science, with books devoted to every facet of physics, medicine, chemistry, biology…. It was a fantastic compendium of human knowledge in those pre-internet days, and I just loved it. I learned about how traveling at lightspeed squashes things by reading a story about spies chasing each other on the Lightspeed Express. I learned about how different drugs affect the mind and body. I learned about how important the wheel was, what water could do, and how the food we eat determines almost everything about our lives.

My favorite volume of all of them was titled Matter, and it was about all the stuff there is. At the center of it was a pictorial representation of all the elements known to science in 1968. Everything from Hydrogen to Uranium and beyond. I could pore over those pages for hours, amazed by the idea that these things were all there was, made up everything around me. Learning that just six of them (Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Calcium and Phosphorus) made up most of, well, me was just mind-bending.

I don’t know where that book is now – probably in a box at my mother’s house – but the effect that it had on me has lasted ever since my childhood. In fact, as I was researching this review, I found the place that sells coins stamped from elemental metals and got completely distracted by the struggle to not buy any of them. So that’s how Time/Life made me into a science nerd. Nevertheless, I was thrilled when I saw this book, and had to snap it up as soon as I could. It cost a whole lot less than a 1/10 troy ounce Rhodium coin

Theodore Gray is an element hunter – something I didn’t even know existed when I was a kid. He has made a hobby of trying to collect samples of every element that is is possible to (legally) own, and he’s even built a special table to hold them all. A periodic table, as it were, which won him the IgNobel Prize in Chemistry in 2002. He and Nick Mann went through the collection to make outstanding, high-quality photographs and compile them into a fantastic book about “everything you can drop on your foot.”

My old chemistry teacher would have had these all over the classroom, I'm sure...

It starts, of course, with a basic rundown of what an element is – a substance made of only one type of atom – and what the Periodic Table is – an organization of the elements by their common properties. There’s also a page explaining the physics behind the shape of the table, what an “electron filling order” is, and why the atomic emission spectrum is so important. Fortunately for us non-professionals, he does this is a way that is amusing and understandable. Gray knows that his audience isn’t professional chemists or grad students – it’s people like me. People who are fans of science, but who, for one reason or another, never got into the real nitty-gritty of it. All of this means that it’s a book you can enjoy even if you remember nothing from high school chemistry other than “BIFF=WANG.” [1]

The book starts, of course, at hydrogen, the element that makes the sun burn (“Even at night,” alleges the author, but I’ll believe that when I see it) and ends with Ununoctium, which will no doubt get a proper name once those crazy kids in the high-energy physics lab get around to assembling it. It includes the spectre of the modern age, Uranium, and its evil twin Plutonium. There’s Carbon, without which none of us would be here, and Arsenic, which does a fine job of seeing to it that we cease to be. There’s Iron, which we use in abundance, and Dysprosium, which has almost no uses that you’ve ever heard of. Cesium tells us what time it is, and Krypton, which used to tell us how long things were (before we figured out the speed of light.) Strontium and Calcium, Sodium and Americium, Gold, Silver, Copper and Lead – every element is in here, waiting for you.

All the kids in the playground called me mad - MAD!!!

They’re accompanied by wonderful photographs that illustrate the applications of each element, as well as diagrams showing its emission spectrum, crystal structure, and other information that you may or may not be interested in. Regardless of how much you know about chemistry, you should find this to be a fascinating and enjoyable book. Moreover, if you have kids and you want them to be exposed to science in a way that engages their fascination and imagination, then this is the book for you. Just be ready to raise a science nerd, and if they ask for an elemental coin for their birthday, remember – Lead isn’t just for toys anymore!

“When you throw a large enough lump of sodium into a lake, the result is a huge explosion a few seconds later. Depending on whether you took the right precautions, this is either a thrilling and beautiful experience or the end of your life as you have known it when molten sodium sprays into your eyes, permanently blinding you. Chemistry is a bit like that: powerful enough to do great things in the world, but also dangerous enough to do terrible things just as easily. If you don’t respect it, chemistry bites.”
– Theodore Gray, The Elements

[1] Thanks, Mr. Hiza!

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Review 154: :59 Seconds

:59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman

(If you want, I’ll give you one marshmallow now. If you read through the whole review, however, I’ll give you two. Ready? Let’s go!)

Do you have problems? Of course you have problems. We all have problems. Maybe you want to land a new job, or lose weight or finish a project you’re working on. Maybe you find that you procrastinate too much, or you don’t get along with people, or you can’t be creative. Maybe you just want to be happy, you poor, sad little person.

These are the kinds of problems that have spawned an entire industry of books – the Self Help genre. Go to your local bookstore and look around. There are countless books that tell you how you can make yourself better through positive thinking, creative visualization, listening to Mozart or joining up with groups. They’ll tell you that if you want to find romance, you should look for an opposite, you should play hard to get, or you should plan a perfectly romantic evening. They’ll cite ancient wisdom or have countless testimonials from people who have tried their methods, and almost all of them have one thing in common: they don’t work.

The self-help genre rests on a foundation of common sense ideas, things that sound like they should work, rather than an understanding of how the human mind actually does work. Often, much to our chagrin, our minds don’t follow the rules, and we fail. Take positive thinking, for example. The general gist of positive thinking is that you should never allow a negative thought to enter your mind. If one pops up, just push it away and focus on the positive.

Quick experiment: I want you, for the next minute, to not – I repeat not – think of a pink hippopotamus. Ready? GO!

(Waiting… waiting… waiting…)

How’d you do? I don’t know about you, but my pink hippo is rather contentedly sitting on my sofa right now. The fact is, the more we try not to think of something, the harder it is to not think about it. You then end up obsessing over the thing you’re trying not to think of, which is what you were trying to avoid in the first place!

It’s an idea that sounds like it should work, but it doesn’t, and that’s what Wiseman has collected in this book. Wiseman is a psychologist from the UK, and he has a particular interest not only in the science of self-help, but also magic, optical illusions and the paranormal. In other words, he’s very good at knowing how we humans fool ourselves. And boy, do we know how to fool ourselves.

We want to believe that humans are rational creatures, intelligently designed evolved to make the best decisions. We spent years studying the world around us, trying to figure out how to motivate ourselves and others, and operating under the assumption that we know what our brains are doing at any given time. Problem is, we don’t. We have no idea what our brains are doing while we’re trying to get things done. The good news is that there’s are entire branches of psychology that are doing their damndest to figure it out. Wiseman combed through the literature, looking at scientific studies on human psychology and behavior to try and find simple, clear and effective ways of making your life better. The bonus is that many of these things can be done in under a minute.

Some of the things he presents are so simple that you don’t want to believe they’d work. For example, do you want to be a little more cheerful, to have a brighter outlook on life and be generally more pleasant to be around? Go get a pencil and hold it with your teeth, making sure your lips don’t touch the pencil. Your mouth will basically be making a grin, which will have a positive impact on your mood. Seriously. While you’re at it, sit up straight, use more expressive gestures when you talk, and try to use a wider range of pitch in your speech. Your body and mind are hooked up in such a way that your body can tell your mind what it’s feeling. So if you have a grin on your face, and you’re talking in an animated and upbeat way, your brain will think, “Well, these are all physical conditions that are associated with happiness, so… I guess I must be happy.”

You can use the same trick on a first date. Instead of a nice, placid picnic in the park or a boat ride on the river, go to an amusement park and hit the roller coaster together. The fear and excitement will make your date’s heart beat faster, breathe harder, and generally be more excited. These are also physical reactions to being attracted to someone, and your brain really can’t tell the difference very well. It feels your heart pounding, your blood rushing, your adrenaline flowing, and it thinks, “Huh. I guess I must really like this person.” So, once you get off that ride, you have a little window of opportunity to increase the attraction you have for each other.

Now let’s say you’re angry about something. I mean, you’re hitting George Constanza levels here, and all you want to do is just hit something. There is a way of thinking that says you should go hit your pillow. Or go to the gym and do some work on the heavy bag, punching your anger away. If you live far enough away from others, maybe you could do some primal screaming or something. It makes sense, right? You have to let your anger out somewhere, right?

Wrong. Studies have shown that kicking and screaming and beating up your pillow will make you more aggressive and irritable, not less. It’s like trying to put out a fire with a bucket of gasoline. What you should do, then, is to look for the benefits to your experience. Researchers asked subjects to think about a painful and unpleasant incident in their lives and to focus on their anger. Another group was asked to instead focus on the benefits – they had learned an important lesson, had become an emotionally stronger person, or had otherwise changed for the better. When questioned later, the second group turned out to be much less angry than the first, and to be more likely to forgive the person who had hurt them.

Okay, one more – you want to be creative, right? We all want that. So, should you brainstorm with your colleagues? Focus on the creative task at hand? Listen to Mozart? No, no and no, although there’s really never any reason not to listen to Mozart. Again, research has shown that people tend to work less hard in groups than they do on their own. Being in a group makes you lazier, so if you want to get good ideas from a whole bunch of people, have them work alone first. You’ll get more and better ideas that way. As for focusing on the problem at hand, other studies have shown that the best thing to do is to distract yourself with something totally unrelated so that your unconscious mind can get some work done. Work on a puzzle, draw a picture, think of a hundred ways to use a brick – anything but the problem you’re trying to solve. Then, when you come back to the problem, you’re more likely to generate better ideas.

As for the Mozart, it turns out that listening to Mozart does make you slightly more creative and intelligent…. for about fifteen minutes. Neither you nor your baby will become a genius if you listen to Wolfie’s music every day. What’s actually more effective is modern art – especially art that breaks our expectations. In one study, two groups were given a creativity task. One was seated in a room with a large print that featured twelve dark green crosses on a light green background. The other had almost an identical picture, except that one of the crosses was yellow, and they came up with the more creative ideas. Why should this be? The idea is that the impression of unconventionality, of a pattern being broken, may be enough to stimulate our own creativity. Now it won’t turn you into DaVinci or anything like that, but it should help at least a little.

And that’s what this book is – lots of little ideas that are designed to help you out. Put a mirror in your kitchen, put a baby photograph in your wallet, buy small gifts for no reason. Put a plant on your desk, start keeping a journal, and don’t praise your kids for how clever they are – praise them for the work they’ve done. Everything Wiseman puts in this book is a small thing, a little effort, but when put together they add up.

Even if you don’t really need a lot of alteration to your life – maybe you’re as happy as happy can be – it’s still a fascinating look into how our minds work, and the different ways that they can be hacked.

(Good work! Here are your marshmallows!)

“Now if you take part in a study and the researchers explain that they need your telephone number in case of a hard-disk failure, they are up to something.”
– Richard Wiseman, :59 Seconds

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Review 139: The Science of Fear

The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner

Imagine, for a moment, one of our early human ancestors. A first-generation Homo sapiens, exploring his world with an amazing brain that would be the envy of the animal kingdom. If they understood envy. He, and his children, and their children and grandchildren will spread across the Earth as hunter-gatherers, the first beings (so far as we know) who can look at the world and attempt to pass on what it knows and learns. Their threats were simple: survive or don’t. Find food or starve. Hunt or be hunted. And those fantastic brains did such a bang-up job that their descendants are still walking around, thousands of generations later.

Now, take that Paleolithic man – swift of foot, sharp of eye, strong of hand – and drop him in the middle of modern-day Times Square. And, as his minder, give him a bored, easily distracted teenager – one who knows the world, but can’t be bothered to do the work to make decisions.

We are all of us Captain Caveman.

Congratulations. According to Daniel Gardner, we have just constructed a fine metaphor for how the human brain works. Part of it is very old, able to make decisions in an instant based on the slimmest of clues. The other is newer, more rational and savvy, able to put together reasoned, logical arguments, but doesn’t have the sheer speed and force that is prehistoric partner has. And as much as we want it to be true that the rational, modern part of our mind is in charge,the sad fact is that out inner caveman has far more influence over us than we care to admit.

Gardner begins the book with an interesting story about the most terrifying thing to happen in the last decade – the attacks of September 11th in the United States. By the time the towers fell, people around the world were watching, and anyone who didn’t see it live would surely see it soon enough as it was replayed over and over again. It was truly terrifying to watch, unlike anything Americans had seen before in their country, and it scared the ever-loving hell out of people. Many people, as a result, chose to forgo air travel in favor of driving.

Now, as Superman famously told Lois Lane, flying is statistically the safest way to travel. In fact, the most dangerous part of any trip that involves flying is usually the drive to the airport. But, in those days and months after the attacks, people were scared to fly. So they drove instead. And, according to a five year study of traffic fatalities in the U. S. after 9/11 by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, 1,595 people died on the roads who otherwise would not have.

They were afraid, and that’s understandable. But they were afraid of the wrong thing. So they died.

Gardner sets out in this book to figure out why it is that people in the healthiest, safest, most prosperous nations on Earth – in the healthiest, safest, most prosperous era of human history – live in a state of near-constant fear.

As long as he doesn't insist on eating children halal, I don't care...

A lot of it, as the intro implies, comes down to the fact that our brains, which evolved over millions of years to be very good at judging risks that might be found on the savannah, are simply not prepared to do the same in a modern technological world. Our brains can’t tell the difference between risk in fiction and reality, between something that happened to us and something we saw on the news. When it comes to risk, our brains play it very safe, which is great out in nature. Is that shadow in the bushes a tiger? Maybe, maybe not, but either way it’s probably a good idea to get the hell away from it. We can’t say the same thing of that guy sitting on the bus who looks like maybe he might be a Muslim.

We also tend to assume that if we’ve heard of something recently, then it must be more common. Again if you’re out in nature and you saw a bear yesterday, there’s a decent chance that the bear is still around today and you might want to be wary of that. But what if you see constant news coverage of a high-profile child abduction? It’s on every show, being talked about on every blog – does that mean that the chance of your child being abducted has increased? Of course not, but your brain doesn’t see it that way. Your brain thinks that your child will be taken from you the moment you look away, and all the reasoning in the world won’t change its mind.

One more thing: we don’t get numbers. The news tells us that the rate of certain risks is up by 10%, but they don’t tell us what the original figure was. We hear about millions of starving children in Africa, but don’t do anything unless we get a personal story of one. We don’t understand probability at all, we can’t deal with randomness, and this lack of innate numeracy (compounded by an educational culture that makes it hard to teach kids to become numerate) costs us billions. Or more, as the recent economic Clusterthing has shown, when you have people who are good with numbers deliberately exploiting this flaw in order to profit.

Numeracy is also useful for getting certain kinds of jokes.

We think that correlation equals causation. We believe stories over facts. We think we don’t have biases that we clearly possess. We assign high risk to things we don’t like and low risk to things we do, regardless of how risky they actually are. And on top of all that, we know how to exploit others’ fears in order to gain money and power for ourselves. It’s easy to do, and it works like a charm.

Reading this book won’t make you into a magically unflappable person, mainly because all of this stuff is pretty well hard-wired in our brains. Even Gardner, who should have known better, tells a story about hunting through the slums of Lagos in the middle of the night to retrieve a photo of his children from the wallet that had been stolen from him. He had plenty more, but at that moment, his brain was convinced that losing the photo meant losing his children. Irrational, yes, and it nearly got him killed, but that’s just one example of what a powerful force this primitive brain is.

Never overlook an opportunity for a Green Lantern reference.

The good news, though, is that you can strengthen the newer, more recent brain – the lazy teenager from the initial example. By knowing how you make mistakes, how you can be fooled into fearing things that you don’t need to fear, you can better understand your own reactions to events and make better decisions. You can educate yourself about the things that are actually dangerous, and stop losing sleep over the things that are not a threat. Being afraid is not your fault – it’s an ingrained biological feature. Staying afraid, on the other hand, is something over which you have control. With enough will power, even you can overcome great fear.

Sorry. Nerd moment there.

Are there terrorists who want to destroy the United States? Sure. But they won’t, because doing so is indescribably harder than certain politicians would have you believe. Are there creepy child molesters who want to abduct and defile your children? Yup. But the chances of that actually happening are so low that the odds of any specific child becoming such a victim are nil. Are there angry teens who want to come to their school and kill everyone they see? Of course. But when you look at the incidence of school shooting compared to how many kids go to school every day, you can see that the odds of your children being caught in a school shooting are slim to none. In fact, there are many parts of the country where your children are probably safer in school than out of it.

There are real risks in our modern world, but they’re not spectacular and they’re not viscerally terrifying. A car accident, a heart attack, a diabetic death – these things don’t make the news. Imagine a 9/11-style attack happening every three days, 3,000 dead each time. It would be an outrage, a national disgrace, and people would be scared to their bones. But it would take just about 233 attacks to equal the number of deaths in 2001 that occurred from cardiovascular disease in the United States.

The nearly nonexistent chance of being killed by terrorists is enough to get people to submit to any number of indignities and intrusions on their persons and liberties when they travel, but the very real risk of death from a heart attack isn’t enough to get people to go take a walk once in a while or stop eating junk food. So enjoy that delicious moment of irony the next time you go through the TSA molest-a-thon and get a seriously overweight screener taking liberties with your person.

The fact is that we have it damn good compared to our ancestors. We live longer, we live better, even in parts of the world that are still developing, and it looks like the future will progress that way. But we still insist on needing to be afraid, even as we have less and less to actually fear. So put down the newspaper, turn off the 24-hour news, and take some time to figure out what is actually a threat. Give that bored teenager something to do with his time and let the caveman go back to his cave.


You don't see a lot of these anymore. There's a reason for that. (photo by Steve Cornelius on Flickr)

“Anyone who has spent time in a Victorian cemetery knows that gratitude, not fear, should be the defining feeling of our age. And yet it is fear that defines us. We worry. We cringe. It seems the less we have to fear, the more we fear.”
– Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear

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Review 132: Cosmos

Cosmos by Carl Sagan

If you’ve known me for more than a little while, you know that one of my great loves in this world is science. Even though I tend to get stymied by the math, and I probably couldn’t call up all the right data from my head at the right time, it is the idea of science and the stories of science that truly interest me. Just the fact that we live in a universe where it is possible to know how things work, where we can devise a way to look at the whole of creation, from things so large that they defy imagination to things so small that they can barely be said to exist at all. Science is imagination put into practice against the universe, and as much fun as stories and myths are, as hope and prayers may be, science is the best, most reliable way for us to come to grips with the Cosmos.

It is to Carl Sagan that I owe this love of what humans have done with ourselves.

Go ahead. Stare at this for a while.

When I was a kid, my father had a copy of Cosmos, and, since I was but a child, I never really read it. I tended more to flip through it for the interesting pictures – the speculative Jovian life forms on pages 42 and 43, the Viking photos of Mars in chapter 5, the gorgeous paintings of the views from other worlds around other stars, the photos of nebulae and galaxies, all of these things fascinated me, and if I had been a bit more patient I would have found out about them. But I was a kid, so that can be excused. What the book did for me was to open my mind to a universe of possibilities that were all within our reach, or at least would be someday.

As I got older, I saw the TV miniseries of the same name on PBS. Now the pictures that I had lingered over in the book were right before me, accompanied by Sagan’s soothing baritone. His ship of the imagination somehow managed to take us unfathomable distances from our home and bring us back again. He talked to his viewers like we were intelligent adults, fully capable of understanding and appreciating the vast scope of scientific discovery rather than a bunch of attention-deficit teenagers who couldn’t be trusted to keep watching without a jump-cut every ten seconds. Carl Sagan believed, despite the occasional evidence to the contrary, that human beings were capable of overcoming our barbaric pasts and forging a bright new future together in the stars.

The purpose of Cosmos, both the book and the TV show, was to educate. It was, as Sagan put it, “to engage the heart as well as the mind,” perhaps to help shed the image of science as a cold and passionless pursuit. He wanted to show how science became what is is, from the ancient scientist/philosophers in Ionia and Alexandria all the way up to the engineers and astronauts working at NASA. It’s all part of a long chain of knowledge that ties human history together and which engages one of our deepest desires: to know how the universe works.

Go ahead, do this one yourself. We'll wait.

Each chapter focuses on a different theme of knowledge – from the way the planets form and what they’re like to the nature of the furthest reaches of space. He starts with how Eratosthenes measured the world with just a shadow and some math, and how the ancient thinkers of Alexandria were asking the same questions about the nature of the Earth that we ask today. He follows the tortured path of Johannes Kepler in his quest to understand how the planets move, the arrogant brilliance of Newton as he completely redefined the clockwork of the cosmos, and the casual miracle that Einstein pulled off when he told us that not only are we not the center of the universe but that there is no center. Each great mind led to another.

Unfortunately, each setback cost us what may be valuable time. For all his wonderment, Sagan understood how petty and ignorant human beings could be. From the beginning, and at various points in the book, he reminds us of the millennium we lost with the destruction and corruption of the ancient thinkers of the Mediterranean. As far as we can tell, the men and women who made their home in Alexandria were investigating questions and scientific problems that would have changed the way we understand the world. If the library hadn’t been burned down, if religious terror hadn’t murdered scientific insight, who knows where we would be today? It’s impossible to know, but it’s tempting to think that we might have been well on our way to the stars by now.

My brother gave me this poster. He knows me so well...

The latter chapters underscore that theme pretty heavily, reminding us over and over again that we have one world, and only one world. Not only does Sagan fear that we could obliterate ourselves with the nuclear weapons we love and fear so much, but he also fears that self-annihilation may be a natural outcome to any intelligent civilization. Our search for intelligent life on other worlds may be fruitless, because they might be just as self-destructive as we are.

But we don’t know. We can’t know, at least not yet. Our understanding of the universe is still not clear enough, our technology is still not good enough, and perhaps it never will be. But for all our stumbles and failures, Sagan wants us to remember and understand just how much humanity is capable of, and how good we could be if we really put our minds to it. And in that sense, there is a lot of value to reading it now, thirty years after it was published.

A glorious dawn indeed....

While we have not eliminated nuclear weapons, we have made great strides towards controlling them and reducing their numbers. The hopes that Sagan had for future space exploration – Mars rovers, a probe to Titan, contact with comets – have all been made real, and with outstanding results. We know that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor impact – something that Sagan is clearly unsure of at the time of writing. We have mapped the human genome and developed personal computers that have revolutionized the way we explore space. With the internet, any person on earth can catalog galaxies or explore the moon, there have been advances in nanotechnology and materials and bioengineering and evolution that would have made even Sagan’s eyes pop.

Despite all our flaws, we continue to advance. We continue to build knowledge upon knowledge and to further our understanding of how the universe works. Maybe we will one day leave this planet ourselves, perhaps just for a visit or perhaps to start a new world. Maybe if we persist in our quest to comprehend the world we live in, to shut out the howling and screaming of the voices of unreason, we can make the world a better place for generations to come.

Maybe we should all just have some pie. How much time do you have? (photo by Nicole)

In the great argument that is raging these days between the rationalists and the believers, the faithful and the atheists, it has become fashionable to try and shout the other side down. To adopt a position that excludes compromise and promises only defeat for one side or another. Sagan never would have wanted that, and I think he hit upon a solution that needs to be revisited.

Rather than try to turn people to science through cold logic or heated words, through derision and coercion and fear, do as Sagan did: win them over with wonder. The cosmos is too big, and there is too much to know to waste our time with petty arguments and pointless feuds. If you want people to appreciate science, turn to people like Sagan, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, Phil Plait, Mary Roach, Michio Kaku, Ann Druyan, Bill Nye, Adam Savage, or Dava Sobel – people whose enthusiasm and love of science will instill people with wonder, one person at a time. And it is in that way that we will go furthest towards ensuring humanity’s place among the stars.

“Every one of us is precious in the cosmic perspective. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
– Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Carl Sagan on Wikipedia
Cosmos on Wikipedia
The Carl Sagan Portal (music plays when you open it, just FYI….)
Cosmos on

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Filed under astronomy, astrophysics, Carl Sagan, evolution, made into movies, nonfiction, science

Review 131: The Earth

The Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey

Is it possible for a book to be utterly fascinating and yet, at the same time, a perfect cure for insomnia? I never would have thought so, until I read this one.

That does sound horribly contradictory, and yet it is true. Reading this book, I found myself drawn in by the power of Fortey’s words and this obvious enthusiasm for the subject. He’s a paleontologist by trade, but his era of expertise goes so far back that it’s practically geology anyway. And geology is what this book is all about.

There are those who believe that there are forces beyond our ken that shape our lives. Some believe that the universe itself is alive, filled to the brim with some kind of formless substance that wants us to have what we want. Others attribute great influence to the motion of non-terrestrial planets – just recently I saw a warning the Mercury was in retrograde, and that such apparent motion would spell disaster in communications-related endeavors. Other people believe there are gods, or ghosts, or fairies whose wishes and whims have decided who we are and who we will be. But Fortey knows what’s really going on.

Not this guy, no. But close. (photo by Jenn and Tony Bot on Flickr)

Fortey knows it’s the rocks.

Not just the garden-variety ones you pick up in your garden, no – the real rocks. The gneiss and the schist and the granite, the great, lumbering tectonic plates, relentless in their motion across the face of the Earth, carrying the continents on their backs. The churning, unknowable mantle that holds it all up, revealing only the tiniest glimpses of itself through the effluvium of volcanoes. The Earth tells us who we are and who we will be, for it is the motions of the Earth that made our world what it is. It gave shape to the continents, it has raised and lowered mountains, created and unmade deserts a hundred times over. The rich and fertile fields in which we grow our crops, the barren wastelands that we avoid because we know that they are places where we do not belong – all of those were created by the engine of plate tectonics. Billions of years of relentless motion, of continents smashing into each other, coming apart and then colliding again, have conspired to create the thin, almost evanescent period of time in which we live. And it will continue, long after we are gone, without ever having bothered to notice that we are here.

If these boulders could talk... Man, I'd be really freaked out.

This book is humbling, to say the least. When you think that the Appalachians used to be mountains that rivaled the Alps and the Himalayas, that they were the product of not the most recent supercontinent, Gondwana, nor the one before that, Laurasia. The gentle, rolling hills of the Appalachians, along which thousands of summer and weekend hikers travel, were born three hundred million years ago in the creation of Pangaea. Time, wind and rain wore them down to what they are today, but they stand as evidence of Earth’s deep history. Though not quite as old as the Grenville rocks of Central Park, remnants of mountains formed a billion years ago, before life was more than a thin film of algae on a hypoxic sea.

Fortey writes well. It’s hard to overstate how important that is when considering a book meant for the general audience. Not only can you tell that he obviously loves his subject, but you can see that he is a good and devoted writer, who spent a great deal of time thinking of ways to communicate the literally unthinkable amount of time necessary for the motions of the Earth to have put things where they are today. Geologic events are slow and hard to picture in our minds eyes, but he tries. He tries to get into your head the vast temperatures and pressures that operate just a few miles below where we sit right now, and the utterly alien environment they create. He brings to life the arguments and battles that went on between geologists who tried their best over centuries to untangle the folded and twisted stories of the rocks and figure out how they came to be the way they were. The story that Fortey is telling is four and a half billion years in the making, a timespan that we simple humans cannot truly grasp.

I got your mystical geology right here.... (photo by mtsrs on Flickr)

And he does have an excellent way of phrasing his points. In talking about the hot springs of Italy in which the ancient Romans lounged, he says, “These springs were the exhalations of the magmatic unconscious.” In reminding us that the movements of the Earth determine where we can live, what animals we can raise and what crops we can grow, he says, “The geological Unconscious cannot be denied, for it still guides the way we use the land, and rules the plough. We are all in thrall to the underworld.” Finally, in a phrase that evoked Sagan in my mind’s ear, he says, “In this way, the depths intercede in our superficial lives: there are unseen and unbidden forces, as indifferent to the fate of the sentient organisms living above them as the distant stars.” The man has a way with words, that much is for sure.

For all that this is the story of our world and, therefore, ourselves, it is a hard book to keep up with. Indeed, I found myself nodding off more than once, no matter that I wanted to keep reading about the manner in which the Colorado River cut through the ever-rising plateau through which it coursed. The book, I believe, skirts the edge of Popular Science and Specialist Science. Fortey doesn’t skimp on the technical language, and seems to be talking to an audience that already has a pretty good grasp on the terminology and concepts of geology. The readers that he’s after in this book are the ones who used to be called “rock hounds” when they were kids, and who know a gneiss from a granite. Which I, technically speaking, do not.

This was not me as a kid. (photo by woodleywonderworks on Flickr)

While I do love science, and find the whole history of plate tectonics fascinating, I never got into geology as deeply as I did other sciences. And that’s not to say that I never will – if anything, this book made me look more closely at the rocks I see around me and wonder at their provenance. The granite facing of buildings all the way to the simple sand of a baseball field – they’re all ancient in different ways and have fascinating stories. When I read the book, though, I was lacking in a certain entry-level understanding of the science, and that was probably what made it such a tough book to get through.

So if you’re a rock hound, or know someone who is, pick up a copy of this book. If you like to break your brain thinking about the vast expanses of time required to make a planet on which Homo sapiens can be the species it always wanted to be, this is the book for you. If you are having trouble getting to sleep and you aren’t fond of using medication to send you off to slumberland, well… This book probably wouldn’t hurt.

“If you have just missed your train, you can at least lean on a bar that is 1500 million years old and reflect that perhaps half an hour is not that serious a delay.”
– Richard Fortey, speaking of a bar countertop in Paddington Station, The Earth: An Intimate History

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