Category Archives: science

Books about science.

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

All images in this post come from – go and give them money. They’ve earned it.
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Filed under nonfiction, psychology, Richard Wiseman, science, self-help

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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Filed under culture, Daniel Gardner, fear, media, nonfiction, psychology, science, security, society, terrorism, The United States

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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Filed under geology, nonfiction, Richard Fortey, science

Review 130: The Wave

The Wave by Susan Casey

Okay, I want you to do something for me. Close your eyes.

Wait. No, that won’t work. Open your eyes again.

Eyes open? Good. Now imagine you’ve closed your eyes, but don’t actually close them because that will rather impair your ability to read this review.

So, you’re imagining that your eyes are closed. Now imagine you’re on a cruise ship. It’s a lovely place – blue water, blue skies, the faint scent of salt in the air, the waves lapping up against the hull of the boat in a soothing rhythm. It’s a perfect way to spend a vacation.

You get a daiquiri and lean on the railing, looking out towards the horizon. This is nice, you think. Just what I –

Wait. What is that?

You shield your eyes from the sun to get a better look and see what looks for all the world like a shadow on the horizon, stretching long and with flecks of light shimmering off its top. As it gets closer, it gets bigger, and you can feel the boat drop under your feet. The water gets higher and higher, and you know this can’t possibly be happening because for the wave to be that high, it would have to be at least sixty or seventy feet. In thirty-five foot waters.

Hokusai wasn't kidding around....

A shadow is cast over the boat as the wave crests above you, and the last thing you think before the top comes down, shattering the cruise ship like it was made of so much balsa wood, is, “I wonder what it would be like to surf that….”

It has often been said that we know more about the surface of the moon than we know about our own oceans. I have no idea who first said it, or in what form it was said, but reading this book drives home that it is absolutely correct. What’s more, that ignorance may well kill us. The oceans are full of relentless mysteries and hypnotic beauty, but also terrors and dangers the likes of which we shorebound humans have trouble understanding. The sea has always been a dangerous place, really. We know that. What we don’t know is what all of those dangers are.

Tales of giant waves have been around since antiquity, but until recently, people didn’t really believe them. It defied everything that was known about the ocean – to say nothing of common sense – to have waves appear out of nowhere, rise to heights of up to a hundred feet or more, wreak havoc on oceangoing vessels, and then vanish. These were the tales of sailors, whom everyone knew could not be trusted to tell the truth about their journeys.

"First Mate! Fetch me my brown pants!" (photo by MyFram Expedition blog)

Perhaps that is why Casey chooses to open with a scene from a research vessel in the North Atlantic. The RRS Discovery was on a routine mission to gather data about the sea between the British Isles and Iceland when it found itself under attack by the ocean itself. The ship was hit over and over again by waves reaching up to sixty feet, then dropped down into the void between waves and lifted up again, over and over for five days. Things that weren’t bolted down flew in mad directions all over the ship, and many things that were bolted down – like lifeboats – were ripped off their moorings. It was so terrifying that the scientists on board, after they had gotten home, wrote one of the very few research papers that included a note at the end thanking the captain for bringing them back alive. Only great skill and good luck saved that ship from oblivion in waters that seemed to have risen up for the sole purpose of destroying it.

No one – no weather forecaster or meteorologist, oceanographer or climatologist – no one thought that waves of that size could exist under those conditions. And yet there they were, and the Discovery’s instruments captured it all.

Scientists who study the oceans are just beginning to understand how waves work on the ocean, but the almost infinite number of variables that contribute to making waves is so overwhelming that it’s hard to conclusively predict where and when these rogue waves will appear. Other people who work with the sea – salvage operators, ship captains, insurers – know that this kind of thing is possible, and that the sea carries risks with it that no other form of transportation faces. Every year, dozens of ships are lost, and with them go many lives and countless dollars worth of merchandise. Some of these losses come from human error, but others come because the ocean is an inherently dangerous place for us to be. It is vital for our safety and our economy that we know how the ocean works, but we are nowhere near being able to do that.

What’s worse, the onset of climate change could make current models obsolete as the seas become higher, rougher, and more unpredictable. We are racing against the clock – and losing.

But for all the scientists who are trying to map the behavior of waves, there is a community of people who seek them out. People who know the waves intimately, even if they can’t write an equation to tell you what it is they know, exactly. These people are the surfers, and if there was ever a group of people more attached and attuned to the sea, they’d have to be mermen.

To find this picture, just Google "Laird Hamilton" and "Oh my god"

Casey spends a lot of time with surfer Laird Hamilton. I wanted to say “the famous Laird Hamilton,” but I didn’t know the man existed until I read this book, which makes him one of those people who is very famous, but only to the kind of people who would find him famous. Now that I know more about him and his community, though, I can certainly understand why he has the prestige that he does. Among big-wave surfers, he is a legend. And that takes some doing.

To ride a regular wave, you see, you get out there with your board, get behind the point where the waves start to break, and paddle to catch up. With the big waves, though, they’re moving much too fast for a paddler to get into position, so the big-wave riders have someone on a jet ski to pull them along. Once in position, the jet ski goes down the back of the wave while the surfer heads down the front where, hopefully, he won’t be killed. If he falls off, his partner has to come in, find him, and get them both out before the next giant wave – and where there’s one wave there are always more – comes in to crush them both. Regular surfing has its share of dangers, but the perils of big-wave surfing are orders of magnitude worse.

There is a whole community of surfers looking to ride these great waves. They travel across the world on the mere possibility of great surfing, heading to places with names like Jaws, Mavericks, or Egypt, all in the hope of catching the biggest waves. Injuries are common, and sometimes terrible. Death is always an option. But they come anyway, just for that moment of zenlike awareness of the Eternal Now that you can only truly achieve when you’re riding down the face of a wave and trying not to die.

Bronze surfers are surprisingly successful. Just not at surfing. (photo by atomicity on Flickr)

I don’t like the ocean, myself. I find it too big, too impersonal. It’s a place that could swallow you whole and leave no trace you were ever there. It’s a place that cares nothing for us puny humans and will, on a whim, try to destroy us. I certainly appreciate the ocean and what it does for us, and it’s nice to look at. But I certainly don’t trust it, and this book really didn’t help in that regard. From tales of ships crushed by rogue waves south of Africa to waves so large and so powerful they could strip the bark off the trees they uprooted, it was a testament to the fact that the moment we underestimate the ocean is the moment it kills us.

What’s more, with climate change being what it is, our problems with the ocean are going to turn into new and different ones. The models we have now – good though they are – are incomplete, and the changes that are coming in the future will keep scientists on their toes for years to come. As Casey notes, wave science is a very young discipline, but it is one that needs attention if we’re going to safeguard our coastal cities and global commerce.

This book is an exciting read about a topic you’ve probably never given much thought to. You fear for both the surfers and the scientists, and in the end realize just how much there is about the ocean that we still don’t know. I don’t know about you, but it kind of freaks me out….

“If you can look at one of these waves and you don’t believe that there’s something greater than we are, then you’ve got some serious analyzing to do and you should go sit under a tree for a very long time.”
– Laird Hamilton

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Filed under climate change, disaster, environment, nonfiction, oceanography, oceans, surfing, survival, Susan Casey

Review 126: Supersense

Supersense by Bruce Hood

Like many of you who are reading this, I can’t throw books away. Even thinking about it makes me uncomfortable, so there is no way I could possibly hold a book over a garbage can and just let it drop. Ugh.

I don’t know why this should be, to be honest. I mean, they’re just books, right? Paper and ink that anyone can buy. And not even special books – first edition, author-signed, sold to me by my beloved grandmother on her deathbed.

NOOO!! Take it down, Jimmy, take it down!!

I would be hard-pressed to throw away even bad books. Mein Kampf, Dianetics, A Series of Unfortunate Events – I would save even these from the trashpile. Not because they’re worth reading, but because they’re books.

I’m not a squishy, sentimental man, either. I can tell dead baby jokes without flinching. I’ve participated in the burning of an American Flag. I’ve flipped off the White House (it was the Bush era – I couldn’t NOT flip it off), and if you give me a photo of the Pope, I’m pretty sure I can tear it up on live TV.

So what is it about these mass-produced blocks of paper that instills in me such reverence? This question is part of what Bruce Hood discusses in his book Supersense, appropriately subtitled, “Why we believe in the unbelievable.”

Hood is a psychologist by trade, and this book is an investigation into why we persistently believe in things for which we have no evidence. This can range from religious adherence and the firm belief in things like “holiness” and “sinfulness” all the way to haunted houses, superstitious behavior, and the belief that evil acts can somehow “taint” a physical object. In one demonstration that he refers to throughout the book, Hood offers a cardigan to his audience. It’s a nice enough sweater, perhaps a little out of date, but clean and it looks comfortable. It’s the kind of cardigan you might wear on a chilly autumn evening and think nothing of it.

The Wests? Naw, they're fine people. Perfectly normal.

Then Hood tells the audience that the sweater belonged to Fred West. For those of us who are not from England, Fred West is one of the most notorious serial killers of the last century. Over a span of twenty years, he and his wife tortured, raped and murdered at least twelve girls, two of whom were their own daughters. They’re very well-known in England, and as soon as people found out that the nice comfortable cardigan had belonged to Fred West, no one wanted to touch it, much less put it on. Even though there’s no rational basis to believe so, many people believed that there was some kind of contamination linked to the sweater, and feared that Fred West’s evil would somehow transfer to them.

As someone who tries to be rational as much as possible, I have found myself wondering why I hold on to beliefs that I know are fundamentally irrational. I wonder it even more when I watch the news or surf the internet and see how many people believe in things like “healing energy,” homeopathy, guardian angels, magic spells and the like. “What century are we living in?” I ask myself as I curl up into a ball and weep. The Enlightenment was only two hundred years ago – why are we backsliding?

Thinkers and scientists such as Richard Dawkins believe that this kind of fundamental irrationality is a learned trait. Parents pass it on to children, who then pass it on to theirs. Dawkins even goes so far as to consider bringing your child to church to be “child abuse,” and believes that if only we can break the chain of superstition, a new Age of Reason will emerge.

Waiting 200 years and counting....

Hood disagrees, and he makes a pretty compelling case. He doesn’t argue for the existence of the supernatural at all in this book, but rather the sense of the supernatural – the Supersense, as he calls it. This is the feeling that someone is watching us, the belief that one object is somehow more “special” than another, identical object. It is the reason we plead with our computers when they don’t work, why we anthropomorphise so many things is our world, and why we revere the remains of saints and shun the sweaters of murderers. It is a sense that there should be a supernatural world out there, even if we can’t prove it.

Hood believes that the origin of this supersense is in the way our early minds develop as infants. In that very early stage of life, we try to make sense of the world as best we can. Babies are little scientists, testing reality against their observations again and again, and coming up with hypotheses about how the world should work. This need to understand the world is hard-wired into our brains as part of our “mind design,” and not only can we never get rid of it, it may be essential to our development into fully-formed human beings.

A smiling sun is not always a good thing.

By testing children and how they observe the world, Hood tries to see how the mind develops from birth onwards, without the years of cultural indoctrination that Dawkins and those of similar opinion decry. These tests show how children expect reality to behave, and what happens when their expectations don’t match their observations. He looks at how children imbue the world with life and purpose – the Sun, always smiling in children’s drawings, exists to give us light, trees to shade us and the grass is there for us to play on. This endowment of purpose, or telos, if we’re going to be philosophical and pompous, is something we continue to do even into adulthood.

The more we learn about the world, the more we find out that it doesn’t follow the common-sense rules that we laid down in our infancy. It’s hard to accept, for example, that we aren’t the end product of evolution – even worse, evolution has no end product in mind. What’s more, after our brains went through years and years of classifying the world into neat little categories such as “living/non-living; intelligent/non-intelligent; plant/animal,” it’s jarring to know that we’re only 5% of the way off from chimpanzees and 50% off from being bananas!

Children intuit the world as they grow, and that is part of the mind-building process. This is the architecture of our minds. More often than not, it produces a rational picture of the world and how it works, but not always – the trade-off is that some supernatural ideas come along for the ride. While the mind-building process does prepare us to exist in the greater world, it also makes us fundamentally irrational beings. Some people are more able to overcome this irrationality than others, but even the hard-core skeptics may find it difficult to put on the sweater of Fred West, or have trouble not smiling when they’re in the presence of the sweater of Fred Rogers.

Ahhh... I feel better.

In a way, this book was both a disappointment and a relief. I have always hoped that one day humanity would rise above its irrationality and start appreciating the world for what it is, instead of wasting time looking for things that just aren’t there. But if Hood’s hypothesis is correct, that’s never going to happen. As long as we are human, there will always be a streak of the irrational in us. Try as we might, we will always have superstitions, strange beliefs, and we will always be looking for things that we cannot see.

And of course, perhaps this is a good thing. This irrationality is what gives us passion, it’s what connects us together as a species and as societies. This belief in the sacred, for example, is what gives rise to shared values in a community and a shared sense of what is important and what is forbidden. Without it, we’d be a species of Lex Luthors – fundamentally selfish, sociopathic and without the ability to connect to others.


On a personal note, it means that maybe I don’t have to be so hard on myself. I mean, being rational is great and all, but when you get to the point where you find yourself thinking something like, “Yeah, what is the big deal about incest?” then you know that it’s time to give the prefrontal cortex a break. And instead of beating myself up for not being able to completely disavow all the goofy little supernatural things that I cling to, perhaps I can just accept them as part of what makes me who I am. I know there’s nothing truly special about my books, but the supersense tells me otherwise. It may not be right, but at least it gives my life a little more color.

“If it’s true that our beliefs can be supernatural but unconnected to religion, then it must also be true that humans will not necessarily evolve into a rational species, because a mind designed for generating natural explanations also generates supernatural ones.”
– Bruce Hood, Supersense

Bruce Hood on Wikipedia
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Review 115: A is for Armageddon

A is for Armageddon by Richard Horne

You should know by now that if there’s one thing I’m really looking forward to it’s the end of the world.

At least, I was, up until about two weeks ago when an Earthquake of Unreasonable Size hit northeastern Japan, unleashing a massive tsunami which in turn led to an ongoing disaster at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Ever since then, the TV has been nothing but tales of survivors huddled in relief shelters and people all over the country scrambling to help – or to get out. In addition, there is the very real probability that more than ten thousand people have died, their bodies washed out to sea.

It’s one thing to read about the end of the world in a book or a comic, but to see it unfold on live TV is something else entirely. So right now, I’m not all that gung-ho about end of the world stories. Give me time, though, and I’m sure I’ll come back to them.

Like this, but without the leather and the anti-Semitism

I don’t know why, really. Maybe it’s for that feeling that all bets are off, all bonds are broken and you can remake yourself in any image you want. Maybe I really believe that I’ll be one of the heroes of the story, who make it through the End Times not only alive but victorious. Maybe I just long to see the world scythed clean of humanity and restarted so the squid can have a go at running things, I have no idea.

For whatever reason, I have a soft spot for armageddon stories. Whether it’s Good Omens, The Stand, Swan Song, Crisis on Infinite Earths, or any other story that promises the destruction of a world, I’m all over it. I can’t know if they’re good, but I’ll at least be willing to give them a shot. So when I saw this, I thought to myself, “I must have this book.”

The book is based on an organizational system that has gained some popularity in recent years: The Periodic Table of X, wherein X is whatever topic you want to focus on. It was originally designed to accommodate the natural elements, but if you have a hundred or so items, you can probably make your own periodic table to sort through them. You’ve got the Periodic Table of Typefaces, the Periodic Table of Beer Styles, the Periodic Table of Superheroes, and even – prepare to have your mind blown – the Periodic Table of Periodic Tables of Things.

You never had it so good, Mendeleev….

This book is based on the Periodic Catastrophic, a listing of the many, many ways that the world can end. As with the “real” periodic table, this one is well-organized to keep the apocalypses in line. There are the Acts of God, Don’t Mess With Nature, Universally Doomed, and It Was Like That When I Got Here, among other distinctions. Each disaster gets a couple of pages with a succinct explanation and an interesting or humorous illustration. Some of my favorites include:

The End of the World will be accompanied by a speed metal soundtrack

Four Horsemen Motto: Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough. Direct from the Bible, the Four Horsemen of Conquest, War, Famine and Death will one day roll across the Earth, bringing down everyone in their paths. “Everyone,” of course meaning everyone. You don’t know when they’ll come, but you’ll sure know when they get here. Make sure you have your bags packed.

Ecosystem, if only for the picture of the panda strapped to a knife-throwing target. Those pandas have had a free ride for long enough, if you ask me….

You have no idea how important bees are. Seriously.

Food Chain Collapse – this is one that I find pretty plausible, as far as some of these entries go. We all get mushy and sentimental about the whales and the dolphins, but what about the krill and shrimp and sardines? Without them, we run the very great risk of destroying an entire food chain just to have something to snack on during brunch.

The Gulf Stream Collapse is another one that kind of worries me, and it’s my favorite card to play whenever someone comes out with, “Look at all this snow! So much for global warming!” canard. In a nutshell: The gulf stream brings warm water up from the Caribbean to the North Atlantic, which results in a rise in temperature for most of Europe. As polar freshwater ice caps and glaciers melt, all that cold fresh water will mix with the salt water, which could have the effect of pushing the upper end of the gulf stream south. This would mean a substantial temperature drop in Europe, and a general planetwide climate crisis up to and including a new mini-ice age.

For a brief and shining moment, we will all be T-1000s

Grey Goo is always fun, too. If we manage to build self-replicating nanomachines, which use the atoms around them to build copies of themselves, what’s to stop them from just ripping apart every solid object they see? If they don’t know when to stop eating and replicating, they could devour most of the world in pretty short order. Nasty, huh?

And of course there are sure-fire world-enders like The Death of the Universe, Sun (the death of) and the Collapse of Causality, the inevitable result of the invention of time travel.

It’s an amusing book, with some educational points to make. Strictly speaking, not every one of the scenarios that it depicts has to do with the end of the world. Some of them, like volcanoes, earthquakes, and pandemics, are just natural disasters rather than planet-killers. Others, like obesity and an aging society, are more aimed at problems facing the human race that may inconvenience us, but probably won’t destroy us.

Look, it landed on Bruce Willis! How ironic...

And then there are the ones that I suspect were put in just to fill space – in The Solar System , Horne suggests that Jupiter could one day turn itself into a second sun, with disastrous consequences. But that won’t happen – Jupiter is much too small to initiate fusion in its core. The same with Supernova – he suggests that Betelgeuse could go up (and it will), bathing us in gamma rays after “crossing millions of light years” to get to us. But Betelgeuse is only 640 light years away – much closer than “millions,” but much too far to hurt us when it goes. So it’s not so much that the scenarios are implausible – like Alien Invasion or Paradox or Satan, but that they’re inaccurately implausible. It makes me wonder what other facts he fudged or guessed on just for the sake of making something sound scarier than it is.

Can't go wrong with a black hole....

It’s got some good tongue-in-cheek humor, and is a clever reminder of all the ways that things can go wrong in this big world of ours. The pictures are very nice, often funny, and good companions to the text, which features helpful hints for surviving each scenario, as well as a guess as to when you should start to panic. All too many of them are labeled “too late.”

An interesting note: there is a lot of British English in the book that may surprise readers of American English, such as myself. I had never encountered the adjective moreish (meaning so tasty that you want more of it) until I read this book and am forced to assume it’s a British coinage. Also, some of the puns only work if you know the British pronunciation of words. Unlike the editors of Harry Potter, though, these guys did not bow to our American prejudices and re-edit the book. Kudos to them.

So, these are the ways the world ends. Now you know.

“The only thing worse than a vengeful God is a fickle one.”
Richard Horne, A is for Armageddon

A is for Armageddon official website
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Filed under apocalypse, death, disaster, humor, Richard Horne, science

Review 108: Flim-Flam!

Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions by James “The Amazing” Randi

((Now hold still while I read your aura. Yes, my spirit guide is telling me something, that you are experiencing some kind of pain or discomfort in your back, or perhaps your shoulders. And this is typical of someone born under your star sign, you know? Of course you do – your type is very insightful, even if you do sometimes let little things escape your notice from time to time. Here – I have a medicine that will help you, a special homeopathic formula that I mixed myself. It’s proof against all aches and pains. Yes, I have a spoon somewhere around – no, not that one, that one’s bent. I could tell you that I got the recipe from visiting aliens, but you would never believe me. Perhaps it was Atlanteans….

Ah, there is one other thing…. My spirit guide tells me that there is another spirit who would talk to you – someone you miss very much. I’m getting the letter P, or maybe G…. Does that mean something to you? Ah, good, good. My abilities have increased a hundredfold since I started transcendental meditation, and I credit the Master with my improved skills. Well, our time is almost up. I have to go charge my dowsing rod with the crystals that were given to me by my young daughters. They say that the fairies gave them to them, and who am I to say otherwise? But I will say this before we part – the numbers of your name, crossed against your biorhythms, tell me that you must not enter into any dealings of a financial nature this week.

You can leave your check on the table by the door.))

There is one truth that I have learned in my days, and that there is no idea so ridiculous, so implausible, so poorly-defined, that someone, somewhere won’t fall for it. Whether it’s psychic surgeons, aura readers, tellers of the future or viewers of past lives, UFO hunters, witch doctors, table-tippers, spoon-benders, mind-readers or water-dowsers, if you can figure out some simple slight of hand, the odds are good that you can convince someone you have supernatural powers. A few blurry photographs and some enthusiasm, and you can have aliens on our shores. Some clever guesses and a keen knowledge of human nature, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

If you’re like me, it’s enough to make you want to disavow humankind and just go live somewhere off in the woods. Thankfully, James Randi is not like me.

James "The Amazing" Randi (photo by Andy Ihnatko)

A longtime magician and skeptic, James Randi has been one of the driving forces of modern skepticism. Since his 1972 debunking of spoon-bender Uri Geller, he has been an authority on people who claim to have supernatural abilities. He has traveled the world in search of these people, revealing the methods by which they knowingly or unknowingly deceive people who want so desperately to believe. This book, written in 1982 and well in need of an updated and revised edition, documents many of Randi’s investigations in painstaking and unrelenting detail.

He tells us first of the hoax perpetrated by two young English girls, one which was good enough to capture not just a credulous nation of newspaper readers, but a man regarded as one of the greatest minds of his time – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1917, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths released several photographs which showed them surrounded by gossamer-winged fairies. The public went wild for their story. Experts were called in to examine the photographs, and they all pronounced them genuine. The girls were interviewed, their cameras and equipment checked out, and no evidence of trickery could be found. In any case, believers said, two young girls would have no incentive to lie to the entire nation like this, would they?

Well, they did. Perhaps it wasn’t their intention to deceive the world, but that’s how it turned out. As of Randi’s writing, they hadn’t admitted it outright, but a year after publication, they did. What started as simple fun with a camera and some paper cut-outs escalated into something uncontrollable by two young girls, and a legend was born.

Frances Griffiths with her "fairies"

Elsie and Frances may have been innocents overtaken by events, but there are far more people who are fully conscious of their deceptions. A Holy Man who promises everything up to and including the ability to fly if you just follow his word and his special meditation technique. Researchers so intent on discovering psychic powers that they disregard even the most basic of experimental controls. People who manufacture fake artifacts to support their belief in ancient alien astronauts. There are those who take money from the unwitting and those who don’t, some who treat the ability they believe they have with humility and those who don’t. The weird, the arrogant and the dangerous – Randi’s seen ’em all. And every time another one pops up, he knows what to look for.

Belief is a weird thing. Under careful examination, every claim that Randi has seen has fallen apart. He has listened to them carefully and asked a very simple question that seems to elude so many others: How else could this effect be achieved? As a lifetime magician (though he prefers the term “conjurer”), Randi is an expert at getting you to think you see something that really isn’t there, and he brings this expertise to bear when he investigates claims of the paranormal. What’s more, he has a very good grasp of experimental procedure and how to test for a specific effect, and he is ruthless in making sure they are adhered to.

Science Badges (photo by Ruth Ellison)

But – and this is important – Randi is fair. If you come up to him and say, “Randi, I can see auras which tell me who the all gay people are,” he won’t just laugh in your face and say that you’re crazy. He’ll listen to your story, how your power works and how you use it, and then propose a simple test to see if it really exists. The test is to be double-blind, so when the target people come in and check the “gay” or “straight” box, that information is kept from both the aura-reader and the person administering the test. What’s more, the psychic has to agree in advance on the conditions of the test, signing a promise (rarely kept) to accept the results. Tests are usually done multiple times, just to give the subject a chance. When the results come in as negative – as they always have thus far – Randi doesn’t gloat. He doesn’t laugh and say “I told you so.” In fact, in one chapter he mentions that he feels bad sometimes, telling people who honestly believe they have a unique gift that, in fact, they don’t.

I suspect that Randi really wants supernatural powers to exist. I think he wants to meet someone who can move objects with her mind, talk to the dead or find water just by concentrating hard. Why else, then, would he have his Million-Dollar Challenge? What is described in Flim-Flam as a $10,000 reward for proof of supernatural abilities has grown significantly. Not because Randi is richer, but because he feels that his money is absolutely safe. Yet I think he would be happy to be able to give it away one day.

This book should be required reading for everyone who has encountered what they believe to be the paranormal. It is detailed, it is harsh and it is unequivocal in its assertion that if you see someone doing something that logic demands cannot be done, chances are excellent that it’s a trick rather than super-powers.

Unfortunately, the True Believers will invariably be unaffected, and that is something else that Randi takes great pains to show. No matter how often someone was shown to be a liar, a fake or a fraud, there were always supporters ready to make excuses. The psychics themselves are also very good at inventing reasons why their powers cannot be tested – the wrong kind of weather, interference from the cameras that are recording the tests, or just bad energy from the skeptics in the room. All the logic and science in the world won’t convince those who don’t want to be convinced.

(photo by Thomas Hawk)

As much fun as it is to read about The Amazing Randi rushing about the globe to put hoaxers in their places, it’s also a little depressing. It was written in 1982, on the heels of Randi’s book The Truth About Uri Geller, which exposed the spoon-bending psychic as a fraud, so you would think the one-two punch of these books would be enough to put paid to ridiculous beliefs in ideas that were demonstrably false. Well, you’d be wrong. Newspapers still run horoscopes every day, you can get a biorhythm app for your iPhone, psychics and mediums still rake in tons of cash, and there still innumerable people who put their faith, money and lives in the hands of psychic healers – only to lose all three.

But Randi is undaunted. He started the James Randi Educational Foundation to support critical thinking and skepticism, he’s still active in the skeptical community, and he’s still accepting applications from people who want his million dollars. He may have hoped that this book would be a nail in the coffin of psuedoscience and woo, but even though that didn’t pan out, he never gave up. One by one, case by case, the Amazing Randi has stared down the wild-eyed stare of unreason, and he has never blinked.

For that, I will always be grateful.

The tinkling noises you will hear as these pages are turned are the scales falling from many eyes. The groans are from the charlatans who are here exposed to the light of reason and simple truth. It is a light that pains them greatly.
– James Randi, Flim-Flam!

James Randi on Wikipedia
Flim-Flam! on Wikipedia
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Review 90: The World Without Us

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Death is a bummer.

I mean, here’s the thing – we all know we’re going to die. It’s part of the human condition, knowing that sooner or later the only existence that we’ve ever known is going to come to an end. And that’ll be it – no more us. It’s a creepy thought, to be honest, which is why most of us do our everlovin’ best to ignore it. We all know that we’re going to die, but we don’t want to know it, so we ignore it. We eat our Super-Double-CheezyFries, go BASE jumping, vote Republican, willfully ignoring the inevitable truth that these things are going to end up killing us.

Even when we are confronted with our mortality, we still find ways to console ourselves. We look around at our families and our friends and say things like, “No one truly dies so long as they’re remembered.” And we accept that even if we aren’t there, other people are. The things we’ve done in our lives, no matter how tiny, will echo around humanity as long as it lasts. If we are truly lucky, we will have contributed greatly to our species as a whole and gained a very special place in history.

But then we remember that even history is impermanent. The average species only gets to live about four million years, and we’ve already eaten up about a quarter of that. What’s more, we seem to be doing our level best to come in below average. Science tells us one inescapable fact: nothing lasts forever. One day, maybe sooner, maybe later, the last of the humans will die. Perhaps we’ll be replaced by another intelligence, one that can continue our work. Or perhaps we’ll just leave everything behind. All that will be left will be artifacts, objects that tell the story of humanity.

And that cheers you up a bit. We’re good at leaving marks, after all. We built a wall that’s so big it’s practically landscape. We split two continents apart in the name of commerce. We have girded our land masses in iron and asphalt, erected great cities of glass, concrete and steel. We have lowered mountains and raised seas, extracted the blood of the earth and bent the rivers to our will. Even if the human race vanished tomorrow, some far-future alien archaeologist would still be able to come here and know that a brilliant and puissant species once walked this world.

Yeah. About that….

This book was inspired by a very simple question: what would happen if all the humans just… disappeared? How it happened doesn’t really matter. Maybe aliens, maybe Jesus, perhaps some strange, species-specific quantum Critical Existence Failure. Whatever the cause, the sun rises in the morning and humans just aren’t there anymore. How would the world handle our disappearance? Would it even notice? What has humanity wrought that would last?

It’s a simple question with an incredibly complex answer. In order to even begin to know what would happen upon our disappearance, we need to know how the world works. We need to look at the forces that drive evolution and species propagation. What is it that allows life to spread and to flourish, to adapt to changing circumstances and make the best of a hard situation? What do we know from our studies of the unimaginably distant past that will help us foretell the future?

In addition, we need to know what effect humans have already had on the world. We’ve all heard the horror stories about the species driven to extinction by carelessness or ignorance – the passenger pigeon, the moa, the dodo – but our effect has been so much greater. Weisman is willing to categorize humanity as a force of nature thanks to the effect that we’ve had. Our relentless conquest of the Earth has, in small ways and large, unavoidably set evolution on a path that would have been very different had we never arisen in the first place. In a way, our influence can never be truly erased, and will likely survive for as long as biology does.

Finally, we need to know about the things we’re leaving behind. What is our world made of, and how well would it survive the rigors of time? The oceans of concrete that we’ve poured will freeze and thaw over and over again, and, aided by the surprising power of flowers and grass, will split, crack and crumble in time. Our massive steel skyscrapers will be undone by water and creeping vegetation. Our stonework will be worn down by wind and water, our satellites will fall, dams will burst and the wilderness will relentlessly take over the sacred places of the world. In the end, the only testament to our existence will be a handful of bronze statues and gold ornaments, and the impassive visages of the faces on Mt. Rushmore.

And even they will one day fall.

If you’re one of those people who worries about the impact that humanity has had on the earth, this will be a heartening book. As the geologic record shows, there’s pretty much nothing the universe can throw at this planet that can kill it. At least not so far. And the impact that humans are having isn’t anywhere near the great extinctions of the past, in which great swaths of death cut through the biosphere in a matter of decades. Understand this: there is nothing that we can do to the earth that the earth cannot undo, given time.

And that is a comforting thought. We do sometimes get wrapped up in our own awesomeness and assume that our actions have infinite consequences when, in fact, they don’t. We beat our breasts about the ozone hole and the Amazon, the Northwest African Cheetah and the Sharp Snouted Day Frog. We read about garbage gyres in the sea, and irradiated wastes on the land and despair over what we have done to this world.

The truth is that the world will move on after humans, and the future will hardly know that we were here.

That’s where the book got depressing for me, though. You see, I can take or leave individuals. I think The People are, in general, dumber than a Texas schoolbook. But all in all, I like Humanity. In the two hundred thousand years or so that Homo sapiens has been wandering this world, we’ve done some really neat things. We’ve built globe-spanning civilizations, produced unparalleled art, music and architecture, and invented worlds of brilliant fiction. We’ve examined the universe at its largest and peered back in time to the moment it began. We have gazed into the heart of the atom to know how reality works at its smallest levels. We’ve danced and sang and lived. And even with the terrible things that we’ve done, both to each other and to our world, I still think we’re a species worth knowing. We’re a species that deserves better than oblivion.

But the universe doesn’t care about what we deserve.

So if you take anything away from the book, let it be this – our existence here as a species is temporary. There’s no reward for our goodness, nor punishment for our sins. But here and now, we are alive, and capable of amazing things. It is up to us to decide what those things will be, and how to spend the time remaining to us.

Let’s make it wondrous.

“Below the surface, the oxidizing metal parts of chemical alley will provide a place for Galveston oysters to attach. Silt and oyster shells will slowly bury them, and will then be buried themselves. Within a few million years, enough layers will amass to compress shells into limestone, which will bear an odd, intermittent rusty streak with sparkling traces of nickel, molybdenum, niobium, and chromium. Millions of years after that, someone or something might have the knowledge and tools to recognize the signal of stainless steel. Nothing, however, will remain to suggest that its original form once stood tall over a place called Texas, and breathed fire into the sky.”
– Alan Weisman, The World Without Us

Alan Weisman on Wikipedia
The World Without Us on Wikipedia
The World Without Us on
The World Without Us homepage

And if the sure and certain knowledge of your own eventual cessation has got you low, watch this. It might cheer you up a bit….

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Filed under Alan Weisman, biology, evolution, finitude, geology, science

Review 89: The Science of Superheroes AND The Science of Supervillains

The Science of Superheroes and The Science of Supervillains by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg

By all rights, I should have loved these books. I mean look at them! They combine two of my favorite things, as you loyal readers should know: science and superheroes.

I’ve been a big fan of science since I was a kid. I used to flip through Carl Sagan’s Cosmos when I was young, just barely understanding the enormous ideas he was presenting in it. My father had the Time/Life Science Series (which I still have somewhere in a box back in my mother’s house) and I spent days going through those, learning about the wheel, water, drugs, matter, time…. Science never seemed imposing or intimidating to me (at least until I started trying to get the math), but rather a celebration of the human intellect.

On the other side – super-heroes. I still remember buying a copy of Crisis on Infinite Earths #10, the one with the Spectre and the Anti-Monitor facing off at the very dawn of creation, with dozens of heroes and villains trapped in a whirling maelstrom. To this day, that entire series has great meaning for me – not just because it’s an incredibly dense story or because it features some of my favorite characters of all time, but because it addresses greater questions of heroism, duty and sacrifice. And if those themes were left out of the more mundane run of monthly comics, well, that didn’t matter. These bright and powerful people had captured my imagination and still hold it to this day.

And as much as I’ve always wanted to be a superhero, there have been plenty of times when I’ve wanted to join the other side as well.

I mean, how many times have you wanted to don some goggles and a lab coat, stand on your parapet (you do have a parapet, right?), backlit by lightning as you scream, “The FOOLS! They called me mad? I WILL SHOW YOU MADNESS! HA! HAHAHAHA!! HAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHA!!”

Or something like that.

Anyway, there’s something to be said for the life of a supervillain, and if you’re a really good one then you’ll make it into the pages of history. Names such as Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom, Magneto and Sinestro – these are names that will live in the hearts of comic book fans forever. Indeed, it is said that the greatness of a hero depends on the greatness of his villain. Where would Superman be if he only had to foil a few muggings once in a while? Or Spider-Man if he were just tracking down garden-variety murderers? They might be heroes, but they certainly wouldn’t be superheroes.

So, with that in mind, let me tell you that I was somewhat disappointed with these books.

I think part of the problem is the mission of the text: reconcile what we see in comic books with what we know of science. The trouble is very simply that we can’t. Comic book super-heroes are, by their nature, not beholden to the laws of physics that we all know and obey, and the true mechanics of their powers are often unknown even to them. Has a Green Lantern ever actually asked what the power source is in the Great Battery on Oa? Does Superman know the biological process that goes on in his cells that turns sunlight into his amazing abilities? Can even the mighty mind of Reed Richards explain why his DNA and that of his colleagues was transformed, rather than ripped to shreds? Would Lex Luthor’s climate-altering machines of his youth really be able to change the climate of an entire region? What is it about the Anti-Monitor’s peculiar flavor of antimatter that allows it to overtake normal matter rather than destroy it? And how does the Vulture – an elderly man with wings strapped to his arms – not plummet to his death? Can comics examine these issues and still put out good stories?

Comics have tried to answer this question, actually. In the 1990s, as part of their Invasion! series, DC Comics introduced the concept of a Metagene, a particular mutation that was carried by a small percentage of the public. Under the right circumstances – such as being struck by electrified chemicals, being at ground zero of a nuclear explosion, or being immersed in a powerful chemical bath, the gene would activate and alter the person’s entire genetic structure to allow it to survive. That alteration would produce powers such as super-speed, nuclear manipulation, or extreme elasticity. But even the meta-gene idea was a kind of nudge-nudge wink-wink from the writers, who were far more concerned with telling a good story or creating good characters than they were with sticking to good science.

Which brings us back to these books. Through the books, Gresh and Weinberg look at some of the most famous heroes and villains from DC and Marvel Comics and try to see how well their behaviors and their origin stories hold up under the weight of established scientific truth. The answer: not well at all.

The Atom, for example, has the problem of extreme density to deal with, as well as the fact that the white dwarf matter with which he activates his power should be impossible to lift. On the other end, Giant-Man shouldn’t be able to move his own weight, thanks to the good old cube-square law. The Flash has a whole host of problems, starting with an anti-friction aura that curiously doesn’t extend to the soles of his feet and finishing with a serious defiance of relativity. The Fantastic Four and Dr. Banner should have come out of their radioactive disasters with a severe case of death at the very least, and half of Peter Parker’s powers actually have nothing whatsoever to do with spiders.

The basic message here is that the heroes and villains we know and love are, for the most part, scientifically impossible. But we knew that. Everybody who reads comics knows, in their hearts, that science is not in the driver’s seat when it comes to super-heroes. As much fun as it would be to stand out in a thunderstorm yelling, “SHAZAM!” with a golf club in the air, I know that the only super-power I would gain would be the ability to occupy a hospital bed. If I was lucky.

Batman, on the other hand, is reasonably plausible, given the nigh-infinite resources of Bruce Wayne. The technology for most of his gadgets and gimmicks is extant and not too hard to either acquire or produce. Also, it wouldn’t be impossible to re-write the Hulk’s origin using an angry biochemist who has a particular talent for mixing up new and interesting steroid cocktails.

There are heroes – and villains – who show us a goal to reach, in a weird way. Doctor Doom, for example, uses a metal exoskeleton that confers upon him great strength and endurance. Would it be possible for us to build such a thing, only not looking several centuries out of date? As it turns out, yes we can. Or at least we will be able to soon. The science of body assistance has been making great progress recently, and it’s only a matter of time before we are able to augment our own bodies from the outside and do amazing things.

Or look at Poison Ivy, one of Batman’s recurring villains (and the only female in the villains book). She makes great use of plants that look like nothing Nature has ever produced. Could we, with biological engineering, do the same? It turns out we already are, just not as cool. Instead of giant venus flytraps that catch and eat human beings, we’re engineering better strains of vegetables that will go towards feeding more people for less money. But if we really wanted to, we could have murderous plants in our future.

All of these bad guys offer us a chance to explore science, both fundamental and cutting-edge. The Lizard, a poor, beleaguered enemy of Spider-Man’s who cannot control the beast within, may give us the clues to regenerating our own limbs. Magneto offers us an understanding of how powerful and pervasive electromagnetism really is. Dr. Octopus shows us the potential of prosthetics, and Mr. Mxyzptlk is a great way to start looking at not just the fifth dimension, but the very concepts of dimensions that are beyond the paltry ones that we inhabit.

These books make a reasonable attempt to inject the history and theory behind the science that our heroes defy, putting it into the realm of books that handle popular science. But as popular science books, they’re rather disjointed and uneven, going into great detail in some sections but skimming over others. There’s some serious axe-grinding, for example, in chapter 9 of the Heroes book: Good, Evil and Indifferent Mutants – the X-Men. Not only do they not address the scientific nature of the X-Men’s powers (which they could have done with a simple page or two of “None of these are possible”), but they spend five or six pages detailing the historical and ongoing conflict between Creationism and Evolution. While it’s an interesting topic, it’s not germane to the X-Men and really doesn’t belong in this book. Perhaps a discussion about successful adaptations in the human genome would have been better – what alterations have occurred in Homo sapiens that have made the species better? Or perhaps how our understanding of genetics is leading us to modify our own species faster than nature would have intended? There’s a little of this, but it doesn’t balance out the unnecessary evolution-creationism segment.

The biggest issue for Gresh and Weinberg is that the writers of comics put scientific accuracy lower on their priority list than good storytelling and good characters. Yes, The Flash should never even be challenged by villains – at his speed, there’s no one who should be able to even surprise him. But that makes for a damn boring comic book. And the same goes with Spider-Man. If Peter Parker really exhibited the traits of a spider, he would probably just build a web where he expected bad guys to be and spend the entire comic just waiting for them to stumble in. Then he would drop his trousers and spray them with webbing from a place the Comics Code won’t let the artist draw.

More than once, they strayed from the science to criticize the villains’ motives – why is Vandal Savage so hot to take over the world? Why not just invest his money, wait a few hundred years and live a life better than any human had before him? Or why would Lex Luthor do something so stupid as to drop a nuclear bomb from a helicopter? Helloooo? Ever hear of a little something we like to call “poison gas?”

While those may be excellent story points, the books are not called “The Plot Holes of Superheroes and Villains.” They’re about the science, and trying to gain the appreciation of comic book fans by pointing out why their favorite bad guys are idiots, well…. That’s probably not the best way to handle it.

Other books about superheroes and science start off by accepting the reality of the comic book. James Kaklios’ The Physics of Superheroes does exactly that – he grants the heroes a “miracle exception” and then moves on from there. His book is founded on the tacit understanding that comic book writers are more interested in the story than the science, but that if you look hard enough, you can find scientific lessons everywhere.

Science is important, but so is fiction. We willingly suspend our disbelief for super-heroes so that we can better enjoy their story. Science can tell us a lot, but it doesn’t have much to say about loyalty, heroism, sacrifice and responsibility. It’s hard for us to insert ourselves into science’s stories – imagine being a hydrogen atom or a rock strata or a particularly interesting strain of e. coli. While science and super-heroes don’t have to be incompatible, it’s no great loss if they are. There’s an interview at the end with a group of writers, all of whom very clearly state that story comes first. “The story always outweighs the science,” says Len Wein, one of the industry’s pre-eminent writers. Super-heroes aren’t scientifically accurate, but they were never meant to be.

While I don’t doubt that Gresh and Weinberg know their comics, I don’t get the feeling that they really love comic books for what they are – fantasies with just enough science stuck on to make them seem plausible. Rather than looking for ways that comic books can open readers’ eyes to science, they seem to be more interested in tearing down the comics themselves for trying – and failing – to use science in their stories. They’re more focused on the flaws than the potential, and I found that tiring after a while. By trying to combine popular science with super-heroes, and by maintaining a dismissive attitude towards comics, Gresh and Weinberg have created books that have their moments, but don’t really succeed being what they want to be.

“By now, if you’ve been reading this book chapter by chapter, your brain should be screaming in pain.”
– Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg, The Science of Superheroes

“By now, anyone reading these books knows that we never ask a question without having an unpleasant answer ready.”
– Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg, The Science of Supervillains

Lois Gresh on Wikipedia
Robert Weinberg on Wikipedia
The Science of Superheroes on
The Science of Supervillains on
Lois Gresh’s webpage
Robert Weinberg’s webpage


Filed under Lois Gresh, Robert Weinberg, science, super-heroes, supervillains