Disseminators: The Year in Pop Science

DuelingNeuroSliderLike so much of our contemporary culture, popular science writing strikes me as essentially a Victorian invention, a mode of civic discourse intended to offer a newish class of decently educated citizens information on cutting-edge researches vital to their own interests, in a language and logic accessible to all, and to highlight the intellectual allure of such civilization-boosting endeavors as well.

Originating with such figures as T. H. Huxley, who sought to bring Darwin’s ideas to the masses, the popular science genre moved on to entertaining landmarks like Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland, then accelerated into the twentieth century with inestimable work from such luminaries as George Gamow, Isaac Asimov, Martin Gardner, and Carl Sagan. Today, some 150 years after Huxley’s reign, popular science writing might well be experiencing its Golden Age, having compiled for itself a suite of potent literary, journalistic, rhetorical, and deductive tools that ensure a full spectrum of readable, intriguing books on nearly every branch of science.

And that’s a lucky thing for us — given that that super-specialization is now necessary to work productively in fields from physics to molecular biology, and that the future of our planet relies more demonstrably than ever on scientific advancement, it seems more urgently necessary than ever that nonscientists can find guides to the otherwise opaque worlds of experimental discovery. In that spirit, for your consideration and potential enlightenment, here are ten of 2014’s finest examples of this never-more-vital genre.

Science historian Laurel Braitman’s quest in Animal Madness to understand the abnormal psychology of non-human creatures started at home but has carried her around the globe. Some years back, she and her husband became the owners of Oliver, a lamentably demented Bernese mountain dog. Sharing Oliver’s self-inflicted daily hell, full of anxiety and resultant bad behaviors, engendered in Braitman a puzzlement about how animals experience emotions and cogitations, and how closely their non-normal mental states resemble similar disturbed processes in humans. This desire to understand “animal madness” has resulted in a work of compassion, wisdom, and insight that poses a few perhaps unresolvable questions, given the barriers between human and non-human minds. Braitman journeys deep into the past to unearth fascinating historical instances of animal madness — Monarch, the famed California grizzly; John Daniel, an English ape; Tip, the Central Park elephant — and to refuges and research centers from Thailand to Boston, Hawaii to Germany. Otters, lions, tigers, dolphins, horses, parrots, mice — she assembles an ark’s worth of patients. She teases out parallels between human and animal PTSD and myriad other afflictions but is also careful to chart the borders of our projections of our dreams and hopes onto uniquely animal behaviors. Offering numerous thoughts for improving the lives of captive and domestic animals, this book is both heartbreaking and uplifting.

The “glass cage” in the title of Nicholas Carr’s newest study about unintended technological blowback refers to the cockpit of commercial airliners, where over-reliance on automatic piloting systems seems to have bred a generation of helmsmen easily confused when the unexpected hits — often with fatal consequences. But our easy civilian disdain for their failings and a belief it could never happen to us is soon shown, in Carr’s masterful and mind-boggling analysis, to be entirely unwarranted. Automation — a term coined only as recently as 1946 and used here to include any software or hardware that intermediates between us and the world — is omnipresent. Every time we use Google, we get a little lazier and dumber. As for a dominant tool like GPS — well, you may as well be feeding valuable specialized lobes of your brain through a food processor. After cataloguing numerous instances of automation gone wrong — architectural blueprints devolving toward a common sludge due to CAD systems, the medical records of patients obfuscating their conditions — Carr, no Luddite, comes forward with antidotes, a kind of “human-centered” or adaptive automation. In a final chapter that finds resonance and inspiration in the poetry of Robert Frost, Carr lays out a path whereby the disjunction between our effort-saving ingenuity and what’s actually best for us might be overcome.

It’s certainly a cliché to remark that a nonfiction book “reads just like a novel,” but in the case of Jonathan Eig’s The Birth of the Pill, I have no other recourse, since his narrative is full of larger-than-life characters sharply limned and embarked on fascinating doings, their story told in sprightly visual fashion. Maybe I could assert that any HBO or Showtime or Bravo producer worth his or her salt should grab this book and turn it into a miniseries. If the series started back in the nineteenth century, when the relevant scientific research brought forth by Eig first began, you could spin a few seasons out of the book, although the majority of the action occurs in a few essential and archetypal years smack-dab in the middle of the twentieth century. This is the tale primarily of two women — activist Margaret Sanger and millionaire philanthropist Katherine McCormick — and two men, scientist Gregory Pincus and medical doctor John Rock, who, operating on determination, vision, instinct, and a shoestring budget, brought to market an invention that revolutionized the lives of millions. Eig summons up the Eisenhowerian realities of their period in crisp, succinct strokes. He brings the quartet and a larger cast to walking, talking life. He encapsulates the science behind birth control with utmost clarity. And he maintains a suspenseful atmosphere despite our knowledge of the ultimate outcome. This historical account demands binge reading.

An editor at Nature, Henry Gee possesses a prose style that hews to that magazine’s rigorous standards of scientific journalism while at the same time exhibiting a colloquial vivacity. “The fact is that bodies are expensive to build and maintain, and any creature that can get someone or something else to do the work instead will have an edge on the creature that insists on doing everything itself.” It’s with this kind of sparkling, clear-eyed, often droll prose that The Accidental Species conducts a Cook’s tour of evolution, specifically human evolution. Its schema is both simple in broad terms, yet suitably complex on the chapter level. After outlining the mechanics of evolution and disabusing the reader of several fallacies attendant thereto, Gee will look at the salient characteristics that seem (but only seem) to place man at the pinnacle of creation: bipedality, large brains, technology, intelligence, language, and sapience. Chronicling the history of the discovery of these qualities and comparing humanity’s abilities with the rest of evolved life, and often invoking personal experiences as illuminating examples, Gee ends his fascinating survey on a bracing if cosmically stoic note: our vaunted exceptionalism is hollow, and we must take our pride and pleasure in being just another showy flower in Darwin’s garden.

As a teenager, I read the only book by James Michener I have read to date, The Source. Michener’s romantic  account of archaeological digs in the Middle East was so enrapturing that for years afterward I imagined that that discipline would become my chosen field. I revisited much of the same inspirational territory with Marilyn Johnson’s breezy, impassioned, rollicking new account of the state of modern archaeology, Lives in Ruins. Embedding herself intensely with a wide variety of professionals, both in the field, at home, and during their conferences, Johnson shows herself to be alert, intelligent, sensitive, inquisitive, and game for just about any new experience, however arduous, tedious, or yucky. Few journalists can be found bravely carving up a lamb carcass with a flint knife they have flaked afresh themselves. Starting off with her time at a training school in the Caribbean, Johnson is soon visiting such disparate locales as Greece and Newport, Rhode Island, on the quest for artifacts and wisdom. Showing the reader exactly what realities lie behind the “Indiana Jones” fantasy depiction, she teases out the mindsets of her subjects with much empathy. She affirms the value of archaeology for the culture at large. And she communicates her own excitement and the fervor of the men and women who have devoted their lives to exhuming the past. This is a book that, placed in impressionable young hands, could launch a thousand careers.

Sam Kean’s new book concerning humanity’s twisty path to understanding the functionality of the human brain might be compared to a Wunderkammer: one of those private museums of yore, proudly overstuffed with oddities and curios meant to induce a vertiginous excitement and delight in the visitor. The book is so thoroughly salted with the stories of men and women having outré neurological adventures — as both sufferers and observers, patients and researchers — that the reader’s own mind begins to reel. The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons deserves not to be gulped down entire. Each chapter, full of poignant and crystalline period detail, illuminates a different facet of our gray matter and compounds what has gone before. By the final chapter (on the infamous Phineas Gage case), one emerges with the sense that we’ve circled the whole globe that is the human skull. Kean starts out way in the past — with the brain injuries suffered during jousting by King Henri II during the sixteenth century. He comes up to current researches in only a couple of instances. The bulk of his material concerns those seminal days of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when bold, pioneering, and somewhat unethically utilitarian scientists probed and clipped various lobes with motives both pure and biased. Kean offers an startling odyssey through the lands of memory, perception, and ratiocination.

Naomi Klein’s patented brand of intense scrutiny of shibboleths and sanctified institutions and structures of power and powerlessness, via cannonades of well-marshaled facts and logic and a soupçon of snark, admixed with righteous fervor for the creation of more equitable societies, continues apace in This Changes Everything. Although the book is unabashedly and proudly polemical, Klein never plays fast-and-loose with scientific facts, although one might occasionally feel tempted to draw different conclusions from some of the data than she does. Her target here is what she calls the “extractive” mindset, the philosophy that allows humanity to plunder the planet of its resources with a clean conscience. Klein’s derivation of this Weltanshauung from the work of Francis Bacon, and her tracing of its lineage through the centuries, frames the indictment against capitalism. Next, she outlines the familiar tale of the kinds of environmental devastation we have seen, and the likely horrors to come. (Here she offers some touching personal hooks into her own life as a mother, thinking of the future her child will face.) After this, she examines various paths out of our dilemma, discarding many — what she calls “Big Green,” the establishment eco-charities and NGOs, do not come off well, nor do the megalomaniacal billionaire philanthropists and geoengineers. She narrows down our route to salvation to a clearly delineated enormous paradigm shift, arduous yet accomplishable. Klein’s faith in the ability of our species to respond sanely and proactively to this crisis goes a long way toward ameliorating the acidic ire of her vision.

As a consummate staff writer for the New Yorker. Elizabeth Kolbert has mastered that magazine’s distinctive mode of reportage. Her writing blends lyricism with scientific rigor; colloquialisms with academic precision; surprises with confirmation; subjective involvement with objective dispassion. The thirteen chapters of The Sixth Extinction might easily be imagined as separate essays in her native weekly periodical. But here, taken together, they build on each other to deliver a stunning portrait of humanity’s impact on the ecosphere in this “Anthropocene” era, constituting a reflection and variation of the past five such cataclysmic events. Kolbert’s organizing principle is to focus each chapter tightly on a single extinct protagonist: the Panamanian golden frog, the mastodon, the auk. But incidental and incremental knowledge and history, brought up as necessary, compound to provide an overarching portrait of the overlapping sciences involved: geology, paleontology, anthropology, biology, archaeology. Kolbert vividly conjures up the men and women — both living and, well, extinct — who brilliantly unriddled the causes of mass die-offs, most notably French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769–1832), whose foundational presence spans the chapters. Leapfrogging around the planet, Kolbert charts the health of coral reefs in the Pacific, trees in the Amazon, bats in her own New York State. Chapter XI, on the Sumatran rhino, is particularly poignant, involving desperate breeding attempts in various zoos. Chapter XII is given over, with a trace of black humor, to one of our own cousins, the Neanderthal clan. Never grim but always empathetic, Kolbert stops short of accusatory generalizations. “If twenty-five years ago it seemed that all mass extinctions would ultimately be traced to the same cause, now the reverse seems true. As in Tolstoy, every extinction event appears to be unhappy — and fatally so — in its own way.”

A boyish exuberant brilliance pervades Max Tegmark’s Our Mathematical Universe, a book whose zesty ontological and epistemological speculations prove that at some nebulous frontier, science inevitably shades off into philosophy and religion. Tegmark’s book can be roughly divided into two halves. The first half, which really consists of Parts One and Two, is Tegmark’s cosmic tour of what we know about the origin of the universe, its development, and its present laws and modus operandi. It bears family affinities to similar tours by such folks as Brian Greene. But throughout the highly lucid and graspable course of study, Tegmark drops hints that gaps in our understanding exist and need to be filled — most agreeably by a theory he favors, that “mathematical existence equals physical existence.” (This shorthand formulation is taken from one of his chapter-closing sidebars titled “The Bottom Line,” a very handy feature of the book.) Tegmark concentrates more on the multiversal, parallel-worlds aspect of our cosmos than many other survey writers do, since it’s central to his thesis. Also threaded throughout the text are charming personal anecdotes and emotional responses that convey the real flavor of the scientific life and mind. Tegmark’s love of his career and his fellow researchers and his dedication to the enlargement of mankind’s stock of knowledge shine out. In the final section, Part Three, Tegmark uses his novel theories not only to fill in the gaps in our present understanding but to open up vast new vistas of existence. “If I’m right . . . then there’ll be no roadblock in our quest to understand reality, and we’re limited only by our imagination!” This cri de coeur contains echoes of every farseer from the Dawn of Fire onward.

As of this writing, I have not yet seen Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar. But when I do get a chance to view it, I will be much more appreciative, thanks to Kip Thorne’s excellent guide, The Science of “Interstellar.” Famed for his previous books in this realm, such as Black Holes & Time Warps, Thorne has here given us a lavishly illustrated book that does a number of things wonderfully. In Part I, its first fifty or so pages, it delivers a compact primer of astrophysics and quantum physics. Many a longer book has been devoted to this topic with less effect. The rest of the book continues to teach, but with another eye cocked toward explaining the genesis of the film’s unique setups. Part II addresses black holes in general and the one depicted in the film in its specifics. Part III talks about the scenario of terrestrial environmental and cultural collapse imagined for the film. The use of cosmic wormholes as a transportation system is explicated in Part IV. Part V explores the realm around Gargantua, the film’s gravitic enigma. “Extreme physics” — the theory of “branes” and other dimensions — gets a look in Part VI. And the final section focuses on the perplexing incidents that constitute the film’s climax. Threaded throughout this is a kind of broadly applicable meta-commentary on the interface between science and science fiction, how any respectful creator can learn to accommodate the hard facts. Throughout the book, Thorne’s amiable, lucid, metaphor-rich prose — carefully labeled section by section as to whether it represents “truth,” “educated guess” or “speculation” — enchants the reader while letting us share his professional insights and his optimism that science can lead us past danger and into a brighter future.

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