Category Archives: Books

Book Review: Blue, the history of a color

I’d never thought I’d say this, but this is a book about a color — and you have to read it!

Blue: The History of a Color
Michel Pastoureau
Princeton University Press // 216 pp
Buy on Amazon

 

Have you ever wanted to visit a museum, but didn’t want all the hassle, or didn’t have the time? Blue reads just like being in a museum. Page by page, you get to walk through its long halls, explore its contents, and learn things you never knew you needed to know before. For instance, did you know that in Antiquity, blue was a laughable or even a dangerous color? The ancient Greeks may have not even had a word for ‘blue’ and for the Romans, blue was the color of barbarians. Even having blue eyes was considered an extremely unpleasant feature. So why is blue now the world’s favorite color — and has been for more than a century?

I’ll admit — when I first started reading the book, I was a bit skeptical. After all, it’s a book about a color — how interesting can it be? Boy, was I wrong! Non-fiction books often fall into the trap of sacrificing being engaging in order to add as much information as possible. But Blue doesn’t do this.

The truth is that Blue, like some of Pastoureau’s books (which are, you’ve guessed it, about other colors), is a new way of looking at history. We look at history through the lens of a country, or a group of people, but what if we looked through the lens of a color? We take colors for granted today because we’re so spoiled with choice. We choose whatever color we want for our clothes our cars, our house — and it doesn’t really cost more. Color is simply an option, and we have all the options in the world available to us. But it wasn’t always like this: in humanity’s earlier days, color was a luxury, and sometimes simply unattainable. It was used to depict strong symbolism and even signify social status. Fierce battles were fought over dyes and colors and in medieval times, producers of red dyes would pay painters to depict demons as blue — thus fending off competition.

The production of color was also strictly regulated. It’s not like you could just go and produce whatever color or dye you wanted. If you wanted to sell it, you needed a license, and a license wasn’t easy to obtain. Because the dye fabrication process was so incredibly work-intensive and pigment specific, most producers would be forced to only stick to a few colors (and some related mixtures). This led to fierce rivalries between the red and the blue dye makers, which lasted for centuries. Blue also became a pivotal point in the Romantic movement and played a key role in the French Revolution’s symbolism. Nowadays, it’s strongly associated with serenity and peace — and let’s face it, who could ever imagine a pair of jeans without associating them with blue?

For the longest time, blue was the renegade of colors, ignored or shunned, and yet it’s now the world’s favorite color, according to almost all surveys. It went from a seemingly non-existent color (up to the point where some have even wondered if ancient people could see blue) to stirring fierce disputes, to becoming the color to wear.

It’s been a long journey, and blue’s story is one that’s worth reading. While I suspect that some of Pastoureau’s sharpness might have been dulled by translation, the book is extremely informative, and it does so while also being engaging. I’d never thought I’d say this, but I want to read more about these colors.

Book Review: ‘The Scientist’s Guide to Writing’

You have made a groundbreaking discovery in science! The world and your career will never be the same. Oh wait, you need to write your results into a coherent paper and then submit it for peer-review. Shoot… Never fear, for every scientist that dreads or struggles with scientific writing (or those that just want to improve), Stephen B. Heard offers a solution. In his book ‘The Scientist’s Guide to Writing’, Heard offers practical suggestions for almost every aspect of the scientific writing process.

Throughout his long career as an evolutionary ecologist, Heard has written and edited hundreds of scientific articles: his own, and those that he has handled as an editor, peer-reviewer, and professor. Needless to say, he knows a thing or two about good scientific writing. He distills his experience to the most important points that every scientific writer should be aware of. The result? ‘The Scientist’s Guide to Writing’ is an important read for anyone who publishes scientific texts— young scientists will find it particularly helpful.

 

The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively throughout Your Scientific Career

by Stephen B. Heard

Princeton University Press, 320 pages // https://amzn.to/2kP0xFQBuy on Amazon

The book starts out with a brief history of scientific writing, and how science progressed from the secretive alchemists of the Middle Ages to the more collaborative 17th century scientists, to the present scientific paper form. Heard stresses the importance of clarity in scientific writing and all of the points and advice that follow hinge on making scientific writing more clear. In between, he peppers the text with many enjoyable quotes and examples from other writers, not necessarily scientific, to help prove his points.

You may be reluctant to read a technical book for fear that it would be a snooze. Heard writes beautifully and reading is actually a breeze—it goes similarly to reading a novel. In addition to being extremely well written, the book is impeccably organised. The book is divided into seven parts that are each subdivided into chapters dealing not only with writing, but also with other aspects that are crucial to writing a paper. The book makes a nice read as a whole, but the chapters also stand alone and are easily accessible. So if, after a few years of reading the book, you would like a refresher on how to structure an introduction or how to battle writer’s block, you can easily find the section with relevant information. There is a handy little summary at the end of each chapter, which contains the most salient points and is also useful to refer to. Heard also includes exercise ideas to practice the theory covered in the chapter.

The book doesn’t just tackle the actual writing part but also important, related points, such as writing behaviour. Heard offers many useful suggestions on how to modify behaviour to get started on a writing project and keep up momentum. These aspects are underrated but are definitely important parts of the writing process that all writers go through. At first I was surprised at how short the sections dealing with the different parts of a scientific paper are, but Heard manages to include the generally most important points. The wide range of topics that he covers is only a benefit to the reader. He also explains the peer-review process in length, how to respond to reviews, and tips for writing as a non-native English speaker. Yes, he covers a lot in this book!

Although he is a biologist, Heard has taken care to make the book applicable to all scientific fields and specifies where expectations in certain fields may vary. He also uses examples from a variety of different fields, such as astronomy, to illustrate his points. Chemists, physicists, mathematicians, and other scientists would find this book useful to improve writing. Indeed, his examples are very clear and help the reader to understand how some writing choices can really aid clarity and flow.

If you are a scientist, you have probably struggled through reading scientific papers that are too dense, riddled with grammatical mistakes, poorly organised, or just plain confusing. Heard emphasizes that you can keep the complexity of scientific texts and offers ways to write that readers can better understand. Scientific writing is underrated but crucial as it is the vehicle through which findings are communicated.

If only everyone could read this book, it would make science so much easier to understand!

 

Book Review: ‘Far From Land’

A pair of gulls split up — from the frigid wasteland of Arctic Canada, one went to Peru, while the other went to South Africa, only to reunite once again next season in Canada. The sheer fact that we know this, that we can tell it with absolute certainty, is astonishing — and this is just one of the many amazing stories in Far From Land, The Mysterious Life of Seabirds.

Far from Land: The Mysterious Lives of Seabirds
Michael Brooke
Princeton University Press // 264 pp
Buy on Amazon

The freest of the free

Free as a bird — who hasn’t, at least once in their life, wanted to feel that way?

Few things are as romantic as seabirds. You see them on the shore, and then they’re gone, flying into the seemingly endless oceans. Where do they go? Why do they brace the frigid, merciless waters? Up until a few decades ago, we didn’t know much about the time these amazing creatures spend away from land, but modern science has answered many tantalizing questions about seabirds. In a very approachable and often dazzling book, Michael Brooke blends the seemingly incompatible worlds of romance and science

The book almost reads like a collection of fairy tales, stories from lands far away of almost-mythical creatures: the arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea), that fly about 40,000 kilometers (or 24,000 miles) each year, the albatrosses (Diomedeidae) which are able to circumnavigate the globe in 46 days and expend incredibly little energy in the process, and the adorable puffins (Fratercula), which nest away from the mainland to avoid predators. But these stories are very much real, and it wasn’t easy to figure them out.

Researchers have spent decades trying to understand the mysterious ways of seabirds, and they’ve done so mostly by tracking them. Birds, however, tend to be light, and weighing them down with heavy instruments is out of the question. For a while, biologists could only trace the largest of seabirds but thankfully, technology has gotten a lot better — and a lot lighter. This allowed researchers to gather information that might have once seemed unattainable, and even today is very impressive.

Far From Land reads very easily. You don’t need to be a specialist to appreciate it, you don’t really need to know anything about biology. However, it’s not like the topics presented in the book are simple. Michael Brooke writes with all the expertise and knowledge of a seasoned biologist, and it’s his own understanding and writing skill that makes the book so easy and pleasant to read. Furthermore, there is a detailed bibliography for every chapter, so if you are interested in learning more about seabird science, Far From Land is an excellent starting point.

All in all, Far From Land is an excellent read and requires no commitment — you can read it all in one go, or leave it by your bed and read it bit by bit. I couldn’t recommend it more, for everyone.

Book Review: ‘Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe’

Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe
by Mike Massimino
The MIT Press, 246 pages // Buy on Amazon

If you ever plan on becoming an astronaut, or if you would simply like to know what it’s really like to go out in space — Spaceman is the book for you.

If you don’t know who Mike Massimino is, then you probably haven’t been following the space program closely. In addition to many contributions, Massimino is one of the spacewalkers who repaired the Hubble Telescope, and he’s also the first person to Tweet from space. Currently working as a professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University, he flew on two space shuttle missions, in 2002 and 2009 respectively. But more than anything else, he’s a kid who wanted to be an astronaut — and who made it.

Massimino’s tweet ushered a new age of space social media.

For someone with a career as lengthy and impressive as Massimino, you’d expect a book to be filled with NASA experiences, awesome adventures, and dazzling science — but the first half of the book is just about actually getting into the space program. I absolutely love that!

We cherish astronauts and we talk a lot about them, but we don’t talk nearly as much about becoming an astronaut, and it’s a shame.

So many people dream of becoming an astronaut, but few truly consider pursuing that dream. We see astronauts as heroes, but almost intangible figures, certainly not regular people like you and I. Well, Mike Massimino takes that stereotype and slams it to the ground — with the necessary work, the necessary motivation, and a healthy attitude, anyone can become an astronaut.

The truth is, as Massimino himself puts it, that he is a regular guy. Just like each and every one of us, he had his fears, his self-doubt, and his failures. But he toughed it out. When he felt like he had nothing more to give, he found that extra something to push him forth. His dream of becoming an astronaut had been almost destroyed time and time again, and yet time and time again, he overcame the hurdles. Going through the book, you can almost feel how hard he worked and how devastating the shortcomings were. Honestly, if the book had ended right after he became an astronaut, I wouldn’t be sorry at all. But it goes on.

It goes on to show how more than anything else, astronauts are a family. They stick up for each other and they’re much more than just a team. When they’re successful, they’re all successful together and when they fail, they all fail together. I didn’t think the story can become even more heartwarming, but it does. To me, this was also the most surprising bit of the book. Here at ZME, we talk a lot about NASA’s accomplishments, their studies, their innovative space missions, but we don’t really know that much about what goes on behind the scenes. Massimino offers a candid, authentic recollection of significant events which he and his colleagues went through, and it goes to show that just as much as an astronaut, Massimino is also an excellent storyteller. He makes you want to work at NASA. He inspires you to take a long look at the stars, and reach for them.

To sum things up, this is truly an amazing book written not only by an author who’s been up there with the best of them, but who also has the necessary communication skills to know how to convey his feelings. A book for people of all ages and all background, it’s a must-read for anyone interested in space — and a bible for anyone wanting to become an astronaut.

Great Ideas.

Book review: ‘Ten Great Ideas about Chance’

If life is a game a chance, knowing how to weigh your odds makes all the difference.Great Ideas.

“Ten Great Ideas about Chance”
By Persi Diaconis, Brian Skyrms.
Princeton University Press, 272pp. | Buy on Amazon

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, gamblers and mathematicians set the stage for a new line of thinking that would shape nearly every field today, from economics and finance to physics and computer science: they transformed chance from something that happens to you into a well-ordered discipline, something you can calculate and quantify. This book traces ten great ideas that shaped the field, exploring the mathematical, historical, philosophical, even psychological aspects of probability and statistics.

Accessible, yet meticulous in its math, Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms‘ Ten Great Ideas about Chance is an instructive but fun lecture.

Roll the dice

The book was borne of an interdisciplinary course the two authors — one a mathematician and one a philosopher — taught at Stanford University. As such, it’s built on the assumption that you’ve had some prior experience with either statistics or probability. In case you haven’t, the authors included an Appendix with a brief rundown of the basic elements of probability.

Each of the ten great ideas discussed in the book gets its own chapter. The first will take you through a brief tour of the early days of probability theory, starting with the 1500s, and introduce the concept that chance is, in fact, something we can measure. Chapter 2 also deals with measurement, showcasing how probabilities can be measured in more complex situations that lack a finite collection of equally-probable outcomes.

The third great idea is that, as humans, we’re inherently bad at dealing with probabilistic concepts. One simple example that shows how much wording influences our perception is the operating room scenario: telling a patient that they have a 90% chance of surviving an operation, for example, is more likely to induce him to agree to the procedure than telling him he has a 10% chance of dying — despite that both statements mean the exact same thing.

The fourth and fifth chapter explores the connection between probability and frequency, followed by two chapters dedicated to Bayesian analysis. Chapter 7, titled “Unification”, binds all these together and cements the links between chance, probability, and frequency.

The following two chapters impart context to probability theory, showing how it relates to other disciplines. Chapter 8 deals with algorithmic randomness, the use of computers for random number generation, while chapter 9 looks at probability in the context of physics. The final chapter deals with Hume’s assertion that, in the authors’ words, “there is a problem of understanding and validating inductive reasoning.”

Should I read it?

Ten Great Ideas about Chance treats the topic from an unusual angle, and it will help any faculty members teaching probability by providing a fresh take. The book uses calculus quite freely, and a solid understanding of integral signs and limit arguments will come in very handy while navigating its pages.

But don’t get discouraged by the technical talk — the book packs this stuffy topic in a pleasant, easy to read format. As someone with only a summary education in the field, I can attest that even those of us who are newcomers to probability will find quite a lot of interesting information here, peppered with “aha” moments. Even if math wasn’t ever your cup of tea, Ten Great Ideas about Chance remains accessible — despite some chapters being quite challenging and likely to give non-specialists some hard times, most of the book (especially its earliest chapters) do a great job of conversing with a wide audience.

One feature I’ve especially appreciated is the inclusion of end-of-chapter summaries, as it really helped wrap my brain around some of the topics I’ve had difficulty with. Ten Great Ideas about Chance also features an annotated bibliography and appendices in many chapters, which treat topics the authors deemed too tangential or technical for the main body of the work.

All in all, it’s a great book for anyone who wants to understand some of the central tenets of probability, how they were discovered, and how they can be tamed in our day-to-day lives.

Book Review: ‘The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe’

The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe
by Clifford Johnson
MIT Press, 246 pages // Buy on Amazon

I never thought I’d say this, but here it goes: I’m definitely a fan of science comics. After Heretics! first introduced me to the concept, I was ready for another adventure — this time, in the realm of physics.

The book is essentially a series of conversations about science. Physicist Clifford Johnson takes the ancient, Socratic form of a dialogue and adapts it to the modern comic book environment. This medium is a metaphor in itself: Johnson believes we need to have more conversations about science, and, quite frankly, I agree.

While not as humorous and whimsical as Heretics!, I found that The Dialogues: Conversations About the Nature of the Universe does a fantastic job of explaining complex concepts in a way that’s not only easy to understand but also pleasant to follow. But what really sets it apart is the sheer quality of the writing. He effortlessly blends the natural, down-to-earth curiosity within us all with a patient knowledge that comes with decades of study.

Clifford Johnson is a highly respected physicist in his own right, his work mostly focusing on superstring theory and particle physics. But unlike others in his field, Johnson isn’t afraid to take a step down and talk “in English” — in a clear, simple language that anyone can understand.

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, who wrote a blurb on the back of the book, rightly praised it as a very fun way of presenting physics. As Prescod-Weinstein, says, “This is simply the best introduction to electromagnetism — for any audience — that I’ve ever seen. I learned something from it, and I would consider putting this on a freshman physics syllabus.”

I had my doubts at first — the dialogues start out a bit dry, but they pick up quickly, and I soon found myself completely immersed in the book’s story. It begins with two people meeting at a costume party, discussing what a superhero scientist would be like — using his power not to fight crime, but rather to conduct better experiments. It then moves on to look at a brother and sister trying to understand why rice gets bigger when cooked and later continues on to deeper, existential topics.

But my favorite thing about this book is how it stays true to its name: it presents the nature of the universe, and it does so through dialogues. In a world that’s increasingly polarized, ignorance is often praised and despite all the technology available to us, we find it harder and harder to talk to each other. Perhaps having conversations is the best way to unite us once more. Perhaps it’s time to start having some real conversations about science, and this book is a great place to start.

 

fate of rome book

Book review: ‘The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire’

fate of rome book

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire
By Kyle Harper
Princeton University Press, 440pp | Buy on Amazon

From its founding in 625 BC to its fall in AD 476, the Roman Empire conquered and integrated dozens of cultures. Much has been said about what’s perhaps the most influential state in history. Modern countries owe their language, civil codes, laws, and heritage to the Romans. But although every empire has an apex, it also has a breaking point from which it spirals-down into insignificance.

Animated map showing the rise and decline of the Roman Empire. Credit: Roke, Wikimedia Commons.

Animated map showing the rise and decline of the Roman Empire. Legend: red (Roman Republic), purple (Imperial Rome), green (Eastern Roman Empire), blue (Western Roman Empire). Credit: Roke, Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written about the downfall of the Roman Empire. Many have argued that rampant corruption and too much pressure, due to its phenomenal expanse for an Iron Age state eventually destroyed Rome.

In an impressive scholarly work, Kyle Harper, a professor of classics and letters at the University of Oklahoma, offers a new and refreshing perspective on this topic of major importance. In The Fate of RomeClimate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, Harper puts nature at the center of Rome’s undoing.

The author argues that the empire’s very strengths — travel, trade, migration — which raised it to such great height also accelerated its demise. All roads lead to Rome, as the saying goes, but along with merchants and provincials from all corners of the empire, they also brought tuberculosis, leprosy, smallpox, plague, and other diseases. Not just once was the empire crippled by pandemics like The Antonine Plague (165-180 AD) which decimated legions and up to 15 percent of the population.

Supported by modern studies which cleverly infer the ancient climate from proxies like sediment cores or tree rings, Harper also makes a solid case that a drier climate during the empire’s later period also contributed significantly to its downfall. Unlike the anomalously favorable climate during the Roman Climate Optimum — some 350 years of unusually warm and moist climate between around 200 BC and AD 150 which helped the empire rise to power — the following centuries came as a wakeup call.

In the third century AD, Rome was struck by drought in the southern Mediterranean, especially Rome’s breadbasket, Egypt. Political upheaval was inevitable, runaway inflation was rampant as coins were debased, and, yet again, plagues ran amok (perhaps even from Ebola, the author argues). For instance, the Justinian plague of AD 541 halved the Eastern Roman Empire’s population.

Pressured by an unkind environment and climate, Rome grew feeble and vulnerable in the face of invaders like Goths, Persians, and Franks, who seized the opportunity and overrun Rome’s weakened borders.

Of course, Harper’s thesis isn’t that the climate and disease are what brought down Rome. The human factor played a role that was at the very least as important but this book offers a context for an incredibly complex system. In some instances, nature’s force was just enough to tip the scales either in Rome’s favor or to its disadvantage during its history.

And if all of this sounds strikingly familiar, it’s because we’re also living at crossroads. In only 150 years, the globe has warmed by nearly 1 degree Celsius, an unheard of rate in millions of years. If there’s anything we have to learn from Rome, it’s that we should never underestimate nature. But unlike the Romans who were largely ignorant, at the mercy of the gods if you will, we have science. It’s time to act before the downfall of Rome mirrors that of modern civilization.

It has to be mentioned that Harper spared no expense, presenting his thesis in exhaustive detail. Some uninitiated readers might find this daunting but it is my impression that his extremely compelling writing, which is rather rare for a scholarly work, makes up for it. This is certainly not a book you can go through on a rainy afternoon but neither is it boring, to say the least.

Book Review: ‘Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do

Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do
by John Bargh
Touchstone, 352 pages // Buy on Amazon

Why do we do the things we do, what lurks beneath our sense of awareness, and what does a Led Zeppelin fan have in common with the human brain? Before You Know It does a lot to answer these questions, and it does so in style.

The human brain is quite possibly the most complex object known to mankind. While we still can’t claim to truly understand it, we have come a long way, understanding at least some of its surprising intricacies.

Yet despite this complexity, the book still manages to maintain an accessible and pleasant approach to describing the human brain. To me, that’s an important part of what separates the good science books from the excellent ones — and Before You Know It certainly shines in this regard. It presents even the most complex bits of science in an engaging, reasonable language, and it also does a great job at not oversimplifying things, which is often the trade-off in books like these.

You could hardly find a better writer for this type of book. John Bargh is a highly respected social psychologist currently working at Yale University who’s dedicated his life towards understanding what behaviors are a result of our own will, and what behaviors come as an automatic response to external stimuli. He takes us through a number of pivotal experiments and trials. Bargh’s own creative and thorough experiments played an important part in advancing social psychology.

However, within the realm of this particular branch of science, not all is clear. Historically, replicability issues have plagued social psychology, and Bargh himself has not been spared from such issues. So Before You Know It shouldn’t necessarily be regarded as the be-all-end-all of conscious and unconscious behavior, but rather as a collection of thorough, modern, and scientifically sound pieces of evidence — many of which will certainly surprise you.

Let’s take a phenomenon called stereotype threat — a situation where people who are subtly made aware of a stereotype against them tend to actually behave according to that stereotype. In other words, if the world has a negative impression of you and you’re made aware of that fact, you tend to fulfill that negative impression — which can be particularly problematic, as many such stereotypes are instilled in us since childhood. For instance, a study found that girls feel that they are weaker than boys at maths even before starting school!

I found myself fully immersed in these stories, wondering just how much of my own behavior is influenced by or as a result ofsuch effects.

Before You Know It isn’t a book only for specialists. It’s the type of book everyone can — and if I’d dare say, should — read. It will not only get you up to speed with over a century of active research and take you on a rollercoaster of paradigm shifts, but it will also help you better understand other people — as well as yourself.

 

Black-holes-little-book

Book review: ‘The Little Book of Black Holes’

Black-holes-little-book

The Little Book of Black Holes
By Steven S. Gubser and Frans Pretorius
Princeton University Press, 200pp | Buy on Amazon

On September 14, 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Livingston, Louisiana, detected gravitational waves produced by the merger of two black holes. This was the culmination of decades-long efforts, allowing scientists to finally pick up the faint whispers murmured by accelerating massive objects, causing ripples in space-time much like a stone thrown in a pond generates oscillations on the water’s surface.

This milestone achievement was confirmed recently on August 17, 2017, by the third detection of gravitational waves produced by merging neutron stars whose signal was also detected with conventional methods in ground-based telescopes.

Remarkably, these revolutionizing discoveries were predicted more than a hundred years ago by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, which describes how matter distorts the fabric of space-time based on its mass — more massive objects have a greater effect. It was another German physicist by the name of Karl Schwartzchild who found a rigorous solution to the field equations in Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. He did this while serving on the Russian front during World War I. His work became one of the pillars of modern relativistic studies, eventually leading to the conceptualization of, perhaps, the most mysterious objects in the universe: black holes. 

Black holes are strange. They’re the last stage in the evolution of some massive stars (at least 10 times more massive than the Sun) which collapse in a region in space where the pulling force of gravity is so strong that not even light is able to escape. This means that we can’t directly observe black holes. No one has ‘seen’ a black hole so far, but after decades of research, scientists are confident they exist because nothing other than a black hole can explain the physics around us.

Black holes are also notoriously difficult to grasp. Despite this, Steven Gubser and Frans Pretorius, two young professors of physics at Princeton, do an excellent job with their “Little Book of Black Holes”. The brief overview provides a great rundown of the physics and thought system required to get to the bottom of a black hole (spoiler: it’s not pleasant once you cross inside).

This lovely book is a rollercoaster ride through time and space, taking the reader right through the ins and outs of peculiar objects like black holes, white holes, and even wormholes, with bouts of ‘real-life’ illustrations to keep the experience (somewhat) grounded. All of this and much more in less than 200 pages, which speaks volumes about the authors’ ability to condense an eminently complex subject into a relatable form.

Prepare for a lot of weirdness but if you can make it to the end, you might feel a little shiver after grazing the last chapter. One can only imagine what Albert Einstein, the man who started it all and who never acknowledged the existence of black holes, would say were he alive today to see where modern cosmology is at. The authors made this thoughtful leap in the last chapter of the book where they write a candid letter to Einstein bringing him up to speed with quasars, dark energy, LIGO, and, of course, black holes.

“A lot of Princeton professors don’t wear ties to work anymore, but most of us do wear socks. Lake Carnegie is as beautiful as ever. We don’t see many sailors out there, but there’s been an eagle nesting right on the edge of the lake. We haven’t figured out a unified field theory yet, but we’re still trying. The best is yet to come.”

Yours truly

Steve and Frans

 

Book Review: ‘Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions’

Face Value
By Alexander Todorov
Princeton University Press, 326pp | Buy on Amazon

Alexander Todorov knows that in a fraction of a second of seeing someone’s face, we form an impression. In an incredibly short amount of time — almost intuitively — we form an idea about a person’s character, dominance, kindness, openness, and a myriad of other characteristics. Todorov knows this because he’s studied it for many years. He knows it’s in our very nature to do it — and he also knows it’s probably completely wrong.

Whenever we think about a person, we associate him or her with their face; after all, the eyes are the window to the soul, right? Well, not really. As you’ll find out quite quickly in the book, it’s more the eyebrows that distinguish a face more than the eyes — in other words, you might distinguish a face with its eyes blanked out, but doing the same thing with the eyebrows is much more difficult.

For all the emphasis we place on faces, we’re terrible at judging them. A simple, almost indistinguishable jaw edit can make a politician look more confident or competent. Even something which we don’t consider at all, like face reflectance, can make a face look more submissive or more dominant. It can also make a face seem more trustworthy or more treacherous. Masculinity seems to be innately more dominant, while facial feminine traits seem to be associated with approachability. This added a whole new dimension to the studies. From ancient pseudo-sciences who claimed they could establish who is a criminal through facial analysis alone, now we know much more — and as it often happens, knowing more means being less arrogant about the conclusions you can draw.

Computer analysis and carefully drawn studies have enabled researchers to understand much more about what makes faces appear in a particular way, and it’s often surprisingly little. Researchers create synthetic face models, altering different parameters and seeing how this changes people’s perceived image. It’s a new field to me, one to which I confess having very little previous interest. But page by page I was drawn in and several times, I just found myself not being able to stop. Todorov is a great scientist, it goes without saying, but he’s also a great teacher, and a surprisingly good storyteller. It’s not the kind of book you’d expect to want to read more — just as in an adventure novel — but that’s exactly what Face Value does: it gives you a lot of information in a way that always leaves you wanting for more.

As I’m writing this, all Amazon ratings give Face Value the maximum score and I can’t imagine it possibly rating lower than this. It’s a delightful book filled with intriguing knowledge which I recommend to people of all ages and all backgrounds.

Book Review: ‘Dark Ecology’

Dark Ecology
By Timothy Morton
Columbia University Press, 208pp | Buy on Amazon

Dark Ecology is not your average book. It’s not a light read, something you leave on the nightstand and read a few pages to relax. It’s a book that will challenge you, leave you puzzled at times, and overall, give you a greater understanding of the world.

Usually when discussing a book, I like to ignore the author and focus on the work itself, not on who created it. But it’s simply impossible to separate Tim Morton from Dark Ecology. His typical blending of concrete object-oriented analysis alternates with intricate story-telling to create a special mixture of hardcore science and philosophy. It’s a dark, mysterious path, but a rewarding one at that.

The thing is, you can’t really separate Dark Ecology from Morton. In a way, it’s like a Dali painting — bold, charming, and at points, outrageous. If you’ve not read any of his works, be prepared for a Sophocles trip down the science of ecology, where brilliant ideas and complex topics are thrown around with ease, though sometimes without a clear point at the end.

If anything, I wish Morton would capitalize on his ideas more. Often, it feels like he’s about to deliver the finishing blow to and make his final statement, only to wind up in more metaphors and more explanations.

The gist of the book is that we can — nay, we must — rethink ecology. We must bring it down from a pedestal into our midst, where we can properly interact with it. Morton says:

“Nature is a surrounding medium that sustains our being. Due to the properties of the rhetoric that evokes the idea of a surrounding medium, ecological writing can never properly establish that this is nature and thus provide a compelling and consistent aesthetic basis for the new worldview that is meant to change society. It is a small operation, like tipping over a domino…Putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman. It is a paradoxical act of sadistic admiration.”

It’s passages of deep insight like the one above that make you just want to close your eyes for a few moments and really turn the wheels in your head. After Dark Ecology, there’s a good chance you’ll never see nature again, and give a lot of thought to things you wouldn’t have even considered. It’s a fatiguing and rewarding experience, like an intensive gym session for your brain. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Foragers farmers fossil fuels.

Book Review: ‘Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve’

Foragers farmers fossil fuels.

 

“Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve”
By Ian Morris
Princeton University Press, 400pp | Buy on Amazon

What we consider as ‘right’ or ‘just’ isn’t set in stone — far from it. In Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels, Stanford University’s Willard Professor of Classics Ian Morris weaves together several strands of science, most notably history, anthropology, archeology, and biology, to show how our values change to meet a single overriding human need: energy.

Do you think your boss should be considered better than you in the eyes of the law? Is it ok to stab someone over an insult? Or for your country’s military to shell some other country back to the stone age just because they’re ‘the enemy’? Do leaders get their mandate from the people, from god, or is power something to be taken by force? Is it ok to own people? Should women tend to home and family only, or can they pick their own way in life?

Your answers and the answers of someone living in the stone age, the dark age, or even somebody from a Mad-Men-esque 1960’s USA wouldn’t look the same. In fact, your answers and the answers of someone else living today in a different place likely won’t be the same.

Values derive from culture

They’ll be different because a lot of disparate factors weigh in on how we think about these issues. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll bundle all of them up under the umbrella-term of ‘culture’, taken to mean “the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society.” I know what you’ll answer in broad lines because I can take a look at Google Analytics and see that most of you come from developed, industrialized countries which (for the most part) are quite secular and have solid education systems. That makes most of you quite WEIRD — western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.

As we’re all so very weird, our cultures tend to differ a bit on the surface (we speak different languages and each have our own national dessert, for example). The really deep stuff, however — the frameworks on which our cultures revolve —  these tend to align pretty well (we see equality as good, violence as being bad, to name a few). In other words, we’re a bit different but we all share a core of identical values. Kind of like Christmass time, when everybody has very similar trees but decorates them differently, WEIRD cultures are variations on the same pattern.

It’s not the only pattern out there by any means, but it’s one of the (surprisingly) few that seem to work. Drawing on his own experience of culture shock working as an anthropologist and archaeologist in non-WEIRD countries, Professor Morris mixes in a bird’s eye view of history with biology and helpings from other fields of science to show how the dominant source of energy a society draws on forces them to clump into one of three cultural patterns — hunter-gatherers, farmers (which he names Agraria), and fossil-fuel users (Industria).

Energy dictates culture

In broad lines, Morris looks at culture as a society’s way to adapt to sources of energy capture. The better adapted they become, the bigger the slice of available energy they can extract, and the better equipped they will be to displace other cultures — be them on the same developmental level or not. This process can have ramifications in seemingly unrelated ways we go about our lives.

To get an idea of how Morris attacks the issue, let’s take a very narrow look at Chapter 2, where he talks about prehistoric and current hunter-gatherer cultural patterns. Morris shows how they “share a striking set of egalitarian values,” and overall “take an extremely negative view of political and economic hierarchy, but accept fairly mild forms of gender hierarchy and recognize that there is a time and place for violence.”

This cultural pattern stems from a society which extracts energy from its surroundings without exercising any “deliberate alterations of the gene pool of harvested resources.” Since everything was harvested from the wild and there was no way to store it, there was a general expectation to share food with the group. Certain manufactured goods did have an owner, but because people had to move around to survive, accumulating wealth beyond trinkets or tools to pass on was basically impossible, and organized government was impractical. Finally, gender roles only went as far as biological constraints — men were better tailored to hunt, so they were the ones that hunted, for example. But the work of a male hunter or a female gatherer were equally important to assuring a family’s or group’s caloric needs were met — as such, society had equal expectations and provided almost the same level of freedom and the same rights for everyone, regardless of sex. There was one area, however, where foragers weren’t so egalitarian:

“Abused wives regularly walk away from their husbands without much fuss or criticism [in foraging societies],” Morris writes, something which would be unthinkable in the coming Agraria.

“Forager equalitarianism partially breaks down, though, when it comes to gender hierarchy. Social scientists continue to argue why men normally hold the upper hand in foarger societies. After all, […] biology seems to have dealt women better cards. Sperm are abundant […] and therefore cheap, while eggs are scarce […] and therefore expensive. Women ought to be able to demand all kinds of services from men in return for access to their eggs,” Morris explains in another paragraph. “To some extent, this does happen,” he adds, noting that male foragers participate “substantially more in childrearing than […] our closest genetic neighbours.”

But political or economic authority is something they can almost never demand from the males. This, Morris writes, is because “semen is not the only thing male foragers are selling.”

“Because [males] are also the main providers of violence, women need to bargain for protection; because men are the main hunters, women need to bargain for meat; and because hunting often trains men to cooperate and trust one another, individual women often find themselves negotiating with cartels of men,” he explains.

This is only a sliver of a chapter. You can expect to see this sort of in-depth commentary of how energy capture dictates the shape of societies across the span of time throughout the 400-page book. I don’t want to spoil the rest of it, since it really is an enjoyable read so I’ll give you the immensely-summed-up version:

Farmers / Agraria exercise some genetic modifications in other species (domestication), tolerate huge political, economic, and gender hierarchies, and are somewhat tolerant of violence (but less than foragers). Fossil-fuelers / Industria was made possible by an “energy bonanza,” and are very intolerant of political hierarchies, gender hierarchy, and violence, but are somewhat tolerant of economic hierarchies (less than Agrarians).

These sets of values ‘stuck’ because they maximised societies’ ability to harvest energy at each developmental level. Societies which could draw on more energy could impose themselves on others (through technology, culture, economy, warfare), eventually displacing them or making these other societies adopt the same values in an effort to compete.

Should I read it?

Definitely. Morris’ is a very Darwinian take on culture, and he links this underlying principle with cultural forms in a very pleasant style that hits the delicate balance of staying comprehensive without being boring, accessible without feeling dumbed down.

The theory is not without its shortcomings, and the book even has four chapters devoted to very smart people (University of Exter professor emeritus of classics and ancient history Richard Seaford, former Sterling Professor of History at Yale University Jonathan D. Spence, Harvard University Professor of Philosophy Christine Korsgaard, and The Handmaiden’s Tale’s own Margaret Atwood) slicing the theory and bashing it about for all its flaws. Which I very much do appreciate, as in Morris’ own words, debates “raise all kinds of questions that I would not have thought of by myself.” Questions which the author does not leave unanswered.

All in all, it’s a book I couldn’t more warmly recommend. I’ve been putting off this review for weeks now, simply because I liked it so much, I wanted to make sure I do it some tiny bit of justice. It’s the product of a lifetime’s personal experience, mixed with a vast body of research, then distilled through the hand of a gifted wordsmith. It’s a book that will help you understand how values — and with them, the world we know today — came to be, and how they evolved through time. It’ll give you a new pair of (not always rose-tinted) glasses through which to view human cultures, whether you’re in your home neighborhood or vacationing halfway across the world.

But most of all, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels will show you that apart from a few biologically “hardwired” ones it’s the daily churn of society, not some ultimate authority or moral compass, that dictates our values — that’s a very liberating realization. It means we’re free to decide for ourselves which are important, which are not, and what we should strive for to change our society for the better. Especially now that new sources of energy are knocking at our door.

unsolved book review

Book Review: ‘Unsolved! The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers’

unsolved book review

Unsolved! The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies
By Craig P. Bauer
Princeton University Press, 624pp | Buy on Amazon

After the Sumerians invented writing more than 5,000 years ago, mankind went through a cultural explosion. This new paradigm freed us from the burden of having to pass down knowledge strictly orally, from person to person. Human memory, as we all can attest, can be fallible. As more and more people became literate, however, people had to devise ways to conceal the true meaning of their writing. Thus, the first ciphers were born.

In his latest book, Craig P. Bauer, an associate professor of mathematics at York College of Pennsylvania, introduces the uninitiated reader to the fascinating world of cryptography. To make this even more interesting, his book features some of the most mysterious ciphers and codes in history, some of them which remain unsolved to this day. These include the famous Voynich Manuscript but also other less known — though equally fascinating — crypto mysteries like the Dorabella cipher or the contemporary Cicada 3301 puzzle. There’s, of course, also a rundown of some of the most interesting ancient ciphers used by the Greeks, Romans or Vikings.

Bauer, who has served as a scholar in residence at the NSA’s Center for Cryptologic History, is a pretty good code-breaker himself. He shares some of his skills and knowledge by introducing the reader to some of the most common techniques and how to break them. One common technique is the MASC, where characters are substituted to disguise the original message just like a mask hides the identity of a person. It’s also one of the oldest encoding techniques, having been routinely used by Julius Caesar during his military campaigns. From here, the author presents some of the more sophisticated techniques which are used by spies and intelligence agencies. In no time, you should be able to cipher your own messages. You probably won’t fool the NSA but at least you’ll have some fun.

You’ll also learn about how some bizarre people claim to use cryptography techniques to communicate with the dead. Speaking of which, there are two chapters dedicated to both the ciphers left by serial killers like the Zodiac Killer but also those found on the bodies of various victims like the Unknown Man of Somerton Beach. And if you’re already a decent code breaker, Bauer has some challenges for you. Some have been unsolved for decades. Maybe you’ll be the one to crack them.

Being almost oblivious to how ciphers and encryption works, I found this book to be a fine introduction. Though it’s a rather hefty volume, over 600 pages long, I didn’t find reading it daunting as Bauer writes compellingly despite the wealth of technical information. This means that readers who just want to brush up on some cipher history as well those who want to really dive into it will find this book satisfying.

 

Book Review: ‘Universal’

“Universal”
By Brian Cox, Jeff Forshaw.
Da Capo Press, 304pp | Buy on Amazon

It must be hard, even for veteran physicists, to imagine the universe from the smallest of particles to the vastness of outer space. Understanding it is an even more daring proposition. So I’ll be honest, when I first started reading Universal, I felt a bit of skepticism. A book that strives not only to present the universe for what it is, but also to explain why it is the way it is, and how we know it — that’s an ambitious goal if I’ve ever heard one. But page by page I sank into it and was thrilled. In a world of fast and superficial information, Universal is a breath of fresh air that goes right to the core of things. In a world of whats, it is a book of whys and hows.

“We dare to imagine a time when the entire observable Universe was compressed into a region of space smaller than an atom.”

From the very first page, it got me thinking. It’s a bit audacious, isn’t it? That we claim to know things about the very insides of the Earth. That we sent people to the Moon and back. That we see and understand stars at distances we can barely comprehend. As the authors themselves say, cosmology must be the most audacious of all sciences. But how does it work? How can we know so much about something that happened so far away, and so long ago? And what does it all have to do with a man on the beach in Ogmore-by-sea?

The problem with cosmology, as is the problem with particle physics, for instance, is that it’s often so very hard to comprehend. It’s all so foreign, so alien — the rules of day to day life don’t really affect quarks, and they don’t really affect black holes. So while many people are aware of the Big Bang and black holes as a concept, few really understand what these phenomena entail. We take them for granted, we read or hear something about them on the news or on Wikipedia, and we’re good to go. But seeing an apple and tasting an apple is not the same thing. You might know the apple exists, you might see its color and have some understanding of its taste — but until you sink your teeth into it, until you feel its taste flowing inside your mouth, you don’t really know what an apple is, do you? This is what Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw did. Many books will tell you that apples exist and describe them, sometimes in great detail. But Cox and Forshaw let you sink your teeth into it, and once you do you’ll have a whole new understanding of it.

More to the point, the book is structured in eight chapters that will walk you through the history of the universe. Each chapter has several practical gray boxes, where you can get a better understanding of the underlying science, and various experiments that you can do yourself (or at least read about). You’d probably be shocked to see just how many things you can do with over the counter technology. You could, for instance, calculate the size of the Earth. Or see that the universe is expanding. Or even get a glimpse into the sheer size of the universe. The book walks you through all the concepts you need to understanding and does a great job at facilitating your journey through the eons and the light years. Having a decent grasp of physics is not really necessary, though it certainly helps. But I feel that this book shines most when it encounters curiosity. Universal gives you a lot of information without really being demanding, but it’s especially rewarding to inquisitive minds who want to understand more and more. It’s not about what you know, it’s about what you want to know.

I’d like to save a special mention for the Einstein’s Theory of Gravity chapter. Rarely have I read such a clear explanation of such a complex topic, and I’m happy to say it furthered my understanding of the concept. Though the entire book flows smoothly, this chapter shines especially bright.

In the end, Universal is a great book. Not because it’s written by two brilliant physicists, or because it tells a great story, but because of the way it is written. It focuses on understanding and not merely knowing things. I can only wish more books would do the same.

Plots book review Belknap

Book Review: ‘Plots’

Plots book review Belknap

Plots
By Robert L. Belknap
Columbia University Press, 196pp | Buy on Amazon

For those of us who enjoy reading, our energy is spent mostly on the content of the book, and not its structure. We follow the plot, we follow the action, but what makes a good plot, after all? Why do we celebrate Shakespeare as the playwright extraordinaire, and not any other of his talented peers? What makes Dostoievski’s work rise above so many others? Robert Belknap doesn’t directly ask that, but he dissects storytelling and literary plots in ways I never thought possible. Plots is definitely not an easy read — it was likely never meant to be — but if you want to get your hands dirty and look at the very core of what makes a story, this is it.

I’d say the bare minimum “backpack” you need for Plots is Shakespeare’s King Lear and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Belknap makes numerous references to the two masterpieces, though he often mentions other works of Shakespeare, as well as those of Aristotle and other Russian formalists. You’d certainly gain new perspectives even having not read the two, but since they are used as case studies, Belknap’s efforts would largely be wasted; and that would just be a shame.

Working within a charming storytelling frame himself, he manages to easily pass from complex topic to complex topic, make things surprisingly easy to digest even for someone without much experience in literary analysis (read: yours truly). The fact that he keeps murky jargon to a minimum helps make Plots quite attractive and pleasant to read. The fabulasiuzhet discussion is a notable exception. Basically, both terms can be translated as ‘plot,’ but they don’t really mean the same thing. In a sense, Belknap explains, fabula is what really happens, whereas siuzhet is how this story is told. It’s from here that he starts his theory of storytelling and plots, showing an extraordinary ability to notice and analyze critical details, a skill undoubtedly honed in decades of literary studies.

Don’t get me wrong though, it gets quite dry at points, especially in the first part of the book, but it’s worth getting through it. I’d dare say that if you do, you’ll never look at a book or a plot in the same way. I truly recommend this book not only to those studying literature but to those who really want to understand stories.

Still, Plots is not a book for everyone. It’s for those who want to take their literary understanding to the next level. It makes a lot of sense then that a book that so easily throws masterpieces into the fray is a masterpiece itself — I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Book Review: ‘Birds of Kruger National Park’

Birds of Kruger National Park
By Christopher Keith Barnes and Ken Behren
Princeton University Press, 224 pp | Buy on Amazon

When people think of African animals, they usually think of lions, giraffes, or elephants. But Africa’s stunning biodiversity isn’t limited to mammals — there’s quite an array of birds too. Beautifully designed and easy to browse, Birds of Kruger National Park fills an important gap and will be useful not just in the park, but in many other areas with similar habitats, to everyone wanting to explore Africa’s avian wildlife.

Kruger National Park in South Africa covers an area of 19,485 square kilometers (7,523 sq mi). Kruger’s complex geology gives birth to complex ecosystems, hosting a stunning variety of wildlife. Most visitors of the park are interested in the “big five” — the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros. But as Keith Barnes and Ken Behrens suggest, birds also have an elite squad; a “big six,” actually, featuring the Lappet-faced Vulture, the Martial Eagle, the Saddle-billed Stork, the Kori Bustard, the Southern Ground-Hornbill, and Pel’s Fishing-Owl. These are the top attractions for birders, but of course, there’s an extremely wide array of species you can find in the park. This is where this book, serving both as a general guide and as an identification tool, comes in.

With over 250 described species. Birds of Kruger National Park will prove useful for newcomers and experienced birders alike. You get beautiful photos, physical characteristics, and a description of varying size for all of them. There’s all the basic information you could want, and a lot of extra stuff for the big six which particularly useful. In the case of the Pel’s Fishing-Owl for instance, that can be quite crucial since the species is notoriously difficult to locate.

All in all, the book checks all the boxes. It’s big enough to cover many of the park’s species and small enough to not be a drag to carry around. It blends in lovely, detailed images, and quite a bit of text. Even if you’re not into birds at all, it’s just a great book to get you started and know what you’re looking at.

It’s as good a bird book as any, and I’d recommend it to everyone visiting Kruger Park as well as other, similar, habitats across the continent.

Heretics Book Review

Book Review: Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy

Heretics Book Review

Heretics!
By Steven Nadler, Ben Nadler
Princeton University Press, 192pages | Buy on Amazon

With its delightful visuals and simplistic way of presenting complex topics, Heretics! has what it takes to become a classic, or even better yet — pioneer a new literary genre.

It’s extremely rare to come across a book that’s innovative in form as well as in content, but I think Heretics! just deserves those accolades. Masterfully mixing a comic book style with complex notions from science and philosophy, Heretics! manages to charm and educate at the same time, and it does all this in style.

Reading about 17th-century philosophy sounds like a daunting task. But going through a graphic novel, sprinkled with delightful jokes and lovable characters is definitely more attractive. You learn just a bit about people such as Descartes, Leibniz, or Newton. You get the feel of how they were feeling in the religion-dominated historic context of their time, and how they might have felt about each other in terms of ideas and philosophy. Most remarkably, it does all this while being cute. This is where I feel Heretics! shines most: it’s fun for everyone, whether you’re a child, a philosophy undergrad, or just someone who wants to read about these gargantuan personalities who shaped how we think for centuries to come. It has something to offer to all of us. It’s a neat way to get you cracking in the complex and often bizarre world of philosophy.

Can you guess who this person is, and what kind of trouble he was referring to? Image credits: Nadler & Nadler.

Of course, you won’t come out with a philosophy degree from the book. If anything, you’ll come out with a thirst to know more about the revolutionary theories of Spinoza, for example. You’ll learn how much of a chain the Church was to philosophers, how they tried to mix in their personal beliefs with the mandatory existence of God, and how they reached surprising conclusions working with drastically insufficient information. It’s an unlikely testament to their brilliance.

The cartoonish style of the panels highlights that this book wants to be approachable. It wants to be read and enjoyed by everybody, discussing complex topics in a fun way. It wants to show you the start of modern philosophy while putting a smile on your face. It’s an approach (mixing serious stuff with humor and graphics) which I hope to see in more books.

Book review: ‘The Power of Networks: Six Principles that connect our Lives’

The Power of Networks: Six Principles that Connect Our Lives
By Christopher G. Brinton & Mung Chiang
Princeton University Press, 328 pp | Buy on Amazon

Ever wondered how Netflix seems to know you better than you do when it recommends new series? Well, it does so thanks to a framework that’s common in other situations — like how Google sorts search results or how WiFI directs bandwidth. In their book, authors Christopher G. Brinton & Mung Chiang explain how networks work and how these affect our lives based on six core principles.

Networks have always existed, today much more so than ever thanks to devices that enable us to connect to the largest network in the world — the internet. Building up from a massive open online course presented by the pair a few years back, The Power of Networks aims to demystify the complex structure of rules, standards, and processes which networks use today.

The book is divided into six chapters, each with its corresponding theme or ‘principle’: sharing resource, ranking and ordering, the collective wisdom and folly of crowds, routing, and management. Along the way, the authors also include interviews they made with renowned experts such as former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, former Verizon Wireless CEO Dennis Strigl or Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, the founders of the great internet itself.

Using clear language and familiar analogies, the authors take turns in explaining some very big ideas. For instance, one analogy that pops up on more than one occasion is that of the crowded cocktail party. If everyone talked simultaneously, it would be very difficult for anyone to engage in a meaningful conversation. A host might decide to solve this capacity issue by asking guests to speak at separate times (analogous to how TDMA or 2G allowed mobile phone users to share the spectrum). Alternatively, the host might ask every guest to speak in a different language and then they can all talk simultaneously since each pair listening for one language in particular (analogous to the CDMA system). Things get a lot more exciting when the authors explain 3G and 4G networks.

If your job demands it or if you’re simply interested in learning about how networks function under the hood, this is a great introduction. That’s not to say that the subjects and content tackled are superficial. You’ll get a great overview as a non-specialist but each chapter also dives in deep into its treated subject — again, in a manner that simplifies highly complex topics.

It’s my impression that you’ll get a much better understanding of the ubiquitous networks that bind our digital lives together after reading this book.

Book Review: ‘The Five Horsemen of the Modern World: Climate, Food, Water, Disease, and Obesity’

The Five Horsemen of the Modern World: Climate, Food, Water, Disease, and Obesity
By Daniel Callahan
Colombia University Press, 393 pp | Buy on Amazon

The original four horsemen of the Bible stand for some of humanity’s oldest fears — war and conquest, famine or disease, ultimately death. Each one symbolizes a deeply instinctual dread, of a kind that all life has hard-wired to avoid, literally, under pain of death.

In modern societies, these specters don’t hold as much sway as they once did. Compared to our ancestors, we have plentiful and easily accessible food sources. Science and technology supply drugs and techniques that make us live longer and better than ever before. Wars all take place on TV, with stories of “somewhere else”. We have put systems in place that largely corral these ancient evils.

But we’re not beyond their reach. In The Five Horsemen of the Modern World, american philosopher and biomedical ethicist Danial Callahan takes on these issues in the modern day. The book is divided into three sections comprising 11 chapters and focuses on five modern horsemen — climate, food, water, disease, and obesity.

Section one attempts to identify and quantify each problem in turn. Here Callahan does a superb job of presenting each issue in its fullest extent, withholding personal input in favor of hard facts. Starting with Climate, he shows that heavy exploitation of natural resources has pushed the environment to the brink of collapse. These changes, he writes, will impact all of us one way or another — yet there has been almost no reaction from politics or industry. Callahan takes a look at the role scientific misinformation, as well as political and economic interests play in the issue. In the end, we can’t rely on technological quick-fixes, he writes, but will have to re-think our and our society’s relationship to nature.

“Humans must learn how to live sustainably in harmony with nature and cease believing we can with impunity master and dominate it, and that from an environmental perspective human life on [Earth] may be crippled or even destroyed unless we become nature’s stewards.”

The chapters on Food and Obesity, although separate, treat two chilling ends of the same problem. Part of the world is dying for lack of food, while the other is dying from over-consumption. The rise of a global food market squashes local farmers under a deluge of produce. Combined with a growing fiscalization of the market, this leads to greater energy costs for transport, less food security, raising rates of malnourished and starving people, as well as a growing environmental strain. Callahan also examines the faults in today’s economic models in addressing the food problem. Price fluctuations, he writes, often leave poorer countries unable to afford basic food.

At the same time, developed countries struggle with too much food. Cheap but salt-, sugar-, and fat-rich fast-food powers growing obesity (and death) rates in these countries. Taking the example of China, he warns that an ever-growing population in developing countries will place an exponential burden on our agriculture — they demand more milk, eggs, meat, and other animal goods which require ever more farmland.

Water looks at the growing scarcity of fresh water and the alarming rate of aquifer depletion. Rampant drilling has left may areas, such as India, in risk of drying out. Callahan also details the ethical dilemmas with fiscalizing water, and the unavoidable tragedy of the commons if we don’t regulate water use.

Disease illustrates the divide between the developed world and the rest. The former suffer from bloated medical systems in which huge sums of money are spent on prolonging the life of elderly and treating chronic diseases. The latter simply lack the economic resources to do so, and attempt to focus on prevention.

In the second section, “Examining the Pathways through the Thickets”, Callahan looks at the issues which perpetuate these five problems. Is it ethical to tell people what and how much they can eat, even if you do it to prevent obesity? Is it right for the state to intervene in such personal decisions? And what is the role media and industry play in shaping these personal choices? Can we rely on technology to solve our problems? In the end, these are not simple questions and they do not have simple answers. The book gives all the sides implicated in these issues a chance to present their arguments.

The last section, “Toward the Future: Progress, Hope, and Fear” is in Callahan’s own words “a theory about how and why the five horsemen came into existence.” He points to our need for progress as the root cause of all these issues — the need to live better, and feel that we live better. Globalization of the market, affluence, and wealth inequality are what caused these problems to arise in the first hand.

The Five Horsemen of the Modern World is a work of global scope that takes into account science, politics, economy, and society when analyzing the greatest threats we face today. It dissects these extremely tangled issues in some of the clearest writing I have ever laid eyes upon. Callahan isn’t afraid to go against some of your political, economical, even ethical values at times — but it will do so with solid arguments.

In the end, The Five Horsemen is a book that will challenge you. It will challenge you to change your understanding of “progress”. It will challenge you to look at how everything you know fits in a much greater whole. And most of all, it will challenge us to face the horsemen before they catch up to us.

welcome to the universe book

Book review: ‘Welcome to the Universe’

welcome to the universe book

Welcome to the Universe
By Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, J. Richard Gott
Princeton University Press, 472pp | Buy on Amazon

What do you get when three of the world’s leading astrophysicists band together for a book? Nothing short of the best guided tour to the cosmos, in my humble opinion. Besides being leading scientists in their fields, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richart Gott are each famous for award-winning TV programs and books that popularize science — all the spicy ingredients for an enlightening but entertaining read.

‘Welcome to the Universe’ is comprised of 24 chapters clearly divided into three sections. In the first section, which is mainly authored by Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, you learn about the scale of the universe and stars. You’ll come to understand how really smart people managed to infer our place in the universe by studying the stars, going back to the very first written down observations from 3,000 years ago. There’s also a convincing explanation for why Pluto isn’t a planet.

The second section is written by Strauss, a lecturer at Princeton University, and mainly deals with galaxies — how they form, where the Milky Way fits in all of this, and how galaxies tell us that the Universe is expanding.

In the third and final section, Gott, also a professor at Princeton, explains what Einstein’s work is all about and why his legacy is so important to astrophysics. Relativity, gravity, black holes, and time travel are just a couple of the reserved topics.

By the time you finish reading this hefty volume, you should have a good general idea of what astrophysics entails and how scientists do their jobs. The writing is very friendly and easy to follow, though you’ll find chapters reminiscent of textbooks. This is a popular science book but the authors didn’t shy from including (many) equations, charts, and graphs. Even if you lack a technical background, these are still well explained. Alas, some readers might find many of the chapters outlined in the book too complex. This may not be a book for everyone. But if you like serious science writing, this is a keeper. It’s still early but I think Welcome to the Universe might be the best science book on my list for 2017.