Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Three Mind-altering Science Books

I didn't like science in high school . Chemistry was unbalanced equations and disappoint lab results; physics seemed like an unneeded headache; biology was smelly dissections and a lot of Latinate memorization. But away from the classroom, I can't get enough of science books written for lay audiences. Here are three recent books that messed with my brain in a good way.

The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos

Brian Greene explores ideas, all based on established theories of physics, that there may, in fact, be more than one universe, or that our universe is part of a larger collection of universes called the "multiverse." If that weren't mind-blowing enough, Greene explores seven different varieties of multiverses, each depending on a different theory or set of starting conditions for the development of the multiverse. From the "patchwork" multiverse, in which a universe that's sufficiently large (infinite or nearly so) will eventually repeat itself or come close to repeating itself, creating exact duplicates of all of us, to the holographic multiverse, which uses theories relating to black holes to describe your reality as merely a holographic projection of another reality taking place at the edges of the universe. In between the patchwork multiverse and the holographic multiverse are several other possible multiverses born out of quantum theory, general relativity, and string theory.

It's all very weird and sometimes challenging to grasp, but Greene is both patient and thorough. In contrast to much popular physics, when reading the Hidden Reality, you never feel like Greene giving you approximation of the science, something not quite the truth but easier to understand than the whole truth. Instead, Greene provides plenty of warning when things are going to get complicated and even directs you to skip parts if your brain isn't up for heavy lifting, but always takes the time to step through the theories, using language and illustrations that make it as easy as possible to understand. In the end, you'll come away knowing plenty about what we don't know about our universe and all the others that may exist in parallel to ours. What we do know, though, is that our total reality is vaster and stranger than anyone could ever have guessed.

Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5 Billion-year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin

When Neil Shubin, a paleontologist, was assigned an anatomy class for medical students, he landed on brilliant approach. He decided he'd teach them fish anatomy first. Why would that work? Because fish anatomy is simpler than human anatomy, and ultimately, human anatomy, through evolutionary processes, is derived from fish anatomy. Your Inner Fish explains how we know that tiny single celled organisms are the ancestors of all the animal life on the planet, including us. Shubin, the co-discoverer of a groundbreaking fossil that illustrates how fish evolved into land animals, provides all the background we need to understand the connection between various species and the insights gleaned from paleontology, embryology and genetic research. His book is a nice balance between direct explanation, personal narrative about work in the field and in the lab, and a history of the science of the last two centuries which have fed the understanding we have today. Unlike many similar texts, Shubin doesn't mention questions presented by the Intelligent Design movement, but his whole book could be read as an answer to them. The closest he comes to directly addressing the "C" word, is describing the work of the 19th century biologist Sir Richard Owen who discovered deep similarities in the skeletal structures of many animals and concluded that these similarities were due to the application of a Creator's divine design. Shubin quickly explains, without discounting Owen's work, that Darwin demonstrated that the similarities were due to a common ancestor. Shubin plainly and clearly explains both the genetic processes and the experiments that reveled them. You may ultimate finding yourself as awed as Shubin at the deep and profound links among all forms of life on our planet.

(A warning: some of the embryological experiments Shubin describes (e.g., manipulating flies to grow legs where they ought to have antennae, or causing an embryo to develop two heads) might prove upsetting to some readers. Shubin, showing here a hint of the out-of-touch academic, gives no warning and makes no apologies for these "mad scientist" type experiments.)

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Mary Roach, author of Stiff, about cadavers, and Bonk, about the scientific study of sex, delivers a book about space travel that lacks neither sex nor cadavers. In her witty, tell-it-like-it-is style Roach addresses just about every question you might ever have had, no matter how shy you might have been to ask it, about how human beings survive and live in space. Given the weightless environment, the extreme forces required to get there, and the deadly, airless, radiation-bathed nothingness outside, astronauts can take almost nothing for granted. Roach explores how astronauts do everything, (and I mean everything) and provides a thorough and entertaining history of research from NASA and the international community (even including a porn producer) dedicated to all of the unique problems encountered in space travel.

This book is not mind bending in the sense of Your Inner Fish or The Hidden Reality, but it will make you think new thoughts about the extremes humans will go to in order to explore space. Roach, to her credit, is willing to go many of the extremes herself almost as if she were responding to a lunchroom dare. She even goes so far as to drink her own treated urine. Mind altering? Uh, yeah.

1 comment :

Sarah Stevenson said...

I've been wanting to read Packing for Mars--thanks for the reminder. Also, I heard Brian Greene talk about his work on NPR at some point recently. These are great choices!