Book Review: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution, Jonathan B. Losos

Book Review: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of EvolutionJonathan B. Losos

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Nonfiction: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of EvolutionJonathan B. Losos

 

Improbable Destinies is a delightful book. It is hard science with a very personal and human touch. Jonathan Losos is an expert in the field: professor of biology, director of the Losos Laboratory, and Curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology (all three positions with Harvard University). His scientific credentials are apparent throughout the book. It is thoroughly researched and referenced, with 10 pages of notes at the end (prefaced with the comment that they are “not exhaustive.”). What is also apparent throughout Improbable Destinies is his love and passion for both the subject and for the people who are involved in evolution research.

 

 

In 1989, Stephen Jay Gould wrote an amazing book about evolution. Wonderful Life explored the findings at the Burgess Shale fossil depository. Marvelous creatures abound there, creatures unlike anything we see today. Relics of an explosion of life millennia ago, they tell the story of creatures that inhabited the earth long before the dinosaurs–creatures that for some mysterious reason disappeared in a mass extinction. Gould uses the creatures of the Burgess Shale to make the point that evolution is random. Drawing his metaphor from the iconic Frank Capra movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Gould posits that changing one thing in evolution–removing one “George Bailey” life form or one DNA change or one climate event–from the timeline would result in an entirely different evolutionary outcome.

 

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Gould suggested that testing this hypothesis was essentially impossible. It would require rewinding the clock and allowing millions of years of evolution to unfold again and again to see what the outcome was. But Gould’s conclusions have been challenged in recent years, most notably by Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University (Gould actually is quite effusive in praise of Morris in Wonderful Life, but their professional differences are significant). Morris believes that natural selection has much more predictable outcomes: The Runes of Evolution and The Crucible of Creation. Evolutionary adaptations are responses to natural stimuli, and given the same stimuli we often see very similar life forms evolve. Nose horns work well for rhinos and presumably did so for triceratops. Wings lift bats and birds just as they did pterosaurs. Sharks and whales and tuna all power through seas once patrolled by ichthyosaurs. The outcomes may not be identical, but convergent evolution is clearly powerful.

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Historically, from Darwin forward, evolution has been thought to require millennia to observe. This was still true in 1989 when Gould wrote Wonderful Life. However, we are finding that sometimes evolution can be seen in a matter of just a few generations. And in short-lived animals, that may mean a period of just a few years. What happens in a few generations of ground-based lizards if they are stranded on an island full of bushes? Or tree lizards on an island without trees? These are questions that can be answered, at least partially, within the span of a single research grant

 

Enter Improbable Destinies. Losos is a fan of both Gould and Morris, and his book acknowledges the profound contributions both men have made. He introduces us to new heroes in the field of evolutionary research. His book takes us to research sites in England and the Bahamas and Trinidad and exotic East Lansing. He looks at field studies of plants and lizards and fish and at laboratory experiments with yeast and e coli. Some of these experiments have lasted for decades. In some cases, scientists have even “rewound the clock,” reviving bacteria literally frozen years before in order to see whether the same adaptation occurs in their descendants as was observed in descendants of bacteria from the same source that was not frozen.

 

Not to give the plot away, but the results are….complex. Science is. And the conclusions Losos draws are essentially that both Gould and Morris are right, and both Gould and Morris are wrong. Convergent evolution is an observable phenomenon. Unique species of anole lizards live on different Caribbean islands, but on each island there are species that share many similar characteristics filling different ecological niches. Cuban anoles that live in trees are different species from Puerto Rican anoles that live in trees, even though they look very similar. Their ecological niche has favored selection of babies that are well adapted to living in trees. Those adaptations make for similarly sized and shaped lizards from island to island, but they are still different species. Equally observable is the one-off life form: there are no real equivalents to platypus or kiwi or any number of other unique animals…including humans. Hairless, bipedal, tool-using apes with large brains may now live all over the earth, but amid the catalog of species they are unique in their adaptations to their environment.

 

Improbable Destinies is a fascinating book. Part history, part mystery, all science and all amazing. It is written for an adult audience, though scientifically minded tweens and teens would love it as well. And if, like me, you read and loved Gould’s Wonderful Life, this is a fantastic book to bring you up to date on the current state of evolutionary science. I enthusiastically recommend it.

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Book Review: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of EvolutionJonathan B. Losos

Book Review: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

Book Review: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

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Nonfiction: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You ThinkHans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

 

I once thought I was smarter than a chimpanzee. I am, after all, human. I can read a book. I can work with a computer. I can type a review of a book I read on a computer. Those are all things a chimpanzee cannot do.

 

Then I read Factfulness by Hans Rosling, et al, and I am no longer so certain of my superiority to chimpanzees. In fact, the book unfavorably compares my answers to its opening chapter quiz to the answers given by chimpanzees picking at random. And the reality is that I did not know as much about the world as I thought I did.

 

Perhaps you don’t either. The quiz asks thirteen multiple-choice questions about the world. The correct answers come directly from UN statistics on disease, wealth and poverty, education, birthrates, life expectancy, and other information that most of us would deem important. Questions include: “In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?” [a) 20%, b) 40%, c) 60%] and “How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease?” [a) 20%, b) 50%, c) 80%], and “How many people in the world have some access to electricity? [a) 20%, b) 50%, c) 80%]. If you picked answers at random, the way a chimpanzee might do, you would expect to average 1 out of 3 correct answers. Most of us do much worse. By the way, in each of those questions, the correct answer is the largest number. Sixty percent of girls worldwide finish primary school (additionally, the average number of school years completed by 30-year-old women is 9, only one behind the 10 years completed by 30-year-old men on average). Eighty percent of the world’s babies have had at least one vaccination. And eighty percent of the world has access to at least some electricity.

 

This book is full of positive information. Although population is increasing worldwide, birthrates are down. The reason population is increasing is that fewer people are dying in childhood. Incomes around the world are increasing, and they are increasing the fastest in some of the areas we might least expect. Deaths from natural disasters and infectious diseases and wars are also at historic lows.

 

This is not to say that everything is great or that there are no challenges. Rosling uses the analogy of an infant in an incubator. A premature infant may be put in an incubator and after a week go from 2 to 3 pounds in weight. That does not mean we should remove the baby from the incubator. Things are not yet good. But they are improving. They are on a positive track. We have reasons to be hopeful.

 

Rosling uses examples from his long career in public health and his own life growing up in Sweden to make his points. As a child, he fell into an open sewage ditch and almost drowned. In Sweden. It was a time when modern sanitation facilities were uncommon and there were no laws requiring open ditches be fenced off to prevent toddlers from wandering into them. Those days are long gone in Sweden–but not so long gone that he could not remember them. He equated the Sweden of his childhood to Egypt of today. His grandparents were born into a Sweden that had more similarities to present-day Lesotho, Africa, (one of the poorest countries in the world) than it does to the current modern wealthy country in Europe. Other countries around the world have made an even faster transition from poverty to wealth: Malaysia and Singapore and South Korea among them.

 

In fact, most people in the world live in “middle income” countries. That is not to say they are “middle class” in the American or European sense, but neither are they crushed by the total poverty that may have been their lot a generation ago. They have enough money for regular meals. They have access to enough electricity to cook their food. They can afford decent shoes. Their children don’t have to work and are instead in school, offering hope for a still better future. They may even be able to take their families to the occasional movie, or afford a small television. They have indoor plumbing. These basics may not be the stuff of dreams for Americans, but they are life-changing for many around the world, and they are now commonplace where just a few decades ago they were unattainable.

 

So why are we so ignorant about the world? Rosling posits several reasons. One is simply that we haven’t been told. Educators often work from outdated textbooks which still show data from years ago. Journalists cover “news,” and small, incremental, steady improvements don’t qualify as newsworthy. A plane crash is news–it is dramatic, it is unusual, and it catches our attention. But the takeaway should be that it is rare. 2016 was the safest year for air travel in history. There were only 10 commercial airline crashes worldwide, despite there being more flights than ever before. That is good news, but the safe arrival of a plane is not going to get much attention from headline writers.

 

More challenging is overcoming our own biases. If you were to ask most people from wealthy countries, they would reflexively say that highly religious people have more children than more secular people. That is not entirely wrong, but it is hardly cut and dried. Iran, home of the Ayatollah and ruled by theocracy, has a lower birthrate than the United States. A much greater predictor of birthrate than religion is income. Extremely poor people tend to have more babies for two reasons: 1) the need for child labor, and 2) the need to replace children who die young. As Iran and other countries have moved from low to middle income, child labor has become less necessary and infant and child mortality has decreased significantly. Rather than assuming that someone’s religion (or ethnicity or skin color or any other artificial distinction) means that they are destined to a particular kind of life, we should look at the facts and let them speak to our expectations. Reality can be very different than we think.

I wholeheartedly recommend Factfulness! It will make you think. It will give you hope. It will help you see the world differently. I also recommend visiting the authors’ website https://www.gapminder.org/dollar-street/matrix to see comparisons between people of similar incomes around the world. If you think people around the world are very different, this website will challenge your assumptions. You can also follow up by watching the authors’ TED Talks (one is at https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world). If you are curious about the world, if you are depressed about the current state of affairs and thinking things are just going from bad to worse, or if you begin to think you know more than a chimpanzee, this book is for you.

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Book Review: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You ThinkHans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

 

 

 

Book Review: Attached, Levine and Heller

Book Review: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love, Levine & Heller

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Nonfiction: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Loveby Amir Levine and Rachel Heller

 

Despite its subtitle, Attached is in many ways a book about the “old art” of love rather than the “new science” of adult attachment. It is an easy to read self-help book, but that is not to make light of nor diminish its value. On the contrary, its approachable style and encouraging message should make it very useful for people looking for a relationship and for people who want to improve their relationships.

 

Attached divides people into three broad categories based on their “attachment styles.” “Secure” people comprise roughly one-half the population. They are people who generally enjoy intimacy and are not afraid of it. They communicate their needs effectively and care deeply about meeting the needs of those they love. “Anxious” people crave intimacy but struggle to effectively communicate or advocate for their own needs. They tend to blame themselves for any problems in their relationships. “Avoidant” people are just the opposite: they fear intimacy. They may also struggle to effectively communicate or advocate for their own needs, but unlike anxious people they will blame the other party for any problems in the relationship. One very helpful (if sobering) point the book repeatedly makes is that anxious and avoidant people are often drawn to each other, usually in ways that are mutually unhealthy. The avoidant person tends to give mixed messages about their desires, which anxious people will misinterpret as an invitation to try a little harder–something they are hardwired to do. This is a challenging pattern that is hard for both sides to break.

 

Throughout the book are quizzes designed to help you determine which attachment style describes you. The book is non-judgmental. All three attachment styles are evolutionary responses to environmental stimuli. In regions of great danger, where life is short and violent, an avoidant attachment style is invaluable. If one cannot emotionally move on from a relationship that ends prematurely, the species is threatened. That gift in those troubling circumstances can be a burden in a less traumatic civilization. Other dangers are perhaps less life-threatening, but require a tightly connected family unit in order to successfully navigate them. The anxious style forges that tight unit and promotes looking out for unseen dangers facing our loved ones. That, too, can be a burden in safer environments. Most human societies are more stable and interdependent, where a secure attachment style reinforces that stability. But we all carry the DNA that can express itself in any of the three styles.

 

Attached makes the point that successful relationships can occur no matter what your attachment style is. A major contributor to success is effective communication. This can be a challenge for anyone, but the book’s examples and tips are designed to encourage even the most timid to take this essential step.

 

I think that many authors have addressed similar relationship issues over the years. Several have written about the “Five Love Languages,” which at its heart is Attached but with additional subdivisions. Attached, though, does bring some fresh scientific (and non-religious) perspective to the conversation. It may not be quite as personal as “Dear Abby” or “Dear Anne,” but it does give specific tools and goals for improving your current relationship or for improving your chance at long-term love.

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Book Review: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love, Levine & Heller

Book Review: Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, Alan Lightman

Book Review: Searching for Stars on an Island in MaineAlan Lightman

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Nonfiction Science: Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, Alan Lightman

 

Theoretical physicist. Novelist. Professor of both science and humanities. These are the biographical bona fides of Alan Lightman, author of National Book Award Finalist novel “Einstein’s Dreams.” But the author of Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is also profoundly human, and questions of the eternal, the immutable, the transcendent, dwell in his mind as they do in the minds of most people.

 

Searching for Stars is a deeply personal book. Lightman considers questions of faith and eternity from the perspective of a scientist, but also from the perspective of a man entering his later years. Science answers many questions for us, but certain ultimate questions cannot be empirically answered or experimentally tested. Lightman recounts conversations with persons of faith: Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim. He looks at sacred texts from those faiths. I cannot say he finds the answers he is looking for, but the process of asking the questions is intimate and compelling.

 

One answer Lightman does find is that science itself is an act of faith. Every faith holds central a series of absolutes: doctrines and credos which may not be provable but are inseparable from the faith itself. For example, Jesus cannot be removed from Christianity. You can have faith, you can even share many of the tenets of Christianity, but without Jesus you have something other, something different from Christianity. Science also has absolutes. One of those is that natural laws always work. If they don’t work, they are not laws. Gravity is always gravity. It always works. It doesn’t take days off, it doesn’t work on earth but not on Alpha Centauri. Because natural laws always work, they allow us to predict natural behaviors. Planetary orbits can be determined mathematically because gravity is a constant. Alterations in orbits indicate other factors at play, such as the presence of moons, another planet, or quantum forces. When those other factors are accounted for, measurements confirm predictions. The law is the law.

 

Ultimately, though, we cannot “prove” that natural laws always work. It is possible, if only as an intellectual exercise, that somewhere in the universe is a place that does not obey the laws of gravity. Or those laws work every day of the week except Tuesday. But it is impossible to account for such a place, because every measurement we have, every theory we hold, every experiment we run, every observation we make both confirms natural law to work AND relies upon it working. We cannot escape the framework in which natural laws work without them no longer working. Thus, at the core of science, is an absolute that cannot be proven or disproven, but must rely upon faith.

 

If science itself is built upon a core belief, what implication does that have upon other articles of faith? Perhaps none. But Lightman speculates that perhaps scientists should employ a little more humility than some do when it regards areas of faith.

 

Lightman’s musings on meaning touched me deeply. He wonders whether impermanence is equal to irrelevance, a question I suspect every person asks as she or he ages. Has my life mattered? What defines this? Will I be remembered? If a civilization of ants lasted for 100 years, built an amazing city full of beautiful architecture, stunning works of art, literature, philosophy, then was completely wiped out by a storm leaving no trace of their existence, did they “matter”? Those are not questions science can answer, and Lightman knows this. Meaning and purpose cannot be measured or calculated. Each person will have to search for those stars in their own personal quest.

 

Searching for Stars is a beautiful, unexpected book. I can’t say Lightman found everything he was looking for. But sharing his journey with us is a gift, one that can encourage us all to explore those questions with every tool available to us.

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Book Review: Searching for Stars on an Island in MaineAlan Lightman

 

The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife, Lucy Cooke

Book Review: The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of WildlifeLucy Cooke

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Nonfiction Science: The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of WildlifeLucy Cooke

 

Lucy Cooke’s engaging book The Truth About Animals is one of those delightful books that can make you laugh out loud and then cringe in horror a moment later. Filled with research, personal anecdotes, quotes from historical naturalists (and sometimes “naturalists” in the absolute broadest sense of the word), contemporary scientists, the book looks at the lives, myths, and behaviors of several types of animals. In the process, Cooke reveals more than a little about the human animal as well.

 

Cooke is a filmmaker who has worked on many nature shows and has an advanced degree in zoology from Oxford. Her writing is fresh and engaging, full of humor. She pokes fun at animal myths and the creators and propagators of those myths. In a hilarious chapter about beavers, she shares a long believed story that beavers will, when being chased by hunters, bite off their own testicles and throw them at the hunters in order to end the hunt (the theory being that beavers knew their testicles were the reason they were being hunted). Delightfully, one of the naturalists who wrote about this “behavior” of the beavers coined a word to describe it: eunachate. (It is a travesty of modern communication that the word “eunachate” has not entered the common vernacular, but perhaps there is still opportunity.) Happily, beavers do not self eunachate in order to dissuade hunters, but the beavers’ musk glands (often confused by early naturalists with gonads) can be used for a number of unexpected purposes, including a source of “all natural vanilla flavoring.” That’s according to the FDA–after all, it is all natural. Early naturalists also ascribed medicinal properties to these glands. In a brave work of journalistic thoroughness, Cooke actually ordered and ate a beaver’s musk gland to test the efficacy of it as a headache remedy. It did not alleviate her headache, but it did result in a sustained period of passing gas with an extraordinary smell.

 

As the above paragraph shows, Cooke’s tone is earthy and sometimes ribald. The Truth About Animals would be a fantastic gift to a precocious, nature-loving middle schooler. It is written for adults. Cooke, however, is a gifted story-teller, and although most children (frankly, many adults) might need a dictionary at hand for the occasional new vocabulary word, her stories engage and enthrall the reader. I would love to have had a book like this as a tween, and at least one of our children would have adored it at that age. Parents should review the book first to gauge its appropriateness for their own children, of course, since every family is unique.

 

Many animal myths originated as moralistic parables. Penguins are sometimes still upheld as examples for “Christian” marriage because the belief is that they mate for life. (This myth was at the center of the movie, “March of the Penguins,” which despite Morgan Freeman’s narration was not particularly accurate in depicting penguin life.) Reality is somewhat different. Some penguin species are more faithful than most creatures. Others, not so much. Female penguins have been observed trading sex for nesting stones from unattached males. Both male and female penguins have created long-term same-sex bonds. Males, in the heat of mating season, have even been observed having sex with dead bodies. Although we humans may want to use animal behavior to illustrate “good” and “evil,” Cooke makes the point often that these illustrations tell us more about ourselves than they do about the animals. The animals are neither good nor evil. They are just animals.

 

Some myths come from observing animals out of context. Chimpanzee behavior has long been misunderstood because their behavior in captivity is radically different from their behavior in zoos. Pandas in the wild act nothing like pandas in captivity, which bodes ill for hopes to raise captive pandas and introduce them back into nature. Human actions also impact animal behaviors and even territory. Colombia now has a wild population of hippos, thanks to deceased drug lord Pablo Escobar. Leftover from a menagerie on his property, escapees are finding the jungles of South America to be even more hospitable than their native African range (fewer droughts and smaller crocodiles are among the benefits).

 

Human actions have led to some insights, though. Would we know that sloths could swim if a biologist in the 1920s hadn’t tested the theory by tossing some into a river? Fortunately for the sloths, this experiment succeeded. Other experiments were much more cruel to the animals: starving them, blinding them, surgeries without anesthetic, etc. Efforts to weaponize bats during World War II failed spectacularly when wayward bats armed with bombs blew up the facility where they were being held–and sent the general’s car into oblivion. And some experiments, thankfully, did not succeed: efforts to create a human-chimpanzee hybrid never came to fruition.

 

The Truth About Animals is a fun book. I laughed aloud as I read some passages, and laughed again when I read those passages aloud to my family. Cooke is a wonderful writer. The book is thoroughly researched but never pedantic. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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Book Review: The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of WildlifeLucy Cooke

Book Review: Tulipomania : The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, Mike Dash

Book Review: Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, Mike Dash

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Nonfiction History: Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, Mike Dash

What could be more “spring” than the tulip? Sprouting up through the snows of March and April, the leaves give promise to the arrival of the beautiful flowers later in the spring. Heralding the end of spring and the beginning of summer, tulips might have been made for Mother’s Day.

 

No place is more associated with tulips than the Netherlands. Iconic pictures of tulip fields with windmills in the background evoke the low countries as much as do wooden shoes and massive sea-dikes. For historians and economists, those pictures of tulip fields also remind them of the Tulip Mania period of Dutch history. During the mid-1630s, prices of individual tulip bulbs soared precipitously. Fortunes were made and lost. Bulbs were sold for the price equivalent of several acres of land, or for several months’ or even years’ wages of an average citizen.

 

Tulip bulbs first made their way into western Europe from Turkey, particularly from the courts and royal gardens of the Ottoman Empire. Easy to move, easy to grow, and (from bulbs) quick to flower, they became very popular everywhere they were introduced. Their vivid colors, their hardiness in cooler European climates, and their shapely form (often poetically compared to female anatomy) made them a favorite among horticulturalists and gardeners alike. For both novice and experienced gardeners they are a rewarding feature in almost any landscape.

 

Although it’s uncertain where they first became subject to the Mosaic virus, tulips in Western Europe would randomly become “broken” because of illness. The virus affected the longevity and the overall health of the plant, but it also created uniquely colored and patterned flowers. Thus, gardeners would sometimes plant a tulip of one color and realize a flower that was very different. These flowers would often, but not always, replicate the same features in their offsets. Although the science had not yet discovered genetics nor viruses, growers tried to propagate these happy accidents. Since tulip bulbs will create offsets, they were often successful since the offsets are essentially clones of the original bulb and if the original bulb is infected, they usually were as well. Despite being sick with a virus, the color variations and uniqueness of these ill flowers increased the demand for them, and since the illness shortened the life expectancy and the productivity (in creation of offsets) of the infected plants, it also reduced the supply.

 

Early in the 1630s, demand for these unique tulips infected with the Mosaic virus began to increase. This coincided with the introduction of a “futures” market. Tulips could be purchased on speculation and then sold again on speculation without either the buyer or the seller actually physically owning a bulb. Most of these transactions occurred in the backroom of taverns in Amsterdam, Haarlem, and other towns in what is now the Netherlands. These tavern transactions kept them out of the mainstream economy. No doubt they were of great importance, economically and otherwise, to the participants. But they occurred within a sort of shadow economy beyond legal recognition or regulation and without the participation of the real movers and shakers among Dutch.  This no doubt allowed the mania to flower (pun intended), but it also protected the country as a whole when it eventually withered (yes, I did it again).

 

And wither it did. The height of the speculative pricing for the tulips was reached in January, 1637. In February, it suddenly stopped. Tulips that a month before could not be purchased for almost any price now could not be sold for any price. Buyers that in January were willing to mortgage their houses to pay for a few bulbs were unwilling to pay pocket change for those same bulbs in February. The result: people were left owing a fortune to growers with no way to pay them back. Growers were left with paper IOUs equivalent to millions of today’s dollars, and with fields of tulips that no one wanted to buy any more.

 

It’s easy to look back and laugh at the folly, but this was the first “bubble” and crash seen in the modern economic system. In many ways it was a harbinger for future stock and dot.com and housing bubbles that were to come. Buy low and sell high is great advice, and is usually only obvious in hindsight. If the lessons taught by these backroom deals in Dutch taverns were easily learned, we likely would have mastered them by now. Any economist or even casual investor can tell you, we have not.

 

Perhaps the best lesson to be learned is that tulips are an investment in beauty. A garden may be enhanced by them, A mother or sweetheart may appreciate a bouquet of them. The Golden Age of the Netherlands hardly noticed this blip in their economy, and because of some (late) regulatory intervention, most investors and growers did not lose everything despite the paper losses they may have incurred. If you want to make a fortune, tulips are not the commodity to buy. But if you want to make a splash around Mother’s Day, it may be the perfect investment.

 

Mike Dash’s book Tulipomania covers the history of the flower, from its emergence in Ottoman gardens to its spread into western Europe to its central place in the craze of 1630s Dutch speculation. Although the book is sometimes a bit dry and academic, it does a good job of emphasizing both how intense the mania was and yet how peripheral it was to the overall economic health of the affected areas. If you are looking for an accessible introduction to the subject, I recommend Tulipomania as a good starting point.

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Book Review: Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, Mike Dash

Book Review: The Myth of Race, Robert Wald Sussman

Book Review: The Myth of Race, Robert Wald Sussman

The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea

Robert Wald Sussman

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In “The Myth of Race,” Robert Wald Sussman traces the history of racist philosophy through America. This was a very troubling and challenging book. Racism is hard to eradicate. Scientific evidence shows there is no biological difference between humans that divides them in any meaningful category. Race is simply a social construct. There is every bit as much biological difference between two “white” people or two “black” people as there is between any given “white” or “black” person. Biologically speaking, there is only one race: human.

 

You cannot read the news without seeing the current manifestations of racism continuing. The Supreme Court just heard arguments on the Muslim ban. Nazis held a rally in Georgia, complete with burning swastikas. Last year a white supremacist rally led to the death of a counterprotestor: the president famously commented after her death that there were good people “on both sides.” Racism is far from dead, even though scientifically speaking the idea of “race” is dead.

 

That has not stopped people from using the imprimatur of science to advance policies that treat people differently based upon their skin color, national origin, religious affiliation, etc. In America the obvious example is slavery. For centuries, people were enslaved because their skin color was darker. This was justified in a variety of ways, usually by asserting that “white” people were superior to “black” people. Racist ideology was not satisfied with that broad of a brush, though, and went on to distinguish between types of white people. “Nordic” or “Aryan” people were (by their standards) the best. Physically the strongest and healthiest, mentally the smartest, and morally the purest, these people were born to rule and lead, and other races (including other white races) were lucky to serve them. If that sounds like Nazi ideology to you, you’re right. Sadly, it was also the ideology of many in the United States.

 

Prior to Darwin, those who held this position justified it biblically in one of two ways. The Bible says that humans come from Adam and Eve. Pre-Darwinian racists justified their racism by asserting either a) non-whites had degenerated to some subhuman status by their rebellion against God after creation, or b) non-whites were descended from some subhuman created being that the Bible does not describe. Either way, the conclusion went, they were not fully human and therefore not deserving of treatment as such.

 

Post Darwin, racists felt less compelled to justify their opinions against a Bible which does not support their conclusions, but they continued to conclude that people who did not look like them were inferior or even subhuman. Darwinism inspired a new strategy, though: eugenics. If nature’s goal was survival of the fittest, then government should work to assure that the best (white) only bred with the best. Not only should good families be rewarded, but bad (non-white) families should be discouraged from procreating. Laws preventing immigration from non-European countries were passed. Required sterilization of unworthies was advocated (though seldom carried out). Discussions about forced repatriation to Africa of black Americans were held at the highest levels of government.

 

These were not marginal views held by radicals. US Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt were part of the eugenics movement. Industrialists like Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan were, too. Classes in eugenics were taught in most Ivy League schools, as well as Stanford and almost every university in the south. Major newspapers including the NY Times wrote articles praising eugenics and eugenicists. Since Jews were considered non-white, antiSemitism was rampant. Many US firms provided material support to Nazi Germany at least until the US entered the war (evidence shows some even provided support to both sides after the US began fighting). This was not just an act of profiteering: contemporary documents show a great deal of sympathy for the Nazi positions of sterilization and genocide of undesirables. Many white Americans saw Nazism as necessary to defend the “white race” against Jews, “Mediterraneans,” “Eastern Europeans,” and, of course, people of color from around the world.

 

One of the few exceptions to this was in Columbia University, where Franz Boas became a professor of anthropology. He was one of the first to scientifically show that the basis for racism was unscientific and illogical. His work formed the foundation for modern anthropology. His students (one of whom was Margaret Mead) went on to shape the discussion of race and humanity for generations. Boas’ impact is still felt today, a full century later. One historian said, “It is possible that Boas did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in history.” After reading this book, I can believe it.

The Myth of Race is a sobering look at racism in America. Sadly, it is not just a history of the idea. It is a myth that still shapes policy and attitudes today.

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Book Review: What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, Adam Becker

Book Review: What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, Adam Becker

 

A basic thought experiment from the early days of quantum theory has meandered into the mainstream. As usually happens with these sorts of transfers into the common understanding, it is only partially understood and that part is more often misunderstood. A cat is trapped in a box. In the full version of the thought experiment, along with the cat is a Rube Goldberg device comprised of uranium, a geiger counter attached to a hammer, and a vial of cyanide resting under the head of the hammer. The experiment (fortunately for cat lovers, only transacted in the minds of physicists and other inquirers) relies on the fact that in time the uranium will release radiation, triggering the geiger counter, releasing the hammer, breaking the vial and killing the cat. However, at any given moment, the radiation may OR may not release. Therefore, the hypothetical cat may actually be either alive or dead–we will not know until we open the box. In a closed and unobserved system, the concept concludes, the cat is both alive and dead since both possibilities are equally probable. It is the observing that defines the cat’s untimely demise or it’s fortuitous release.

 

The full version of Erwin Schrodinger’s thought experiment opens the 2018 book What Is Real? Adam Becker provides a rousing history of quantum theory, looking at the personalities, mathematics, and experiments that have shaped this central theory of physics over the last century. With outsized characters like Schrodinger, Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, and especially Neils Bohr creating the foundations of the theory, it is little wonder that quantum physics moved to the center of our understanding of how atoms and electrons work. The math is sound: quantum calculations are at the heart of literally thousands of innovations in technology and have predicted many of the discoveries in physics that excited both scientists and laypersons alike throughout the twentieth century.

 

What even many scientists fail to fully understand, though, is that there is still no complete understanding of HOW and WHY quantum mechanics works. The math works. Find a quantum problem, enter the variables, and out pops the solution. The temptation then is to follow the advice of one key physicist: shut up and calculate. (In fairness, that scientist himself rejects his own advice.) But many scientists are unwilling to accept this practical solution. They want to know WHY it works. Certain principles of quantum mechanics seem to violate Einstein’s Theory of Relativity by creating changes simultaneously in two bodies separated by great distance. If communication faster than light is impossible (Relativity says it is), then this can’t be. Other facets of quantum theory show behavior of objects changing based on observation (e.g. Schrodinger’s poor cat being both alive and dead until it is seen as being definitively one or the other). But exactly why does the behavior change upon observation? And what qualifies as “observation”? Were these particles behaving one way throughout time, waiting for someone with a PhD to come along? Or does behavior change if a cat, or a mouse, or a flea, were to observe it? These are the kinds of questions that scientists have been wrestling with since the beginning of quantum theory, and many of those questions remain unanswerable to date.

 

Various critiques of the traditional understanding of quantum physics have been offered, some gaining more traction than others. One which has become very popular in science fiction (if less so among actual scientists) is the multiple worlds theory, which holds that any action which has multiple potential outcomes has actually resulted in each of those potential outcomes, with the universe dividing again and again and again to accommodate those outcomes. In one universe the poor cat has died, in another it lives. That is again oversimplifying the argument to the point of devastating it, but the beauty of the multiple worlds theory is again that the math works. (I am taking Becker’s word for this–my math skills are not elite on any possible world.)

 

To a degree, though, this is both the agony and the ecstacy of quantum theory: it does a magnificent job of predicting what will happen, but we still cannot understand why it actually does this. Parts of quantum theory (especially as it relates to waves, electrons, and events occurring at a sub-atomic level) can be demonstrated as factually true. But why it works at the level of electrons and yet fails to predict the behavior of molecules as effectively is something scientists cannot yet answer.

 

Becker’s story is about the people who have looked and are looking for those answers. It goes beyond “just” the science and looks at the scientists as people and at the times they lived in. Becker deals squarely with the Nazi sympathies and collaboration of Heisenberg and other German scientists during WWII (and the disruption to European science in particular by the anti-Semitic prejudice and actions of the Nazis). He follows the path of one scientist exiled from the US during the “Red Scare” of the 1950s and how that affected the trajectory of quantum theory during a time when no one wanted to be accused of being “communist.” He traces the outsized influence of Neils Bohr, acknowledging his brilliance while noting that his influence was in part due to his amazing personality and warmth. Einstein’s critiques of quantum theory failed to gain as much traction, in part, due to Einstein’s more standoffish personality–Bohr won over critics with warmth and genuine affection when sometimes his math and writing were less precise.

 

The key question is the title of the book: What Is Real? In one sense, quantum theory answers this question. It works, therefore it is real. It predicts actual behavior of electrons. It leads to the creation of repeatable experiments. It results in actual inventions that have real world applications. That’s as real as you can get. But in another sense, the question remains unanswered. Can quantum theory predict the behavior of things larger than an electron? Can it be unified with the Theory of Relativity–which also works–in a way that explains the universe compellingly? If it is real, is it only real on a scale that we will never effectively observe? The search for those answers continues.

 

I loved the book–although I admit that I am not smart enough to fully understand it. Becker writes well. His stories about the people who shaped the theory are fascinating and fun. I will never be able to explain quantum physics or understand it nearly as well as my children do. But I appreciate the fact that scientists are people who struggle with bills and careers and politics as well as math and observation and theory. Becker’s book is about science and it is about the people who do science. That makes it a fascinating read.

Book Review: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Book Review Nonfiction: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

 

I’ll admit, I was hoping to read Nudge and get much smarter about making decisions. That is not exactly what the book delivers. Nudge is more for wonks — geeks focused on government and/or political policy. If you make decisions, set policies, create procedures, or design products that involve choices by other people, then Nudge is definitely for you. If you are looking for guidance in making better decisions for yourself in these matters, well, the lessons are a bit more abstract. Incidentally, Richard H. Thaler, co-author of Nudge, won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics for his contributions to behavioral economics, the integration of psychology and economics. For more on the Nobel details see https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/2017/press.html

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As an abstract guidance lesson, take the following example from Nudge. Educators in San Marcos, TX, wanted to improve the rates of college admission by graduates from local high schools. Obviously there are any number of things that potentially could have helped: increased emphasis on academic classes, better preparation for college admissions tests, etc. But San Marcos is an area where few parents had ever gone to college. For many students, the idea of college was not something they ever entertained. So San Marcos added a graduation requirement: every graduating student has to complete and submit a college application to the local community college. Counselors from nearby Austin Community College visited with students and helped them complete the application. They also talked to students about how much more money college graduates make (on average) compared to those who only finish high school. They provided financial aid information and assistance with other potential barriers to college attendance. The result: in one year the percentage of San Marcos High graduates who went on to college increased by 11%!

 

That is the kind of Nudge that Thaler and Sunstein are talking about. They coin a phrase, “paternal libertarianism” to describe the type of choice architecture they propose. Anytime a choice is offered, decisions are made as to how those choices are presented. A cafeteria might choose to group foods according to type, according to color, alphabetically, randomly, etc. The location and groupings of the food will influence the choices people make when eating. If it is a school cafeteria, the manager can choose to position the fare in a way that maximizes profit. That, though, may not be in the best health interests of the students. Thaler and Sunstein would propose that consideration must be given to maximizing the health interests of students.

 

The two words of their phrase must balance each other for their proposals to work. “Paternal” implies looking out for the benefit of those making the choices. It assumes that choices can be objectively measured as “better” or “worse.” An insurance plan that covers more medications at a lower price is going to be better than one that covers fewer prescriptions for a higher price, if you are dealing with a population that uses a lot of prescriptions. Thus, if you are presenting insurance plans to (for example) an elderly population, you might “Nudge” them toward making that better choice. This can be done in several ways: listing it first, making it the default choice, advertising it more aggressively, giving it a leading name (perhaps “the BEST insurance”).

 

But they firmly argue that “libertarianism” is equally important. One choice may be objectively better than another for most people, but removing people’s choices is removing their freedom. In the insurance example, they might suggest that the best prescription plan be the default plan for seniors who take a lot of medicine, but they would not want that to be the only choice. What about those seniors who expect to have a lot of surgery but not as many medications? What about those who are in excellent health and would prefer to pay a lower premium? They argue that a nudge is important, but choice is equally important. San Marcos may require applications to the community college, but none of their graduates is obliged to attend. That is a paternal nudge with a libertarian conscience. That hypothetical cafeteria manager may group foods to encourage healthy eating, but she might still provide the option to eat cake and drink soda. That is a paternal nudge with a libertarian conscience. Those are the types of examples that meet with Thaler and Sunstein’s approval.

 

Individually, the best parts of Nudge describe how humans generally make choices. In a word, they make them poorly. So the authors have some suggestions for fooling ourselves into making better choices. One example is in the area of saving. Americans are particularly bad at saving money. But we are good at making well-intentioned promises. They suggest starting saving with a small, easily managed amount of money. Make the withdrawals automatically on your payday so you never actually see the money in your checking account. Then, set up your IRA (or other savings vehicle) to increase that amount by a percentage every year, kicking in at the same time as your annual raise (assuming you get one). This way the amount withdrawn increases as your income increases, and continues to be “hidden” by not appearing in the checking account.  This does not reduce your choices: you can always change or even cancel this process. But it uses some of our own human weaknesses as leverage to attain a desirable outcome.

 

Although the authors do address objections and concerns within the book, I remained cautious after reading it. I see huge advantages to the kind of Nudge – paternal libertarianism they describe. But I also see the possibilities of less altruistic persons using their choice architecture to lead consumers toward decisions that benefit companies and not people.  The authors use the example of Enron, and the way their retirement benefits were geared toward pushing employees to reinvest their retirement money into Enron stock. They use this as a negative example, and indeed when Enron collapsed many of their employees lost their life savings along with their jobs. The authors encourage companies to do the opposite, to promote diversifying retirement investments and promote strategies that are both safe and employee-focused. Other than altruism, though, I am not sure they make a compelling case for companies to do this, and my experience has made me wary of the altruistic motives of most corporations.

 

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I would love to say that reading Nudge will change the way you make decisions and transform you into a healthier, wealthier, and happier human being. That outcome lies beyond the scope of the authors. However, it does give great insight into how choices can be presented in ways that encourage positive decisions and growth. Nudge is worth the read if for no other reason than to understand the motivators behind our decisions (and those behind our choices to NOT make certain decisions). Perhaps understanding ourselves is the best first step toward making better choices.

Book Review: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

If you are interested in political policy also see

Book Review Nonfiction: Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, Amy Chua

Book Review: Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery

Book Review: Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, Scott Kelly

 

Nonfiction Memoir: Many people were surprised to read that 7% of astronaut Scott Kelly’s DNA had changed during his year in space. Among the surprised was Scott Kelly himself, who tweeted, “What? My DNA changed by 7%! Who knew? I just learned about it in this article. This could be good news! I no longer have to call @ShuttleCDRKelly my identical twin brother anymore.”

 

Fortunately (or not), Scott and Mark Kelly are still identical twins. The original headlines were misleading, a misunderstanding of early reports from yet unpublished studies comparing the twins during and after Scott Kelly’s year in space. Though his year in space may not have shuffled his DNA, it did provide a compelling backdrop to his memoir. Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of DIscovery, tells the story of that year. More, it tells the story of a man who challenged the odds and lived out his dreams.

 

Scott Kelly would not have been anyone’s pick to be a success in high school. An indifferent student and occasional troublemaker, he was turned down by most colleges. He credits the change in his life and direction to a book: The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. Reading about the first astronauts gave him a life goal: become an astronaut. He transferred to a university where he could participate in Naval ROTC and devoted himself to becoming a student and a Navy pilot.

 

Very often, successful people are portrayed as having been destined for success. Less often do we consider the obstacles and failures that come between us and our dreams. Scott Kelly’s memoir is honest, sometimes painfully so. He barely graduated from high school. His first year of college was so poor that he had to start again as a freshman when he transferred. He occasionally sabotaged his own opportunities by making poor choices, and more than once survived his own foolishness through luck or a timely intervention by a friend or family member rather than through his own efforts. That is not to say he did not deserve the success he achieved. But his story easily could have been one that ended badly, a life of missed opportunities and wasted potential. Most of us would not choose to read that story–but many of us have lived part of it ourselves.

 

After becoming a Navy pilot, Kelly’s career advanced and he was eventually chosen to become a space shuttle pilot. Once the space shuttle program ended, he went on to become part of the International Space Station mission, and in this role participated in a year-long mission along with cosmonaut Mikhail “Misha” Kornienko. The goal of this mission was to study the long-term effects of space on the human body.

 

Eventually, humans are likely to explore the solar system through manned missions. Even a mission to our closest planetary neighbor, Mars, would take more than a year in space before arriving. Given the changes human bodies experience during shorter times in space, it is still an unanswered question how well people would be able to function upon arriving at Mars. Kelly and Kornienko have proven that humans could survive a journey that long and could re-acclimate to gravity at the end of the trip. What remains uncertain still are the long-term effects of the journey. Hopefully the ongoing studies of these two men and others will prepare us for the next stage in human exploration.

Other Works Mentioned in Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery

The Right Stuff

Tom Wolfe

Nonfiction

Covers the early period of the US space program, Project Mercury, the first operational manned space flight program based on interviews with astronauts, their wives, test pilots, and other key personnel.

In 1983, a PG movie adaptation was made that won 4 Oscars. For more on the movie adaptation see the review on https://www.commonsensemedia.org/movie-reviews/the-right-stuff

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

Alfred Lansing

Nonfiction

The story of leadership and teamwork necessary to survive the crossing of Antarctica in 1915 by explorer Ernest Shackleton and his 27 men. Lancing used survivor interviews and personal diaries to create this account. Scott Kelly took a his copy of Endurance to the space station.

Gravity

A  2003 science fiction thriller rated PG-13 which won 7 Oscars and another 232 other awards or accolades. A dramatic story of two astronauts stranded in space. For more on this movie see the review on https://www.commonsensemedia.org/movie-reviews/gravity

The Martian

Andy Weir

Science Fiction

Assumed dead and abandoned, Mark Watney must find a way to let Earth know that he is still alive and find a way to survive until rescue. For more information on the book see the review on https://www.commonsensemedia.org/book-reviews/the-martian

For more on the 2015 PG-13 movie adaptation which won Golden Globe awards for best picture and best actor, see the review on https://www.commonsensemedia.org/movie-reviews/the-martian

If you are going to have an astronaut movie marathon, it won’t be complete without the classic  Apollo 13 which won 2 Oscars and numerous other awards. Based on the true true story of NASA’s persistence and determination,  “Failure is not an option” to bring three astronauts back to earth after an accidental oxygen tank explosion on the way to the moon. For more on this movie see the review on https://www.commonsensemedia.org/movie-reviews/apollo-13

 

Share your favorite book or movie about astronauts or space here 

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