Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World, Steve Brusatte

Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost WorldSteve Brusatte

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Nonfiction: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, Steve Brusatte

Most little kids love dinosaurs. I know I did. I read about them. I had dinosaur toys. I had posters in my bedroom, one showing a timeline of the Mesozoic: Triassic to Jurassic to Cretaceous and the dinosaurs that lived during each era. (I might have been a nerd.) Now, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte has rekindled that childhood amazement with these creatures of long ago. Brusatte’s book reads almost like a novel, with exciting characters (both human and saurian) and plot twists galore. Although the ending is predictable–spoiler: the dinosaurs do still die in the fallout from an asteroid collision–the journey is fun and fascinating. Well written, exciting, and interesting, this is a book for any dinosaur fan from precocious tween to those of us who risk being called “dinosaurs” ourselves.

 

Brusatte has collected fossils, stories, and friends from all over the world. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs starts in China, where he was invited by a friend to examine a newly discovered fossil of a dinosaur with a feature long suspected but difficult to find. He writes about trying to find his way through Beijing, finding the right train despite not reading Chinese, traveling with his Chinese friend/colleague through the country to Jinzhou, and arriving at the site where the fossil awaited their inspection. And before we have met a single dinosaur, before we have been introduced to any exotic terminology, we realize we are on an adventure with someone who loves what he does! I’m just going to say it: this guy digs fossils.

 

(Rim shot.)

 

Dad jokes aside, Brusatte and his fellow paleontologists are a huge part of this story. From the Bone Wars of the 1800s, where not-so-high-minded ivy-league professors hired people to dig up fossils in the western US (and mess with the digs and fossils of their rivals), to current scholars who get cool nicknames like “the rat pack” and who have sometimes colorful back stories. I am not sure how learning to “deseminate” and inseminate pigs prepared someone for a career in paleontology, but it probably makes for some rather earthy stories around campfires! Brusatte writes with affection and respect for these people whose love for dinosaurs sends them digging in far off and difficult areas, sometimes at personal risk. Crossing a river on a broken foot to get to an exposed fossil sounds incredibly painful, but it’s just one of the many things these women and men do to advance the science of these ancient creatures.

 

And the science is advancing. The fossil in the opening chapter, the one Brusatte traveled to Jinzhou, China, to see? It was a dinosaur preserved with clear impressions in the stone of feathers! Several more fossils have been discovered showing feathered dinosaurs, showing that dinosaurs are still among us. They no longer dwarf school buses, they no longer have teeth the size of a man’s arm (or actually have teeth at all), but birds are the living legacy of T-Rex and triceratops and all the other residents of the real Jurassic world. Science also shows that many of the attributes we see in modern birds began with their ancient forebears. Rapid growth, the kind many birds still experience, explains how a brontosaurus could go from an egg to a 40-ton behemoth in the span of a single lifetime. Light but strong bones explain how those giants could move, and air pockets within the bones explain how heat could be dispelled by creatures of that size. These are traits common in birds today and seen within the bones of fossilized dinosaurs.

 

Other research is exploring what colors dinosaurs were, based on microscopic analysis of their fossils! Apparently, individual cells can not only be fossilized, but pigment cells come in different shapes, and those shapes can reveal secrets about color. Computer analysis today is showing how dinosaurs moved, how fast they ran, even modeling behaviors such as likelihood of pack hunting. If T-Rex was not terrifying before, consider that the newest research indicates that it hunted in packs! And, yes, it had depth perception, so the Jurassic Park movie trick of standing very still might have made you a less interesting snack, but would not have protected you.

 

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is a beautifully written, excitingly told book about an endlessly fascinating subject. It does not make me want to live in a world with dinosaurs–they would eat me, quickly and painfully. But it does make me want to visit a museum again and marvel at the clues they left behind of their lives. If you enjoy science writing at its best, if you are or know a fan of dinosaurs, or if you want to encourage someone to see how exciting research (and researchers) can be, this book makes a great addition to your library or a great gift to someone else.

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Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost WorldSteve Brusatte

Book Review: Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth,  Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans

Book Review: Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on EarthJuan Enriquez and Steve Gullans

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Nonfiction Science: Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on EarthJuan Enriquez and Steve Gullans

The premise of Evolving Ourselves is simple. Human evolution has not stopped. It has accelerated. We are making unprecedented changes to our world, our lifestyle, our behavior, our environment, and those changes are making unprecedented changes in us. Evolving Ourselves boldly asserts that we are redefining homo sapiens in unknown ways, most of them probably good, and the potential to make further changes to our species is at hand.

 

Virtually all of human history has been intimately tied to nature. People grew up in small villages, rural communities, family farms, surrounded by forests and plains and animals and jungles and dirt. Life was dirty. Even a century ago, fewer than 2 in 10 people lived in cities–and cities were largely dirtier and less sanitary than rural areas. Modern cities would be unrecognizable marvels to our great-great grandparents. Clean, sanitary, with waste disposal and running water and hospitals and health departments. The percentages have flipped, with 80% of Americans living in urban centers and 54% of the world living in cities. Life expectancies have shot up as well, from an average life span in the 40s to one in the 70s through much of the world–in the 80s in some countries. Child mortality is down, overall health has improved, and clearly life is better for many, many people.

 

There are some consequences to these changes as well, though. Allergies are rare among children who grow up on farms, but they are quite common among the more urbane. The cleaner the environment a child grows up in, the more likely she is to have a severe allergy problem. The root causes of autism are unknown (though vaccines have been ruled out), but modernity has brought an epidemic of autism-spectrum disorders with it. Antibiotics and vaccines have conquered many of the killers of previous generations, but they are leading to the evolution of “superbugs” that are resistant to every drug we currently have available. Our divorce from nature has given us longer and healthier lives, but sometimes those lives are also prone to mental disorders that are less common among those who spend more time outdoors. Breastfed babies usually require vitamin D supplements, now, because their mothers do not get enough sunlight.

 

Evolving Ourselves by no means rejects natural selection as the primary driver for evolution. But it accepts the newer understanding that not all changes require multiple generations to manifest. One pivotal study has been done of families in Europe following World War II. When the Germans began losing the war, they subjected some areas to great deprivation. Women who were pregnant during this period of famine gave birth to smaller babies than average. Surprisingly, women who were not pregnant during the famine but still experienced the suffering also gave birth to smaller babies. Decades later, the daughters born to those mothers ALSO gave birth to smaller than average babies. These children were also more prone to other health issues than similar populations without the history of famine.

 

Genetic studies have concluded that the famine changed the way a specific gene operated. This gene and its altered operational instructions both passed to children of those mothers–and despite decades of plenty, the gene and instructions passed again to a third generation. Studies showing that children have been getting larger and populations becoming more obese may be a reflection of similar genetic changes that are occurring.

 

The last part of Evolving Ourselves considers potential futures where humans deliberately rewrite our own genetic code to guide evolution of our species. This is obviously quite controversial, and the authors try to wade carefully through these waters. Some work is already being done to address severe genetic abnormalities that impact lives and longevity. Few would argue with genetic manipulations that would cure diseases in adults and children. More controversial are genetic edits that might “enhance” our bodies or our minds. Do we want designer children, with genetics that give them better athletic or academic ability? Can, or should, we stop this from happening? If/when our species expands to other planets, will we need to genetically engineer those explorers and colonists to endure space, withstand alien environments, and live long enough to succeed? The authors take a very optimistic view toward these things. I am not fully persuaded that we have the wisdom, trust, or fairness to see these changes done well…but I am becoming less confident that we have the ability to prevent it from happening. Gene modification is too appealing, and becoming too easy, and I suspect the genie has already escaped the lamp or will very soon.

 

Evolving Ourselves is written for a general audience with a scientific interest. I found it easy to read, sometimes quite funny, and always very approachable. It is informative and understandable and very, very interesting. I think anyone interested in science, evolution, genetics, and the future of humanity will find it a fascinating addition to their bookshelf.

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Book Review: Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on EarthJuan Enriquez and Steve Gullans

Book Review: The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American English, Lynne Murphy

Book Review: The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American EnglishLynne Murphy

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Nonfiction: The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American EnglishLynne Murphy

The Prodigal Tongue is one of the funniest books I have read in a long, long time!  Lynne Murphy writes with her own (prodigal?) tongue planted firmly in cheek, or does she write with a cheeky style? Regardless, NOT irregardless!, read this book prepared to laugh. I recommend you not read it while lying next to your loved one in bed, as you will disturb her sleep by laughing aloud or immediately reading aloud a paragraph. Or more. You might read more than just a paragraph. Trust me, and learn from my errors.

 

Lynne Murphy is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex in England. She also writes the blog, “Separated by a Common Language,” which provide her observations on the differences between British and American English. She is quite well-positioned to opine on these matters. She is an American who teaches English to the English in England! Armed with her expertise, her experience, her sharp wit (Hey! There’s part of a chapter devoted to the word “sharp.”), and her boldness, Murphy has stormed the shores of our linguistic motherland ready to uphold the integrity and validity of American English. As our two-year-old granddaughter says in another context, “she’s feisty.”

 

Murphy stands firm in her defense of American English as being a legitimate heir to the English of Chaucer and Shakespeare. This is not to rate American English as better than “English English,” but neither is it worse. Despite the naysayers and pooh-poohers who scoff at the sundry sins and crimes committed (they say) by Americans every time we open our mouths, Murphy refuses to back down. England is welcome to her “colours” and her “labours” and her “-ise” endings on words that sound like “-ize” and “-ice.” American colors are just as crisp and our labors are just as strong and our language is not inferior to that spoken on the airwaves of the BBC. So have some apple pie and watch some baseball and call your mum. I mean, your mom. Lynne Murphy has got our linguistic backs.

 

Don’t let the fun and the funny in the book or this review fool you, though. The Prodigal Tongue is deeply researched and very well argued. Etymology and logic guide the rhetoric. Murphy’s task is made much harder by the misinformation about the two expressions of English, misinformation fed by an often gullible press. Many UK commentators express worry about the “Americanisms” that are invading “their” language. Many of their concerns are poppycock. Often, the words they use as examples of this are words that actually originated in the UK (or, less often, in Australia or another of the many countries speaking English today). The “American” penchant for removing “u” from “-our” words (colo/u/r, labo/u/r, etc.) actually began in England and migrated across the pond. American dictionaries adopted the practice, while their British counterparts reversed course.

 

There are certainly differences in idiom, spelling, and usage between the US and the UK. Just as profound, if not more so, are the differences within each country. Texas and Maine are further apart geographically than Scotland and Wales, but linguistically the differences are just as striking. This is more noticeable in spoken language than in written, which is true for both countries. Differences and distinctions are not errors, nor do they indicate less intelligence, education, character, or any other lack of virtue by others. Murphy calls us to celebrate the richness of a language that can accept, adapt, adopt, and become indeed a lingua franca–a phrase unironically used on both sides of the ocean to now describe English.

 

Murphy’s prime mission is to remind all of us blessed with this rich linguistic heritage that it is, still, a common language. We may not all carry a bumbershoot onto the lift, but we can all fix a flat. Of course, “bumbershoot” is actually an American word, and whether the flat is your car tire (tyre?) or your apartment will affect whether you need a lift or an elevator, but those are small matters.

 

Whether you are a Brit trying to understand your American friend, or you are an American prepping for a holiday-er, vacation-in London, The Prodigal Tongue is an enjoyable trip through the delights of our uncommon language. And stand tall, Americans! Your English is real English, no better and no worse than any other English. (Even if English accents do sound really, really cool! There’s a chapter about that.)

Note: I have corrected Dr. Murphy’s employer in this review. An earlier posted version of this review had her at the wrong university. She is at the University of Sussex. My thanks to Lynne Murphy for correcting my mistake.

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Book Review: The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American EnglishLynne Murphy

Book Review: Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body, Armand Marie Leroi

Book Review: Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human BodyArmand Marie Leroi

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Nonfiction Science: Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human BodyArmand Marie Leroi

 

Mutants is probably not your first choice for a beach read unless you are a geneticist or medical professional. It is a fascinating book. It is educational both for its genetic insight and for its historic perspective. Mutants is comprehensive and unafraid to explore challenging questions of ethics, bias, racism, human experimentation, and other controversial subjects. Although it is written for a general audience, it assumes a great deal of previous knowledge for its readers (or easy access to a large dictionary).

 

Armand Marie Leroi is a professor in London, and the subject of Mutants became a television documentary after its publication. Throughout Mutants, the author stays true to his teaching roots. We learn about different mutations, the causes and possible reasons they persist in our species, the genetic changes that underlie mutations, and the historic and medical responses to these mutations. More than that, however, Leroi introduces us to people who have lived with these mutations. He does not allow readers to forget that real people with real lives are the subjects of this book. Some of them are victims: most mutations are harmful and many are fatal. They can be debilitating, disfiguring, and painful. But regardless of their circumstances, people, with families and friends, with lives of their own, are the subjects of this book. “We are all mutants,” the author writes, and he makes that point using examples and stories throughout the course of the book.

 

Leroi is clearly fascinated by what mutation teaches us about human development. He poses questions that I suspect most of us never considered. Several of these relate to conjoined twins. One question that cannot be fully answered is whether the conjoining is an imperfect separation of identical twins, or whether it is a merger of separated twins who grow back together. Another question deals with the internal organization shared by most humans. Conjoined twins are typically organized internally the way most of us are. The exception is when they are conjoined side by side. In those cases, organs in one twin are often reversed: the heart on the right side instead of the left, with similar displacement of other internal organs. In extremely rare cases, individuals who were not twins (conjoined or otherwise) have similar reversal of their internal symmetry. Given the rarity of this phenomena, it seems that the usual placement of the organs confers an evolutionary advantage that is not immediately obvious. Mutants does not find the answer, but it asks the question: why? Why should it matter that the heart is on the left side? I honestly had never thought about it before–it was where it was. But the fact that it is so extremely unusual to find this reversed, and then almost always only when there is a disruption in development as significant as conjoining twins, makes me quite curious to learn the answer. Hopefully, someday, we will.

 

Some mutations remain isolated, rare, but clearly heritable. Some families are known for generations of members who are literally covered in hair, including foreheads, cheeks, and other areas where virtually no hair grows on the rest of us. Arguably, red hair is a mutation of that sort, with a relatively few people from specific European countries exhibiting that coloration. Other mutations also span generations but create more physical challenges than cosmetic differences. Leroi cites examples of families with “claw shaped” feet. And some mutations, like Huntington’s disease, are deadly, but the effects do not appear until middle age so they do not directly impact the reproductive success of its victims. This example is part of an intriguing chapter that questions whether ageing is itself a type or series of mutations–and if so, whether it is something that can be treated or even reversed with advanced medical care in the future.

 

Leroi clearly accepts that humans are one species. Mutations may make the Afe (Pygmy) tribes smaller than the average people, they may make the Dutch taller than average people, they may make Europeans in general more prone to baldness and may make Africans in general less susceptible to malaria (than are Europeans), but those mutations do not change the basic humanity of us all. Indeed, there is on average more genetic diversity within any given people group than there is between any two groups of people. That being said, though, he does believe that more research into the differences between “races” should be done. Given the terrible history and awful political applications which accompanied such research in the past, though, I am wary of this suggestion.

 

Mutants is a sensitive, detailed, challenging book. It is not for every audience, but readers with an interest in genetics and human differences will find it fascinating. Fundamentally, it is a celebration of how intricate our bodies are, how easily that intricacy can be undone, and how resilient humans are even in when facing amazing challenges.

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Book Review: Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human BodyArmand Marie Leroi

Book Review: The Art of Reading, Damon Young

Book Review: The Art of Reading, Damon Young

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Nonfiction: The Art of Reading, Damon Young

At first glance, The Art of Reading, can be deceptive; this slim book looks like you can easily slip it in your to be read pile and finish it over the weekend. However, if it is your personal copy, you should attack the book armed with highlighters, post-its, and sticky flag bookmarks. The Art of Reading is a dense and deep book. The kind of book you should savor a few pages at a time, and then think about it for a day or two before reading the next section.

Writers will find interesting quotes as well as concepts to help shape their writing towards their readers. Educators will find illustrations that connect theory to popular media that they can use in their curriculum. Undergraduates can chase down literary theory references. Graduate students can discover ways to share academic prose with readers in an accessible way that does not isolate scholars in their ivory towers.

The Art of Reading will not appeal to everyone; it is not a light beach read.  Rather the eight essays/chapters in the book provide a meaningful dialog with the reader on the underlying concepts of reading in an almost metaphysical and lyric manner. If you enjoy reading it will make you think about the process of reading and why reading is indeed an art.

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Book Review: The Art of Reading, Damon Young

Book Review: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Kate Bowler

Book Review: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve LovedKate Bowler

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Nonfiction: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve LovedKate Bowler

 

You’ve heard someone say this to you, usually in a dark and difficult time. “Everything happens for a reason.” You may have said it to people. As someone who has lost parents, who has fought depression, who has a loved one with cancer, who has wrestled with questions of life and death for decades, let me say very plainly: that is a horrible thing to say to someone. Perhaps it brought you some measure of peace when someone said it to you. Good. For others, though, being told that a higher power wanted their child to die or their husband to get cancer or their rape to take place for a reason is disgusting.

 

Kate Bowler’s very personal book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved tells the story of her first year living with cancer. Bowler was a newly minted Ph.D. with a position at Duke Divinity School, and after years of trying she and her husband had just welcomed their first baby, Zac. A few months after giving birth, she received the news that she had stage 4 colon cancer. The prognosis was grim–few people live even a full year after that diagnosis.

 

Bowler discusses frankly her reactions of anger, sadness, and fear. It is a story full of love. She and her husband come from very supportive families. They were childhood sweethearts in Canada, and immediately parents and siblings rallied together to take care of her and her family. Her husband was there for her, and her “family” at Duke Divinity School also came through for her. Friends from high school and beyond came to be with her. Even with all that support, though, the emotions were overwhelming. Confronting death, especially one as painful and cruel as cancer, shatters a person. Facing that diagnosis with a newborn, thinking you will never see him walk or talk or go to school or any other milestone parents treasure…well, hopefully few of us will ever confront anything like that.

 

Woven through the book is her faith. Bowler is a Christian, teaches in a divinity school, and has a Ph.D. in church history. Her expertise is on the prosperity gospel in America. She spends a lot of time in prosperity gospel churches, churches where a tenet of faith is that God only blesses. Need money? Ask and He will give. Wealth and health and all good things are a natural result of faith. The opposite is true as well: if you are lacking in health or wealth or any good thing, that is a clear sign that your faith is lacking. Somehow, you are to blame. Get rid of your sin, increase your faith, turn to God, and presto! Although this is not Bowler’s own faith tradition, she realized while going through this that she had been at least somewhat affected by this doctrine. Suddenly, though, the easy answers and the trite responses were no longer adequate. “Everything happens for a reason” sounds reassuring, until you are the one facing death, you are the one facing cancer, you are the one facing a future without you in it. What “reason” makes sense in those circumstances? What “reason” gives hope or restores your spirit or nourishes your soul? Most of the reasons people offer in those circumstances make God sound capricious and cruel. They make no sense when you consider evil people who get to live full lives and play with their grandchildren and die in their sleep.

 

Bowler teaches at a divinity school, but she does not consider herself a theologian or a pastor. Rather, she is a person of faith, a student of faith traditions, but most of all she is a person with cancer, a mother and wife trying to prepare her family for a future without her in it, a Christian clinging as tightly as possible to the Christ who suffered on the cross and who promised to be with those who are suffering. She is open with her struggles, her anger, her disappointment, her resentment. She prays. She swears. (She gives up “not swearing” for Lent one year.) Her honesty is raw and courageous and painful. And at the end of the year…well, she’s alive. She beat the odds. There are no guarantees, but she has gotten more time than she was told to expect. And we have gotten a book that affirms life in the face of death as powerfully as anything I have read in years.

 

Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved does not try to explain why Kate Bowler or anyone else suffers. But it does remind us that we are not alone. Whether we look to a higher power or whether we rely on a more earthly community, suffering is not unique to any person. That is not a reason “why,” but it may be the reason why we keep going despite our suffering.

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Book Review: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve LovedKate Bowler

Book Review: The Future of Humanity, Michio Kaku

Book Review: The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond EarthMichio Kaku

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Nonfiction Science: The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond EarthMichio Kaku

You cannot avoid physicist Michio Kaku if you watch science shows on TV. Nor would you want to. He has hosted or guest starred on programs for Discovery Channel, Science Channel, BBC, PBS, and other networks, sharing his expertise on physics, string theory, and other scientific disciplines. Well known for popularizing these challenging subjects, Kaku is also a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York. (Probably unrelated to his brilliance or his fame, I would argue he also sports one of the most distinctive heads of hair in science since Einstein, but that may just be follicular envy on my part.)

 

His 2018 book The Future of Humanity explores the possibilities of humans leaving earth to colonize other planets. Clearly written for an audience with one foot in science and one foot in science fiction, Kaku has a breezy style that is easy to read and carries you along. He quotes from theoretical physicists and NASA astronomers, then switches effortlessly to recaps of Star Trek episodes and references to visionary works by Jules Verne and Olaf Stapledon, among others. He looks at both the possibilities and the pitfalls of living beyond our comfortable planet. Could we survive long-term in an environment we were not evolved for? Could we “terraform” another planet? What would it take to make Mars (or any other planet) livable? What are the possibilities and potentials beyond our solar system? How could we get there? Is there intelligent life beyond our solar system? If so, could we coexist? Could we even communicate?

 

Kaku’s The Future of Humanity also looks at colonizing space through unexpected means. If we find that the speed of light is indeed insurmountable (which is a depressing implication of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity), can we send multi-generational ships? If so, how could we guarantee that those great-grandchildren of the pioneers were willing and able to colonize a new planet when they arrived? What are the ethics of sending, say, 200 people from earth who would give birth to children that would live and die on board a ship, and expect that some 250 years later their descendants would be expected to colonize a world they likely knew little to nothing about? What kind of governance would be required to assure the ship-dwellers neither had too many, nor too few, children? Kaku may be a physicist, but his questions and explorations are deeply rooted in a very humanistic ethic. What if we were able to extend life indefinitely–would a 250-year journey be worth making if we lived 1000 years? Or, what if we could upload our consciousness to a machine which would make the journey? Or genetically modify our descendants to live in inhospitable environments? What would it mean to humanity if our galactic descendants no longer looked like us physically–or were no longer even made of the same organic stuff that we consider essential to life?

 

The Future of Humanity definitely walks the line between science fact and science fiction. It does clearly show where science is right now. If we were to try to colonize Mars tomorrow, we would likely fail. Fifty years from now? It is quite likely the tools will be available. Whether the will and the money will be available is a much dicier proposition, and Kaku acknowledges that. But insert enough time, enough scientific progress, and enough environmental pressure on earth from climate change and overpopulation, and the equation may change. Mars may look very attractive in 200 years when compared to a polluted, crowded, hotter earth. Kaku is not necessarily a pessimist, though, when it comes to earth. He acknowledges that birth rates are slowing, that there are reasons to hope for a cleaner tomorrow, and that climate change has uncertain consequences. Earth itself may not be such a bad place in 200 years. And his vision of an inhabitable solar system relies heavily on technologies that are little more than dreams in visionaries’ minds. For a book of scientific fact, there is a significant amount of hopeful speculation. Someday we might look back at this book in amazement at the technological breakthroughs it foresaw. Or, as we did in 2015, we may be asking ourselves why “Back to the Future” hoverboards aren’t parked in our garages.

 

Science can be both hopeful and hopeless. Kaku’s book envisions a very hopeful future, one where we colonize first the solar system and then the galaxy, one where humanity has a future in the stars for even millions of years. Eventually, though, it will all end. Science is divided on whether it all ends with the galaxy collapsing upon itself in a spectacular reversal of the “big bang,” or whether it ends with the second law of thermodynamics winning and everything just running out of energy and freezing, but either way we may only have several billion years left to prepare ourselves for our eventual end. Somehow, though, even though our earth may burn up in an expanding sun sometime around 5 billion years from now, and even though the universe as a whole will end some unknown billion years after that, Kaku seems to find reasons to hope that humanity has a bright future among the stars.

 

Leave it to a theoretical physicist to remind us that the universe will eventually end. At least, though, we have still some time to prepare for that.

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Book Review: The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond EarthMichio Kaku

Book Review: This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works, Edited by John Brockman

Book Review: This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works, Edited by John Brockman

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Nonfiction Essay Collection: This Explains Everything, John Brockman, Editor

John Brockman is the founder of the Reality Club, a gathering of thinkers and intellectuals that met in restaurants and other locations from 1981-1996. In 1997, the Reality Club went online and became Edge.org. Each year, a question is posed to the contributors, a question intended to provoke discussion, debate, and most of all, thought. The Edge question for 2012 was, “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?” The responses to that question were culled, edited, and became the book, “This Explains Everything.”

 

The list of contributors to this book is amazing. Several are Nobel Prize winners. Others are famous intellectuals, including Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, and Richard Dawkins. Many are professors in top universities around the world. Musicians, filmmakers, philosophers, psychologists, artists, scientists, writers…it is a truly astounding collection of brilliant persons who spent time on this question. And the approaches they took to the question are as varied as the disciplines they represent. Most of the essays are two-three pages long. A few are longer (I didn’t specifically count, but I don’t think any reached eight pages). Many are shorter. The very shortest is “Occam’s Razor,” by Katinka Matson: “Keep it simple.” (The strikethrough is in the original.) She succeeded.

 

Some theories had several fans among the authors. Perspectives on evolution, natural selection, and other Darwinian themes were addressed by a number of authors. The double helix (DNA) takes its place, as do some odes to quantum theory, Einstein, and “the big bang.” Others are perhaps less well known, but the authors are enthusiastic in their advocacy. The “Law of Unintended Consequences” explores how almost any action in a complex system will have unintended results: some positive, some negative, but always unintended. “The Importance of Individuals” posits that every change in human history is the result of single individuals making decisions which influence others. Sometimes those individuals stir up a grass-roots movement and sometimes those individuals are in positions of great power but it is still one person making one decision and taking one action that leads to change. That person may be unknown to history, but the power to change the world is housed within every individual.

 

Most of the essays looked for theories that tied other things together. Natural selection, for example, explains so much of how the world works. Before Darwin, we had no coherent scientific explanation for why some animals and plants thrive while others go extinct. It seems obvious to us today, but it is hard to look back and realize how our understanding of the world transformed with the publication of Origin of the Species. The depth, elegance, and beauty of the theory is how it draws together so many disparate facts and gives them context and meaning. No other theory had as many essayists in the book, but most of the theories explored shared that “Aha!” factor, that feeling of, “Now this helps other things make sense.”

 

Some of the essays I enjoyed the most addressed the question itself rather than trying to answer it. “Kepler et al. and the Nonexistent Problem” celebrates Kepler’s theory about the orbits of planets around the sun. The author delights in this theory that was deep, elegant, beautiful–and totally wrong. Some question the question, asking “what is deep, elegant, or beautiful”? Is it deep because it is correct? Is it elegant because it is simple…or is it elegant because it is complex? What makes a theory beautiful? Many of the essays which probe the question are, in my opinion, just as deep, elegant, and beautiful as the essays which actually try to answer the question.

 

This Explains Everything can look intimidating, from its list of powerhouse contributors to its imposing 400+ page length to its intellectual subject matter. However, this book should not scare you away! First, most of the essays are short, many of them less than a page long. It is a great book to snack on. Read a few pages, put it down and let them digest, then pick it up again and read a few more. If one essay is not to your liking, move on! Second, the editor and writers have worked incredibly hard to make this accessible to people with curiosity and interest. I won’t pretend that it is meant for children. Adults with an interest in science, both physical sciences and social sciences, will find the book speaks to them. It may not actually explain everything. But it does open a window to the minds of those who are trying to find and grapple with the explanations for the world we live in.

 

The “question of the year” has been turned into a book for several years now. I plan to check out others in the series at a later date. Also, visit www.edge.org to sneak a peak on the conversation for this year! Provocatively, it is titled, “The Last Question.”

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Book Review: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Book Review: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of PredictionPhilip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner

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Nonfiction Social Science: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of PredictionPhilip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Several years ago I worked for a cellphone company. One day it was announced that we would be carrying a new product. It was larger than a cellphone but smaller than a computer. It was flat and was mostly a glass screen. You could not make calls with it. It did not have a physical keyboard. Instead it was entirely controlled by touch. I thought at the time, “This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. We’ll never sell these things.” I might have underestimated the appeal of the tablet.

 

Recognizing my own weaknesses in telling the future, I read Superforecasting with great interest. I was not disappointed! Tetlock and Gardner share insights from years of research with people who have proven themselves to be extraordinary predictors. Not perfect, but much better than average. These are not your news/talk pundits who predict with great certainty what will happen tomorrow, then tomorrow explain with equal certainty why they knew it was not going to happen after all. These are people who volunteered at www.goodjudgment.com to take a series of tests, then participate in a long running study of what goes into making good predictions. This project is ongoing, and new volunteers are welcome.

 

What sets great forecasters–”superforecasters”–apart from others may be surprising. These are not people who are necessarily possessed of a genius IQ. They are smart, but not always in ways measured by standardized tests. They are not always people with the highest education levels, though most of them did go to college and many completed graduate and doctoral programs. They are not people whose jobs or education prepared them for this. They include housewives and artists, scientists and bureaucrats, and many more walks of life. But they do have certain things in common.

 

Tetlock and Gardner identify several aspects that comprise the “composite portrait” of a superforecaster. They are cautious, humble, and non-deterministic in outlook. They are actively open-minded, intelligent and knowledgeable, reflective, and numerate (comfortable with numbers). They tend to be pragmatic, analytical, “dragonfly-eyed” (valuing diverse views and synthesizing them into their own), probabilistic (judge using degrees of “maybe”), thoughtful updaters, and good intuitive psychologists. And in their work ethic they have a growth mindset (believing it’s possible to get better) and grit. Not all of these characteristics are weighted equally, but all of them bear on a person’s ability to accurately predict outcomes to challenging questions about the future.

 

Superforecasting also offers helpful advice to improve the reader’s ability to improve her forecasting talents. Triage is important: weeding out questions that are either too easy to answer or impossible to answer. Choose questions that provide a challenge but are indeed answerable within an appropriate time. Break large problems into smaller, easier to answer questions. Strike a balance between inside and outside views. Avoid under- or overreacting to new information. Look for clashing causal forces at work. There are others, but the concluding advice sums up much of the book: Don’t treat commandments as commandments. Each case is different, and no set of guidelines will work for every situation. Including these guidelines!

 

Superforecasting was interesting and informative. It kept my attention throughout and I learned a lot. I can’t say I will predict the next “tablet” invention to sweep the world. But I do know a bit more about analyzing my own predictions with humility and information, so maybe I won’t be quite so quick to dismiss the next tablet, either.

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Book Review: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of PredictionPhilip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Book List: Astronaut Books for Shared Reading with Children

Book List: Astronaut Books for Shared Reading with Children

Growing-up to be an actual astronaut is a daunting and competitive career path considering how many astronauts there really are in the world.  So why is it that so many children have dreams of working or living in space? Perhaps it is the adventure that challenges the imagination and compels the dreams — equating the vastness of space with the unlimited opportunities it could provide. The following shared reading book list features both nonfiction/biography books as well as fictional works to inspire your child’s interest in adventures in space.

Before Shared Reading

Ask your child questions about the book cover – encourage your child to make predictions about the story or book information based on the cover elements: title, author, illustrator, picture, book blurb/summary. Share any background information you have about the book, for example: our library newsletter said this said this book won an award for _____.

During Shared Reading

Asking questions is a great way to make shared reading more interactive. Remember to balance the number of questions asked with the flow of the story, so your child maintains interest in both reading and talking about the book.

Also maintain a balance in the kinds of questions asked. Alternate quiz type questions with question prompts for your child’s input about the story or topic.  For instance, if it looks like your child is getting distracted, then point to a picture and ask a simple fact finding question (What color is ___? How many ____ are there?  Where is ___?) to draw your child’s attention back to the page and story.  In order to deepen understanding or clarify concepts, ask open-ended questions it connect your child to the text and encourage critical thinking (Why do you think the character did ___? How would you feel if ___ happened to you? What do you think will happen if  ___?)

After Shared Reading

You can encourage your child to ask questions about a story or book topic by: wondering aloud about ___, pretending to ask the author about ____, or taking turns asking each other questions during a re-read session. Ask your child to share a simple book review: What was their favorite part of the book? Why? Does this book remind them of any other books?

Provide your child with the opportunity to ask their own questions about a story or book topic. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answer to a question. Use that as an opportunity to work together find answers. Model for them a simple research process: writing questions down, looking for answers in credible resources, discussing if you’ve gathered enough information to satisfy your child’s question and curiosity, and then writing down the answer as well as any new questions.

Nonfiction Astronaut Books for Shared Reading with Children

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Chasing Space

Leland Melvin

Nonfiction Memoir Ages 8 – 12

LeLand Melvin narrates his journey from NFL draftee, through injuries and accidents, to serving as an astronaut on the International Space Station.  There is also a grown-up version of the book.

 

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The Darkest Dark

Words by Chris Hadfield

Pictures by the Fan Brothers

Picture Book Memoir Ages 4- 8

Before Chris Hadfield grew-up to be an astronaut, he was a little boy who was afraid of the dark.

 

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Mae Among the Stars

Words by Roda Ahmed

Pictures by  Burrington

Picture Book Ages 4 – 8

Celebrates Mae Jemison’s persistance to become the first African-American woman to travel in space.

 

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Sally Ride: A Photobiography of America’s Pioneering Woman in Space

Tam O’Shaughnessy

Nonfiction Biography Ages 10 – 14

Traces the journey of Sally Ride as America’s first woman in space with vivid details that share her personality behind the headlines.

 

Fiction Astronaut Books for Shared Reading with Children

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Max Goes to the Space Station

Words by Jeffrey Bennett

Pictures by Michael Carroll

Picture Book, Ages 7 – 9

In this book, Max the dog not only goes to a space station, he also saves it! Note the side text boxes with scientific information which can be shared during or after follow-up re-readings of the story. Part of the 2014 Storytime from Space Project when this book was actually read on the international space station. Also, part of an award winning series of books.

 

 

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Space Boy

Words and Pictures by Leo Landry

Picture Book, Ages 4 – 7

Nicholas takes a picnic adventure to the moon to enjoy the quiet solitude of space before bedtime. Great for children who need a little quiet time in their routine to re-charge and re-group.

 

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Green Wilma, Frog in Space

Words and Pictures by Tedd Arnold

Picture Book, Ages 4 – 8

Green Wilma, a frog, and Blooger, a baby space alien, accidentally get their places switched between earth and a space ship. Oops! Can they get home again before supper? Children who enjoy the Hi! Fly Guy series will adore this quirky book. This book was also an IRA-CBC Children’s Choice book and a PBS Storytime featured selection.

 

 

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CatStronauts Mission Moon

Drew Brockington

Graphic Novel, Ages 8 – 12, First of Series

In a universe populated by cats, a brave team of CatStronauts are on a mission to establish a solar energy power plant on the moon.

 

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George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt

Words by Lucy and Stephen Hawking

Illustrated by Garry Parsons

Chapter Book, Ages 8 – 12, First in a Series

Professor Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy co-wrote this series. Best friends George and Annie team-up for an across the universe scavenger hunt discovering the wonders of space and space travel. Includes reference information, essays, and photographs from the latest space research.

 

 

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Mousetronaut

Words by Mark Kelly

Pictures by C. P. Payne

The story of Meteor, the mouse,  was inspired by an actual mouse that flew with astronaut Mark Kelly on the space shuttle Endeavor.

 

Book List: Astronaut Books for Shared Reading with Children