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

 

 

 

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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