Archive for: March, 2012

Friday Fun: Undergraduate Research Assistant Finally Sharpens Perfect Pencil

Mar 30 2012 Published by under friday fun

Undergrads, we all love'em, right? You bet.

Of course...

Undergraduate Research Assistant Finally Sharpens Perfect Pencil

After months of stupefying repetition, undergraduate research assistant Thomas Floyd, 19, emerged from the Nelson Physics Laboratory this afternoon to announce that his faculty supervisor, Dr. Demetri Schulman, had declared his 4,394th sharpened pencil "perfect."

"I'd like the thank the academy," said a humbled Floyd, "for creating an educational experience that let me sit in Dr. Schulman's lab storage room and sharpen pencils day after day until I got it right."

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Best Science Books 2011: The top books of the year!!!!!

Mar 30 2012 Published by under best science books 2011, science books

Every year for the last several years I've collated and extracted the science books from all the various "best books of the year" lists in different media media outlets. I've done the same this year for books published in 2011! I can tell it's been popular among my readers from the hit stats I see for this blog and from the number of keyword searches on "best science books" or whatnot I see in my analytics program.

Back in 2009, I started taking all the lists I could find and tallying up all the "votes" to see which books were mentioned the most times. An interesting exercise, to say the least! While the "winner" wasn't in any sense the best book of the year, it was certainly very revealing to see what the most reviewed and acclaimed book was. Since that post was very well received, I decided to do the same thing for 2010 books and once again this year for 2011 books.

As with previous years, some of the lists have been from general/non-science media sources, in which case I've just extracted the science-related books. From science publications, I've included pretty well all of the mentioned titles.

This year I've looked at 82 different lists, spread among 50 different posts. The last two years I looked at 60 & 33 different lists over 46 & 32 different posts, so I had significantly better coverage this year. That was mostly thanks to the amazing work gathering Year's Best Book lists over at the Largehearted Boy blog. Thanks!

Given the number of lists I'm covering this year I was tempted to up the number of mentions needed to make the list from 4 to 5 but I've decided to keep it at 4 since it lets me slip in some Canadian content. As a result, I'm listing 25 books this year compared to 21 last year and 16 the year before.

Some notes/caveats, mostly similar to previous years:

  • These aren't in any way the "best" books of 2011, only the most popular books on year's best lists. For the most part, all the books mentioned will likely be at least decent since they've attracted a fair bit of critical attention. But, they are also almost certainly the books whose publishers had the biggest promotional budgets and sent out the most review copies. Realistically speaking, of course, Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs probably falls into that category. The attention paid to it and the buzz around Jobs probably gave it a bit of an extra push amongst reviewers than many of the others. Like Skloot's Henrietta Lacks book last year, it also had quite a bit of crossover appeal and was the only even remotely scitech book on quite a few lists. If it was the best reviewed, it was probably also the widest read.
  • There are probably one or two straggler "best of" lists that haven't come out yet and I'm sure there are a bunch that I missed. Since I saw so many lists, I feel pretty confident that the list is fairly representative of reviewer sentiment.
  • Finally, in some of the longer mainstreams lists that I did see, I can't guarantee I consistently pulled in the same "edge cases" in to my science-y lists. There were numerous books mentioned twice or three times so one or two of those might have squeaked onto this list. Of course, I can't guarantee complete accuracy in any of the steps of the whole process. Sadly there is no small army of research assistants helping me compile these lists.
  • British, American and Canadian publication dates can mean that a 2010 British & Canadian book is a 2011 American book and vice versa. It happens.
  • This compilation is being published a couple of months later than last year and that's mostly because the whole RWA/Elsevier Boycott/FRPAA thing sucked up most of my blogging energy over the last couple of months.
  • There were 266 different books mentioned among the various lists. My list is in a Google Docs spreadsheet here. If you have any questions about the spreadsheet, just let me know.

Enjoy -- and good reading!

  1. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (25)
  2. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick (15)
  3. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker (13)
  4. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (11)
  5. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer (11)
  6. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (11)
  7. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson (8)
  8. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman (8)
  9. The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos by Brian Greene (8)
  10. In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (7)
  11. The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True by Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean (7)
  12. A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor (6)
  13. Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World by Lisa Randall (6)
  14. The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World by Daniel Yergin (6)
  15. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World by David Deutch (6)
  16. Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss (6)
  17. The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman (5)
  18. Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (5)
  19. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser (5)
  20. The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A True Story of Resilience and Recovery by Andrew Westoll (4)
  21. Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout. by Philip Connors by Philip Connors (4)
  22. Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author,Who Went in Search of Them by Donovan Hohn (4)
  23. Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet by Tim Flannery (4)
  24. Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science by Michael Nielsen (4)
  25. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal (4)

My thoughts? First of all, there's a fair bit of actual science among the books, not just more edge cases or books about historical or social aspects of science. That's a nice trend to see continuing. Second, not a whole lot of women on the list, unfortunately, with four being the same number as last year on a slightly longer list. I also like to see a few good technology books, like the Isaacson, Levy, Hohn, MacGregor and McGonigal.

And it there was one overwhelming theme or trend it's books on the environment and sustainability. There's a great big bunch of them coming from several different angles and that's nice to see.

BTW, I really do appreciate the comments I've gotten both online and off about the usefulness of this bizarre project/obsession. It can be a bit of a slog sometimes as well as taking up a good bit of my available blogging energy during the late fall and sporadically during the winter, so the comments help keep me motivated.

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Around the Web: Libraries are not just about books, The tech savvy president and more

Mar 29 2012 Published by under around the web

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Around the Web: Research Works Act, Elsevier boycott & FRPAA (Updated!)

This post has superseded my two previous link collection posts here and here.

The first focused solely on the Research Works Act, the second added posts on the Elsevier boycott and this one also incorporates posts on the reintroduction of The Federal Research Public Access Act. These three stories are all intertwined to the extent that it is difficult to separate them out completely. That being said, I'm not attempting to be as comprehensive in coverage for the boycott or for FRPAA as for the RWA.

Some relevant general resources:

It's worth noting that this post represents a massive update to the previous one. And I hope the next update won't be quite as massive nor a month away.

It's worth watching pretty well everthing Peter Suber is writing on this issue on Google+.

Of course, if I've missed any, please let me know in the comments. In particular, if there are any important posts or articles I've missed on the Elsevier boycott, please let me know. This has become a very large list. If I've doubled up on something or picked up something at a content scraper instead of the original location, please let me know so I can fix it.

For those that are interested, I'm using this Google Doc as a scratch file to hold links in between updates.

Update 2012.03.27. Update with a bunch of new posts and a few stragglers.

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Around the Web: Promise & perils of Pinterest, Abundance vs disruption, Beyond the textbook and more

Mar 24 2012 Published by under around the web

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Friday Fun: 6 superheroes who got their powers from being lousy scientists

Mar 23 2012 Published by under friday fun, science fiction

I've always been a big comics and graphic novel fan. In particular in my youth I was a huge superhero fan.

So this one was just a natural for me. Especially since one of the heroes that is profiled was one of my youthful favourites: The Incredible Hulk!

6 superheroes who got their powers from being lousy scientists

The Incredible Hulk

His Origin: Bruce Banner runs onto a gamma bomb testing facility to save a trespassing teen. He shoves the teen into a ditch, but gets hit with the full powers of radiation.

Note in the pic above that it says Banner was miles from the detonation of the bomb. So the bomb is powerful enough to mess up a guy miles away. Yet they didn't think to put up a fence?

Why are there guards? Aren't the guards going to get hit with the gamma radiation? Also, if we're going to be testing radiation bombs, can we put up some signs and get a little more clearance from humans than one mile? John Wayne died from cancer caused by appearing in a film that was in a different state from bomb testing.

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The Canadian War on...

Mar 20 2012 Published by under Canada, Politics

Knowledge, science, information, common sense, openness?

A whole bunch of things are under attack by various conservatively-minded levels of government here in Canada.

Those of you thinking of moving north to avoid the insanity might want to have a second thought.

It seems that we normally smug and superior Canadians have recently...

Walked away from statistically valid methods of collecting census data

The head of Statistics Canada has delivered an extraordinary rebuke to the Harper government over its plan to scrap the mandatory long-form census, quitting his post in a highly public letter that bluntly undercuts Conservative efforts to sell the changes.

Chief statistician Munir Sheikh, who helmed what has been ranked among the top statistical agencies in the world, used his agency's own website as a last act Wednesday evening to fire a shot across the bow of the Prime Minister's Office.


"I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion ... the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census," Mr. Sheikh wrote.

"It can not," he said.

Targeted public libraries

Hundreds of striking library workers gathered in front of Toronto City Hall Monday, March 19, on Day One of a strike that will see all 98 Toronto Public Library branches shut until an agreement can be reached.

But if the current library board proposal on job security stands, CUPE Local 4948 President Maureen O'Reilly told her members that some of those branches could be closed permanently as a part of Mayor Rob Ford's cost-cutting agenda.


"In 2012 at the launch of the budget the mayor made the announcement he wants to get rid of 7,000 city workers - he said we're all lazy and he wants to get rid of us," said O'Reilly.

Commercialized the research agenda

Today, "blue-sky" research is a term used in honour of Tyndall to remind us how important scientific discoveries are most often led by scientists' questions rather than others' goals and directives. Basic scientific research often challenges accepted thinking, leading to fundamental paradigm shifts and unexpected innovations of great importance. From the discovery of X-rays and nylon to superconductivity, medical imaging, computers and GPSs, it is clear that true scientific progress is driven by basic research without specific outcomes or applications in mind.

Unfortunately, this important lesson has been lost on the Conservative government. Recently, Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear made this clear with the alarming announcement that he is turning Canada's renowned National Research Council into a "concierge" for industry. The NRC, established in 1916 to conduct basic research, is according to Goodyear to be transformed into a service centre, a "one-stop, 1-800, 'I have a solution for your business problem'."

Reduced Our National Library & Archives to a disgrace

I asked the woman at reception why there weren't any exhibits on display. "There hasn't been anything here for more than a year and a half" she told me.

I later learned that management of the main floor of the building has been turned over to Public Works, meaning that community organizations previously free to rent space for their various book related events and activities at no charge, now have to pay "market rates". The Library itself no longer, apparently, has control over its own space.


What I saw today, within stark, neglected walls, was evidence of a serious abdication of responsibility at Library and Archives Canada. A failure to do justice to our past. This is nothing short of a national disgrace.

Muzzled our scientists (Nature)

One of the world's leading scientific journals has criticized the federal government for policies that limit its scientists from speaking publicly about their research.

The journal, Nature, says in an editorial in this week's issue that it is time for the Canadian government to set its scientists free.

It notes that Canada and the United States have undergone role reversals in the past six years, with the U.S. adopting more open practices since the end of George W. Bush's presidency while Canada has been going in the opposite direction.

Prompted The Canadian Association of Science Writers and others to push back

Dear Prime Minister Harper,

Over the past four years, journalists and scientists alike have exposed the disturbing practices of the Canadian government in denying journalists timely access to government scientists. Open letters to your government from concerned journalists have been followed by editorials and public lectures calling for improved access. Still, cases of government muzzling of publicly funded scientists continue.

Last fall, Environment Canada prevented Dr. David Tarasick from speaking to journalists about his ozone layer research, work which had been published in the journal Nature. And earlier, the Privy Council Office stopped Kristina Miller, a researcher at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, from granting interviews about her work--findings that had been published in the journal Science on the causes of sockeye salmon decline in British Columbia.


Prime Minister, we want freedom of speech for federal scientists because we believe it makes for better journalism, for a more informed public, for a healthier democracy, and it makes it more likely that Canadians will reap the maximum benefit from the research they fund.

And caused normally polite and deferential Canadians to air their dirty laundry at international conferences

"Orwellian" is the term one Canadian environmental scientist used to describe the conservative Harper government's policy of requiring scientists to get political officials' approval for interviews with the press -- and submit to Saddam-style "minders" sitting in on the interviews.

The complaints came out at the Vancouver meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) this month -- the main multidisciplinary science conference held yearly on the continent.

"I suspect the federal government would prefer that its scientists don't discuss research that points out just how serious the climate change challenge is," Prof Thomas Pedersen of University of Victoria told BBC News. Canada this year withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In a February 17, 2012, panel at the AAAS meeting, both scientists and journalists criticized the written Canadian policy. It is similar to ones in effect at some US science agencies. SEJ has opposed such policies as a denial of the public's right to know and an obstruction to journalists doing their jobs.

Now, of course most of these individual issues are not as black and white as these snippets would lead us to believe, but taken together they clearly indicate a higher agenda at work -- that knowledge, science, information are all suspect and to be discouraged.

BTW, you non-Canadians out there have no idea how much it kills us to read stuff like, "Canada and the United States have undergone role reversals in the past six years, with the U.S. adopting more open practices since the end of George W. Bush's presidency while Canada has been going in the opposite direction."

Be careful who you vote for.

I wrote on this blog a little while back about the outsourcing of Canada's national science library, NRC-CISTI, which is part of this long term trend.

(It's worth noting that I didn't vote for any of these particular people.)

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Around the Web: Why we need blue-sky research, Internet con men ravage publishing, Why I pirate and more

Mar 20 2012 Published by under around the web

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Friday Fun: Why I am leaving the Empire, by Darth Vader

Mar 16 2012 Published by under friday fun

This one is clearly inspired by the recent Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs op-ed in the New York Times by Greg Smith.

But this parody is clearly much funnier.

Although, maybe not?

From the Smith article:

I hope this can be a wake-up call to the board of directors. Make the client the focal point of your business again. Without clients you will not make money. In fact, you will not exist. Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm. And get the culture right again, so people want to work here for the right reasons. People who care only about making money will not sustain this firm -- or the trust of its clients -- for very much longer.

And the parody: Why I am leaving the Empire, by Darth Vader

I hope this can be a wake-up call. Make killing people in terrifying and unstoppable ways the focal point of your business again. Without it you will not exist. Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how much non-existent Alderaan real estate they sell. And get the culture right again, so people want to make millions of voices cry out in terror before being suddenly silenced.

Yep, Goldman Sachs really is the Empire.

Anyways the parody in The Daily Mash is brilliant. Read the whole thing. And check out some of the others that are sprouting up like stormtroopers with poor marksmanship skills.

And of course, it looks like Goldman Sachs is definitely taking to heart the Five Leadership Mistakes Of The Galactic Empire.

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Best Science Books 2011: L.A. Weekly, San Antonio Express-News, Canada AM

Mar 15 2012 Published by under best science books 2011, science books

Dear FSM, by all that is unholy, I think this is the last one.

A final bunch of lists for your reading, gift-giving and collection development pleasure.

Every year for the last bunch of years I've been linking to and posting about all the "year's best sciencey books" lists that appear in various media outlets and shining a bit of light on the best of the year.

All the previous 2011 lists are here.

Top Books We Read in 2011, by L.A. Weekly Writers.

  • The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

San Antonio Express-News: Best books of 2011

  • Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard
  • The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick

Canada AM's best book picks of 2011

  • The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A True Story of Resilience and Recovery by Andrew Westoll
  • The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
  • Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History by Ben Mezrich

I'm always looking for recommendations and notifications of book lists as they appear in various media outlets. If you see one that I haven't covered, please let me know at jdupuis at yorku dot ca or in the comments.

I am picking up a lot of lists from Largehearted Boy.

The summary post for 2010 books is here and all the posts for 2010 can be found here. For 2009, it's here and here.

For my purposes, I define science books pretty broadly to include science, engineering, computing, history & philosophy of science & technology, environment, social aspects of science and even business books about technology trends or technology innovation. Deciding what is and isn't a science book is squishy at best, especially at the margins, but in the end I pick books that seem broadly about science and technology rather than something else completely. Lists of business, history or nature books are among the tricky ones.

And if you wish to support my humble list-making efforts, run on over to Amazon, take a look at Steve Jobs and consider picking that one up or something else from the lists.

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