Archive for the 'astronomy' category

Reading Diary: Are We All Scientific Experts Now by Harry Collins and To Explain the World by Steven Weinberg

Science! What's it good for? Working towards better knowledge about the natural world!

Under review today are two books that approach what science is and what it's good for from very different angles. Steven Weinberg is a Nobel laureate in physics and in his book To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science he uses the example of the development of physics and astronomy in modern times to show how the scientific method has been developed and evolved over time. Harry Collins is a sociologist who was instrumental in developing the fields of science studies and the sociology of science. In his book Are We All Scientific Experts Now?, Collins takes what the scientific method has given us and explores how society should take advantage of the resulting knowledge and expertise.

In a sense, we have two sides of the coin here, a way to approach the contingent, temporary, evolving "truths" of science. How did we come to know what those truths are and how should the citizens of modern society view those truths. Both Weinberg's and Collins' approaches are valuable and interesting, however one of them is more successful in terms of what we actually have before us as finished books.

The Harry Collins book is the more successful of the two and is actually one of the best examples of "practical philosophy of science for regular people" I have encountered. Collins' career project is understanding expertise, particularly scientific expertise, and this book is a kind of career capstone for him. He looks at different kinds of expertise in the book. In particular he evaluates scientific expertise how those regular people should evaluate the experts and make use of the expertise.

He comes to the conclusion that scientific expertise that is based on evidence and established community practices within science should generally be trusted by the general public. The question in the title of his book, "Are we all scientific experts now?" That he basically answers with a resounding No. While skepticism is important to science and citizens should be skeptical, when we look at so many of the major issues of the day where there is widespread disagreement between citizen skeptics and the consensus of the scientific community -- vaccines and climate change being the two biggest examples -- it's not contest. Evidence and expertise are fundamentally important.

Collins' book is an incredibly important contribution to the discussion on the place of science in society and the formulation of public policy based on science. I can't imagine a library at any level that wouldn't benefit from this book. It is a quick read and very accessible and is suitable for even high school or middle school libraries.

The Weinberg book by contrast isn't as successful as I would have hoped. The goal of the book is to demonstrate the development of the scientific method through the historical development of the major scientific ideas in astronomy and physics. This is actually a very interesting goal. The scientific method is often presented as a kind of fait accompli is explanations of how it works, as if scientists always used it and always understood its power.

Of course, that's no where near the case. And Weinberg does a pretty good job of using the history of scientific ideas to tease out the history of the scientific method. But a potential pitfall is all too obvious here -- finding the right balance between explaining the content and details of those scientific theories and ideas versus pulling together the progression of the philosophical ideas embedded in the discovery of those ideas. Too much either way and the risk is diluting the complementary goal. Too much philosophy and too little science will have no grounding. Too much science and too little philosophy will produce a book too similar to shelves and shelves of other history of science books.

Unfortunately Weinberg puts too much emphasis on the science.

This is a book that could easily have been fifty pages shorter and still made the same points. I often found my attention wandering wadding through the "facts" and looking forward to the context. Weinberg often got bogged down in the "What" rather than the "why" or "how." Overall a pretty good book, I would recommend it for academic libraries that have popular science collections. Large public library systems would probably also find an audience for this book.

Collins, Harry. Are We All Scientific Experts Now? Cambridge: Polity, 2014. 140pp. ISBN-13: 978-0745682044

Weinberg, Steven. To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science. New York: Harper, 2015. 432pp. ISBN-13: 978-0062346650

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Reading Diary: Dreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration by Chris Impey and Holly Henry

Feb 10 2014 Published by under astronomy, book review, engineering, science books

Sometimes a book isn't quite what you expected. And you're disappointed.

Sometimes a book isn't quite what you expected and you're pleasantly surprised.

Chris Impey and Holly Henry's Dreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration definitely falls into the latter category. What was I expecting? From the subtitle I was hoping the book would be a fairly straightforward account of the history of unmanned space exploration -- all the missions, how they were planned, the engineering challenges involved in getting them off the ground, the logistical challenges of keeping the various vehicles and missions alive and productive in a variety of extreme circumstances. And most of all, some fairly specific details about what the missions were designed to discover and what they actually did discover.

And Impey and Henry's book is some of that, or more precisely those sorts of details are where it starts. And I have to admit I was initially a bit disappointed that they skimped a bit on those gory scientific and engineering details. After all, it is a science and engineering book. Right?

Yes, of course. But the surprising thing is that this book is just as much a kind of scientific (and sort of cultural) history of why these various missions were important -- the broader scientific context in which the decision was made to launch this particular mission and especially how the discoveries branched out beyond space science and into other realms.

Missions like Viking and MER and Voyager and Cassini and Stardust and SOHO and Hipparcos and Spitzer and Chandra and Hubble and WMAP. Some quite familiar and some quite new to me. Each chapter takes a mission and puts it in a context beyond astronomy, like how the Stardust mission on comets relates to DNA research or how Spitzer relates to fish migrations and so much more.

The great strength of this book is how it goes so much beyond what you would find just by looking the missions up in Wikipedia and takes the reader into new territory. Yes, it could have had a bit more "core" information and I probably did miss having some of that. On the other hand, it does a great job of putting all those missions into the context of how we see our lives on this planet too.

I recommend this book for any academic library that collects popular books on space science or engineering. It will find an audience beyond just the scientists and engineers who would normally be the target for a book like this. Larger public libraries would also find an eager audience for this book.

Impey, Chris and Holly Henry. Dreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. 472pp. ISBN-13: 978-0691147536

(Review copy supplied by publisher.)

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Reading Diary: Galileo by J.L. Heilbron

Mar 14 2011 Published by under astronomy, book review, science books

Here's a hint. Never, ever, ever put the following sentence in any non-fiction book you are writing:

This is dull stuff. (p. 165)


An object lesson on non-success for popular science books to compare and contrast with an object lesson for success in popular science books.

But, to be fair, the book under consideration isn't really a popular science book. J.L. Heilbron's new Galileo is a scholarly scientific biography of Galileo and as such shouldn't really be compared to popular science books.

On the other hand, it was a topic I expected to really enjoy but I did end up struggling quite a bit to actually get all the way through the book. It's quite detailed, quite chronological and quite scientific so it's a challenge. Not to mention that the best part, Galileo's standoff with the pope and Catholic church, really only gets going in the last fifty pages or so.

In fact, Galileo's long-running conflicts with religious authority do get a bit of a short shrift in the book as it concentrates on the day to day and year to year details of Galileo's life, really concentrating on locating him firmly within the currents of Renaissance Italian culture. Which is fine, of course, if that's what you want.

In the end, I'm glad I got through the book as I did learn a lot. On the other hand, this is a good case of a spoon full of sugar would have made the medicine go down a bit easier. More of a narrative drive to the "story" of Galileo's life would have been appreciated. As well, locating Galileo's significance in a modern context was really left for only the last few pages.

I would definitely recommend this book to any academic or institutional library collecting in the history of science or other relevant fields like religious or Italian studies. I have a hard time imagining any but the largest of public libraries really needing this book at all. I would also have trouble recommending this book to any but the most hardcore amateur historians of science unless they were really Galileo fanatics. In both cases, Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love is a book I would recommend instead. It's a better book for public libraries and for historians of science with a more casual interest in Galileo.

Heilbron, J.L. Galileo. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 528pp. ISBN-13: 978-0199583522

(Book provided by publisher.)

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The American Astronomical Society responds to "Scholarly Societies: Why Bother?"

A month or so ago I posted on Scholarly Societies: Why Bother?, basically on the challenges that scholarly societies face in the digital age. I got a few good comments, getting a nice discussion going.

I also posed a few questions directly to scholarly societies but unfortunately didn't get any comments from any of the various societies themselves. I did find that a bit disappointing in that the public conversation seemed to be happening without them. Never a good thing in the digital age.

Today, however, Kevin Marvel of the American Astronomical Society added a comment to my original post. And a great comment it is -- thanks! With Kevin's permission, I'm reprinting it here on it's own.

The call is still open to all the other societies out there: Send me your answers to these questions and I'll post them right here. Or contact me (jdupuis at yorku dot ca) and we'll arrange an email interview with more customized questions.

The rest is from Kevin.



I'm the Executive Officer for the American Astronomical Society and will answer your questions for Scholarly Societies:

Does your society subsidize member programs with profits from it's publications program?

No. Our journals have always been budgeted to cover the cost of peer review, production, dissemination, preservation and administration. We view our journals as a key component of the scholarly process in astronomy, not as a money-maker for the Society.

What kind of outreach do you do to the next generation of scholars?

We work hard to draw astronomy students at the undergraduate and graduate levels to our meetings and to become members. Primarily this is done through communication with their professors and advisors. We provide substantial career enhancing opportunities at our annual meetings as well as discounted membership rates for early-career members.

What do you tell them is the "value proposition" for joining your society?

The value proposition centers around community and communication. Being a member provides access to colleagues, especially through meetings, working in similar fields. We also have an active public policy program that works to enhance astronomy funding in the US. Recognition of accomplishments, through prizes and awards, also play an important role.

Do you facilitate your members online networking and professional development?

We certainly facilitate professional development through workshops at our meetings, especially of note are sessions on project management and negotiation. We are exploring the best way to efficiently (read cheaply) facilitate online networking.

What are your thoughts on an Open Access business model for scholarly society publishing?

We are not opposed to open access, in fact, our journals have a delayed open access of 24 months right now. We have urged the government to proceed carefully as they develop any policies or rules in this area. Our journals business model includes both author charges and
subscriptions. Author charges cover the expenses of peer review, copyediting, production and so on, items directly tied to dealing with manuscripts, while the subscriptions cover the costs of online hosting, printing, indexing, cross-linking (and other similar expenses) and preservation. Both share the administrative expense. The subscriptions (and author charges) are set as low as possible to cover the costs involved. A sudden open access mandate would mean our authors would have to shoulder all costs, increasing our author fees somewhat. A sudden shift could have negative ramifications for scholarship in our field. It has taken many decades for our system to develop and it serves our community very well at low cost to authors and subscribers.

Do your members often mumble your name under their breath with the words to the effect of "just don't get it" or "waste of money?"

No. We work very hard to ensure our members are happy, including a substantial investment in answering their questions via phone and email as they arise.

Do librarians often mention your name in the same sentence as Elsevier?

No. The AAS is well-liked by librarians. Our pricing increases are moderate and only when necessary (we had 3 years of flat subscription rates from 2007-2010). We involve librarian representatives in our publications board.

Do you have a librarian advisory group to work on issues of mutual interest?

Yes. See previous answer. The SLA has an astronomy-focused roundtable that we regularly reach out and communicate with.

What's your biggest competition?

We operate the world's leading scholarly journals in astronomy and astrophysics. We organize the world's largest astronomy meetings (our most recent DC meeting had 3500 attendees...we have 7500 members). Our biggest competition is clearly the growing power of the Internet to connect and enable our members to build their own communities. We will continue to work with and for astronomers in North America to enhance and share humanity's scientific understanding of the Universe.

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