Archive for the 'book review' category

Best Science Books 2017: The Globe and Mail 100

As you all have no doubt noticed over the years, I love highlighting the best science books every year via the various end of year lists that newspapers, web sites, etc. publish. I've done it so far in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

And here we are in 2016!

As in previous years, my definition of "science books" is pretty inclusive, including books on technology, engineering, nature, the environment, science policy, public health, history & philosophy of science, geek culture and whatever else seems to be relevant in my opinion.

Today's list is The Globe and Mail 100.

  • Life on the Ground Floor: Letters from the Edge of Emergency Medicine by James Maskalyk
  • World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech by Franklin Foer
  • The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks

And check out my previous 2016 lists here!

You can also check out my appearances on the Science for the People Gifts for Nerds podcasts for the last few years: 2014, 2015, 2016.

Many of the lists I use are sourced via the Largehearted Boy master list.

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Best Science Books 2017: New York Times Notable Books

As you all have no doubt noticed over the years, I love highlighting the best science books every year via the various end of year lists that newspapers, web sites, etc. publish. I've done it so far in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

And here we are in 2016!

As in previous years, my definition of "science books" is pretty inclusive, including books on technology, engineering, nature, the environment, science policy, public health, history & philosophy of science, geek culture and whatever else seems to be relevant in my opinion.

Today's list is from The New York Times.

  • The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan
  • The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World - and Us by Richard O. Prum
  • The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel
  • The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea by Jack E. Davis
  • To Siri with Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines by Judith Newman
  • The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston
  • World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech by Franklin Foer

And check out my previous 2016 lists here!

You can also check out my appearances on the Science for the People Gifts for Nerds podcasts for the last few years: 2014, 2015, 2016.

Many of the lists I use are sourced via the Largehearted Boy master list.

(Astute readers will notice that I kind of petered out on this project a couple of years ago and never got around to the end of year summary since then. Before loosing steam, I ended up featuring dozens and dozens of lists, virtually every list I could find that had science books on it. While it was kind of cool to be so comprehensive, not to mention that it gave the summary posts a certain statistical weight, it was also way more work than I had really envisioned way back in 2008 or so when I started doing this. As a result, I'm only going to highlight particularly large or noteworthy lists this year and forgo any kind of end of year summary. Basically, all the fun but not so much of the drudgery.)

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Reading Diary: The jazz of physics: The secret link between music and the structure of the universe by Stephon Alexander

Oct 11 2016 Published by under book review, music, physics, science books

The jazz of physics, the physics of jazz, the chemistry of jazz, the jazz of chemistry, the jazz of computer science, the computer science of jazz, the math of jazz, the jazz of math, the jazz of biology, the biology of jazz, the jazz of engineering, the engineering of jazz.

And why not the jazz of history and the history of jazz? The sociology of jazz and the jazz of sociology? The jazz of political science, the political science of jazz. The jazz of philosophy, the philosophy of jazz, the literature of jazz, the jazz of literature.

And why not the jazz of religion, the religion of jazz, the theology of jazz and the jazz of theology.

All of which would make fantastic books, each and every one of them. Art and science are interrelated, inevitably interrelated really, when you think about. Humans exist in a world that can (contingently) be described by science, humans themselves being subject to that description. Art is something that humans do, so studying how humans do art is part of science. Science is the subject of art, and not just peripherally -- witness the genres of science fiction or lablit for example.

Which brings us to the absolutely wonderful book by Stephon Alexander, The jazz of physics: The secret link betweetn music and the structure of the universe. A rare beast, a scientific and artistic autobiography. A memoir of discovery, both of jazz and theoretical physics.

The most wonderful thing about the book is how perfectly it fits in the "how I learned and grew and experienced the thing I became really good at mostly thanks to mentoring and educational opportunities." Common in both science and art, with recent examples being Bruce Springsteen and Hope Jahren. I've read the Jahren and it's also beyond wonderful (review coming, I promise) while the Springsteen is so new I haven't had a chance yet. It's an Xmas holiday read it there ever was one.

In fact, if I had to pick my two science books of the year, they would be Jahren's Lab Girl and The Jazz of Physics.

So what kind of books are all these? Well, on the science side they are the stories of how someone became interested in their scientific field and the trials and tribulations of studying the subject, becoming situated in the culture of the field and, ultimately finding one's place in that field, usually in academia but also in other walks of life as well. And of course, finding the kind of success in the field that will lead someone to want to write a book about that process. That description certainly fits The jazz of physics. Alexander recounts in fascinating detail how he overcame all the obstacles set before him and overcame his limitations and became a professional physicist.

But the book is also like a good music biography in that we also learn about Alexander's immersion into the jazz field, how he learned to play an instrument, how he learned to improvise, the joys and challenges of the jazz bandstand. But uniquely to this book, Alexander can ultimately show us that these two processes are really the same. Learning to be an artist and learning to be a scientist are really the same thing, with similar obstacles and similar rewards, at least intellectually.

And most importantly, if there's one message that I think Alexander wants us to take from his book and his life experiences, is that the creativity and mind-set that drive scientific and artistic accomplishment are really the same. That the dedication and drive, the improvisational and creative mindset that make a jazz musician successful is ultimately the exact same as will make a physicist successful. Musical or mathematical or physical or rhythmic, it's really the same. Vibration, resonance, symmetry, the biggest and the smallest. It's all there in both domains.

I recommend this book without hesitation to any academic, public or high school library.

Alexander, Stephon. The jazz of physics: The secret link betweetn music and the structure of the universe. New York: Basic Books, 2016. 272pp. ISBN-13: 978-0465034994

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Reading Diary: Graphic novel catch-up: Manga Guide to Physiology, Human Body Theatre, Secret Coders, Snowden

Feb 29 2016 Published by under book review, science books, Uncategorized

Rall, Ted. Snowden. New York: Random House, 2015. 224pp. ISBN-13: 978-1609806354

For those that have watched Citizenfour or read Glenn Greenwald's No place to hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. surveillance state, there's not much new or shocking in Ted Rall's excellent graphic novel, Snowden.

But for someone who hasn't had a chance to check out either or those works, this is a fantastic place to start a deeper exploration into the amazing story around Edward Snowden, one of the major figures in the current debate about the way governments try to control and monitor the Internet. It affects our privacy, our security not to mention our sense of whether or not our governments work for our benefit or whether they see our interests as subservient to their own desire for control and secrecy. And we're not just talking about the secret US government programs that Snowden blew the whistle on, but a whole bunch of other countries too.

Ted Rall's very fine graphic novel uses a stark and subtle style of illustration as well as a keen sense of narrative to hit the high points. This book is highly recommended for all library collections that deal with the interface between technology and politics -- academic, public and even middle school or high school libraries.


Tanaka, Etsuro; Keiko Koyama; and Becom Co. Ltd. The Manga Guide to Physiology. San Francisco: No Starch Press, 2016.256pp. ISBN-13: 978-1593274405

Similar to the Survive! Inside the Human Body graphic novel series I reviewed a little while back, The Manga Guide to Physiology is a spoonful-of-sugar-makes-the-medicine-go-down treatment of physiology in a graphic novel format, a specialty of the the publisher, No Starch Press. In fact, the Manga Guide series and the Survive! series are both No Starch publications.

An No Starch really knows how to do this type of book well. Just as the Survive! books combined a fun story with serious information about the various systems that make the human body run in quite a bit of detail, so too does the Manga Guide to Physiology. The framing story for the Manga Guide is a nursing student, Kumiko, who needs to, uh, bone up on physiology for a make up exam. Under the tutelage of a cool young prof, Kumiko combines studying for the exam with preparing to run a marathon. The framing here works extremely well as there's plenty of opportunity for light-hearted banter and well as serious discussion about physiology. The race-training provides a great opportunity for putting the book-learning into practice! As with many other books of this type, the story line covers only fairly basic information while each chapter has several pages of more in-depth information.

This is a very fine book which would work well for a quick study of the basics in any physiology course, sort of to provide some scaffolding to help get a student over the hump. Any academic, public or school library would benefit by having this fun and instructive book in their collection.


Wicks, Maris. Human Body Theater. New York: First Second Press, 2015. 240pp. ISBN-13: 978-1626722774

Maris Wicks' wonderful Human Body Theatre is quite similar to The Manga Guide to Physiology in that it is a fun and lighthearted digest of anatomy and physiology. However, while the Manga Guide could quite easily be used to provide some support/scaffolding for an actual course in physiology, HBT doesn't go into anywhere near the same detail. As such, it's more appropriate for younger students who show an interest in biology or physiology, probably at the elementary or middle school level. The art is simple and elegant yet detailed enough to illustrate the science while the story is fun and breezy. Basically, a skeleton telling it's story through the various systems of the body while it sort of re-assembles itself into a fully-fleshed body.

A fun book that I would recommend for any school or public library as well as any academic library that collects graphic novels. It would also make a perfect gift for any child that has shown some interest in science or biology.


Yang, Gene Luen and Mike Holmes. Secret Coders, Book 1. New York: First Second Press, 2015. 96pp. ISBN-13: 978-1626720756

Want to get a youngster in your life acquainted with the logical principles that underpin computer programming? Well, Volume 1 of Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes' Secret Coders series is just the book to get the tech ball rolling. Hopper has just started at a new school and is feeling a bit discombobulated. But she does make a few friends among the nerdier denizens of her new school. But there are mysteries at this new school -- some sort of cleaning robot that behaves by some strange rules or instructions. Hopper and her buddies' process of figuring out what that all means is the first step in the books stealthy introduction to what programming is all about -- teaching a machine to follow instructions. Of course, we have a cliff hanger so Volume 2 is anxiously awaited.

Of course, the name of our hero is a nice nod to computing history.

This is a very fine book that I would recommend for any school or public library as well as any academic library that collections science- or technology-themed graphic novels. It would also make a great gift for any young person who might be interested in science or technology.

(Manga Guide to Physiology, Human Body Theatre and Secret Coders review copies all provided by the publishers.)


Other science graphic novels and illustrated books I have reviewed:

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Reading Diary: The Story of Life in 25: Fossils Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution by Donald R. Prothero

Jan 25 2016 Published by under book review, science books

Donald R. Prothero's The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution has a bit of something for everyone. It's a great introduction to the history of life on the planet Earth, it's a solid primer on why evolution is true. It's a fun read with lots of tales of paleontological adventure and derring do. One of my favourite parts is the list of "must visit" natural history museums both in the US and around the world (I've been to seven of them, but I hope to visit more of them!). Tips on where you can actually see the fossils under discussion for yourself among those great museums.

But mostly it has dinosaurs and scum and sea monsters and frogs and turtles and snakes and whales and horses and even humans too, at the end.

What Prothero has done is pick 25 different organisms from the dawn of life until to the first human skeleton and in each chapter given a fairly complete story for that fossil or class of organisms. For example, the opening chapter is on the first fossilized micro-organisms, not so much about one particular fossil. Other chapters are much more about specific fossils, for example the one on archaeopteryx focuses on a fairly small number of examples in the evolution of birds. Other chapters, for example on the evolution of horses, tell the story in more evolutionary terms and discuss a wider ranger of different species and fossils. Every chapter has graphs and illustrations, used to great effect, as well as a list of further reading both in the scholarly and popular literature.

We take tours of the Burgess Shale, global warming denialism, Shark Week, the Lock Ness Monster meet important yet largely unknown figures like the incredibly important English fossil collector Mary Anning.

Overall, Prothero gives us great narrative drive, all you would ever want to know about a bunch of different fossils as well as the historical and social context to bring it all together. I recommend this book without hesitation for any academic library that collects popular science books. Public libraries and high school or middle school libraries would also find this to be a wonderful addition to their science collections.

Prothero, Donald R. The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 408pp. ISBN-13: 978-0231171908

(Review copy provided by publisher.)

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Reading Diary: Data Management for Researchers: Organize, maintain and share your data for research success by Kristin Briney

Kristin Briney's Data Management for Researchers: Organize, maintain and share your data for research success is a book that should be on the shelf (physical or virtual) of every librarian, researcher and research administrator. Scientists, engineers, social scientists, humanists -- anyone who's work involves generating and keeping track of digital data. This is the book for you.

Like the title says -- data management for researchers. If you have data and you're a researcher, this is the book for you. Organize, maintain and share, the title says. If you're a researcher that needs to manage data, organizing, maintaining and sharing that data is exactly what you want to do.

And Kristin Briney is just the person to help. With a PhD in chemistry, you know she's been on the researcher side of the equation. And with a Master's in Library and Information Studies, you also know that she's studied the managing/organizing/sharing side of the equation and can bring deep insight and solid advice there too.

And that's the focus of the book -- insight and advice. Insight into the problems and issues around dealing with data and advice with how to deal with them.

The chapter topic areas give a good sense of the topics covered, so I don't have to go into detail with explanations of what's covered:

  • The data problem
  • The data lifecycle
  • Planning for data management
  • Documenting your data
  • Organizing your data
  • Improving data analysis
  • Managing secure and private data
  • Short-term storage
  • Preserving and archiving your data
  • Sharing/publishing your data
  • Reusing data

Briney covers a lot of ground and goes into pretty deep detail for most areas. Inevitably, not every section will be equally relevant to every potential reader and not every detail or discussion will be new information to everyone. Given breadth of topics and the level of detail in each area and that Briney mostly starts each section from square one, this book will work for everyone at pretty well every skill level.

Some judicious skimming will be inevitable for most potential readers, as will perhaps some selective Googling for addition background information in certain area. Briney has you covered. In fact, an interesting way to deal with the detail might be by taking this book in two passes. The first pass to get a sense of the "universe of data things you need to know" and a second more focused on "what I need to know to survive my current situation." Whether that situation is a librarian hoping to build a data service, a PI hoping to get a little better at the things an onrushing funder mandate is going to require or a grad student ready to tackle their first real project, all the information you need is there. You just have to zero in on it.

That being said, the sections on data management plans, preserving & archiving and sharing data are all must-read sections for everyone. Making research data openly available where possible, for reuse and replication purposes, is an important goal for, in particular, all of science.

I recommend this book without hesitation for all academic libraries. Individual researchers, research administrators, funding agency employees and academic librarians would all find much useful information. Simply giving copy to new graduate students is probably a worthwhile investment at any institution.

Briney, Kristin. Data Management for Researchers: Organize, maintain and share your data for research success. Exeter, UK: Pelagic Publishing, 2015. 250pp. ISBN-13: 978-1784270117

(Review copy provided by publisher.)

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Reading Diary: Genius At Play The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway by Siobhan Roberts

Jan 04 2016 Published by under book review, mathematics, reading diary, science books

John Horton Conway is a great mathematician, certainly one of the greatest living mathematicians. Polymathematical in his mathematical interests (game theory, geometry, group theory, topology and more, not to mention the Game of Life), he's also one of the most eccentric, and that's saying a lot in a field where Cedric Villani is prime eccentricity competition.

As one can imagine, the biographer of an oddball character like Conway faces certain ... challenges ... that most biographers don't face. Memory, obstinacy, whimsy, the whole nine yards.

So it pleases me to say that Siobhan Roberts' recent biography, Genius At Play The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway, rises to the occasion and gives a wonderful and quirky portrayal of a wonderful and quirky figure in the history of mathematics.

But it must be said. If the author of a book about such an unconventional

unusual, irregular, unorthodox, unfamiliar, uncommon, unwonted, out of the ordinary, atypical, singular, alternative, different; new, novel, innovative, groundbreaking, pioneering, original, unprecedented; eccentric, idiosyncratic, quirky, odd, strange, bizarre, weird, outlandish, curious; abnormal, anomalous, aberrant, extraordinary; nonconformist, Bohemian, avant-garde; informalfar out, offbeat, off the wall, wacky, madcap, oddball, zany, hippie, kooky, wacko (here)

figure faces some challenges, so does the reviewer of such a book. How to convey both the book subject's personality and how that personality is reflected in the book itself? Because make no mistake, Roberts does a great job of mirroring Conway's personality

the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual's distinctive character.

"she had a sunny personality that was very engaging"

synonyms: character, nature, disposition, temperament, makeup, persona, psyche

"her cheerful personality"

qualities that make someone interesting or popular.

"she's always had loads of personality"

synonyms: charisma, magnetism, strength/force of personality, character, charm, presence
"she had loads of personality" (here)

in the way she tells the story -- fresh, fun, whimsical, a bit wild and offbeat. But not purposefully difficult or obtuse or overly wilful or inventively fanciful with details (like Conway also can be), I guess leaving those aspects out of the direct telling of the tales.

What I'm going to do is leave it to the book itself to tell it's own tale. Here's a bunch of quotes, I won't tell you who from, from Roberts or Conway or one of the other people quoted in the book. 'Cause where would the fun be in that.

  • p. 20: There goes somebody looking strange. Ergo it must [be] a friend of Dad's!
  • p. 25: You know, it's hard to think what message to send your tongue to get it to do this thing.
  • p. 51: I'm a Platonist at heart, although I know there are very great difficulties with that view.
  • p. 57: Mercifully, the hiring process for the Cambridge mathematics faculty was then loosey-goosey, somewhere between anarchic and irrational.
  • p. 64: "Had the baby?" / Yes. / "Boy or girl?" / Yes.
  • p. 74: Were my lectures anywhere near that coherent?
  • p. 75: The smitten students loved him as much for his mind as his silly high jinks, and maybe most of all for his singular hybrid of sophistication, sincerity, and lascivious showmanship.
  • p. 82: Cue the tremolo whistle that presage a duel in "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly." It's a mathematicians shootout. Who's the fastest to draw to draw a stellated icosahedron.
  • p. 97: During a trip to Montreal there was 8 inches of snow. Conway, as per usual, was wearing only his sandals.
  • p. 107: Are there any determinists present?
  • p. 124: I like to think of a huge abandoned warehouse equipped with logical devices such as AND, OR, and NOT gates.
  • p. 128: It terrifies him that another of his worst nightmares might come true, that his life will in the end be reduced to Life.
  • p. 133: You know, when you play a game, if you learn to be good at it, you find what it is you should be thinking about. That is really rather subtle. And that's what we do in mathematics.
  • p. 139: Come again? (As the actress said to the bishop.)
  • p. 145: Which is to say, Life could calculate pi. It could calculate anything. In the broadest logical sense, Life was a metaphor for all of mathematics; it contained all of mathematics.
  • p. 181: No. Yes. I'm not sure, to tell you the truth.
  • p. 186: Conway carries the Shannon philosophy to its extreme, often forced by his lack of system to rediscover his own results.
  • p. 213: Suppose surreal numbers had been invented first and real numbers second -- suppose it had gone the other way and we had all grown up learning surreal numbers.
  • p. 224: Conway's philosophy of study, which has served him well, is to always take his investigations several steps beyond what any reasonable human being would do.
  • p. 224: No no no no no! You're being far too REASONABLE.
  • p. 237: I arrived at the alcove armed with the "Monstrous Moonshine" hopes of getting, if not an answer, at least some elaboration about what exactly he and Norton had accomplished.
  • p. 242: Conway employs an entomologically inspired algorithm in explaining his own mating patterns.
  • p. 244: How, pray tell, does an unkempt nerdy mathematician get so lucky?
  • p. 275: It's one of the surest signs of senility in a scientist -- or a mathematician, for that matter -- when after having made a reputation in one subject, he somehow feels he can make a contribution to something else.
  • p. 364: We are parasites, we mathematicians, on the proper function of the brain.
  • p. 379: But my view is we are trying to find the truth, and there are other ways of finding the truth than proofs. And this is unsettling to mathematicians.
  • p. 390: Gareth, it must be said, is as psyched about having a nerd for a father as any boy could be.

You get the idea. And you'll have to get a hold of the book itself to figure out the context of the odder of the quotes above. Parasites. *snort*

Needless to say, this is an excellent book, one that belongs in every library's mathematics collection, academic or public. It is also indispensable for collections in the history of science or math. It would also make an excellent addition to the personal collection of any lover of math or personality.

(Review copy provided by publisher.)

Roberts, Siobhan. Genius At Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. 480pp. ISBN-13: 978-1620405932

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Reading Diary: How Machines Work: Zoo Break! by David Macaulay

Dec 20 2015 Published by under book review, science books, Uncategorized

This is the first popup book I've ever reviewed and I certainly hope it won't be the last.

David Macaulay's How Machines Work: Zoo Break! is a wonderful, whimsical, delightful and beautiful book that will charm and fascinate anyone who picks it up.

Aimed at younger children and told through the eyes of two zoo animals named Sloth and Sengi, it takes a pretty solid engineering approach to the world. It focuses on the core principles of how machines work and cleverly uses a popup devices on many pages to illustrate and even demonstrate those principles. Leverage and levers, wheels and pulleys, screws and gears, drilling down and putting all the pieces together to make a machine. One of the popup pages even lets you build a little lever and fulcrum and launch Sloth over the fence.

Clear and concise, fun to read and play with, this is a great book that I would recommend as a gift for anyone with a child in their lives. It's pretty enough and clever enough that many adults would appreciate it as well as an objet d'art. As for libraries, it might be a bit fragile for some environments, but it would make a great acquisition for story time. As well, it would be a great addition to collections for libraries at education schools.

Macaulay, David. How Machines Work: Zoo Break!. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2015. 32pp. ISBN-13: 978-1465440129

(Review copy provided by publisher.)


Other science graphic novels and illustrated books I have reviewed:

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Reading Diary: Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik

This latest book in my reviewing adventures continues the recentish trend of books concerned with science during World War II. Michael Hiltzik's Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex follows books such as Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler, Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War and Les Rêveurs lunaires: Quatre génies qui ont changé l’Histoire. A little further back, there's Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in the Second World War and Hitler’s Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil’s Pact, which I read and enjoyed but never got around to reviewing. And graphic novel-wise, there's Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb and even Feynman and Suspended In Language: Niels Bohr's Life, Discoveries, And The Century He Shaped about Neils Bohr (another I read and enjoyed but haven't reviewed).

Which adds up to quite the little obsession, when you think about it. Which is fine, of course, we're all allowed our obsessions. And FSM knows, the history of the atomic bomb in particular and World War II in general are endlessly fascinating.

Which brings us to Big Science.

Which is a scientific and technological biography of Ernest Lawrence as well the story of the birth of Big Science as a research and funding methodology. And to throw in some spice, we also see how Lawrence and Big Science collide (heh) during the late 1930s through the epochal year of 1945 to help bring us the atomic age.

With all this thrown in, what could possibly go wrong? And Hiltzik delivers and excellent and detailed history of all those intersections which, which it might drag at some moments, has a hugely interesting story to tell, one that I really didn't know a lot about and one that probably needs to be better understood in the modern world.

Especially the whole Big Science thing. Yeah, especially that.

Big science is a term used by scientists and historians of science to describe a series of changes in science which occurred in industrial nations during and after World War II, as scientific progress increasingly came to rely on large-scale projects usually funded by national governments or groups of governments.

Because it was Ernest Lawrence and his drive to build bigger and better cyclotrons and colliders at University of California Berkeley that drove the creation and development of Big Science. It was Lawrence who also pushed the nascent idea of Big Science towards it's logical conclusion during World War II, using his ideas of big labs funded by big government with big staffs to found the Oak Ridge National Lab as well as the Livermore National Lab, which later was renamed Lawrence Livermore.

Hiltzik does a great job of outlining Lawrence's progress, painting him as a kind of relentless technocrat, imbued with the endless optimism of science and discovery, willing to do almost anything to get where he needed to get. But not as a villain of the piece, blindly pushing for an ever-more militaristic scientific establishment -- the Military Industrial Complex. Though that's what Lawrence (and the rest of us) seem to have ended up with, Lawrence the bureaucrat and manager comes off as more naive and overly optimistic than scheming or grasping. As David Lilienthal described him, one of the "scientists in grey flannel suits." (411)

The last section of the book puts it in context. While the paradigm has lead to amazing things -- like what the Large Hadron Collider has given us in theoretical physics or the Human Genome Project in biology -- there's also been a cost. When science costs an awful lot of money, what happens is that the paymasters get to start calling the shots. In government and academia, that's increasingly the case, as science gets more corporatised. The Manhattan Project was kind of the great honeymoon for Big Science, but seventy years its has become far too ingrained for any talk of divorce.

Michael Hiltzik's Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex is a very good book and a wonderful addition to some less-well-known periods of science -- the eras just before and just after World War II. It was certainly an area where my knowledge was lacking. As well, during the section on World War II, the focus on the Oak Ridge, TN lab where the uranium was enriched rather than Los Alamos which usually gets all the attention, was quite welcome. I recommend this book without reservation for any academic collection that collects in the history of science or WWII.

Hiltzik, Michael. Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. 528pp. ISBN-13: 978-1451675757

(Review copy provided by the publisher.)

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Reading Diary: Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler and Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War

Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler by Philip Ball and Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War by Brandon R. Brown are two of the best history of science books I've read in a very long time. And even though they're both about World War II, some seventy years in the past, they've both also very topical because they are both very much about the relationship between politics and science. In a sense, what comes first, the political chicken or the scientific egg. Are scientists responsible for how their work is put to use by their political "masters?" Do scientists' responsibilities as citizens outweigh their curiosity and inquisitiveness?

All difficult questions with perhaps no right answer. But both Ball and Brown deal with those issues very directly in their books. Ball looks at how physics and physicists thrived, survived and struggled under Hitler, covering a lot of ground but basically concentrating on the story through the lives of a few key people: Werner Heisenberg, Peter Debye and Max Planck. Heisenberg and Planck are, of course, well known figures but the choice of the Dutch-borh Debye as a focal point of the book was very interesting. In Heisenberg we see the opportunist, someone who perhaps played with fire a little and tried to wiggle a bit at the end of the war. In Planck, we see someone who tried to be apolitical and "do the right thing" in a political world but in his eighties perhaps lacked the energy and perceptiveness to truly see the more just path. But Debye's story is different. Without giving too much away, it's filled with nuance and uncertainty. Who knew what and when? Why did he do that particular thing? What were his true motives? There's lots to explore and his chapters were very interesting and certainly was a very new part of the story for me.

In fact, there was lots here that was new too me, even after having read John Corwell's Hitler's Scientists a few years ago, mostly because of the way Ball really focuses on the story of physics under the Nazis, the men and the institutions and the political wrangling.

But mostly the strength of Ball's book is the way it surfaces questions about the role of science in politics, how society should see science and mostly how scientists could perhaps see their roles in a complex and dangerous world. Is science free from human concerns? When scientists insist they should be free to do pure science and not be concerned with politics or morality, are they just being delusional? What is the nature of collaboration and co-operation with the authorities of your own country in wartime? It allows us to see our own moral challenges and failings through the lens of an admittedly extreme situation. As stereotypical as the charge of "Godwining" is, the extreme lens is useful.

Brown on the other hand, does a kind of deep dive, and takes a look at the struggles Max Planck dealt with while under Nazi rule during the last decade or so of his long and illustrious career. Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War does cover all of Planck's life but mostly focuses on his final years, from 1933 when the Hitler came to power until he passed away, a broken old man but still honored and revered, in 1947.

If Ball treated the issues of science and politics from a relatively high level, Brown uses a microscope, looking at the challenges that Planck undertook as the proud standard bearer and leading light of the German physics establishment. Under the Nazis, science was to be put in the service of war; to what extent was someone like Planck able to see the dark, evil side of the Nazi regime and to what extent was his stiff upper lip essentially leading to a go along to get along attitude? So this is a book about weakness -- Planck's inability to come to grips with the deeper reality of Nazi rule is a theme. But it's also about the human side of weakness too, as Planck is presented as a principled, moral man whose weakness was deeply embedded in a culture of obedience to the state and a rigid conception of how scientists should relate to their political "masters."

At the end of the day, these are both terrific books that I would recommend to any library that collects in the history of science and technology or the history of World War II.

Ball, Philip. Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 320pp. ISBN-13: 978-0226204574

Brown, Brandon R. Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 272pp. ISBN-13: 978-0190219475

(Review copy of Planck book provided by the publisher.)

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