Best Science Books 2017: Smithsonian Ten Best Science Books

(by John Dupuis) Dec 11 2017

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 2017!

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 Smithsonian Ten Best Science Books of 2017.

  • Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World by Maryn McKenna
  • Magnitude: The Scale of the Universe by Megan Watzke
  • Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures by Caleb Everett
  • Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy
  • Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation by Alan Burdick
  • Gravity's Kiss: The Detection of Gravitational Waves by Harry Collins
  • Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past by Zoë Lescaze
  • The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World - and Us by Richard O. Prum
  • What It's Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience by Gregory Berns
  • What Future: The Year's Best Ideas to Reclaim, Reanimate & Reinvent Our Future edited by Torie Bosch,‎ Roy Scranton

And check out my previous 2017 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 and 2017 right here!

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

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Friday Fun: Scientists theorize alternate universe where people listen to them

(by John Dupuis) Dec 08 2017

From the so-funny-it-hurts file, courtesy of The Beaverton.

Scientists theorize alternate universe where people listen to them

“The implications are enormous,” tweeted noted astrophysicist and shit-disturber Neil deGrasse Tyson. “This means that just beyond a dimensional veil separating an alternate reality from this one, there is someone exactly like you, but vaccinated.”

Scientists have already begun seeking a way to travel to this newly found universe in search of grant money and positive affirmation. So far, none of them have looked for a way to return home.

Go read the whole thing. It's hilarious.

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The Donald Trump War on Science: Save Net Neutrality!

(by John Dupuis) Dec 07 2017

Net Neutrality is under attack by the Donald Trump administration. It's important to learn what's going on and for Net Neutrality supporters to mobilise. But what's the fuss all about? And what's Net Neutrality to begin with, you ask? The Wikipedia definition is pretty good.

Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers must treat all data on the Internet the same, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication.[1] For instance, under these principles, internet service providers are unable to intentionally block, slow down or charge money for specific websites and online content.

In other words, the telecommunications infrastructure that makes up the Internet treats everybody and every kind of information the same. No favourite classes of data or penalised classes either. Video is treated the same as text is treated the same as voice is treated the same way as static images.

Why is this important?

1. free and open internet enables equitable access to information.
2. free and open internet helps prevent unfair and discriminatory pricing practices.
3. free and open internet protects freedom of speech.
4. free and open internet promotes innovation.

Without an open internet, big corporations would have tight control over how we access information. Please do your part to keep the internet a cornerstone of freedom and opportunity. Get involved by supporting local municipal networks and fighting for net neutrality and Internet Freedom.

What would happen if we lost Net Neutrality?

What would happen if we lost Net Neutrality?

The internet without Net Neutrality isn’t really the internet. Unlike the open internet that has paved the way for so much innovation and given a platform to people who have historically been shut out, it would become a closed-down network where cable and phone companies call the shots and decide which websites, content or applications succeed.

This would have an enormous impact. Companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon would be able to decide who is heard and who isn’t. They’d be able to block websites or content they don’t like or applications that compete with their own offerings.

The consequences would be particularly devastating for marginalized communities media outlets have misrepresented or failed to serve. People of color, the LGBTQ community, indigenous peoples and religious minorities in the United States rely on the open internet to organize, access economic and educational opportunities, and fight back against systemic discrimination.

Without Net Neutrality, how would activists be able to fight oppression? What would happen to social movements like the Movement for Black Lives? How would the next disruptive technology, business or company emerge if internet service providers only let incumbents succeed?

Why is Net Neutrality crucial for communities of color?

The open internet allows people of color to tell their own stories and organize for racial and social justice. When activists are able to turn out thousands of people in the streets at a moment’s notice, it’s because ISPs aren’t allowed to block their messages or websites.

The mainstream media have long misrepresented, ignored and harmed people of color. And thanks to systemic racism, economic inequality and runaway media consolidation, people of color own just a handful of broadcast stations. The lack of diverse ownership is a primary reason why the media have gotten away with criminalizing and otherwise stereotyping communities of color.

The open internet allows people of color and other vulnerable communities to bypass traditional media gatekeepers. Without Net Neutrality, ISPs could block speech and prevent dissident voices from speaking freely online. Without Net Neutrality, people of color would lose a vital platform.

And without Net Neutrality, millions of small businesses owned by people of color wouldn’t be able to compete against larger corporations online, which would deepen economic disparities.

Why is Net Neutrality important for businesses?

Net Neutrality is crucial for small business owners, startups and entrepreneurs, who rely on the open internet to launch their businesses, create markets, advertise their products and services, and reach customers. We need the open internet to foster job growth, competition and innovation.

Net Neutrality lowers the barriers of entry by preserving the internet’s fair and level playing field. It’s because of Net Neutrality that small businesses and entrepreneurs have been able to thrive online.

No company should be allowed to interfere with this open marketplace. ISPs are the internet’s gatekeepers, and without Net Neutrality, they would seize every possible opportunity to profit from that gatekeeper position.

Without Net Neutrality, the next Google or Facebook would never get off the ground.

 

A few general resources

 
And the story of what's going on right now in the US, with the FCC promising to end Net Neutrality. The list below has lots of resources and opinions and arguments, all of which are well worth at least taking a look at. If I've missed something important, let me know.

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Best Science Books 2017: The Globe and Mail 100

(by John Dupuis) Dec 04 2017

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

(by John Dupuis) Nov 27 2017

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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Julie Payette: Engineer, Astronaut, Governor General of Canada, Defender of Reality

(by John Dupuis) Nov 14 2017

Julie Payette is about as ridiculously accomplished as you could ever imagine any person could be.

I like this short passage as a quick summary of awesomeness:

In her career and public life, Julie Payette has proven her mettle, intelligence and integrity time after time. An engineer, computer scientist and astronaut, she has flown commercial and military jets, been certified as a deep sea diver, operated the Canadarm, participated in two missions to the International Space Station, served as the chief astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency, has had international academic posts and has sat on both corporate and non-profit boards. (For what it’s worth: Payette also speaks six languages and is a gifted singer and pianist.)

This article from back in the summer when Payette's appointment was announced gives a fantastic overview of why she was a great choice for governor general.

Which brings us to this most recent tempest in a teapot.

As governor general, Payette represents the Canadian head of state, Queen Elizabeth and effectively functions as the head of state in Canada. For example, it is the GG who formally dissolves parliament before an election and asks the leader of the party with the most seats to form a government after an election. Usually, these are deeds without controversy as the GG is unelected (appointed by the prime minister for five year terms) and follows a fairly well-defined tradition. But not always.

At the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa in the first week of November, Payette gave a talk where she addressed some scientific "controversies" around such topics as climate change denialism, the validity of horoscopes and, horror of horror, whether or not divine intervention played a role in the story of life on this planet.

Some selected quotes here:

"Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we're still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the Earth warming up or whether even the Earth is warming up, period," she asked, her voice incredulous.

"And we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process."

She generated giggles and even some guffaws from the audience when she said too many people still believe "taking a sugar pill will cure cancer if you will it good enough and that your future and every single one of the people here's personalities can be determined by looking at planets coming in front of invented constellations."

Overall, pretty mild stuff. Science is real; pseudoscience, denialism and religion aren't.

Not a particularly nuanced approach to be sure, and perhaps she could have phrased the bit about evolution a bit more circumspectly, but at the end of the day I can't find fault with what she said. Yes, we have freedom of religion. People can worship as they please and hold the tenets of their faith as literally or as metaphorically as they please. Payette never implied otherwise. But the government's (and the state's) only requirement is that they not interfere with that worship or require any particular set of beliefs to participate in public life. The government and the state don't support any one religion over any other religion. They also don't promote belief over non-belief (at least in practice; separation of church and state in Canada is a bit complicated). They certainly don't have the burden to reassure believers about the literal truth of their beliefs.

As The Beaverton put it, making fun of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer's criticisms,

“There are millions of Canadians who were offended by Julie Payette’s scientific proselytizing,” explained Scheer to reporters about the Vice-Regal’s support of Newton’s law of universal gravitation. “We should be more inclusive to those who believe that gravity does not exist, or who believe in many gravities. We can’t conclusively claim that what goes up must come down; I mean why are mountains still standing?”

...

“What’s next? Governments advocating for people to get flu shots?” Scheer asked rhetorically, shrugging his shoulders.

Scheer clarified that he wasn’t anti-science, rather trying to accommodate the sacred views that the scientific method is the work of the devil.

In matters of public policy, the government and the state do need to take seriously what the best evidence (demographic, sociological, scientific, historical) and the scientific consensus is on important issues.

Governor General Julie Payette should be congratulated on speaking her mind, on being honest and on putting the emphasis on facts and evidence.

I have to admit, the thing about this whole issue that has surprised me the most is the legs that it's had. If I'd initially thought that it would blow over after a few days, I was certainly wrong about that. Two weeks later and still commentary is trickling in, though at this point it's mostly the disgruntled. I'm always a bit surprised at how defensive people can be, even (or perhaps especially) in the face of how dominant their world view is in society and the media. I will also note that this whole controversy received very little press and commentary in Quebec where official secularism is the norm, perhaps to a fault.

================

As is my wont in these things, I've collected a fair bit of commentary around this issue both critical and supportive of Payette's remarks. Enjoy!

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ScienceBlogs is no more: Confessions of a Science Librarian is moving

(by John Dupuis) Oct 31 2017

As of November 1st, 2017, ScienceBlogs is shutting down, necessitating relocation of this blog.

It's been over eight years and 1279 posts. It's been predatory open access publishers, April Fool's posts and multiple wars on science. A long and wonderful trip, career-transforming, network building and an awful lot of fun. Over that period of time, ScienceBlogs has gone from the 800 pound gorilla of science blogging to just another site with not enough traffic to keep the lights on, which I guess is the way of the world. Things change, life moves on.

Thanks to everyone at ScienceBlogs for all the support and encouragement. And mostly, thanks to all my readers for their support, time and attention.

But the story isn't over, only shifting setting. Over the course of the next few days I'll be relaunching this blog at Scientopia, joining old friends and making new ones.

See you on the other side!

Watch my account over on Twitter for details as they develop.

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Science in Canada: Save PEARL, The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory

(by John Dupuis) Sep 26 2017

Deja vu all over again. Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

Canadian science under the Harper government from 2006 to 2015 was a horrific era of cuts and closures and muzzling and a whole lot of other attack on science.

One of the most egregious was the threat to close the PEARL arctic research station. (PEARL website) Fortunately, the outcry was so fierce that the Harper government extended PEARL's funding for five years. Well, guess what? The five years is up and PEARL is threatened with closure once more.

Canadian science under the Justin Trudeau Liberals has shown signs of improvement, but has a ways to go.

One way for them to show their commitment to science (and to the environment and fighting climate change) would be to restore funding to PEARL and establish it as a permanent laboratory.

The fine folks at Evidence for Democracy have a campaign running whereby you can send a letter toScience Minister Kirsty Duncan asking to restore that funding.

The link is here.

The descriptive text from the E4D campaign site is here, including a great description of the importance of PEARL:

Canada’s high Arctic research station, The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) will be closed in 2018 because its funding is being cut.

Surprised? So are we.

The federal government has made it clear that science and climate change are two of their top priorities, so why are they closing this key research station?

With the impacts of our changing climate already being felt in Canada and around the world, investing in climate science is a necessary part of ensuring that our decisions and actions around climate change mitigation and adaptation are based on up-to-date science and evidence.

PEARL is one of only a handful of high Arctic research stations in the world. From its scientifically strategic location in Canada’s high arctic, PEARL is able to investigate crucial environmental issues like ozone depletion, airborne spread of pollutants and monitor high Arctic climate changes.

After over a decade of internationally recognized scientific research, PEARL is at risk of closing.

PEARL, along with six other climate change and atmospheric research projects were all funded by the Climate Change and Atmospheric Research Program (CCAR). Money for the CCAR program runs out this year and the federal government did not announce any new funds in the 2017 budget. Without immediate new funding, all of these research programs are expected to end.

But it’s not too late to save PEARL and Canadian atmospheric climate science! Join us in asking the government to:

  • Invest $1.5 million per year to make PEARL a national laboratory
  • Provide a well supported and stable funding environment for climate research in Canada by reinstating a funding model for climate science similar to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS) that was cut by the Harper government.

Given the Government’s commitment to addressing climate change, investing in climate and atmospheric science should be at the forefront of funding priorities.

With climate science under attack in the US, Canada has an opportunity and a responsibility to be international leaders on climate science. This starts by making sure PEARL and the other CCAR-funded projects aren’t shuttered.

The government has supported a new northern research center, the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), which is a valuable asset to Canadian polar knowledge. But there is no indication that any atmospheric or climate change research will be untaken at CHARS. Also CHARS is located 1200 km south of PEARL, so it simply can’t replace the high arctic data collected at PEARL.

Shutdown preparations at PEARL have already begun, we need urgent action to save this essential research station.

Send a message to the Minister of Science today.

The text of the letter to Minister Duncan:

Dear Minister Duncan,

Thank you for making science and climate change priorities for your government.

I am concerned that Canada’s high arctic research station, The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) is set to close at the end of this year unless its funding is renewed.

PEARL, along with the other projects funded by the Climate Change and Atmospheric Research program, conduct crucial research into important issues like ozone depletion, airborne spread of pollutants and changes to our climate.

Without new funding, we risk losing these facilities in the Arctic. This will jeopardize data continuity, productive collaborations between academic and government scientists, and recruitment of new researchers into the field.

I urge you to ensure that Canada continues to be a global leader in climate science by:
- Investing $1.5 million per year to make PEARL a national laboratory that could be overseen by Polar Knowledge Canada or Environment and Climate Change Canada; and
- Providing a well supported and stable funding environment for climate research in Canada by reinstating a funding model for climate science similar to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS) that was cut by the Harper government.

These investments are a necessary complement to the other arctic and climate change research your government is investing in. While the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) is a valuable asset to Canadian stewardship of polar science, there is no indication that any atmospheric or climate change research will be undertaken there, nor does its location (1200 km south of PEARL) allow for the same high arctic data collection currently taking place at PEARL.

The funding of PEARL and the other CCAR projects are an essential part of ensuring that our decisions and actions around climate change mitigation and adaptation are based on up-to-date science and evidence.

I'm working on a readings list post about PEARL and hope to have that up within the next few days.

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The Trump War on Science: Daring blindness, Denying climate change, Destroying the EPA and other daily disasters

(by John Dupuis) Sep 11 2017

The last one of these was in mid-June, so we're picking up all the summer stories of scientific mayhem in the Trump era. The last couple of months have seemed especially apocalyptic, with Nazis marching in the streets and nuclear war suddenly not so distant a possibility. But along with those macro-level issues, Trump and his cronies are still hammering away at climate change denial, environmental protection, research funding and public health issues. As exhausting as it seems -- and this is part of the plan -- amongst all of us opposed to Trump, we need to keep track of a wide range of issues.

If I'm missing anything important, please let me know either in the comments or at my email jdupuis at yorku dot ca. If you want to use a non-work email for me, it's dupuisj at gmail dot com.

The selections are by no means meant to represent a comprehensive account of everything written about science and science-related over the last few months. I'm not aiming for anything than complete or comprehensive. For example, there are probably hundreds of articles written about climate-change related issues over that period, but I'm just picking up what I hope is a representative sample.

The last time around was a bit more thematically organized rather than chronologically. I'm trying the later organizational method this time around to see if I can get a sense of which I prefer or which seems more useful.

This post covers from approximately mid-June, 2017 up to August 31, 2017. The fact that most days -- even in the summer -- there are multiple things to report is terrifying.

A few general resources:

 
And now the full list:
 

 

As usual, if there are any errors in the above list or if I've missed anything significant, please let me know in the comments. If you'd prefer not to comment, you can let me know via email at jdupuis at yorku dot ca or my non-work email dupuisj at gmail dot com.

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Friday Fun: Is Game of Thrones an allegory for global climate change?

(by John Dupuis) Aug 18 2017

After a bit of an unexpected summer hiatus, I'm back to regular blogging, at least as regular as it's been the last year or two.

Of course, I'm a committed Game of Thrones fan. I read the first book in paperback soon after it was reprinted, some twenty years ago. And I've also been a fan of the HBO series, which though a bit inconsistent and wobbly at times, has been quite worth watching.

And speaking of winter, has anyone else noticed that winter doesn't seem to be coming? Has anyone noticed the person most worried about climate-related issues, Jon Snow, is having trouble being believed? In fact, anyone who worries about the climate is having trouble being taken seriously. Sure, war is important, but the Army of the Dead will kill everyone, no matter who sits on the Iron Throne.

Sound familiar? Well, I'm hardly the first person to notice the link between our favourite apocalyptic TV show and our least favourite real life environmental apocalypse.

Enjoy, or at least seriously ponder, some of the links below.

 

Is “Game of Thrones” an allegory for global climate change?

Just as the White Walkers are being ignored by the houses fighting over the Westerosi throne, so too are the major producers of carbon emissions struggling to succeed in an economy that will, in the end, render the planet uninhabitable.

 

Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen's Face-to-Face Shows the Myopia of Climate Change Denial

How do we confront an enemy no one believes in because no one can see it? That's the question Snow leaves us with. We can see iceberg calving thanks to patient videographers positioned at the planet’s edges—a relative term, of course, as circles don’t have edges. But at this moment most would rather watch the videos on their screens rather than give up the behaviors that are part of the problem that’s causing calving. We tend to choose the superstitions that benefit us, not the ones that point at our destruction.

 


Like it or not, Game of Thrones is out biggest analogy for climate change

And what did Tyrion do with that information? What did he do when he learned that all of mankind was at risk? Did he beseech Daenerys to forego her quest for the Iron Throne and head north with her dragons? Did he explain to her that it was Jorah’s father who first told him about the White Walkers, in a desperate attempt to make her accept the existential threat they all face?

No, he did nothing more than convince her to give away some some worthless dragonglass as a show of good faith. He probably does believe Jon, but taking the Iron Throne is far more important to him, so the White Walkers will have to wait for another day.

 


Game of Thrones is secretly all about climate change

Swap climate change for White Walkers and "countries" for noble houses, and it starts to sound a lot like the real world.

Specifically, it sounds like the problem of international coordination on climate change. No one country can prevent catastrophic warming on its own: Every country that's a major greenhouse gas emitter is part of the problem.

Yet the biggest emitters, like the United States and China, are also geopolitical competitors: Both are wary of the other's intentions, making it hard for them to see any kind of deal that limits their emissions as win-win. And even if you get over the US-China hurdle, you have to get a deal that's acceptable to most every other country in the world — including developing ones that need cheap energy to fuel economic growth.

The big wars in Game of Thrones — the Baratheon-Targaryen-Stark-Tyrell-Lannister free-for-all — are basically supposed to stand in for these complications. All of these noble houses are focused on their short-term interests, but pursuing them is blocking the real problem: stopping the White Walkers and their zombie army. Likewise, CO2 emissions skyrocketed in the past 100 years — with potentially catastrophic consequences for the human race.

Summer is coming.

 

And a few more...

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