Best Science Books 2009: Royal Society 2010 Prize for Science Books

Jun 17 2010 Published by under best science books 2009, science books

This list is usually the very, very last of the best books lists of the year. It's a good list, but since it's UK-based there are a number of books that we probably won't be seeing on North American shores for another year or so. I'll probably get around to updating my 2009 summary list later this week or next week.

  • We Need To Talk About Kelvin: What everyday things tell us about the universe by Marcus Chown
  • Why Does E=mc2? (And Why Should We Care?) By Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw
  • Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne
  • In Search of the Multiverse by John Gribbin
  • Everyday Practice of Science: Where Intuition and Passion Meet Objectivity and Logic by Frederick Grinnell
  • God's Philosophers: How the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science by James Hannam
  • Storms of My Grandchildren:The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity by James Hansen
  • Darwin's Island: The Galapagos in the Garden of England by Steve Jones
  • Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane
  • The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist
  • Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell
  • A World Without Ice by Henry Pollack

Update 2010.07.09: Added Grinnell book which I somehow managed to forget initially.

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Books I'd Like to Read

May 31 2010 Published by under books I'd like to read, education, science books

For your reading and collection development pleasure:

137: Jung, Pauli, and the Pursuit of a Scientific Obsession by Arthur I. Miller

"The history is fascinating, as are the insights into the personalities of these great thinkers."--New Scientist Is there a number at the root of the universe? A primal number that everything in the world hinges on? This question exercised many great minds of the twentieth century, among them the groundbreaking physicist Wolfgang Pauli and the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Their obsession with the power of certain numbers--including 137, which describes the atom's fine-structure constant and has great Kabbalistic significance--led them to develop an unlikely friendship and to embark on a joint mystical quest reaching deep into medieval alchemy, dream interpretation, and the Chinese Book of Changes. 137 explores the profound intersection of modern science with the occult, but above all it is the tale of an extraordinary, fruitful friendship between two of the greatest thinkers of our times.

Sex, Bombs and Burgers: How War, Porn and Fast Food Shaped Technology As We Know It by Peter Nowak

War. Fast Food. Pornography. Pervasive in our culture, these three obsessions may seem to represent the worst qualities of humankind. But what have our lust, greed and rage driven us to achieve?

In this surprising and original book, Peter Nowak argues that most of the major technological advances of the last sixty years have stemmed from the trio of billion-dollar industries that cater to our basest impulses. From Saran Wrap to aerosols, digital cameras to cold medicine and GM foods to Google, many of the gadgets and conveniences we enjoy today can be traced back to either the porn, military or fast food industry.

Nowak reveals such unexpected links as:

-how the inventors of toys like Barbie and the Slinky perfected their creations with military-tech know-how.
-why "one giant leap for mankind" brought us better hospital meals and stricter food quality control guidelines.
-how innovations in the adult-film industry will help us build better robotic limbs.

If you've ever wondered what inspired the invention of Java, online video streaming or even Tupperware -- well, you might not want to know the answer. But you will find it in this book. (From Amazon.ca)

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky

Since we Americans were suburbanized and educated by the postwar boom, we've had a surfeit of intellect, energy, and time-what Shirky calls a cognitive surplus. But this abundance had little impact on the common good because television consumed the lion's share of it-and we consume TV passively, in isolation from one another. Now, for the first time, people are embracing new media that allow us to pool our efforts at vanishingly low cost. The results of this aggregated effort range from mind expanding-reference tools like Wikipedia-to lifesaving-such as Ushahidi.com, which has allowed Kenyans to sidestep government censorship and report on acts of violence in real time.

Shirky argues persuasively that this cognitive surplus-rather than being some strange new departure from normal behavior-actually returns our society to forms of collaboration that were natural to us up through the early twentieth century. He also charts the vast effects that our cognitive surplus-aided by new technologies-will have on twenty-first-century society, and how we can best exploit those effects. Shirky envisions an era of lower creative quality on average but greater innovation, an increase in transparency in all areas of society, and a dramatic rise in productivity that will transform our civilization.

A Better Pencil by Dennis Baron

A Better Pencil puts our complex, still-evolving hate-love relationship with computers and the internet into perspective, describing how the digital revolution influences our reading and writing practices, and how the latest technologies differ from what came before. The book explores our use of computers as writing tools in light of the history of communication technology, a history of how we love, fear, and actually use our writing technologies--not just computers, but also typewriters, pencils, and clay tablets. Dennis Baron shows that virtually all writing implements--and even writing itself--were greeted at first with anxiety and outrage: the printing press disrupted the "almost spiritual connection" between the writer and the page; the typewriter was "impersonal and noisy" and would "destroy the art of handwriting." Both pencils and computers were created for tasks that had nothing to do with writing. Pencils, crafted by woodworkers for marking up their boards, were quickly repurposed by writers and artists. The computer crunched numbers, not words, until writers saw it as the next writing machine. Baron also explores the new genres that the computer has launched: email, the instant message, the web page, the blog, social-networking pages like MySpace and Facebook, and communally-generated texts like Wikipedia and the Urban Dictionary, not to mention YouTube.

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

The best-selling author of The Big Switch returns with an explosive look at technology's effect on the mind. "Is Google making us stupid?" When Nicholas Carr posed that question, in a celebrated Atlantic Monthly cover story, he tapped into a well of anxiety about how the Internet is changing us. He also crystallized one of the most important debates of our time: As we enjoy the Net's bounties, are we sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply?

Now, Carr expands his argument into the most compelling exploration of the Internet's intellectual and cultural consequences yet published. As he describes how human thought has been shaped through the centuries by "tools of the mind"--from the alphabet to maps, to the printing press, the clock, and the computer--Carr interweaves a fascinating account of recent discoveries in neuroscience by such pioneers as Michael Merzenich and Eric Kandel. Our brains, the historical and scientific evidence reveals, change in response to our experiences. The technologies we use to find, store, and share information can literally reroute our neural pathways.

Building on the insights of thinkers from Plato to McLuhan, Carr makes a convincing case that every information technology carries an intellectual ethic--a set of assumptions about the nature of knowledge and intelligence. He explains how the printed book served to focus our attention, promoting deep and creative thought. In stark contrast, the Internet encourages the rapid, distracted sampling of small bits of information from many sources. Its ethic is that of the industrialist, an ethic of speed and efficiency, of optimized production and consumption--and now the Net is remaking us in its own image. We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.

The World Is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education by Curtis J. Bonk

Whether you are a scientist on a ship in Antarctic waters or a young girl in a Philippine village, you can learn whenever and whatever you want from whomever you are interested in learning it from.

As technologies have become more available, even in the most remote reaches of the world, and as more people contribute a wealth of online resources, the education world has become open to anyone anywhere. In The World Is Open, education technology guru Curtis Bonk explores ten key trends that together make up the "WE-ALL-LEARN" framework for understanding the potential of technology's impact on learning in the 21st century:

  • Web Searching in the World of e-Books
  • E-Learning and Blended Learning
  • Availability of Open Source and Free Software
  • Leveraged Resources and OpenCourseWare
  • Learning Object Repositories and Portals
  • Learner Participation in Open Information Communities
  • Electronic Collaboration
  • Alternate Reality Learning
  • Real-Time Mobility and Portability
  • Networks of Personalized Learning

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Books I'd Like to Read

It's been quite a long while since I've done one of these. Here are some recently noticed books that look interesting from either a collection development or a professional development point of view.

Fans, Friends And Followers: Building An Audience And A Creative Career In The Digital Age by Scott Kirsner

An essential guide for filmmakers, musicians, writers, artists, and other creative types. "Fans, Friends & Followers" explores the strategies for cultivating an online fan base that can support your creative career, enabling you to do the work you want to do and make a living at it. Based on dozens of interviews with the artists pioneering new approaches to production, marketing, promotion, collaboration, and distribution, it presents strategies that work - in a straightforward, jargon-free way. Featured artists include YouTube star Michael Buckley; the animators behind JibJab, Homestar Runner, and Red vs. Blue; video artist Ze Frank ("theshow"); comedian Eugene Mirman; singer-songwriters Jill Sobule and Jonathan Coulton; OK Go frontman Damian Kulash; filmmakers M dot Strange ("We Are the Strange") and Curt Ellis ("King Corn"); writers Brunonia Barry ("The Lace Reader") and Lisa Genova ("Still Alice"); and artists Tracy White, Natasha Wescoat, and Dave Kellett.

Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back by Douglas Rushkoff.

Since the Renaissance, the corporation--the operating system of the market--has formed and controlled people, and Rushkoff describes how it has infiltrated all aspects of American life. In the twenty-first century, we continue to consider corporations as role models and saviors but engage other people as competitors to be beaten or resources to be exploited. The author bemoans extreme networking (called buzz marketing), which makes our personal, social interactions become promotional opportunities and the lines between fiction and reality and friends and market become blurred. Our lives are overextended, and there is no time, energy, or commitment to do anything but work and perhaps consider family. Rushkoff recommends that we fight back by "de-corporatizing" ourselves. His suggestions include thinking locally by participating directly with our neighbors in community activities and using various Internet sites that provide opportunities to contribute directly to a particular school or to extend a "micro loan" to a specific entrepreneur in the Third World. This is an excellent, thought-provoking book.

Fun Inc.: Why Play is the 21st Century's Most Serious Business by Tom Chatfield

Fun Inc. is a guide book to the gaming industry, written by one of the industry's leading analysts.

In the United States in 2007, the gaming industry was worth over $18 billion, while the second-biggest consumer of computer games -- Japan -- added $7 billion to a global total of almost $50 billion. It's the fastest growing media business in the world, and one of the very few industries that seem destined to resist the credit crunch. It's a powerful and dynamic industry and, in commercial terms, one worth understanding given that the gaming industry's innovations present a great opportunity for businesses to better understand both their workers and their clients.

A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution by Dennis Baron

A Better Pencil puts our complex, still-evolving hate-love relationship with computers and the internet into perspective, describing how the digital revolution influences our reading and writing practices, and how the latest technologies differ from what came before. The book explores our use of computers as writing tools in light of the history of communication technology, a history of how we love, fear, and actually use our writing technologies--not just computers, but also typewriters, pencils, and clay tablets. Dennis Baron shows that virtually all writing implements--and even writing itself--were greeted at first with anxiety and outrage: the printing press disrupted the "almost spiritual connection" between the writer and the page; the typewriter was "impersonal and noisy" and would "destroy the art of handwriting." Both pencils and computers were created for tasks that had nothing to do with writing. Pencils, crafted by woodworkers for marking up their boards, were quickly repurposed by writers and artists. The computer crunched numbers, not words, until writers saw it as the next writing machine. Baron also explores the new genres that the computer has launched: email, the instant message, the web page, the blog, social-networking pages like MySpace and Facebook, and communally-generated texts like Wikipedia and the Urban Dictionary, not to mention YouTube.

The First War of Physics: The Secret History of the Atomic Bomb, 1939-1949 by Jim Baggott

Rich in personality, action, confrontation, and deception, The First War of Physics is the first fully realized popular account of the race to build humankind's most destructive weapon. The book draws on declassified material, such as MI 6's FarmHall transcripts, coded Soviet messages cracked by American cryptographers in the Venona project, and interpretations by Russian scholars of documents from the Soviet archives. Jim Baggott weaves these threads into a dramatic narrative that spans ten historic years, from the discovery of nuclear fission in 1939 to the aftermath of 'Joe-1,' August 1949's first Soviet atomic bomb test. Why did physicists persist in developing the atomic bomb, despite the devastation that it could bring? Why, despite having a clear head start, did Hitler's physicists fail? Could the Soviets have developed the bomb without spies like Klaus Fuchs or Donald Maclean? Did the Allies really plot to assassinate a key member of the German bomb program? Did the physicists knowingly inspire the arms race? The First War of Physics is a grand and frightening story of scientific ambition, intrigue, and genius: a tale barely believable as fiction, which just happens to be historical fact.

Bright Boys: The Making of Information Technology by Tom Green

Everything has a beginning. None was more profound and quite unexpected than Information Technology. Here for the first time is the untold story of how our new age came to be and the bright boys who made it happen. What began on the bare floor of an old laundry building eventually grew to rival the Manhattan Project in size. The unexpected consequence of that journey was huge what we now know as Information Technology. And even more unexpected: trying to convince someone, anyone, that information was the key to most everything else. For sixty years the bright boys have been virtually anonymous while their achievements have become a way of life for all of us. Bright Boys brings them home. By 1950 they'd built the world's first real-time computer. Three years later they one-upped themselves when they switched on the world s first digital network. In 1953 their work was met with incredulity and completely overlooked. By 1968 their work was gospel. Today, it's the way of the world.

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Best Science Books 2009: The top books of the year! (Updated)

Mar 22 2010 Published by under best science books 2009, science books

For the last little while I've been compiling lists from various media sources giving their choices for the best books of 2009. Some of the lists have been from general media sources, in which case I've just extracted the science-related books. From science publications, I've included most or all of the mentioned titles.

What I'm doing in this post is collating all the books I've mentioned in all those lists and compiling a sort of master list of all the books mentioned three or more times. There were twelve of them and they are listed below.

Some notes/caveats:

  • These aren't in any way the "best" books of 2009, only the most popular books on year's best lists. For the most part, all the books mentioned wil likely be very good since they've attracted the most media "best" mentions. But, they are also almost certainly the books that had the biggest promotional budgets and sent out the most review copies.
  • There are probably one or two straggler "best of" lists that haven't come out yet. Library Journal, for example, does a list around the March time frame. (last year's) That's fine -- I just don't feel like waiting. I may update this list later on if it seems appropriate.
  • Similarly, there may be lists that were published that I just missed.
  • 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 25 books mentioned twice so one or two of those might have squeaked onto this list.
  • British, American and Canadian publication dates can mean that a 2008 British & Canadian book is a 2009 American book and vice versa. It happens. For example, I have the British paperback edition of Age of Wonder already.
  • There were 178 different books mentioned among the various lists. If you want to see my spreadsheet, just let me know and I'll email it to you. If I get more than one or two requests, I'll probably just load it into Google Docs.

Enjoy -- and good reading!

Here's the list, in descending order of mentions.

Any comments? First of all, there's not a whole lot of actual science among the books -- more edge cases or about historical or socail aspects of science. That's probably more a function of the number of pure science sources I found versus the mainstream ones. Second, not a whole lot of women on the list, unfortunately. Third, Logicomix is third, which is pretty cool.

Update 2010.03.22: Updated the list with books from Library Journal Best of 2009 Sci-Tech Books. The standings did shift a little, for example with the Dirac book going into second place all by itself. Also, four books were added to the list with 3 mentions: Catching Fire, Healing of America, Reading the Brain and Cold. There are also now 198 separate books mentioned among all the lists.

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Best Science Books 2009: Library Journal Best of 2009 Sci-Tech Books

Mar 11 2010 Published by under best science books 2009, science books

A big list of 35 titles in various categories: Astronomy, Biography, Biology, Climatology, Environmental Science, Evolution, Geology, Health Sciences, History of Science, Mathematics, Natural History, Neurology, Oceanography, Paleontology, Physics, Psychology, Science, Technology, Zoology.

This particular list that Library Journal does every year is one that I always use for collection development. I'll order pretty well all the books that we don't already have. It's also heartening that a good chunk of the books that we do have were checked out when I checked the other day.

BTW, I may get around to updating my Top Books of the Year list...or I might not.

  • Einstein's Telescope: The Hunt for Dark Matter and Dark Energy in the Universe by Gates, Evalyn
  • The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom by Farmelo, Graham
  • Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science by Yoon, Carol Kaesuk
  • Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance To Save Humanity by Hansen, James
  • A World Without Ice by Pollack, Henry N.
  • Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto by Brand, Stewart
  • What We Leave Behind by Jensen, Derrick & Aric McBay.
  • The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning by Lovelock, James
  • Evolution: The Story of Life by Palmer, Douglas & Peter Barrett (illus.)
  • Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Wrangham, Richard
  • Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World by Zoellner, Tom
  • Taming the Beloved Beast: How Medical Technology Costs Are Destroying Our Health Care System by Callahan, Daniel
  • Experimental Man: What One Man's Body Reveals About His Future, Your Health, and Our Toxic World by Duncan, David Ewing
  • The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care by Reid, T.R.
  • Science: A Four Thousand Year History by Fara, Patricia
  • The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Holmes, Richard
  • Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist by Levenson, Thomas
  • The Math Book: From Pythagoras to the 57th Dimension, 250 Milestones in the History of Mathematics by Pickover, Clifford
  • One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World by Hempton, Gordon & John Grossmann
  • Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery by Nicholls, Steve.
  • Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City by Sanderson, Eric W. & Markley Boyer (illus.)
  • Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places by Streever, Bill
  • Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist's Journey into Seeing in Three Dimensions by Barry, Susan R.
  • Think Smart: A Neuroscientist's Prescription for Improving Your Brain's Performance by Restak, Richard, M.D.
  • World Ocean Census: A Global Survey of Marine Life by Crist, Darlene Trew & others.
  • How To Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn't Have to Be Forever by Horner, Jack & James Gorman.
  • Collider: The Search for the World's Smallest Particles by Halpern, Paul.
  • On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction by Boyd, Brian
  • Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Behavior by Dahaene, Stanislas
  • Nature's Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts. Includes: Shapes, Flow and Branches by Ball, Philip.
  • Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future by Mooney, Chris & Sheril Kirshenbaum
  • The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs by Belfiore, Michael
  • The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society by DeWaal, Franz
  • On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear by Ellis, Richard
  • Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution by Fraser, Caroline

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Jenkins, Mark Collins. Vampire forensics: Uncovering the origins of an enduring legend. Washington: National Geographic, 2010. 303pp.

Feb 17 2010 Published by under book review, science books, science fiction

I've always been a huge vampire fan -- I watched my first Dracula movie when I was about 8-10 years old, on TV, one of the vintage Hammer films with Christopher Lee. I read the original novel when I was a teenager and was a fan of the Marvel comic versions as well. Since then, I've read a zillion vampire novels, read more comics and watched a ton of vampire movies and TV series -- Dark Shadows, Buffy and more. My favourite Dracula will always be Lee though I've also appreciated Lugosi, Louis Jordan and especially Jack Palance. The more romantic versions by Gary Oldman or Frank Langella have always left me a bit cold.

I prefer my vamps menacing rather than cuddly, although I can manage it when a cuddly vampire is embedded in a more evil vampire milieu, like Angel and Spike within the Buffyverse. A couple of my favourite vampire novels include the brilliant Fevre Dream by George RR Martin and Anno Dracula by Kim Newman and the underrated Blood of the Impaler by Jeffrey Sackett. Some more recent ones I've enjoyed include Fat White Vampire Blues and it's sequel Bride of the Fat White Vampire. I've tended to stay away from the current crop of vampire romance.

Not so much recently, but I've also read a fair bit on the historical and cultural aspects of Dracula and vampires: In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires, American Vampires: Fans, Victims, Practitioners, Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, A Dream of Dracula: In Search of the Living Dead and Vampires, Mummies and Liberals: Bram Stoker and the Politics of Popular Fiction. You get the picture.

This is all to say, I've come to Mark Collins Jenkins' Vampire Forensics: Uncovering the Origins of an Enduring Legend as an experienced vampophile.

The stated purpose of Jenkins' book is to explore the scientific, historical and cultural roots of vampire myths and legends, and given all that I've read before on the subject, I have to say he's done a pretty good job of it. Not great, but good.

I think part of the problem is that he goes into too much historical detail on the various myths and legends of various countries and time periods without directly relating them to more concrete forensic or anthropological details. It's not so much Vampire CSI as Vampire TMZ.

Not that there's anything wrong with that -- there isn't. In fact, Jenkins does a good job on the historical material, making stuff that might be dry or boring very lively and interesting. He has a good sense of humour and shows flashes of understanding about how slightly absurd and ridiculous the whole project is (and I mean absurd and ridiculous in a very positive sense, of course), but I think the promise of the title is a bit more balance on the science side. There are some chapters that deal with possible diseases that could have started the legends (ie. porphyria), as well as epidemiological investigations of how the Black Plague may have been the root, but overall I was hoping for more.

Overall, a very entertaining book, if slightly mislabeled. I really appreciated the very fine bibliography, one that would be well worth looking at for anyone wishing to build a collection on vampire and related folklore.

One unfortunate typo that made it through the copy editing, in fact one that was probably introduced by the author's or editor's spell checking software, is rather amusing. On page 48, refering to the original novel, Collins mentions that Lucy Westenra comes back as the "Blooper Lady" when of course it should be "Bloofer Lady." Rarely is a blooper so appropriate.

I would definately recommend this book for anyone interested in vampire folklore as a great place to start their investigations. It would also be a good pick for most larger public library collections. As for academic libraries, unless there were particular courses or programs that the book would be relevant for, I would probably give it a pass.

Jenkins, Mark Collins. Vampire Forensics: Uncovering the Origins of an Enduring Legend Washington: National Geographic, 2010. 303pp.

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