Finishing May Strong
I finished a few more books this past week. More significantly, I made it through a Half Price Books storewide 20% off sale without buying anything!
Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping, and Praying to Going to War and Becoming a Billionaire -- Two Evolutionary Psychologists Explain Why We Do What We Do by Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa - I found this book to be a thought-provoking investigation of what we can attribute about "human nature" to evolutionary -- as opposed to environmental -- factors. When I told my wife about some of the findings within, she had a different take: she says it's just a lame justification for men being pigs. The reviewers at Amazon are similarly split as to the book's worth. My biggest complaint: the authors attribute so many behaviors, emotions, and preferences to the desire to reproduce that those of us who don't want children are made to feel outcast at best, genetically flawed at worst.
Dinosaur Training: Lost Secrets of Strength and Development by Brooks Kubik - If you have an unruly brontosaurus, this book won't be much help, but if you want to build honest muscle, Kubik will tell you how. He looks back to the strongmen of the early 20th century for training methods and inspiration. These men were phenomenally strong long before today's celebrity workouts and supplement-pushing muscle magazines. To be like them, one must work hard with progressively heavier poundages in productive exercises like deadlifts, squats, and presses (no "isolation" exercises or "toning" for those guys). Kubik also recommends pressing, pushing, or pulling sandbags, barrels, cars, and other "odd objects" to build real strength rather than "pumped" but ineffective muscles. He makes a lot of wisecracks about the "chrome and fern" health club denizens who use the same weights year after year, looking pretty but never getting stronger. I had already gravitated toward Kubik's approach before I started reading Dinosaur Training, and I thoroughly enjoyed this informative and inspirational book. Those who have been spinning their wheels using the "modern" training methods advocated by Mr. Steroid Olympia will find Dinosaur Training to be nothing less than a revelation. Order from Brooks Kubik's Web site.
Do Polar Bears Get Lonely and Answers to 100 Other Weird and Wacky Questions About How the World Works by New Scientist - This book examines a number of life's little mysteries. For example, as a longtime AquaFresh user, I finally learned how the manufacturer makes it come out in stripes. I was a bit disappointed with the format because it contains few definitive answers -- most of the questions have several responses contributed by New Scientist readers, and even then, some are not satisfactorily resolved. Nonetheless, the book is fun and quick reading.
Current tally: 43 books finished, 40 books acquired
I read three books last week to even up my finished/acquired counts.
The Tunguska Fireball: Solving One of the Great Mysteries of the 20th Century by Surendra Verma - I've long been aware of this, but a passage in The Ridiculous Race inspired me to finally buy a book about it:
That's a loose summary of The Tunguska Fireball. Verma describes the event through firsthand accounts and scientific evidence, and then he examines numerous explanations. The Tunguska event was most likely a meteorite/asteroid or a comet, but over the years it has been attributed to all sorts of scientific phenomena (a mini black hole, an anti-matter rock, and so forth), alien intervention, or man-made experiments. There is no consensus because the known facts don't completely support any of the proposed answers.
Steve: A Story About How Empty Siberia Is
In 1908, either a meteor, a comet, or an alien spacecraft (scientists are still arguing) exploded over northern Siberia. The blast blew down something like eighty million trees, flattening an area of 830 square miles. This explosion -- the Tunguska event -- was so huge that if it had happened in New York it would've annihilated Manhattan and blown out windows in Boston and Washington. But because it happened in Siberia, nobody paid much attention. No one even bothered trekking to the explosion site for thirteen years. When they got there, they concluded, "Man, good thing this happened in Siberia!" and trekked back home.
The Tunguska Fireball is a fascinating look at an awesome event and the ongoing debate surrounding it. Although theories veer into some weird science such as anti-matter and mirror matter, Verma explains them plainly enough that no physics degree is required. In fact, the book is surprisingly easy to read considering the subject matter. Anyone interested in astronomy, astrophysics, or atmospheric phenomena would enjoy this book. It's easily the best of the three reviewed in this blog entry. Note: I read a hardcover edition; the paperback is titled The Mystery of the Tunguska Fireball.
UFOs, JFK, and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don't Have to be Crazy to Believe by Richard Belzer - The comedian/actor/author loves conspiracy theories (in a nod to Lee Harvey Oswald, his HBO comedy special and his CD are titled Another Lone Nut), and here he conducts an amusing but not dismissive survey of the evidence and what the government wants us to believe. My wife loves this conspiracy stuff, especially when written in a sarcastic or humorous tone (Belzer even gives a shout-out to one of her favorite books, The 60 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time by Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen), so I read this book aloud to her.
The title is somewhat misleading. JFK should come first because Belzer's questions surrounding November 22, 1963 take up slightly more than half of the book. The UFO material ranges from sightings and the Roswell incident to some really "out there" stuff, such as, "The moon is populated by aliens, and we haven't been back since the Apollo missions because we are not welcome." Belzer admits up front that some of these theories are pretty nutty. As for Elvis, the only mention the King gets is when Belzer quotes George H.W. Bush dismissing JFK conspiracies by saying that some people also think Elvis is still alive. Yeah, as if you'd believe anything a former CIA director says about JFK!
Belzer's writing style is entertaining, and UFOs, JFK, and Elvis is a pretty quick read. A lot of weird things happened in Dallas, and it's quite possible that the Warren Commission didn't give us the complete story. On the other hand, it's kind of scary to think that anyone gives credence to some of the more outlandish scenarios in this book. There isn't anything new here for those who have studied a lot of conspiracy stuff, but the humorous presentation makes it fun for those of us who have suspicions but live a bit closer to reality.
Aftermath, Inc.: Cleaning Up After CSI Goes Home by Gil Reavill - I'm not really into the CSI shows or true crime stories, but I read an article about a biohazard clean-up company that piqued my interest. My wife had bought this book but hadn't read it (granted, she's not as bad as I am in that respect), so I checked it out of our overflowing library.
The author tags along with Plainfield, IL-based Aftermath, Inc. and helps out on assorted postmortem clean-up jobs: a murdered family, a shotgun suicide, a corpse that went undiscovered for weeks in July. Reavill is a crime writer, and as such, he structures most tales using the "true crime" formula: introduce someone, draw the reader's interest, and then kill that person in some ghastly fashion. He probably spends as much time telling the stories of the victims as he does describing the clean-up. I consider that a flaw. I wanted to learn about the clean-up business -- if I wanted to read true crime, I'd read true crime.
The book goes further astray toward the end when Reavill meanders off on a navel-gazing tangent: "why does homicide/death interest me as a writer and us as a society." I can't count how many times I thought, Okay, now let's get back to blood spatter and brain pieces. He writes about deaths and murders that occurred when he was a child, which of course have nothing to do with Aftermath, Inc. or cleaning up crime scenes. The author makes much of the book about himself rather than his subject.
Aftermath, Inc. (the company) is based within ten miles of where I grew up. That's good because I could relate to a lot of the stories geographically and bad because my inner fact-checker was always on duty. I cringed when I read, "We left I-90... on the southern edge of Milwaukee." Spotting such obvious errors makes me question the veracity of other facts in the book. On another local note, Reavill writes excessively about the relationship between death and Chicago. John Wayne Gacy, Richard Speck, and H.H. Holmes are fair game, but the Union Stockyards? Sheesh.
Overall, Aftermath, Inc. is an interesting book when it sticks to the subject in the title. I would have enjoyed it much more had Reavill left out the irrelevant, self-centered musings. His editor deserves to be slapped.
Current tally: 18 books finished, 18 books acquired
My Mother Is Slowly Killing My Father
From BBC News:
Failing to make your bed in the morning may actually help keep you healthy, scientists believe. Research suggests that while an unmade bed may look scruffy it is also unappealing to house dust mites thought to cause asthma and other allergies.They say that making the bed traps humidity inside, which helps dust mites thrive. I knew I had a good reason for never making the bed!
My dad has asthma and allergies, and my mom makes the bed every morning. So when he can't breathe, it's all her fault.
Note: I know this is "old news" from the dateline on the story, but I just found out about it.
UPDATE 01/28/2008 - I was horrified to learn last night that my dad is the one who makes the bed each morning, not my mom. So he's killing himself, I guess. I just hope this doesn't give my wife any ideas about making me make the bed.
The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
I finished reading The World Without Us a month ago. Incredibly, every day something triggers a memory about something in the book. It stays with you. To imagine a planet without people, Weisman draws on virtually every realm of science from biology to astrophysics, not to mention a healthy dose of engineering, archeology, and social sciences. What would be the immediate consequences of our absence? Which man-made structures would last the longest? How long would it take for decimated animal populations to recover? Would another race of humans someday evolve?
On this speculative journey, the reader visits the New York subways, Houston's petrochemical plants, the "horse latitudes" where ocean trash languishes, the English birthplace of modern fertilizers, an Arizona nuclear power plant, and the radiation-poisoned -- but not lifeless -- area surrounding Chernobyl. Along the way, tour guide Weisman imparts fascinating tidbits. For example, when he describes how weather would break down the average house in the absence of a diligent homeowner, he notes that ceramic bathroom tiles will last the longest because they are chemically similar to fossils. Elsewhere, he describes how newspapers fill up landfills -- we think they break down quickly, but they last much longer buried without air or sunlight. While discussing the relative permanence of polymers, Weisman says "biodegradable" plastic bags don't really degrade completely; they just separate into minuscule particles of plastic. These plastic pieces do not break down, and they turn up in plankton and other small organisms.
Some Amazon.com reviewers claim the book says the world would be better off without us. Weisman never says that, however, so perhaps those people have guilty consciences. Also, science deniers need not apply -- evolution and global warming come up repeatedly.
The World Without Us is written in easy-to-understand language, which is important for a book that veers from chemical engineering to anthropology to oceanography. If the book has a flaw, I suppose it is its non-linear organization. Instead of a narrative moving from the present into a humanless world, the author jumps from topic to topic, shifting back and forth between now and the future.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the environment and our role in it. It does all the things a great book should: it entertains, provides a lot of information, and makes the reader think.
The International Astronomical Union has chosen Nix and Hydra as the names for the new moons of Pluto. The two moons were discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope last year. But the bigger news is found later in the article:
This summer, the IAU will debate whether Pluto should remain a planet. The discovery of an icy object slightly larger than Pluto in the Kuiper Belt last year reinvigorated the argument over whether to demote Pluto or add other planets. (emphasis and link added)This is huge. Imagine all the books, textbooks, and trivia games that would have to be updated if Pluto were to lose its status. The vast majority of people on Earth today (excepting those born before 1930) have always "known" that there are nine planets in the solar system, and now that could change. On the bright side, at least demoting Pluto would eliminate the confusion about the planets' order from the Sun (Pluto's eccentric orbit makes it closer to the Sun than Neptune sometimes).
The IAU won't be asking me, but I would vote against Pluto as a planet. It doesn't fit in with the gaseous outer planets, the inclination and eccentricity of its orbit are peculiar, and it is small (half the diameter of Mercury). The Kuiper Belt contains a lot of similar objects, so what makes this oddball Pluto important enough to be a planet? I suppose one could argue that having moons elevates its status -- I don't know if any other objects in the Kuiper Belt have satellites. It will be interesting to see what the IAU decides.
On a personal note, we drove through Burdett, KS on our recent vacation. While turning the car around at the edge of town, I happened upon a historical marker noting that Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, grew up and went to high school there. Of course, as a proud Illinoisan, I prefer to remember Tombaugh's birthplace, Streator, IL.
She Blinded Me With Science
The Republican War on Science is a new book by Chris Mooney that examines how science has become politicized. Most of us can name at least several examples off the top of our heads. In an excerpt paired with an insightful accompanying interview at AlterNet, Mooney talks about global warming and evolution/intelligent design. These are great examples because they involve the two bases that the GOP is trying to satisfy by rejecting the bulk of scientific evidence: big business and evangelicals. Industry claims that humans are not responsible for global warming while evangelicals believe intelligent design is right and evolution is wrong. Incidentally, these are two arguments that make the U.S. the laughing stock of the educated world. Everyone signed the Kyoto Treaty except us. Numerous overseas newspapers ran editorials in the wake of Katrina surmising that now the Bush administration would surely have to acknowledge global warming. Alas, they were applying science and logic to the American political system, and those things don't mix these days. Intelligent design is even more puzzling to me. Didn't we figure out this whole evolution thing a long, long time ago? Intelligent design is more of a spiritual concept than a scientific one, so how can one claim that science supports it?
Mooney discusses scientific consensus and wonders why reporters don't seem to give it any credence. They often try to "balance" science stories by treating both sides equally even though one is clearly more accepted than the other. By doing "he said she said" reporting, the writer gives readers the false impression that the topic is hotly debated among the scientific community, even when a scientific consensus is clear. Of course, to some extent these reporters have been pummeled into this approach by harsh criticism from whichever side feels their views are not being covered fairly (I have a lot of problems with "balance" in modern reporting, but that is a subject for another time).
According to Mooney, the demise of the Office of Technology Assessment and the shift away from government funding of science has led to more and more science being done or funded by people who have a vested interest in the results. University research has declined, leaving corporations and think tanks to do the work. This must please the Republican party's privatization fanatics. All the "controversy" about global warming has originated from scientists paid to reach a predetermined conclusion (if they don't reach that conclusion, the research "disappears" and the scientists lose their jobs).
This sort of thing has been going on in the "morality" and social science arenas for decades. Look at the statistics used by groups on both sides of the abortion and gun control issues. The result is that a person cannot possibly make an informed decision about which is side is "correct." One can make a moral or emotional judgement, but the facts have been twisted into uselessness. I once argued for gun ownership against a rabid anti-gun person (my dad would have been so proud!) just because his lack of critical thinking bothered me. He would trot out "FACTS" (in all capitals, no less) from Handgun Control, Inc. In turn, I could easily refute them with info from other equally biased sources. The difference was that I knew those sources were biased and said so, whereas he was convinced that his source was not. What I found most disturbing about our exchange, aside from his pigheadedness, was the absence of solid, unprejudiced information.
This is why the politicization of science matters. Social sciences are somewhat interpretive, but most of us view natural sciences as more factual (i.e., about finding an answer rather than merely formulating an opinion). Republicans (not all, but many) are trying to call accepted findings into question to satisfy their supporters regardless of strong evidence to the contrary. If the current trend continues, we will become the most ignorant society on earth, a nation so overwhelmed with politics that no one's facts are trusted.
Stem cell research is a prime example. Everywhere else in the world (and within most of the scientific community in the U.S.), scientists agree that adult stem cells have limitations and that embryonic stem cells must be studied. But certain Republican groups claim that adult stem cells are all we need. The reason behind this is not scientific consensus, but rather, it is because the "Christian" right has the mistaken idea that using embryos for research is equivalent to aborting fetuses (which I previously debunked). The average American might say, "Well, there is some debate about using embryonic stem cells because adult stem cells are just as good." A European who, because his government did not make it into a political issue, accepts the value of embryonic stem cell research as common knowledge would be utterly shocked to hear this. I realize that there are moral elements to this debate, but minority-viewpoint, politicized "science" is also being used to argue the issue.
Indeed, Mooney's quarrel with Republicans is not about their opposition to scientific issues so much as the way they claim science is on their side when it is not. It is quite acceptable to say, "We oppose this on moral grounds," but instead they make up science that "proves" them right. Even worse, they claim that the other side, i.e. the scientific consensus backed up by years of research, is completely wrong. The stakes are higher than just making us look stupid, though. When America's best and brightest are recruited to validate or invalidate these ideas that were pretty much proven long ago, they are being diverted from the important, groundbreaking research that can truly benefit mankind.
I'm Hopping Mad About This!
In an article about Chicago's traffic being second worst to Los Angeles, the Chicago Tribune repeated an urban legend:
"If you take a frog and try to dump him into a pot of boiling water, he immediately will jump out. But if you put the frog in a pot of cool water and heat it gradually, he doesn't jump out and eventually he gets boiled," said David Schulz, executive director of the Infrastructure Technology Institute at Northwestern University.I'm sure you've heard that story at least a hundred times. But it's not true! At the venerable Urban Legends Reference Pages (aka snopes.com), Dr. Victor Hutchison, a man who should know, says
The legend is entirely incorrect! The 'critical thermal maxima' of many species of frogs have been determined by several investigators. In this procedure, the water in which a frog is submerged is heated gradually at about 2 degrees Fahrenheit per minute. As the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will eventually become more and more active in attempts to escape the heated water. If the container size and opening allow the frog to jump out, it will do so.The Tribune blew this one. Just because it's a quote doesn't make it acceptable, either. Repetition by people who should know better is what perpetuates such myths. Politicians, educators (the guy quoted is from Northwestern University, for goodness sake), businessmen, and other so-called authority figures repeat this story regardless of its falsehood. In the name of Kermit, I demand a correction/clarification by the Tribune!
(Full disclosure: As a teenager, I used to imitate Kermit's voice for my brother and his friends, so I may be biased in defense of frogs and their intelligence.)