March 16, 2015
I'm ready to go shopping for some science books, and several intriguing ones have arrived in the stores. The Copernicus Complex, by Caleb Scharf, discusses whether humans have a special significance in the universe, or are actually of no consequence. Are we alone? Are we hung up on assumptions that make it unnecessarily difficult to figure out whether we matter? How did life begin on Earth?
Scharf examines various forms life might assume, some new techniques for determining its existence, and also takes on an issue that challenges everyone who's ever thought about it: How is it that the universe seems so perfectly designed for life?
Essential reading for anyone interested in writing about starships.
Another one that catches the eye: Personal Intelligence by John D. Mayer. Subtitle: The Power of Personality and How It Shapes Our Lives. Mayer is a leading psychologist who, according to the reviewers, sees intelligence as a quality well beyond IQ. But nevertheless he argues it is a skill we need to be reasonably successful in life. So what is at the heart of it? An ability to analyze the personalities of those with whom we interact. And in order to do that. We have to get a handle on who we are, which is presumably not as simple as it sounds.
Amir Alexander gives us Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World. The dangerous theory, it turns out, caused philosophical disputes between philosophers and Jesuits. It seems to have been geometry. I'll concede that ordinarily I'd have proceeded no farther, but the reviews maintain that the disputes evolved into titanic battles because the math called some principles of Aristotelian philosophy into doubt. Good enough for me. The book goes on my birthday list.
There's a Steven Weinberg comment that sticks with me: "The more comprehensible the universe becomes, the more it seems pointless." Weinberg is a Nobel-winning physicist who's written a series of books that, in my experience, are lucid and exotic. Among them: Cosmology, Facing Up, and The First Three Minutes. The latter is an attempt to explain how the universe came into existence.
He has a new one, whose title, To Explain the World, sounds like the same topic. But it isn't. This one is a history of science, which, according to the author, didn't show up until the 17th century, when it got people like Galileo into trouble. The reviews are positive, and it looks like a fascinating way to spend some quiet evenings.
David J. Hand's The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. The reality: Coincidences happen. But more to the point: Events that seem odd simply indicate we don't manage the math well.
The Washington Post gives it a solid review. If you would like to understand "the apparent hot hand in a basketball game, superstitions in gambling and sports, prophecies, parapsychology and the paranormal, holes in one, multiple lottery winners, and much more, this is a book you will enjoy."
And I should include a science fiction book, for good luck. I'm looking forward to reading Carbide-Tipped Pens, edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi. An anthology of hard science fiction stories. Transparency requirement: Last year I was invited to write a story for my alma mater's magazine, LaSalle. I delivered "The Play's the Thing," which is included in this volume.