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Friday, June 03, 2016

The scientist's guide to summer reading

Convinced that the secret to a sniper's success is all in his aim? You're underestimating the role of Velcro. Think that artisanal cheesemakers represent the ultimate rejection of mainstream science? Think again. From an upbeat meditation on death to a snarky critique of economics, this year's picks offer delightfully unconventional perspectives on a range of scientific topics. Join a birdsong expert as he ditches academia for a cross-country bicycle tour, embrace the unknown in an exploration of the cosmos, and get lost (pun intended) in a quest to uncover the implications of modern mapping technologies.

Groovy Science - Reviewed by Monique Dufour

The reviewer is at the Department of History, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA. Email: 

Long-haired surfers catching waves on handcrafted shortboards at Laguna Beach. Women practicing home births as a form of “spiritual midwifery” on the famous Tennessee commune, The Farm. Psychologist Timothy Leary, “the most dangerous man in America,” imploring us to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” These are quintessential images of American counterculture. But Groovy Science will make the reader see them in a surprising new way: as significant scenes of encounter between counterculture and science. 

Groovy Science:
Knowledge, Innovation, and American Counterculture

By yoking together the words “groovy” and “science,” editors David Kaiser and W. Patrick McCray refute three durable notions about science in the 1970s: that the counterculture was antiscience, that science was languishing in a rather moribund phase during this period, and that mainstream researchers lived and worked apart from the counterculture that seemed to spurn them. Instead, the 12 essays that make up Groovy Science demonstrate that people and groups strongly ensconced in the counterculture also embraced science, albeit in untraditional and creative ways. 

Groovy science was hardly a singular, coherent movement, but the book's four sections create some conceptual order around the ways that people connected science and counterculture. In “Conversion,” neurophysiologists, chemists, and physicists recast Cold War science by simultaneously rejecting “the megamachine” and adapting its “resources and forms of knowledge … toward new ends.” Those engaged in “Seeking”—the book's second section—pursued science as a path to countercultural virtues such as authenticity, cooperation, and environmentalism. The “Personae” in part three—Immanuel Velikovsky, Timothy Leary, and Hugh Hefner—seized mass media to fashion themselves as science-minded iconoclasts. And in “Legacies,” we discover the unacknowledged influence of groovy science on contemporary commonplaces such as sustainability, innovation, and organic food.

The Unknown Universe Reviewed by Megan Engel

The reviewer is at the Rudolf Peierls Centre for Theoretical Physics, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3NP, UK. Email: 

Every clear night, 300 quadrillion particles of light are fired by an enormous laser at mirrors less than half a meter wide on the Moon, allowing scientists to measure the Moon's orbital motion with extreme accuracy and precision. The handful of particles that make it back to Earth deliver vital information: whether or not Einstein's theory of gravity continues to correctly describe nature. So far, it does. But as Stuart Clark suggests in The Unknown Universe, breakthroughs happen when a “brave scientist [throws] away a cherished assumption,” rather like Einstein himself did in overturning Newton's understanding of gravity.

The Unknown Universe:
A New Exploration of Time, Space, and Modern Cosmology

This title will be released on July 5, 2016. 

As the current gravitational framework has been verified to one part in 1013, the scientists conducting the lunar laser ranging experiment are certainly brave for maintaining confidence that there's “a deeper theory of gravity to be found.” According to Clark, they exemplify “the true gold standard for science: constant self-questioning.”

The book's scope is admirably broad: Instead of delving directly into modern cosmology, Clark journeys outward through concentric circles of human discovery of the cosmos, highlighting unknowns at every scale: from the Moon, whose origins are still uncertain, to the Sun, whose magnetic cycles remain baffling. He proceeds from our solar system—which, according to some astronomers, likely contains undiscovered giant planets—to galaxies and the universe at large, whose dynamics are so perplexing that scientists have invoked “dark matter” and “dark energy”—so named because of their wholly mysterious nature—as explanations. Clark's narration is accessible to any reader with basic mathematical understanding, but it is also enriching for specialists, providing ample references to technical papers for further reading.

Source: Science