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Posts Tagged ‘Science September’

When I read ‘The Universe Below‘ by William J. Broad, earlier this month, I fell in love with oceanography and marine life and went and got a few more books on these topics. ‘Citizens of the Sea‘ by Nancy Knowlton was one of them.

Citizens of the Sea‘ is based on the ten year Census of Marine Life research project which was a collaborative effort by scientists from across the world. The aim of the project was to study marine life in the ocean in different parts of the world, classify and document unique marine species, identify new species, attempt to take a census of marine life, and identify the challenges that marine animals face. Nancy Knowlton has used this research as the basis for this book.

The book is divided into many interesting sections. Each section in the book is focused on a particular theme. There are sections on how marine animals are discovered, identified and named, how appearances are important for them and how these evolved across time, how marine animals travel across the ocean, how they make friends and fight with enemies, how they find their partners, mate and raise their young ones, how humans are threatening their way of life now – these and other fascinating topics are explored in each section. As the book is published by National Geographic, the book is filled with stunning photographs in every page. They are so amazing and an absolute pleasure to look at. Many of my favourites were featured in the book – I was so happy to see the Coelacanth, which was thought extinct millions of years ago before it was rediscovered again, the Orange Roughy, which lives till the great age of 125 years and which was featured in a chapter aptly titled ‘Methuselahs of the Deep‘, and the Fugu fish, which is famous in Japan. There were many amazing facts which were mentioned in the book. One of my favourites was about fishes like the blue-headed wrasse, anemone fish and the hamlet, which change their gender when it suits them, sometimes while mating, sometimes during parenting. I smiled when I read this sentence – “Paternity tests sometimes reveal that a father has become a mother” 🙂 There are many amazing facts like this on every page.

I am sharing some of the pages of the book, so that you can get a feel for it.

Sarcastic Fringehead Fish (doesn’t she / he look sad?)

Barrelhead Fish (doesn’t she / he look sad and adorable?)

Fish Farmers (aka Damselfish)

How Fishes Do Parenting (or How Mom becomes Dad and Dad becomes Mom)

I loved ‘Citizens of the Sea‘. It is a beautiful book filled with amazing facts and stunning photographs. It is a must read if you are an ocean / marine life enthusiast.

Have you read ‘Citizens of the Sea‘? What do you think about it?

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I have read a few John Gribbin books and loved them all. His book about quantum theory, ‘In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat‘, is a classic. I have had ‘Deep Simplicity‘ with me for a long time. I thought it was time to take it out and read it for ‘Science September‘.

In ‘Deep Simplicity‘, John Gribbin talks about Chaos theory. I remember during my student days one of my classmates was reading about it and he was planning to apply it in his research on business cycles. I don’t know whether he was able to do that and whether he came out with interesting predictions which came true. That was probably the first time that I had heard about Chaos theory. In essence, as John Gribbin describes it, Chaos theory is simple. It tries to study systems which start with simple origins but result in complex patterns and behaviour. And it also tries to study what happens if some minor changes are made at the start. The conclusion is that minor changes in the initial conditions will lead to complex, unbelievable changes later. That is all there is to Chaos theory. Because it is an interdisciplinary field with applications across different areas like physics, chemistry, biology, geology, economics, the stock market, traffic movement and weather forecasting, there are many different techniques and ways of studying how real world systems behave, when they evolve from simple origins to complex futures. John Gribbin describes some of these across these different fascinating fields. He describes the beauty of fractals and how they are observed in the real world in surprising ways. He talks about something called the ‘power law’ and describes how it amazes us by manifesting itself in the real world in surprising ways. Gribbin is strong when he talks about physics and its related areas because it is his field, but he also spends considerable time in biology, the evolution of life and the extinction of dinosaurs and other species. It is very fascinating to read.

I enjoyed reading ‘Deep Simplicity‘. John Gribbin gives a beautiful guided tour of physics in the initial chapters before delving into other branches of science and other fields, while exploring Chaos theory. It is not an easy read, because it demands close attention and contemplation, but it is a rewarding read.

I am giving below the first couple of passages from the introduction to the book which sets the tone for the rest of the book, so that you can get a flavour for the subject and also experience Gribbin’s style.

“The world around us seems to be a complex place. Although there are some simple truths that seem to be eternal (apples always fall to the ground, not to the sky; the Sun rises in the east, never in the west), our lives, in spite of modern technology, are still, all too often, at the mercy of complicated processes that produce dramatic changes out of the blue. Weather forecasting is still as much an art as a science; earthquakes and volcanic eruptions strike unpredictably, and seemingly at random; stock-market fluctuations continue to produce boom and bust with no obvious pattern to them. From the time of Galileo (in round numbers, the beginning of the seventeenth century) science made progress – enormous progress – largely by ignoring these complexities, and focusing on the simple questions, looking to explain why apples fall to the ground, and why the Sun rises in the east. Progress was so spectacular, indeed, that by about the middle of the twentieth century all the simple questions had been answered. Concepts such as the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics explained the overall workings of the Universe on the very large and very small scales respectively, while the discovery of the structure of DNA and the way in which it is copied from generation to generation made life itself, and evolution, seem simple at the molecular level. And yet, the complexity of the world at the human level – at the level of life – remained. The most interesting question of all, the question of how life could have emerged from non-life, remained unanswered.
It is no surprise that the most complex features of the Universe, which proved most reluctant to yield to the traditional methods of scientific investigation, should exist on our scale. Indeed, we may be the most complex things there are in the Universe. The reason is that on smaller scales entities such as individual atoms behave in a relatively simple way in their one-to-one interactions, and that complicated and interesting things are produced when many atoms are linked together in complicated and interesting ways, to make things like people. But this process cannot continue indefinitely, since if more and more atoms are joined together, their total mass increases to the point where gravity crushes all the interesting structure out of existence. An atom, or even a simple molecule like water, is simpler than a human being because it has little internal structure; a star, or the interior of a planet, is simpler than a human being because gravity crushes any structure out of existence. And that is why science can tell us more about the behaviour of atoms and the internal workings of the stars than it can about the way people behave.”

Have you read ‘Deep Simplicity‘ by John Gribbin? What do you think about it?

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I got ‘The Impact of Science on Society‘ by Bertrand Russell at a secondhand books sale a few years back. It was an old copy and the individual pages were coming off. I finally took it out of my bookshelf and turned the pages delicately and read it.

I was expecting the book to be about how science is important to society – on how we all need to have a scientific temper, how we should follow the scientific process and method and use facts and logical analysis to arrive at conclusions. This book, interestingly, was different. It was about how society evolved from ancient times, when people believed in received information and words of wisdom and how this changed in recent centuries after the advent of science. Then Bertrand Russell touches on how science has impacted everyday life and work and the economy and war and how science impacts different political structures like democracies and totalitarian systems and how science impacts our values. Russell talks about both the positive and negative impacts of science in all these areas. Then Russell goes on to imagine what the future has in store. When Russell talks about science, he is mostly talking about what he calls ‘scientific technique’, which is what we call ‘technology’ today. The factual and historical parts of the book were wonderful. Some of Russell’s analysis and predictions and vision for the future feels dated, but that is to expected because this book came out in 1952, and it was the beginning of the Cold War era, and the world was a different place then. But the things that Russell gets right are amazing, because those insights apply very much to our modern world. Russell prose is simple and straightforward and he writes with clear, simple logic, taking an argument from first principles and leading it forward. He is not scared of offering unconventional opinions and arriving at unconventional conclusions based on where the facts and logic take him, and we understand why his own countrymen were uncomfortable with him during his time, because he calls a spade a spade. Interestingly, this is the first proper book by Bertrand Russell that I have read. I don’t know why I haven’t read his work before, because I really like his writing. I am hoping to read more of his books.

I am giving below one of my favourite passages from the book which feels true even today, though it talks about a different time.

“…even in a country like our own, where industrialism is old, changes occur with a rapidity which is psychologically difficult. Consider what has happened during my life-time. When I was a child telephones were new and very rare. During my first visit to America I did not see a single motor-car. I was 39 when I first saw an aeroplane. Broadcasting and the cinema have made the life of the young profoundly different from what it was during my own youth. As for public life, when I first became politically conscious Gladstone and Disraeli still confronted each other amid Victorian solidities, the British Empire seemed eternal, a threat to British naval supremacy was unthinkable, the country was aristocratic and rich and growing richer, and Socialism was regarded as the fad of a few disgruntled and disreputable foreigners.
For an old man, with such a background, it is difficult to feel at home in a world of atomic bombs, communism, and American supremacy. Experience, formerly a help in the acquisition of political sagacity, is now a positive hindrance, because it was acquired in such different conditions. It is now scarcely possible for a man to acquire slowly the sort of wisdom which in former times caused ‘elders’ to be respected, because the lessons of experience become out of date as fast as they are learnt. Science, while it has enormously accelerated outward change, has not yet found any way of hastening psychological change, especially where the unconscious and subconscious are concerned. Few men’s unconscious feels at home except in conditions very similar to those which prevailed when they were children.”

Have you read ‘The Impact of Science on Society‘ by Bertrand Russell? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Russell book?

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I discovered ‘The Universe Below‘ by William J. Broad when I read Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, years ago. I got Broad’s book at that time, and after it had spent many years in my bookshelf, I decided to read it now for ‘Science September‘.

As the title describes, this book is about the deep part of the ocean. We would expect that it would be about the deep ocean and its shape and structure and about the strange and wonderful denizens who live there. It is about all these things, but the book also talks about other things, unexpected things. Let me explain.

The book is divided into seven chapters. Each chapter touches on a particular topic. The first chapter is about how the deep parts of the ocean were explored and how some of their secrets were discovered and how some of their wonderful denizens came ashore and amazed people, while other amazing inhabitants were discovered during underwater explorations. This chapter stretches to around 30 pages, and in my opinion, it was the best part of the book. It was definitely my favourite part. The second chapter talks about how the American Navy explored the ocean’s deep and used that knowledge to fight against its Cold War enemies. There is one chapter which talks about volcanic vents in the ocean floor and how they were discovered to be harbouring bacteria and other living beings which survived in conditions of extreme heat. The author also talks about his own trip to the ocean bed with scientists who were studying volcanic vents. Successive chapters talk about these – about ships which had sunk into the ocean and how treasure hunters and archaeologists and historians and scientists were trying to recover them now, how the supposed treasures in the ocean were being exploited by people and organizations and governments or how these denizens tried exploiting them, and how wastes were dumped into the ocean, especially radioactive wastes from nuclear reactors, and how that might have an adverse effect on marine life and their environment.

So, as you can see, the book is not just about oceanography and marine life, but it is also about many about things related to the ocean. The author has tried to focus on one topic in each chapter and so there is something in it for everyone. If your favourite is sunken treasure or sunken ships like the Titanic, there is a chapter on it. If your favourite is microbes which live in extremely hot deep sea volcanic vents, there is a chapter on it. If your favourite topic is fishes like the Coelacanth which were assumed to have gone extinction millions of years ago until they were discovered again recently, there is a chapter on it. My own favourites were the chapters on oceanography and deep sea life. I also found interesting the chapter on the American Navy’s involvement in the deep sea, because it talked about the evolution of a lot of new technology which was invented and used by the Navy, and which was later used by scientific organizations for deep sea research. The chapter about the exploitation of the deep sea was heartbreaking, especially when I discovered that some of the fish which are caught in the deep sea by fishing companies and which might be moving towards extinction, are like humans – they grow slowly and they live till a great age, like a hundred years or more. Human greed knows no bounds. The chapter on how governments dumped radioactive waste into the ocean was also heartbreaking. There was one particular passage which talked about how the American Navy used to dump radioactive waste stuffed in steel drums into the ocean not far from the coast, and when some of the drums refused to sink, the Navy pumped them with bullets and sea water entered those barrels and they sunk. It is hard to stop ourselves from asking the question, “What kind of idiot does that? Isn’t that drum filled with radioactive waste?” The Russians seem to have done even better – they dumped whole nuclear submarines and nuclear reactors into the ocean! Our hearts just seethe with anger at all the idiots in the different governments who did stuff like this.

I found ‘The Universe Below’ quite fascinating. It has lots of interesting information on the ocean from different perspectives, with lots of insights on humans’ engagement with the ocean. William Broad’s prose is engaging and moves at a smooth pace. The book doesn’t have any photographs, but Dimitry Schidlovsky’s black-and-white sketches, which look like a combination of line drawings and stippling art (drawing using dots), are beautiful and gorgeous and they are decked throughout the book like stars. The book made me want to explore the science of oceanography sometime.

Have you read William J. Broad’sThe Universe Below‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand‘ by Marcus Chown while browsing at the bookshop. The title made me smile, because it was an ode to the great William Blake’s legendary lines :

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”

How can we resist a book after that? 🙂

Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand‘ is a collection of science essays. There are fifty essays in the book. Most of them are two or three pages long. Marcus Chown explains in his foreword that across the years he has mentioned some amazing scientific facts in his talks and he wanted to pick some of them and write about them, explaining them in more detail. In the essays in the book, Chown covers mostly physics – things like astronomy, solar system, relativity, quantum mechanics, big bang theory, string theory, black holes. There are some essays on other aspects of science too – like biology, genetics, evolution, computers. The facts that Chown mentions are amazing. For example,

  • 97.5% of what is there in the universe is unknown because it comprises dark matter and dark energy and whatever science we know is based on our understanding of the other 2.5%
  • if we squeeze out the empty space in all the atoms in our bodies the whole human race can be squeezed into a sugar cube
  • how half of the cells which are there in our bodies are not human (you should read that essay to find out why – it is fascinating)
  • how there might have been a planet which stalked the earth
  • how the body which generates the most heat in our solar system is not the sun
  • how there is a liquid that never freezes

Though the book is a collection of essays, some of the essays can be read together as an introduction to physics. Chown’s prose is engaging and conversational and is filled with humour – in many places, I couldn’t stop smiling.

I loved ‘Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand‘. The book is a page-turner and wonderful to read. Marcus Chown takes some of the difficult topics in science and makes them accessible to the general reader in his engaging prose filled with a wonderful sense of humour. In the pantheon of science writers, I will put Marcus Chown alongwith Christophe Galfard (‘The Universe in Your Hand‘) and Bill Bryson (‘A Short History of Nearly Everything‘) and George Gamov (‘One, Two, Three… Infinity‘) as having written the most accessible books. If you like reading on science, you will love this book. I discovered that Marcus Chown has written a book called ‘The Ascent of Gravity‘ which has won awards. I want to read that too.

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This is the first book that I read for ‘Science September‘. I have had Kathleen Krull’s and Kathryn Hewitt’s book with me for a while – it was gifted to me by one of my favourite friends who got a signed copy for me when she met Kathleen Krull. I have been waiting for a special moment to read it and this was it.

Lives of the Scientists‘ gives brief biographies of twenty scientists. Around half of them are twentieth century scientists, while the others lived during earlier centuries. The book describes their work, but more importantly, paints a portrait of them as normal human beings, describing how they lived, and the interesting things they said and did. Each biography is between two to six pages long, and every one of them has beautiful accompanying illustrations which depict the concerned scientist and her / his work. The book features many of the major scientists that all of us know about, like Galileo, Newton and Einstein, but it also features important scientists that readers like me didn’t know about, like Caroline Herschel, George Washington Carver, Barbara McClintock, Grace Murray Hopper and Chien-Shiung Wu. Barbara McClintock won the Nobel Prize and so she is not exactly unknown, but I don’t know why I haven’t heard of her before, and I don’t know why she is not celebrated more. The book features a good number of women scientists, which is a wonderful thing.

There were many parts of the book which made me smile, like the description that Edwin Hubble was very handsome like a movie star, how when someone asked Einstein a question, and he didn’t know the answer, he replied, “I don’t know. I am no Einstein“, how Marie Curie disapproved of her daughter’s high heels, how one of the bosses of computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper once said, “Grace was a good man“, and how she later won the ‘Computer Science Man of the Year’ award (some of my friends would call that as ‘the day irony died’ 🙂 ). One of my favourites was about Galileo – how he insulted people who disagreed with him, including his own mother (and how his mother hauled him in front of the Inquisition for that), and how he was great at wielding insults – that particular part made me laugh 😁 You should read the book to find out why.

The book also touches on some of the issues that are faced by women in science – how typically a young woman’s family discouraged her from pursuing a scientific career, how if the young woman surmounted this, it was hard for her to get admission into the right college and course of study she wanted to pursue, how after all that it was hard to get a job as a scientist, and after she had climbed all those mountains, professional recognition still eluded her and her accomplishments were not recognized at the right time. This theme is a feature of the lives of all the women scientists featured in the book and their biographies bring that out very insightfully and beautifully.

The other interesting thing which came out in some of the biographies was how important the support of parents and family is to an aspiring scientist. For example, Edwin Hubble wanted to study astronomy, but his father, who was intimidating, forced him to study law (Can you imagine that? One of the greatest astronomers was trained as a lawyer!) and Hubble later taught Spanish in high school, and he could become an astronomer only after his father passed. It was unbelievable to read that and we have to really thank our lucky stars that one of the greatest astronomers really survived his parent’s bullying and became an astronomer by the skin of the teeth.

The scientist I felt the closest to, was Isaac Newton. It was really surprising, because I am not a big fan of Newton, though I admire him for his accomplishments, because he always felt like an unapproachable, unlikeable person to me. But it looks more and more to me that he was a person who liked being left alone, and who liked pursuing his intellectual interests in solitude, and he liked sitting in his room with a paper and pen / pencil in front of him and travelling to his intellectual worlds. Other scientists too loved solitude, like Marie Curie and Barbara McClintock, and even Charles Darwin kept away from fame, publishing his findings more than twenty years after he made his famous journey. But Newton seems to have been an extreme case of that. In today’s world, this kind of behaviour is not really appreciated, because what is expected and treasured today is teamwork and interpersonal skills and presentation and promoting one’s own work, and Newton was the very antithesis of that. He would have been totally out-of-place in today’s world, but he wouldn’t have cared about that, and I’ll always have a soft corner for him for that.

I loved ‘Lives of the Scientists‘. It is a beautiful introduction to the lives of many important scientists. It is a great book for both children and grown-ups. It is very inspiring. It looks like a deceptively simple book, but it has lots of layers and depth to it, which are revealed when we read slowly and contemplate on what it says. I have read and loved Kathleen Krull’s books before, and I have to say that this is one of my favourites. Kathryn Hewitt’s illustrations are so beautiful and gorgeous and they bring the stories alive on every page.

Have you read ‘Lives of the Scientists‘? What do you think about it?

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It is going to be September and I am so excited to participate in #ScienceSeptember. I have always loved science books and have been reading them across the years since my schooldays. I have also been collecting science books to read on a rainy day. It is so cool that I now get to focus on science books for a whole month. One of the exciting parts of this is that I get to make a reading list. I always love that. Here is the list I made. I don’t think I’ll be able to read them all. But I hope to read some of them, starting with the slim ones first 🙂

(1) Evolution : A Very Short Introduction by Brian Charlesworth and Deborah Charlesworth

(2) Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

(3) Deep Simplicity : Chaos, Complexity and the Emergence of Life by John Gribbin

(4) Lab Girl : A Story of Trees, Science and Love by Hope Jahren

(5) It Must Be Beautiful : Great Equations of Modern Science edited by Graham Farmelo

(6) Quantum : Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality by Manjit Kumar

(7) Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand: Fifty Wonders That Reveal an Extraordinary Universe by Marcus Chown

(8) The Faber Book of Science edited by John Carey

(9) Thirty Years that Shook Physics : The Story of Quantum Theory by George Gamov

(10) What We Cannot Know by Marcus Du Sautoy

(11) The Universe Bellow by William J. Broad

(12) Fashion, Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe by Roger Penrose

(13) The Hidden Life of Wolves by Jim and Jamie Dutcher

(14) Lives of the Scientists : Experiments, Explosions (and What the Neighbors Thought) by Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt

(15) Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Are you participating in #ScienceSeptember? What are you reading?

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