Several years ago I read Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson’s , a book of popular science whose title came from a theory about Napoleon’s botched invasion of Russia during the winter. The theory goes, as Le Couteur and Burreson reported, that the buttons of Napoleon’s soldiers, which were made of tin, turned to powder in the extreme cold, thus exposing their tender torsos to the wind. Though it seems implied, the authors don’t come down strong on either side of the historical reality of this. Though the confluence is in doubt—indeed, it seems unlikely—the individual components of the tale are true: there were a lot of dead Frenchmen that winter, and tin—a perfectly solid metal under normal conditions—does turn into powder in extreme cold.
- Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing 'Hoax'
- Publisher: Wiley
- Year: 2002
- Pages: 288
Phil Plait’s Death From the Skies! was one of my favorite books the year I read it; it was not only solid science writing, but also just lurid enough to appeal to my nascent morbidity.
When I first saw Bad Astronomy, I thought it was a new book, but in fact it’s almost ten years old; published in 2002, it is Plait’s foray into the world of popular science, and something of a companion piece to the blog of the same name he started in 1999.
There must be something about Dan Gardner that coerces me to read his topics in pairs. When I read Gardner’s last book, The Science of Fear, I immediately read Physics for Future Presidents as well, which had a fair amount in common.
Now Gardner’s latest book, Future Babble, is largely a sociological study, and what should I read immediately afterward but another sociology book, with no small amount of overlap. In fairness, Watts’ book ends up being the superior of the two.
I was hesitant to pick up The Emperor of All Maladies; a quick glance at the dust jacket made me leery that the book would devolve into sickly-sweet sentiment. Cancer is, indeed, a terrible disease, and has wrecked havoc on millions of lives; at the same time, the very nature of this problem lends itself to hysterics and tearful reminiscences. I’m not so vain to think that my writings about my father mean as much to anyone else as they do to me, wonderful though my commenters may have been.
In other words, I feared that book All About Cancer would drift into histrionics and phrases like “The War on Cancer”, and too many sad stories about individuals that would quick devolve into the incessantly maudlin. Mothers, brothers, sisters, children; all of this we know about cancer, but we know it also about death in general. What’s interesting to me is where cancer comes from, and where science is looking for answers. A skim through the chapters gave me hope, I gave it a try.
Quantum physics (or mechanics) has become something of a metonym for impossibly-abstruse concepts; it’s a new-millennium update to the classic “brain surgery” and “rocket science”. I own a t-shirt with a pithy joke about Schrödinger’s cat, and when people are unfortunate enough to ask and I tell them about undefined states and the collapse of probabilistic wave functions, I often get glassy stares in return.
But don’t let me fool you: I know, on a high level, about Schrödinger’s cat, and I remember my Pauli Exclusion Principle from high school chemistry, and I’ve read enough Scientific American to have gotten short primers on some of the fundamentals, but my real understanding of quantum mechanics is like a half-rotted shack in the forest, while Kakalios’ knowledge might be a large McMansion in a new suburb; the real geniuses at the forefront of the field would be palatial estates with Robin Leach narrating.