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The Fun of Science
How the universe works, life-changing discoveries, unsolved mysteries, and other good reading. Plus—new spring books. By Steve Olson
Comments () | Published May 1, 2007
Good scientific overviews, books about uncertainty and complexity, a poetic approach to evolution, and a story of search engines. Photograph by Matthew Worden.

If the doom-and-gloom headlines are getting you down, read a book about science. The scientific outlook is optimistic—it seeks to solve problems rather than dwell on them. As Natalie Angier writes in her new book, The Canon, science is “fun the way rich ideas are fun, the way seeing beneath the skin of something is fun. Understanding how things work feels good.”

Maybe because Washington is built on ideas, this area has an abundance of science writers. Of the 2,500 members of the National Association of Science Writers, 400 live in Washington—more than in any other city. And the historical link between the federal government and scientific research has brought many writers here to work on books. The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story by Richard Preston describes an outbreak of the Ebola virus among monkeys in a Reston research facility. Richard Rhodes did part of his research for The Making of the Atomic Bomb in the library of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, a laboratory on the fringe of Rock Creek Park where an early demonstration of the splitting of the atom took place in a now-shuttered Van de Graaff accelerator.

The books I recommend here include many by local writers. But the science writing in our area is so strong that a geographic bias results in no loss of quality.

A Panoramic View

A good place to start is A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. This book is less flippant than Bryson’s travel narratives—such as The Lost Continent and In a Sunburned Country—but contains just enough levity to ease the task of absorbing 400 years of scientific history.

Bryson makes the occasional error (our bodies don’t contain 10 quadrillion cells), and experts might disagree with some of his choices, but such objections are beside the point. Surveying the history of modern science with Bryson is like going on a long walk with a garrulous and entertaining companion. Who else would write that “protons give an atom its identity, electrons its personality”?

New York Times writer Natalie Angier, who lives in Takoma Park, also covers the waterfront in The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science—out this month. Where Bryson is direct, Angier is discursive; where he’s plain, she’s ornate. Angier sometimes strays far from the broad topics that organize her book, but she knows science inside and out and loves it.

Curt Suplee, a former Washington Post writer now at the National Science Foundation, has written two illustrated books for the National Geographic Society that offer contrasting takes on big ideas. Milestones of Science takes a historical approach, featuring the scientists—from Democritus and Archimedes to Einstein and Freud—who created our modern worldview. The New Everyday Science Explained is organized conceptually, with topics arranged from simple (elements) to more complex (organic chemistry). Suplee writes clearly and engagingly, and no one can beat the Geographic for illustrations.

For those who want to focus mostly on pictures, Ivan Amato of Chemical & Engineering News has compiled more than 200 photographs made possible by advanced technologies in Super Vision: A New View of Nature. Amato’s introduction and captions playfully explain images that look more like pieces of art than they do representations of scientific understanding.

There’s another way to make up for years of ignoring science. James Trefil, a George Mason University physicist, and Robert Hazen, a scientist at the Geophysical Laboratory here in Washington, believe that all college students should have an opportunity to learn about science as an integrated whole, not just in classes organized by discipline. The Sciences: An Integrated Approach is their successful attempt to explain everything a nonspecialist should know. Yes, it’s a textbook, and yes, it’s expensive (the new edition lists for $111), but Trefil and Hazen are wonderful writers, and there’s no more accurate and comprehensive introduction to science’s big ideas.

peaks and hollows

Once you get the lay of the land, science’s peaks and hollows are worth exploring.

If I were writing this several decades ago, I’d start with books in the physical sciences—physics, chemistry, geology—given the prominence of the atomic bomb, lasers, Teflon, and transistors. Now it seems more appropriate to start with the biological sciences—even though many promised spinoffs of biology remain far from drugstore shelves.

To begin at the beginning, one of Robert Hazen’s popular books, Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origins, describes today’s efforts to understand the transition from chemistry to biology. A geologist by training, Hazen has become interested in the origins of life, and Genesis details what he and others are doing to understand the process that led, eventually, to us.

Carl Zimmer and Jonathan Weiner continue the story of evolution in different ways. Zimmer’s Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea ranges across evolutionary thought, whereas Weiner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Beak of the Finch focuses on a research project involving the 13 species of finches on the Galápagos Islands. Both reveal the power of Darwin’s insight in explaining the simultaneous diversity and unity of life.

A more poetic book on the byways of evolution is Chance in the House of Fate: A Natural History of Heredity by Jennifer Ackerman, a former National Geographic writer who now lives in Charlottesville. Evolution, Ackerman writes, is an “unfolding scroll shot through with mystery.”

Evolution occurs in part through changes in the DNA of organisms, and lots of books examine the rise of genetics, culminating in the sequencing of the human genome. The best is The Genome War: How Craig Ventner Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World by Jamie Shreeve, now a National Geographic editor. It’s hard to believe that a technological achievement as momentous as the sequencing of the human genome took place in a Rockville Pike office building opposite a Honda dealership, but Shreeve shows with humor and insight how it happened.

Robin Marantz Henig covers the origins of genetics in her engrossing biography, The Monk in the Garden. In Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What It Means to Be Human, Joel Garreau, a Post writer, predicts that GRIN—genetic, robotic, informational, and nano—technologies could soon result in a world-transforming “singularity,” where an ever-accelerating pace of change launches human beings into a new age.

For ruminations on the evolution of life elsewhere—along with much else—Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe by the Post’s Joel Achenbach is delightful.

Stranger Than We Know

The physical sciences are simultaneously grand and humbling. They remind us that the universe isn’t necessarily a place that can be fully understood.

In his new book, Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science, Alexandria writer David Lindley analyzes one of the most surprising discoveries of the physical sciences. In the early decades of the 20th century, physicists showed that certain pairs of measurements are inherently uncertain. Lindley writes that the idea is comforting in a way: “The uncertainty principle makes scientific knowledge itself less daunting to the nonscientists and more like the slippery, elusive kind of knowledge we daily grapple with.”

In geology, the classic collection is John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World—several books combined into one that originally appeared mostly in the New Yorker. McPhee writes in the old New Yorker style, which means that his tour of North America’s geological history is decidedly unhurried. A more focused book describing modern geology’s origins is The Seashell on the Mountaintop: A Story of Science, Sainthood, and the Humble Genius Who Discovered a New History of the Earth by Gaithersburg’s Alan Cutler. In crystalline prose, it recounts the discoveries of a Danish anatomist and eventual priest who “drew up a blueprint for an entirely new scientific approach to nature, one that opened up the dimension of time.”

Washington writers haven’t produced many astronomy books—maybe because our night skies are so lit up that not many stars are visible. But computer science is linked to Washington by the federal government’s longstanding support for computing. The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal by Washington writer Mitch Waldrop uses the life of an unsung MIT professor and Defense Department official to tell the story of modern computing. Licklider was at the center of the group of visionaries, techies, and cranks who converted computers from ominous behemoths in the backrooms of corporations and government agencies to the tools on our desks, and Waldrop gives him the prominence he deserves.

For a look at how far computing has come, The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture by former Wired editor John Battelle explains the history and science behind Google’s search button. Former Science magazine writer Charles Seife explores the way “the universe runs on information” in Decoding the Universe: How the New Science of Information Is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, From Our Brains to Black Holes.

putting things together

Science has made great progress by dividing big, insoluble problems into smaller, solvable ones. But at some point the pieces have to be put back together. The study of complex systems is so new that it doesn’t have a name yet, but it will be a growing force in the 21st century.

Mitch Waldrop’s Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos introduces many of the basic concepts by profiling the iconoclastic researchers associated with the Santa Fe Institute in the 1980s. A more recent overview is Mark Buchanan’s Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks. Buchanan—who got a PhD in theoretical physics at the University of Virginia before becoming an editor for the British journal Nature—shows how brains, economies, ecosystems, and social networks may behave in very similar ways.

Systems of interacting components often produce structures that can’t be foreseen. This process of “emergence” is the theme of Harold Morowitz’s The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex. A polymath at George Mason University who writes as eloquently about sailing as about thermodynamics, Morowitz describes 28 emergences, from the origins of the universe to the blossoming of human spirituality. The text is drier than in Morowitz’s earlier books, but the ideas are profound.

All of these books look squarely at science, but many other great books use science to tell a broader story, such as Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell, and The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea by Sebastian Junger.

Meanwhile, magazine and newspaper articles continue to detail the latest scientific results, and a new crop of blogs reports from the front lines of research. Science remains one of the great adventures of our time.

 

Bethesda writer Steve Olson’s most recent book is Count Down: Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World’s Toughest Math Competition. He can be reached at solson@comcast.net.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 05/01/2007 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles