October 12, 2008

Catching up on reviewing science books

A few books that I've read in 2008 that haven't quite made it into their own reviews:

Gawande, Atul. Complications: A surgeon's notes on an imperfect science. New York: Picador, 2003. 288pp.

This is a very fine book that I recommend without hesitation. Gawande has to be one of the absolute best popular writers about medicine of all time. This book is a collection of essays that were published in other places, mostly The New Yorker. The theme of the first section of the book is the fallibility of doctors, how they need to learn about their craft by basically practicing on us, and the ethical and practical dilemmas that all of us face because of this simple facts. We all want to be operated on by the most experienced surgeons, of course. But how did those surgeons get experienced in the first place? The rest of the book more or less picks up on those themes as it covers some medical mysteries and some things that the medical profession doesn't really understand yet.

This is a must-have for any academic or public library and I can imagine medical libraries building whole exhibits and and other collection focus activities around the work of Atul Gawande.

Shermer, Michael. Why Darwin matters: The case against Intelligent Design. New York: Holt, 2007. 199pp.

Another very fine book. Noted sceptic Michael Shermer basically demolishes the Intelligent Design and creationist paradigms from start to finish, but he also does it in a rather ecumenical way, taking care not to burn bridges or overly offend. You can get an idea of what he covers from the chapter titles: The Facts of Evolution, Why People Do Not Accept Evolution, In Search of the Designer, Debating Intelligent Design, Science Under Attack, The Real Agenda, Why Science Cannot Contradict Religion, Why Christians and Conservatives Should Accept Evolution and The Real Unsolved Problems in Evolution.

Shermer also weaves in his own personal story about how he evolved from being a Christian creationist himself to his current position supporting evolution, as well as his experiences at the Dover trial.

A solid, informative book, even if it's occasionally marred by Shermer's own descents into theistic gobblydegook, such as on page 43, "If we think of God as a thing, a being that exists in space and time, it constrains God to our world, a world of other things and other beings that are also constrained by the laws of nature and the contingencies of chance. But if God is the maker of all things and all beings visible and invisible in heaven and earth, God must be above such constraints: that is, above the laws of nature and contingencies of chance." A good rationalization for believers, I guess, but it does undermine some of his other arguments.

Overall, I'd recommend this book to most public libraries and any academic library that collects popular science.

I would like to close with another quote, from page 161.

Darwin Matters because evolution matters. Evolution matters because science matters. Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from and where we are going.

Angier, Natalie. The canon: A whirligig tour of the beautiful basics of science. New York: Mariner, 2008. 293pp.

Natalie Angier is a well-known science writer for the New York Times and in this book has produced a very fine explanation of what science is all about. She also covers an awful lot of territory giving an overview of the current state of the art in various of the scientific fields.

But the most important contribution of the book is the first few chapters where she basically gives an layperson's introduction to the philosophy of science. She talks about the scientific method, the role of probability in science and the role of measurement, all very important topics in understanding what science is. I think it's important to mention that her approach is in sharp contrast to Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, which tended to use a more historical narrative, concentrating on the eccentricities of the various scientists he profiled to give colour. Bryson really didn't discuss any philosophy or have any extensive discussion of the scientific method, to the book's great detriment I believe. Angier seems to have learned from Bryson's mistakes, both in giving that philosophical and mathematical underpinning as well as not portraying scientists as freaks and weirdos.

The rest of the book is given over to a quick overview of physics, chemistry, evolutionary and molecular biology, geology and astronomy. It's quite dense and perhaps potentially a bit dry, but she mostly avoids that with a lively sense of humour sprinkled with quite a bit of flashy wordplay. This aspect of the book came under a fair bit of criticism from other reviewers, but I think it works quite well. Granted, she does goes overboard on occasion -- sometimes it seems that every paragraph needs to end with a little zinger.

Did I learn anything? Yes, I did. Quite a bit really. On the frivolous front, it seems that Angier and I share the same passion for collecting bookmarks. Who knew?

I would recommend this book to any academic or public library. Even high school or middle school libraries would be able to find readers for this book.

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