Archive for the 'Science for Everyone' Category

Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, by Steve Krug

SEL Books: TK5105.888 .K78 2000

I confess an interest in usability sparked by my previous experience as a technical writer. I developed print and online help for software, and I wanted to understand how best to organize help so that people can actually use it—can actually (gasp!) find what they need.

But, but, BUT! I want to emphasize that usability is relevant to everyone who creates anything—not just a Web page or a product, but also a sign, even an email. How are you going to ensure that people are going to see what they need to see. People skim email. How do you get them to focus on the important parts?

Usability books can help you to think about design in a different way, to flip around your viewpoint so that you think about how the user interacts with what you produce. Along with Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, I recommend Don’t Make Me Think to just about everyone, because they’re both directed toward the general public.

Krug’s book is a quick read. It is well-organized and broken up into small, easy-to-digest chunks. In other words, he applies his design ideas to his own book, thus providing not only good information but a good example to follow.

Don’t Make Me Think really does make me think, but in a good way.

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, by Steven Johnson

SEL Books: Q325 .J65 2001

This book has solidified some of the ideas I’ve been formulating for past dozen or so years. Immensely exciting! The focus of the book is on emergence—the ability of multiple entities to display intelligent behavior while working as a group. Related terminology includes self-organizing systems, swarm intelligence, complexity theory, and chaos theory.

I have been looking for connections for a great many years, which is why I’m fascinated by comparative anything (comparative literature, comparative religion, comparative linguistics, etc.). Give me an apple and a lugnut and I’ll find some common denominator. (Give me a little time, though.)

It amazes me that slime molds and ant colonies work as an intelligent whole, while each individual organism has the individual intelligence of, well, a slime mold.

This book does not provide any breakthroughs or new information that hasn’t been out there for years. What it does do is gather and organize the information so that we in the general public can get a sense of the mind-bending breakthroughs going on in just about every field of discipline (economics, urban planning, physics, education, management, gaming, biology, etc., etc., etc.).

The main contribution this book makes is to urge us to be asking the questions. How is intelligence formed? How do we measure it? Can we measure it? What kind of emergent systems are on the verge of intelligence? Computers? Robots? The World Wide Web?

An exciting world is emerging.

Adam’s Curse: A Future without Men, by Bryan Sykes

SEL Books: QH600.5 .S98 2004

By turns fascinating and disturbing, Adam’s Curse explores the possible causes, ramifications, and solutions to a currently intractable problem–the human male is facing extinction.

The human male is facing two dangers–decreasing sperm count and the deteriorating Y chromosome. Dr. Sykes predicts that, if no solutions are found in the meantime, human males will disappear from the earth within the next 125,000 years (roughly 5000 generations).

This sounds like an awfully long time to come up with a solution, but when we’re talking about changes that occur slowly, planning ahead apparently can’t begin too soon.

Genome : The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, by Matt Ridley

SEL Books: QH431 .R475 1999

Science writer Matt Ridley hit upon a creative method for introducing lay readers to the human genome—to write its biography.

Each chapter focuses on a particular chromosome (Chromosomes 1 through 22, plus one chapter coupling X and Y together). For each chromosome, the author focusses on one or two genes, using it as a launching pad to explore a particular topic, such as fate, instinct, sex, conflict, or free will.

Of course, we learn a lot about the human genome, genetics, and evolution along the way, but it all leads to his central question: are we nothing more than the sum total of our genes? Ridley presents the Nature v. Nurture debate, and takes it further by introducing a third factor—free will.

Both “sides” of this age-old debate are on the side of determinism; our personalities are determined either by our genes or our environment. But do we have a say in this at all? Ridley presents compelling evidence that who we are is an amalgamation of all three influences, though not necessarily in equal measure.

This book was written more than eight years ago, so a greater body of knowledge on this subject has been amassed since then. The Human Genome Project completed its mapping in 2003, and scientists are using the information for a wide variety of research projects, including solving crimes, discovering relationships among all living things, mapping the evolutionary process, discovering more about our ancestors, following the movements of peoples across time and space (as in Mapping Human History, the “Pick” for September 2006), and, of course, disease treatment and prevention.

Yet, despite its age, I still recommend this book as a wonderful introduction to genetics. Its language is comprehensible and its tone inviting. This book is evidence that learning can be fun.

Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past Through Our Genes, by Steve Olson

SEL Books: QH455 .O474 2002

In Mapping Human History, geneticist Steve Olson follows the migration of humans from Africa out into the Middle East, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas. He does not use the traditional “bones and stones” archeological approach. He looks one place for his evidence—inside our DNA.

Along the way, Olson takes great care to discourage those who might desire to use DNA testing to justify racial distinctions between groups. The human race has interbred among groups for thousands of years, and attempting to determine genetic markers that represent distinct races is virtually impossible.  We are so inbred that it is likely that every person on earth today has DNA from Julius Caesar, Confucius, and Nefertiti.

The book is broken down into sections representing different continents, and ending with one called “The End of Race,” which looks at Hawaii as a case study. The author also looks at connections between genetic studies of human connections and the evidence found in the archeological record and with linguistic studies of human connections. Languages apparently evolve in a similar manner, though there are not exact correlations, as one can easily adopt a particular language and culture independent of one’s genetic makeup. The evidence accumulated among these various disciplines can work together to provide a clearer picture of human movements over time.

I have long been fascinated by connections among cultural groups, and this book provided exactly the kind of information I’ve been seeking.

(Originally published in Connections, September 2006)

The Practical Archaeologist: How We Know What We Know about the Past, by Jane McIntosh

Central Books: GN 31.2 .M35 1986

This book is a wonderful introduction to archeology, well illustrated and well-written. This makes it sound dry as dirt (forgive the pun), but the book is riveting.

It is a very well organized work. The colorfully illustrated chapters are small (one or two pages each), which divides a large topic into digestible chunks.

McIntosh approaches the topic from many different perspectives. First she defines the discipline of archeology, covers its history as a profession, describes how it has changed over the years, and explores current movements and debates.

Then she gets into the nitty gritty (again, please forgive the pun) of the “bones and stones” portion of archeology. She explains how sites are located, details the thorough and painstaking process of excavation in various environments (such as under water, in bogs, and in deserts), and then describes how the found items are processed.

Throughout these sections, we discover how sites and items are dated, including details about various dating techniques. Each little “article” focuses on a particular site to illustrate its points.

Finally, she closes with a section called “Understanding the Past,” which describes the process of evaluating and analyzing the results of a dig. This section provides a glimpse of current scholarly views and techniques for evaluating data, as well as the processes archeologists use to make sense of sometimes exhaustive amounts of data.

This book is a very good introduction to a fascinating topic.

(Originally published in Connections, August 2006)

Global Warming: The Complete Briefing, by John Theodore Houghton

SEL Books: QC981.8 .G56 H68 2004

Given the buzz about Al Gore’s new movie, An Inconvenient Truth, this book seems to be a timely recommendation. I can’t comment on the film, as I haven’t seen it, but this book is a wonderful report on current scientific thought among climatologists from all over the world (as of 2004).

The author is a climate scientist who has been studying greenhouse gases since the early 1970’s, most recently as part of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is a joint venture of the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Houghton’s prose is clear and accessible, transforming a complex issue into understandable language. According to his preface, his goal was to avoid jargon and complex mathematics, though the book contains a lot of data, presented comprehensibly in the form of graphs and tables.

If reading the entire book seems to be a daunting task, I recommend that everyone read the chapter called “Why should we be concerned?” In this chapter, Houghton takes a step back from his scientist role and addresses the issue from ethical, moral and religious perspectives.

It is an unusual approach for a scientific text, but I think (and according to the author, his scientific colleagues agree) that it is a justified approach. Discussions on global warming can generate strong emotions precisely because it affects all aspects of society. In what may be considered by some to be an unusual perspective, it is the author’s Christianity that persuades him that we must all consider ourselves stewards of the earth.

I highly recommend that everyone who is concerned about the future of our children and grandchildren read this book. Whatever your beliefs about this controversial issue, gathering as many facts as possible will aid in making decisions that may have repercussions far into the future.

(Originally published in Connections, July 2006)

(Six Easy Pieces from) The Feynman Lectures on Physics, by Richard Phillips Feynman

SEL Books: QC21.2 .F49 1989

I just finished Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, and to my surprise and consternation, our library doesn’t carry it. But don’t despair. The six lectures presented in the book I wish to recommend are contained in the SEL book listed above.

You may remember Feynman from his role in the investigation of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. He was the one who succinctly illustrated the problem by dropping the O-ring in the glass of ice water to demonstrate how brittle they become in the cold.

In these Six Easy Pieces, Feynman presents some of the most basic ideas of physics in a way that is both engaging and easy to understand. As someone who began my academic career as an engineering major, most of what I read was review, with the exception of the lecture on quantum theory. But it brought back that sense of excitement I had when I first began studying the physical world, and how awe-inspiring it was for me. With a bit of imagination, studying physics opens up new worlds of ideas.

I remember how amazed I felt when I understood that most of what we understand as the material world is really vacuum, that solidity is an illusion, and that the subatomic world is nothing like what we understand as “reality.” These ideas challenged many of my cherished notions of reality, and so changed utterly my entire world-view. It takes one’s breath away.

If you get The Feynman Lectures on Physics and want to read the six lectures I’m recommending, here is a list of the six easy pieces: Atoms in Motion, Basic Physics, The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences, Conservation of Energy, The Theory of Gravitation, and Quantum Behavior. The book also contains many other lectures, including six that were collected in Six Not-So-Easy Pieces: Einstein’s Relativity, Symmetry, and Space-Time (SEL Books: QC 793.3 .S9 F49 1997), which I have not yet read.

For those interested in this fascinating, brilliant, and well-loved physicist, but don’t want to read about physics itself, I recommend you pick up two delightful autobiographical works Feynman wrote with Ralph Leighton: “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” : Adventures of a Curious Character (LCD: QC 16 .F49 A37 1986) and What Do YOU Care What Other People Think? : Further Adventures of a Curious Character (LCD: QC 16 .F49 A3 1988).

(Originally published in Connections, June 2006)

A Tour of the Calculus, by David Berlinski

SEL Books: QA303 .B488 1995

I wish my instructors had assigned this book those many years ago when I was taking calculus. My grades may have risen above C’s. I learned to take derivatives, but I never really understood the concepts behind the formulas I was working.

If reading a book on calculus sounds dry and dull, you may be pleasantly surprised. This book is written for the general public. And aside from his acumen in mathematics, Berlinski is a gifted writer. Don’t take my word for it; read a bit of his prose for yourself:

Before the seventeenth century, everything is squid ink and ocean ooze and dark clotted intuitions; but afterward, a strange symbolic system erupts into existence and floods the intellectual landscape with a hard flat nacreous light. Communing with the powers of the night and the dark undulating rhythms that flow across the sky, the mathematician—of all people!—emerges as the unexpected master of those symbols, the calculus his treasure chest of chants and incantations, fabulous formulas, wormholes into the forbidden heart of things.

This book combines a history of calculus with a primer on its concepts. Aside from the Appendix, which contains proofs, the book contains few formulas and a few graphs. It is full of stories used to illustrate otherwise difficult concepts.

It is that most wonderful of textbooks—one that conveys a lot of useful information and entertains along the way.

(Originally published in Connections, May 2006)

Rocket Boys: a Memoir, by Homer H. Hickam, Jr.

SEL Books: TL789.85.H53 A3 1998

This is easily the most accessible book in the SEL collection that I’ve read so far. My 13-year-old nephew read parts of it for science class.

I particularly recommend this book for young people. I suspect that it could spark interest in the sciences for young people who previously believed themselves uninterested, in the same way that Sputnik captured the imagination of the young Homer “Sonny” Hickam.

But it isn’t a didactic work. Its purpose is to capture a time and space—a West-Virginia mining town in the late 1950’s. And it succeeds. Hickam looks with unblinking eye at the town that nurtured him, but that he longed to escape. Sonny’s struggle is personified in the figure of his father, who struggles with his own iron-fisted desire to mold his son into his own ideal.

More than anything, this book is about hope—how it motivates and transforms those whose circumstances are not conducive to realizing their dreams. One must have hope to transcend the mundane and reach (sometimes literally) for the stars.

(Originally published in Connections, April 2006)