This is an article I wrote for ABC Science Online on the 13th of December 2013. Please follow the link to see the article in its proper format.
It’s been a great year for science books! Devoted sci-phile blogger George Aranda shares his top five science reads of 2013.
Too good to put down: There were many great science reads published in 2013
There were many great books published this year, so it was very hard to cut down the list to my top five.
A number of biographies about people in the history of science, both past and current hit our shelves such as Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W Bernard Carlson; and Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center by Ray Monk.
Autobiographies included Stephen Hawking’s Stephen Hawking: My Brief Life, Richard Dawkins’ An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist and Colonel Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.
Technological advances continue to play an important role in science with new findings astounding us everyday. Books about technology include Red Rover: Inside the Story of Robot Space Exploration, from Genesis to the Mars Rover Curiosity by Roger Wiens, Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet by Finn Brunton, Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing by Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman, Paul Lauterbur and the Invention of MRI by M. Joan Dawson and Writing on the Wall: Social Media the First 2000 Years by Tom Standage.
Biological books continue to reveal knowledge about ourselves and the creatures we share this world with. This year’s biology books include Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach, Weird Life: The Search for Life that is Very, Very Different from Our Own by David Toomey, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein and Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health by Barbara Hatterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers.
Conspicuously absent from my list were books about the most significant scientific discovery of 2012 that led to the Nobel Award for Physics being awarded to David Higgs and Francois Englert this year as many were published at the end of 2012. These include The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll which won the Royal Society Winton Prize in November 2013. Others include Massive: The Missing Particle that Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science by Ian Sample, Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ by Jim Baggott and Higgs Discovery: The Power of Empty Space by Lisa Randall.
In end the, I chose a handful of books that I thought exemplified important developments in their respective fields or offered different ways to look at old problems.
How Dogs Love Us by Gregory Berns
What’s my dog really thinking? How do dogs really see or the world? Does my dog really love me?
These are questions that we ask ourselves as dog owners and until now a tail wag and a lick, has been all the answer we’re going to get. But recent brain imaging research discussed in the book, How Dogs Love Us, indicates that we may be able to start answering these questions. Inspired by photos of military working dogs trained to jump out of helicopters, neuroscientist Gregory Berns trained dogs to hold still enough inside a brain scanner for us to see their responses to relevant stimuli like food or their owners. While there have been many examples of brain imaging done on animals before, this is the first time that this type of work has been done with conscious and unrestrained animals. This new development allows Berns to ask interesting questions about how dogs perceive the world, their owners and their emotional experience. His research suggests that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to a human child, and for this reason he believes that dogs should be considered to be more than just property. In a world where we sometimes neglect or mistreat our closest animal friends, having a better idea of what is going in their brains can’t be a bad thing.
Five Billions Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars by Lee Billings
The search for planets that orbit stars outside our solar system has been going on since the first confirmation of such a planet in the early 90s. Since then a boom in discovering exoplanets has taken off due to improved instrumentation and methods, and a better understanding of the different architectures of planetary systems.
As of October 2013, 990 confirmed exoplanets have been discovered and due to future improvements in technology, will continue to be discovered at a greater rate into the foreseeable future.
Science journalist, Lee Billings, traces the history of this fascinating field of astronomy through some of astronomy’s brightest scientists that have furthered it. Arguably one of the field’s most alluring topics, they come to work in it for a range of reasons, sometimes they are looking for new planets that can support life, others looking for a more complete understanding about how solar systems begin and develop. Either way, the continued hunt for exoplanets will inform and inspire future generations of dreamers who look up at the night sky.
Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era by James Barrat
Whenever people think about artificial intelligence or AI, they often think about dystopian depictions of the future, reminiscent of The Terminator movies. However, the reality of AI at the moment might be considered unremarkable in comparison.
James Barrat, the author of Our Final Invention, presents us with a cautionary tale that while we are arguably the most intelligent creatures on the planet, we are sowing the seeds of our own demise in the process of building AI with greater-than-human-intelligence. He wants us to understand that organisations and governments around the world are aiming at developing such AI for all sorts of purposes. These may be positive, like Watson, the computer that won Jeopardy! who is being developed to become a physician’s aid to assist in diagnoses.
But some are negative, such as the US National Security Agency using AI to extract our information from vast databases of information. In the end, I think that Barratt would not call himself a pessimist, but a realist, stating that: “We need to recognise that AI is a dual use technology, like nuclear fission, capable of great good and great harm.” I know which future I’m hoping for.
The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley
Education has a more and more prominent focus in Australian politics, as evidenced by the uproar to Australia’s performance on recent international science and mathematic test scores and the proposed changes in Federal Government education funding.
In The Smartest Kids in the World, journalist Amanda Ripley follows three American students for a year as they strive to get a better education in different countries and education systems around the world. Following these students, she takes us on an eye-opening ride to examine what ‘education’ means in South Korea, Poland and Finland. She examines the educational systems of the countries that these students visit and how they became the educational powerhouses they are now. But it is important to understand that one countries’ educational system cannot simply be transported to another country as there are differences in teaching, parental expectations, societal demands, teacher qualifications, hours of study, more or less technology in classrooms etc.
This book raises more questions that it answers, questions which we in Australia are now grappling with and would do well to debate.
Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty
Most science books for kids are unfortunately only aimed at boys. Rosie Revere, Engineer seeks to get girls interested in building things, and celebrates a certain ingenuity and creativeness. This is something that is sorely needed in Australia with the number of women going into engineering at historically low rates.
Rosie builds all sorts of weird and wonderful inventions and demonstrates that girls aren’t only interested in dolls, horses and all things pink. Andrea Beaty infuses some lovely rhyming texts with a storyline that pays homage to World War II’s Rosie the Riveters alongside illustrations by David Roberts that have a visual complexity reminiscent of Shaun Tan’s work.
This is a great book for any little builder in your life, male or female.