Non-fiction: August 2007 Archives

Stephen Jay Gould wrote essays for the Natural History magazine, once a month, for 27 years. The essays have been published in book format: this is number seven in the series of ten books. It's also the only one in the series that has been translated to Finnish.

Gould is an excellent writer of popular science. He doesn't make things too simple, but instead writes like he would write to his peers, just replacing the professional language with something more understandable. Based on this book, it's a good approach. Any intellectually curious person should be able to read and enjoy this book and be challenged.

What's it about? Mostly evolution, Gould's specialty, but also history of science, natural history, statistics, creationists... Gould covers lots of ground and plenty of interesting topics around these central themes. He can draw quite surprising connections between things. I've rarely read popular science this charming. This is highly recommended! (Review based on the Finnish translation.) [ Dinosaur In A Haystack: Reflections in Natural History at ] [ Dinosaur in a Haystack at LibraryThing ]

Which is better, thinking deep and hard or making snap judgements on instinct? Gladwell makes the case for quick thinking in his book of thinking without thinking. Gladwell argues that in many cases - emergency heart attack diagnosis being a good example - too much information not only doesn't help a bit, but actually makes decisions worse.

Humans are very capable of making quick, unconscious decisions - some brain damage or other disorders prove that, when that capability is lost. According to Gladwell we should pay more heed to our unconscious, as it often helps to make good decisions fast. However, it's not that simple: quick thinking without thinking leads to prejudice and trouble, if one is not careful.

Using lots of real-life examples, Gladwell makes a coherent case. The book is quite shallow, but that's what you should expect from a short bestseller like this. Blink, like Gladwell's previous success, The Tipping Point, is swiftly read. While it never delves deep or really satisfies the reader, it certainly succeeds in being thought-provoking and entertaining. [ Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking at ] [ Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking at LibraryThing ]

Otherness is the uniting theme for the short stories and essays collected in this book. Don't let the silly cheap science fiction cover fool you: there's some pretty deep thought inside the covers. The short stories vary from great to ok, but the essays offer the best value in the collection. Brin writes about UFOs, science versus magic and what he calls the dogma of otherness. It's all very interesting and enlightening.

The short stories aren't a waste of space, either - the best of them are captivating and contain marvellous ideas. Brin writes good science fiction, especially if you value interesting ideas. Those looking for fresh thought to chew on will find a nice dose from this collection. [ Otherness at ] [ Otherness at LibraryThing ]

The laws of thermodynamics are definitely amongst the most important and significant parts of physics. The second law (entropy or disorder will increase over time) particularly is a curious beast: it's obvious (put a warm tea cup on the table and it will cool down), but also very hard to explain.

Maxwell's demon, a jolly little creature invented by James Clerk Maxwell, was a thought experiment that's threatened the second law many times, by forcing the heat to move in the wrong direction. Von Baeyer explains all about the demon and the several attempts for its life while going through the history of thermodynamics.

It's a fascinating history with good characters and a nice, easy-to-read style to it. If you're at all interested in thermodynamics - and you should be - this is a good introduction. (Review based on the Finnish translation.) [ Maxwell's Demon: Why Warmth Disperses and Time Passes ] [ Maxwell's Demon: Why Warmth Disperses and Time Passes at LibraryThing ]

This fine book by Stephen Webb offers fifty different solutions for the Fermi paradox. In short, Enrico Fermi wondered that since universe is so big and should contain lots of life, where are they? Why haven't we seen any evidence at all of extraterrestrial intelligence?

Well, there are plenty of good explanations, as this book proves. The solutions are divided in three categories: "they're already here," "they exist but we can't communicate with them," and "we're alone". Since there's a real lack of proper knowledge about these things, reader will find plenty of educated guesses, hazy probabilities and that sort of thinking, but that's the nature of the whole question.

I'd definitely recommend this book to anybody who's interested in the existence or non-existence of extraterrestrial life. While there are no set answers, this book will give the reader a lot of material to chew on. (Review based on the Finnish translation.) [ If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens - Where Is Everybody?: Fifty Solutions to Fermi's Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life at ] [ If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens... on LibraryThing ]

Babylonians invented it, Indians worshipped it, Greeks abhorred it. Zero has been a problematic number for a long time. European mathematicians followed Greek footsteps, until they finally realized how important thing zero was for advanced mathematics.

Seife presents us the history of zero and its sister concept infinity, not only in mathematics, but also in physics and quantum mechanics. Zero is an entertaining book, if a bit light. For quick popular science entertainment purposes it's a good choice. (Review based on the Finnish translation.) [ Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea at ] [ Zero at LibraryThing ]

Simon Singh is one of my favourite authors when it comes to popular science. I've enjoyed his books a lot, his style is both entertaining and educational at the same time. Big Bang is no different. By focusing his story on the colourful characters instead of equations, Singh makes the book easy to approach.

There's one thing to notice: the book is less about the Big Bang itself and more about the theory of Big Bang. Singh starts from the ancient Greek, describing how the whole concept of science was born and developed. Much of the book is devoted to the argument between Big Bang and steady-state universe theories. After reading this book, the reader will be familiar with the scientific process and the evolution of scientific paradigms.

Another success for Singh, and I'm definitely looking forward to whatever he's doing next. (Review based on the Finnish translation.) [ Big Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need to Know About It at ] [ Big Bang : The Origin of the Universe at LibraryThing ]

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