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7 of the most popular science books of all time
A primer on the infinite of knowledge waiting to be learned.
- Chaos theory, evolution and the cosmos make for an eye-opening read.
- Carl Sagan paints a sagacious picture of humanity's place in the universe.
- Great scientists give us a glimpse into their minds and their theories.
Scientists have been sleuthing through the mysteries and secrets of the universe since humankind first started asking questions. Just what is going on in this grand amphitheater of reality? The courageous and curious sometimes leave their ivory towers to translate their arcane works into a more readable and digestible format.
Popular science books are an excellent way to get a grasp on a number of complex topics. They're also great starting points for people looking to dig deeper and learn more of the nitty gritty of the science itself. The wonders and observations from both inner and outer space and beyond is a clarion call for the reader that seeks to know more about how things work in the world.
From Charles Darwin to Stephen Hawking and more, these popular science books are guaranteed to open up new pathways of intellectual growth and curiosity.
A Brief History of Time
Stephen Hawking jokingly said that his book the Brief History of Time, is the least-read and most bought book ever. In it, Hawking set out to give a broad overview of what he knew and supposed to know in the wide realm of physics.
He goes on to explain the Big Bang and its connection to relativity, while also examining string theory — the idea that the universe is made up of some 10 or 26 dimensions. At some point in the book, he declares that intelligent beings can only exist during the expansion phase of a universe. Hawking makes this a thrilling read for the popular science book fan, as there isn't a single equation in sight.
On the Origin of Species
The first edition of Charles Darwin's seminal evolutionary book, The Origin of Species, was first published in 1859. For such a massive book and game changing scientific tome, it was actually written to be read by the general public.
The central thesis and without denial, fundamental fact of reality, evolution by natural selection remains one of the most important and mind-expanding discoveries we've ever realized. The beginning of the book sets the scene and slowly explains the basis of natural selection, at times it feels as if this could be found in a modern biology textbook.
This revolutionary idea is even more astounding when you realize that back in the 1800s, the concept of genetics didn't exist and there was no known science connecting the myriad of species together under one life-force. Darwin uncovered a fascinating and awe-inspiring fundamental fact of biology. It is so profound that geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously once said, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
Carl Sagan, renowned science popularizer, sets out to explore our brief foray into the infinite. In this book, Sagan suggests that the human species and all of its biosphere's survival may depend on us spreading to the stars. Sagan seeks to show how the many scientific discoveries throughout the years has changed the perception we hold of ourselves and our place in the vast cosmos. It's worth excerpting Sagan's famous Pale Blue Dot quote in full, as he succinctly sums up how important cosmic perspective is for this little group of primates rotating together on this speck of blue:
"From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.
The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every 'superstar,' every 'supreme leader,' every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."
The Selfish Gene
Before Richard Dawkins was known as an dogmatic atheist, he wrote The Selfish Gene, which would turn out to be one of the first major popular science books. It's an incredibly poetic take on the subjects of genetics and evolution. Aside from Darwin, previous attempts to explain evolutionary processes and genetics had been largely academic and devoid of any popular understanding.
Dawkins manages to argue his idea that genes are the real drivers of evolution and a kind of immortality. To Dawkins, species and the individuals are mere vehicles for the gene, so they are in a sense just tools to propagate the gene. Before Dawkins put forth this idea, the general consensus was that natural selection hones its behavior in favor of keeping the individual creature or species alive. Try to take the idea metaphorically, as Dawkins' The Selfish Gene tends to border on the metaphysical at times.
Infinite in all Directions
Freeman Dyson has lived a long life as an incredible scientist. In Infinite in All Directions, Dyson's inquiries spread far and wide to the diversity of species on Earth to the infinitesimal workings of the universe and wonders about humanity's place in the cosmological scheme of things.
Originally presented as a sequence of lectures given in Scotland in 1985, the book does tend to reference some events of the time. Most of the topics from the lecture have been reworked into book form and cover a wide breadth of disciplines. Dyson gives a special dissertative focus on nuclear disarmament as well.
Chaos: Making a New Science
James Gleick gives a cursory introduction on the actual science of chaos. After that he goes on to account for the many scientists who laid the foundation for this science. Their trials and tribulations make up the majority of this book.
Gleick manages to convey an interesting aspect of chaos theory that serves as a gateway to more advanced topics and possibly a meandering walk into game theory. The main idea is as follows: the most innocuous and minute change in initial conditions will lead to unpredictable if not drastic changes in the later output. An example of this is the oft repeated Butterfly Effect, where the flapping of a butterfly's wings could go on to cause a storm some few thousand miles away. Chaos theory is in a sense an all-encompassing aspect of anything in existence and so touches everything from mathematics, biology and to even manmade ideals, such as finance or economics.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Thomas Kuhn sought to change the cliched perspective of the diligent scientist slowly working with his bin of unquestionable facts, hypothesizing, experimenting, accumulating knowledge in incremental steps and then… aha! Discovery. No, the structures of scientific revolution doesn't come from the status quo set of accepted scientism caste book — they emerge from what Kuhn calls a paradigm.
A paradigm is a cultural and scientific communally accepted background all scientists adhere to. It is a set of assumptions, theories, and biases in which all new scientific evidence must first pass through before new discoveries are reworked into new hypotheses about reality. Kuhn believed that what we call science is just "filling in the details," after a paradigm has been set.
Kuhn challenges the concept of scientific process and considers it rather to be a shift of paradigms in which we radically change our view of the world. Think for example, the Copernican revolution, Einstein's theories or quantum physics. After enough time, the paradigm will play out to its final conclusion before being disregarded for a newer and more comprehensive paradigm — that one, too, is liable to one day be usurped by more compelling arguments.
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Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
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The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.