My first contribution to Download the Universe, our collaborative site that reviews ebooks on science, is now up. It’s a review of Journey to the Exoplanets, a snazzy and fun iPad app from Scientific American. Teaser:
When I was your age, we didn’t have any of these fancy hand-held portable ebook readers. We didn’t have any such thing as extrasolar planets, either. Planets orbited the Sun, and books were printed on paper. And we liked it that way.
I’m assuming here I was about your age in 1992 or maybe earlier, because that’s when the world changed forever. Sony introduced a “portable” device called the Data Discman, arguably the first hand-held ebook reader. That same year, Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail made the first discovery of extrasolar planets, orbiting a pulsar with the romantic name of PSR 1257+12.
It’s been a busy twenty years. Everyone and their dog is reading ebooks, and astronomers are discovering planets around other stars (exoplanets for short) by the bushelful — 760 as of this writing, if we go by the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia. Which is why it seems perfectly appropriate that one of the first and snazziest ebooks devoted to science is Journey to the Exoplanets, written by Edward Bell and illustrated by Ron Miller.
[Updated to provide a better link for DtU overlord Carl Zimmer.]
The conventional presentation of a book — words and images printed on sheets, bound together in a folio — is a perfected technology. It hasn’t changed much in centuries, and likely will be with us for centuries to come.
But that doesn’t mean that other technologies won’t be nudging their way into the same conceptual space. Everyone knows that the practice of publishing is being dramatically altered by the appearance of ebooks — a very broad designation for book-length content that is meant to be read on an electronic device. At the simplest level, an ebook can simply be a text file displayed by a reading program. But the possibilities are much more flexible, allowing for different kinds of images, video, interactivity with the user, and two-way connections with the outside world. The production and distribution process is also much easier, which opens the door to books that are faster, shorter, longer, and quirkier than the usual set of hardbacks and paperbacks. If I put my mind to it, I could meander through this blog’s archives, pick out a few posts, and have an ebook published by this evening. It would suck — editing and presenting a good collection requires effort — but it would be published.
In the current state of the market, one question is: how do you find good ebooks to read, ones that don’t suck? Into this breach leaps Download The Universe, a new website devoted to reviewing ebooks about science. Not just “science books with electronic editions,” but books that only exist in the e- format. (Apparently we have already passed through the awkward hypenation phase, and gone from “e-book” right to “ebook.”) Because it would be embarrassing not to, we also have a Twitter account at @downloadtheuni.
This brand-new project has been led by our inestimable blog neighbor Carl Zimmer, who has assembled a crack editorial team consisting of some of the world’s leading new-media science journalists and also me. We’ll be contributing regular (one hopes) reviews of ebooks old and new, all with a science focus. Suggestions welcome, of course.
The world is going to change, whether we like it or not. It always feels good to help channel that change in constructive ways.
I’ve been meaning for a while to do a post on “Books You Should Read,” but I put it off until the last minute (of 2011), so now it’s a shopping list. I’m sticking to books that came out in the last year or two, on subjects vaguely related to what we often talk about here on the blog, since I know people get grumpy when we deviate from the prescribed topics of conversation. And I’m trying to highlight books that aren’t already bestsellers, but deserve to be; I’m assuming you don’t need me to tell you about recent books by Lisa Randall, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, or Brian Greene. (Or me, or my lovely wife.) Note for late shoppers: Amazon will get you all of these in plenty of time for Christmas. And pre-emptive apologies to anyone whose book I didn’t include — probably because I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.
|How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, by Mike Brown. My Caltech colleague Mike Brown is the person most responsible for getting Pluto demoted from planetary status, by discovering Eris and other Kuiper-belt objects. For a long time I thought it was silly to go to such trouble to re-classify a celestical body, but this book convinced me otherwise. Part of the reason is that Brown (or plutokiller on the Twitter) is an enormously engaging writer; few quasi-autographical science books have managed to mix the personal side with the science so effectively.|
|Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed, by Carl Zimmer. My sleeper pick for book of the year, Carl Zimmer’s compendium of science tattoos is a real delight. I’m not especially fascinated by tattoos or their own sake, but the beautiful photography here is matched by Carl’s fascinating descriptions of the science behind each one. This would make a great gift for just about anyone.|
|The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, by Owen Flanagan. Western atheist/naturalists are occasionally criticized because we speak disapprovingly about traditional Western religions, while not paying attention to Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies. Here’s the book that redresses the balance, but in a very sympathetic mode. Flanagan is a thoroughgoing naturalist, but appreciates some of the insights into human nature that Buddhism has to offer. In this book he offers a careful philosophical examination of Buddhist beliefs and practices, in the light of modern scientific understanding of humanity and our universe.|
|The Infinity Puzzle: Quantum Field Theory and the Hunt for an Orderly Universe, by
Frank Close. “Quantum Field Theory” is the scientific concept that, in my opinion, features the largest ratio of “people should be familiar with” to “people are familiar with.” Frank Close looks at the historical development of the subject, one of the great intellectual triumphs of the 20th century. I could nitpick (Ken Wilson isn’t even mentioned once?), but this book is full of great insights.
The holiday movie season brings us The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher’s English-language version of Stieg Larsson’s bestseller, which has already been made into a Swedish movie. Ordinarily you might not want to make a new movie when one based on the same book came out just two years ago, even if it was in a different language; but Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy is more than popular enough to carry the load, with over 27 million books sold worldwide.
That popularity really bugs some people. Sales figures notwithstanding, Larsson’s books fall pretty dramatically short on several conventional metrics of literary quality, such as “elegance of writing” and “plausibility of plot.” Early in the first novel, before we really know what’s going on or have been properly introduced to most of the characters, we are treated to a scene that consists of one character telling another about a long series of complicated and shady European business deals, complete with obscure acronyms and names that will never be mentioned again. This keeps up for what seems like pages. And it’s just a hint of the various stylistic crimes Larsson will gleefully commit throughout the series. He loves piling on meaningless details, especially about what his characters are eating and the clothes they are wearing. The prose is clunky and often wearying. The series effectively evokes the brooding coldness of Scandinavian winters, but that’s not always a good thing.
And yet — the books are impossible to put down, as approximately 9 million readers will testify. (I haven’t seen the American movie, although I did see the Swedish one, which wasn’t anywhere near as gripping as the original novel.) So we have a fairly common occurrence in publishing: books that are fantastically popular, but nevertheless are not very “good” by many agreed-upon criteria. In very different ways, think of Dan Brown, JK Rowling, or Stephenie Meyer.
Faced with such a puzzling phenomenon, one can go two ways. Read More
Lisa Randall is a friend and collaborator, as well as a science superstar. She is one of the most highly cited physicists of all time, for a variety of contributions to field theory and particle physics, especially her work with Raman Sundrum on warped extra dimensions. Her first book, Warped Passages, was a major success, which naturally raises the question of what one does next. (Besides writing papers, I mean.)
So we’re very happy to welcome Lisa aboard to guest blog about her new book, just out today: Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World. (Among other virtues, this book has the single most impressive collection of blurbers of any book ever written, from Bill Clinton to Carlton Cuse.) From personal experience I can verify that writing a book doesn’t just happen; it’s a tremendous commitment over an extended period of time, and once it’s done there’s not much chance to go back and change it. So deciding to write a book at all, and more importantly how exactly to target the writing, is a delicate and critical process.
While Lisa hasn’t yet become a regular blogger, she is active on Twitter, where you can follow her at @lirarandall.
In conjunction with the publication of Knocking on Heaven’s Door, I thought I’d take advantage of Sean’s kind invitation to post on Cosmic Variance to explain my motivations in writing my book. I haven’t done a lot of blogging myself but I am impressed at the care and interest that go into science blogs. They are a way of sharing developments as they happen and an opportunity to have meaningful discussion of results.
I talk about a lot of science in my book. So I thought rather than summarizing it all—at least in this post—I’d focus on the question of why I wrote this particular book. I waited several years before even considering embarking on a second book project. I certainly didn’t want to simply repeat the content of my previous book, and my own personal goal is always to branch out into new arenas—in this case into new types of writing–while still remaining true to my physics roots. I didn’t know the exact book I was after but I did know some of the topics I considered important and timely.
These topics fell into several categories. First, I wanted to give an accurate picture of what is happening in particle physics and cosmology today—both with experiments and with theory. Particle physicists know this to be the era of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the machine that is colliding together protons at unprecedented energies to test the nature of matter and forces at smaller distances than ever explored. The interactions between theorists and experimenters is more intense than it has been during the time I’ve been actively pursuing physics. That is because everyone realizes this interactions are essential with these challenging experiments to get to the right answers. I wanted to convey the excitement and implications of the research taking place there, so when discoveries are made, anyone interested can understand what was found and what it could mean.
Cosmologists too find this is an important time and I wanted to share some of the interest in that major topic as well. One arena that both particle physicists and cosmologists are excited about are experimental studies of the nature of dark matter. Many find this topic perplexing, whereas even if difficult to tackle experimentally, the underlying idea really is not. I wanted to explain a bit how I think about dark matter and how experiments are searching for its feeble and elusive effects.
But I wanted to do more than just summarize the physics. Read More
Andy Lawrence, Edinburgh astronomer by day and e-Astronomer by night, has participated in a Five Books interview at The Browser. You’ll remember that I did one where I picked five books about relativity and cosmology. Most of the other interviewees (and they have a great list) have been a bit more playful, mixing in different genres. Andy takes a judicious middle tack, including some straight-up astronomy but also some biography.
I was glad he picked Dennis Overbye’s Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, which is one of my favorite books about science and scientists. It manages to show the human side of science in all its quirky glory, without either creating fake scandals or putting anyone on a pedestal.
Thanks to Richard O’Connell for suggesting this Jorge Luis Borges poem as appropriate to the time-travel theme.
Oedipus and the Riddle
Quadruped in the dawn, erect at noon,
and wandering on three legs across the blind
spaces of afternoon; so the eternal
Sphinx saw her inconstant brother, Man.
And to her rocky silence came a man
who unlocked the riddle in the mirror;
terrified, he saw the shattering image
of his destruction and his error.
We are Oedipus, doomed as he, to be
the triple beast: child, saviour, suppliant-
all that we will be, all that we have been.
It would annihilate us in an instant
to glimpse our monstrous being; mercifully
God grants us issue and oblivion.
Sadly, God grants us nothing of the sort. But happily, we are not annihilated by glimpsing our monstrous being. We may be disappointed, disillusioned, or discombobulated; but those are temporary conditions that we can strive to overcome. Embrace your monstrous being! It’s the only true strategy in the face of Time’s relentless march.
A website called The Browser has been doing a fun collection of interviews, where they ask experts in different fields to recommend five books, either starting points for non-experts or books that they were influenced by themselves. Read Randall Grahm on wine, Jim Shepard on short stories, Deborah Blum on science and society, or Qiu Xiaolong on classical Chinese poetry.
They asked me about relativity and cosmology, and I decided it would be more helpful to pick recent books that would bring people up to date rather than go for the classics I was reading back in the 70’s. Some of these books aren’t light reading, but it’s a matter of dedication rather than preparation; I think an interested and intelligent person who didn’t know anything about relativity or cosmology could read these and come away with some deep insights.
For more thoughts, check out the full interview.
Update: for obvious reasons, it wouldn’t be considered quite kosher to recommend one’s own books in an interview like this. This has led to the misimpression that I think my books are less than the very best. Not so!
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.
The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.
The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.
And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.