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Science Books

August 15, 2009

The Nature Of Technology: What It Is And How It Evolves
W. Brian Arthur (2009)
ISBN: 1416544054

Technology commentator Brian Arthur argues that we are in desperate need of an "ology" of technology, if you please. From the wheel to quantum computing, encountering technology is an inescapable aspect of our daily lives. But just what is "technology," and where do new technologies and the innovation that drive them come from? The Nature of Technology is an original, accessible and all-encompassing treatise on these and other perplexing questions regarding the peculiar origins of technology. Arthur says that technological innovation is often fobbed off as genius or creativity, which he claims are insufficient, weaselly explanations that do little to answer such a complex and multifaceted problem. Rather than the "eureka!" moment most people associate with invention, Arthur explains that each new technology is itself a construct of discrete technologies. Arthur's theory of technology has numerous heavyweight fans, such as Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who says they launched their Java system based on Arthur's ideas. While many texts analyze the rise of specific technologies, Arthur's The Nature of Technology is a robust account of the cumulative rise of technological innovation across time, culture and civilizations.

Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct And Science
Carol Kaesuk Yoon (2009)
ISBN: 0393061973

Most of us probably don't think too deeply about the matter of classifying and naming new species, and New York Times biology writer Carol Yoon thinks she knows why. Yoon has discovered that the human obsession with naming and classifying nature has been going on across cultures going way-back into human prehistory. Then, about 250 years ago, a Swedish botanist going by the name of Carl Linnaeus set out to name every living thing in the world, and from this ambitious venture came the science of taxonomy. But somewhere along the way, says Yoon, taxonomy has become an outdated and irrelevant activity, and your average Joe has given up his naming rights. Scientific progress is partly to blame for this alienation, apparently, as the ability to distinguish species at the genetic level made common observational taxonomy somewhat redundant. While she may be drawing a long bow, Yoon suggests that turning our backs on our ancestors' taxonomic legacy coincided with our disengagement with nature. The result, she says, is the terrible environmental mess that we are currently experiencing. Yoon keeps her well-written history of taxonomy spicy by throwing in a few oddities, such as drawing attention to a form of brain damage that renders the sufferer incapable of differentiating one living thing from another. Animal spotters of all types will likely flock to this most engaging of popular biology books, and the wisdom that Yoon imparts so lucidly.

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