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Science Books

November 17, 2005

The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin's Dilemma
Marc W. Kirschner, John C. Gerhart, John Norton (2005)
ISBN: 0300108656

For some time now, creationists, and more recently Intelligent Design (ID) advocates, have been claiming that evolution is far from a complete theory and is in fact full of gaps. However, Marc W. Kirschner, professor of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School, and John C. Gerhart, professor in the Graduate School at the University of California, Berkeley, are here to politely inform them that they couldn't be more wrong. Evolution is one of the strongest scientific theories around, but like all scientific theories there are some details that need further refinement and research. In this case, it is the problem of how animals have developed their remarkable variety and diversity, a problem that plagued Darwin and subsequent scientists for many years. There is a stock answer to this quandary, of course, that incorporates accumulated genetic mutations over very long periods of time. It is this account, say scientists, that eventually leads to the wide array of wings, tails and other natural wonders, but the explanation has not been without its detractors. Both Kirschner and Gerhart are just two such critics who believe that as an explanation for diversity the theory is weak. The authors of The Plausibility of Life argue that the building blocks of life that are responsible for fingers, eyes and hooves, say, are derived from the same basic molecular systems. In this way, they argue, there is less chance of catastrophic failure that may derive from DNA mutation. This theory implies that there is actually less variety, and that nature is actually more conservative than we may at first imagine. Interesting to readers of The Plausibility of Life is that the author's novel ideas turn the concept of Irreducible Complexity (IC) into an argument for, rather than against, evolution. Kirschner and Gerhart have produced a fascinating read that is at the cutting-edge of evolutionary theory.

On Intelligence
Jeff Hawkins, Sandra Blakeslee (2005)
ISBN: 0805078533

On Intelligence is set to shake-up the plethora of current theories trying to model the nature of the human mind and artificial intelligence, with authors Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee more than equal to the task. Hawkins is the founder of both Palm Computing (which brought us the PalmPilot) and the Redwood Neuroscience Institute in Menlo Park, California. Having such a profound involvement in both mobile computing and human cognition places Hawkins in a unique position, one that has enabled him to rethink the relationship between human and machine intelligence. In fact, Hawkins establishes that human intelligence has little to do with our current computer systems, stating: "computing is not intelligence." The human brain functions via a system - Hawkins calls it the "memory-prediction framework of intelligence" - that constantly compares and updates sense data memories used to make predictions about the future, something that is far beyond the capabilities of even the most advanced computers. Hawkins' theory aggressively challenges current perceptions that computers will one-day rival human intelligence. By understanding the "memory-prediction framework of intelligence" theory of the brain Hawkins believes that a more advanced system of thinking machines can be developed. Joining Hawkins on this landmark exploration is acclaimed science and medicine writer Sandra Blakeslee, who is best known for co-authoring Phantoms in the Brain by V. S. Ramachandran. Blakeslee's experience coupled with a refined, amiable writing style makes On Intelligence an easy, and accessible read. One critic said that it was "the most important book in neuroscience, psychology, and artificial intelligence in a generation." On Intelligence has revived slumbering scientists in the stagnating fields of cognition and AI to sit-up and pay attention. A must read for those interested in having their finger on the pulse of cutting-edge science.

Space Tourist's Handbook: Where to Go, What to See, And How to Prepare for the Ride of Your Life
Eric C. Anderson, Joshua Piven (2005)
ISBN: 1594740666

Tired? Stressed? Job getting you down? Perhaps a zero-gravity holiday in space might soothe your tired, stressed and overworked mind. While the ticket might be a bit on the pricey side, Eric Anderson, president and CEO of Space Adventures, at least provides the prospective space adventurer with everything they need to know about space travel and the inherent dangers they may face; those onboard vacuum toilets can be very hazardous! While you'll have to fork out your own $20 million dollars or so, Anderson's book takes you through all the aspects of space flight preparation that billionaire Dennis Tito had to endure in order to secure his place in history as the first "space tourist." There are chapters devoted to the space flight medical examination, zero-G and high-G physical training, reentry and landing, celestial navigation and a chapter on space emergencies. "Danger, Will Robinson!" While it is still early days yet, Anderson's space travel agency, Space Adventures, is probably a taste of things to come, hopefully without the prohibitive cost. The Space Tourist's Handbook is an informative and well-written book that is sure to whet the appetites of would-be space tourists.

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