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Science Books

June 2, 2005

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
Jared Diamond (2004)
ISBN: 0670033375

In his Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond traces the fascinating development of Western civilizations and the factors that led to their dominance over vast regions of the globe. In this new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Diamond provides a detailed multi-disciplined perspective on how some societies have been swept away as a result of persisting with poorly chosen and eventually self-destructive behaviors.

Diamond's book is a timely reminder that human existence relies on a healthy environment and delicately balanced ecosystems, and provides a convincing number of comparative studies of societies, both past and present, to prove his case. From the Norse settlements on Greenland, the American cultures of the Maya and the Anasazi to the recent catastrophes befalling Rwandan and Haitian populations, we are left wondering how these civilizations could be unaware of the impending economic and social collapse awaiting them that has in some cases led to their extinction. Well may we wonder. Diamond argues that this is precisely what we should be asking ourselves today, and if we want to avoid a similar fate we should be a little less smug about our perceived boundless prosperity. To highlight these vulnerabilities, Diamond points to the depletion of Montana's once abundant natural resources, and the environmental damage caused by the toxic waste left behind from its once booming mining industry. Furthermore, technologies being researched by countries such as Australia and China will not necessarily divert the problems like the ones seen in Montana, as the timeline for implementing them, and any subsequent positive effect from them, extends into decades rather than years. The message is that we have to become less reliant on the idea that new technologies will stay ahead of population and consumption rates which, Diamond argues, are yet to replace the benefits of sound resource and ecological management.

Collapse is a thoroughly researched and accessible book, but while Diamond's skill at bringing the various cultures alive is in itself is a marvel, some readers may find the comprehensive explorations of these civilizations a tad trying. For most, however, Diamond's treatment of the globe's failed societies makes for a prophetic and gripping read, especially considering the current climate of heightened sensitivities toward the politics of environment and resource management.

The Double Helix: Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA
James D. Watson (1968)
ISBN: 0451627873

Anyone who thought that the challenges of scientific discovery faced by scientists might be clear-cut, logical and perhaps a bit stuffy could be in for a surprise after they have read this book. In this now classic account, James Watson tells how he and partner Francis Crick, both working from Cambridge University, beat their Oxford rivals to one of the most revolutionary discoveries in biochemistry to date; the structure of DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid]. Far from casting himself as the disinterested scientific observer as one might expect, Watson happily plants himself squarely within a colorful and challenging cast of characters in this rollicking scientific tale that reads more like an adventure story.

Lighthearted 'boys own' analogies aside, the importance of Watson and Crick's discovery should be treated with the respect reserved for such momentous occasions in science. After all, they did win a Nobel Prize for their efforts. But while it is a moment in scientific history worthy of note, what most people will come away with after reading the book will be a greater understanding of the mechanics of scientific method. Like many scientific discoveries, Watson's breakthrough on DNA progressed from a previous area of scientific research on three-dimensional structures of proteins. Explanations on how scientists might use x-ray crystallography to observe DNA strand formation or the manipulation of plastic models to the unlikely thoughts summoned by the imagination, demonstrate that Watson is in effect telling the reader that good science research does not always follow the most obvious route.

Also notable are the interpersonal relationships between rivals and partners alike during the quest for scientific immortality. Make no mistake, the stakes in the scientific world are often high, and Watson confesses to some underhanded tactics on how he happened to acquire some of the crucial research data that he needed. In short, Double Helix is both a page turning narrative on scientific relationships and discovery, and a microscope on the way in which science is done.

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