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Science Books

June 27, 2009

Absinthe & Flamethrowers: Projects And Ruminations On The Art Of Living Dangerously
William Gurstelle (2009)
ISBN: 1556528221

In his latest DIY danger book, Absinthe & Flamethrowers, engineer William Gurstelle, Backyard Ballistics; Building Bots, Whoosh, Boom, Splat, teaches us how to how to risk life and limb for a dose of excitement while, er, doing it safely. Gurstelle began his research into hazardous behavior with the question: "Are people who take physical risks happier than those who do not?" So, who leads the more satisfying life: a pencil pushing desk jockey or a fire-breathing tightrope walker? Gurstelle found that thrill-seeking proclivity is expressed by your standard bell-shaped curve, with the bulk of the population predictably clustering around the mean. But Gurstelle also identified a group he calls "the golden third," who are risk-taking junkies pining for their next fix of perilous adventure. According to Gurstelle, this "golden third" are more successful, interesting and satisfied with their lives. Ok, so taking the occasional risk admittedly has its benefits, but how do we become daredevils without fear of injury - or worse? The short and obvious answer is that it wouldn't be risk-taking if an activity weren't associated with a certain degree of (you guessed it) risk. But the beauty of Gurstelle's book is that it is jam packed with carefully conceived projects, safety tips and expert advice on how to reduce the odds of falling foul of an outlandish stunt (though Gurstelle takes no responsibility for an increase in laundry bills). A fascinating amalgam of science, history and DIY, Absinthe & Flamethrowers should be the first port of call for anyone whose ever wanted to hurl knives, make black powder or construct a flamethrower.

Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist
Thomas Levenson (2009)
ISBN: 0151012784

He advanced the scientific revolution and is widely considered the most influential man in the history of science, but Thomas Levenson, MIT's professor of science writing, reveals a lesser-known side to Sir Isaac Newton in his book Newton And The Counterfeiter. As a Warden of His Majesty's Mint, Newton took his role very seriously, and was responsible for the downfall of many a counterfeiter. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictitious detective Sherlock Holmes appears incapable of replicating Newton's smarts as a detective, as is made abundantly clear in Levenson's account of Newton's dogged pursuit of criminal genius William Chaloner. Back in Newton's day, when concepts of currency were relatively new, counterfeiting was considered high treason, and if convicted perpetrators were gruesomely hung, drawn and quartered for their transgressions. This was all well and good, but trying to make a conviction of even the most flagrant of crimes stick was near impossible. Fortunately for the crown, the man with the world's biggest brain was at their disposal. Presumably snatching moments between making historic discoveries in planetary motion and formulating empirical laws, Newton somehow found time to don a disguise and frequent inns and taverns to gather evidence against counterfeiters. Newton managed to secure hundreds of interviews with witnesses, informants and suspects in this way, but still Chaloner managed to slip Newton's net. Using unscrupulous means to pass himself off as a gentleman, Chaloner accumulated many influential friends in high places. Like cyber-criminals of today, whose criminal activity involves "testing" cyber security, Chaloner demanded he be allowed to test how the Mint was run while simultaneously counterfeiting coins. In the end the best man wins, and just how Newton gets his man is, as you'd expect, pure genius.

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