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Science Books

September 28, 2006

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
Mary Roach (2006)
ISBN: 0393329127

Still running hot after her initial best-selling title Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach successfully pushes the boundaries once more in this irreverent and tongue-in-cheek exposition of what may happen to us after we die. Priority questions include what the afterlife might feel like, how we keep ourselves amused during the day (if there are any days), and whether or not we keep our earthly personalities. In addition to some very witty and amusing answers to these impossible questions, Spook shows how speculations of an afterlife have fundamentally shaped personal and cultural belief systems. Roach's indefatigable investigations into death leads her to scientists, engineers, doctors, psychics, sages and crackpots; who are all determined to discover what happens after we take our last breath. Highlights among many are Roach's run-in with a reincarnation researcher in rural India, and her observations of a university medical operating room that is fully decked-out with out-of-body detecting equipment; you never know when a patient might have a near death experience. Other curiosities that Roach comes across in her travels include a university professor in preparation to weigh the consciousness of a leech, and philosophers determined to find a soul among a collection of cadavers and animal heads. Roach also discovers the only sample of "ectoplasm" in existence, as well as a North Carolina lawsuit that gives ghosts legal recognition. As the extent of Roach's research is based on mortal accounts of earth-bound phenomena, it's a safe bet that the afterlife, if there is one, will continue to remain a mystery until our dying day. Thankfully this minor hiccup doesn't detract in any way from Roach's comedic touch or intelligence toward her subject. Fans of Stiff and newcomers alike will love the latest contribution from this talented and popular writer.

AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War
Tom McNichol (2006)
ISBN: 0787982679

If the mega-rock band AC/DC seems far more exciting than the history of electrical standards, then Wired magazine editor Tom McNichol is about to radically change that perception. The history of AC (alternating current) and DC (direct current) is really the history of a fiercely fought battle over which of the systems would be used to power America. The notable live wires caught up in the AC/DC face-off were Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, with the latter backing the brilliant and eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla. Despite the ferocity in which these combatants fought their little war, this is a piece of America's history that is little known; and perhaps for good reason. In addition to being shortsighted enough to back the wrong team, Edison was also stubborn enough to know how to flog a dead horse - in more ways than one. Edison's strong desire to have DC as America's electrical standard led him on a rather bizarre publicity campaign in an attempt to show the inherent dangers of Westinghouse's AC current. Demonstrations included the electrocution of cute, cuddly animals that led to an encore of electrocuting an elephant named Topsy. Eventually, Edison's campaign culminated in the development of the first electric chair, where prison inmates were used to demonstrate the dangers of AC. Edison attempted to popularize these AC electrocutions as being "Westinghoused." None of Edison's efforts paid off in the end, and while Edison was undoubtedly an ingenious man, Westinghouse was ultimately proven to be the better businessman. As a result, Edison lost control over subsequent inventions and the company that he founded, General Electric. The Savage Tale of the First Standards War is a fascinating insight into the darker side of human nature and nefarious business dealings. Highly recommended.

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