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Science Books

March 29, 2007

Plutonium: A History Of The World's Most Dangerous Element
Jeremy Bernstein (2007)
ISBN: 0309102960

Plutonium, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing other than building nukes and poisoning secret agents, as it turns out. In fact, after devoting an inordinate amount of time and money trying to identify and accumulate visible quantities of plutonium - initially to fill a suspected gap in the periodic table - scientists, politicians and interest groups are now trying desperately to rid the world of the hazardous stuff. According to Bernstein, professor emeritus of physics at the Stevens Institute of Technology and veteran staff writer for The New Yorker, the discovery of plutonium in 1941 was to influence how the arms race would develop during WWII. Once the plutonium cat was out of the bag, Russia, the United States and Germany devoted numerous espionage missions and countless research hours to discovering the dangerous element's destructive secrets. Since perfecting nuclear fission, and plutonium itself becoming commonplace - the United States alone has 47 metric tons of the stuff - the world has become a much more dangerous place in which to live. In this gripping and fascinating history of plutonium, Bernstein does an excellent job of tracing exactly how we came to arrive at this most precarious of positions.

Better: A Surgeon's Notes On Performance
Atul Gawande (2007)
ISBN: 0805082115

Medicine is a profession where lives are at stake and blunders are not an option, but the frighteningly inevitable reality is that they do happen. While we all strive to do our best, sometimes the limitations of being human - exhaustion, variation in ability, and emotional stress - can lead to unforeseen and often dire consequences. In Better, Atul Gawande, medical writer and general surgeon at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, does an exceptional job of exposing an area in medicine where best intentions and human foibles collide. Gawande's reports from the frontlines of medicine are illuminating. Errors and mistakes in places such as the battlefields of Iraq, neonatal wards, and polio outbreaks in India are the norm of everyday medical life. These scenarios are the flipside to the malpractice lawsuits currently filling up US courts, and demonstrate the capacity for human ingenuity and persistence under extreme circumstances. Gawande's candid medical assessment also ventures into territory filled with ambiguity, moral outrage and compassion, such as cases where doctors have been involved in the use of lethal injections. But all of these accounts taken in unison represent Gawande's main theme of how the aspirations of medical professionals to become better at what they do gradually become reality. What makes this book work so well as a fly-on-the-wall encounter with a lesser known, or perhaps hidden, side of medicine is Gawande's own experiences as a medical professional, and his ability to see the bigger picture.

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