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Science Books

April 4, 2008

Kluge: The Haphazard Construction Of The Human Mind
Gary Marcus (2008)
ISBN: 0618879641

In this intriguing book, Gary Marcus, professor of psychology at New York University, introduces us to the ins-and-outs of evolutionary psychology using plain language and everyday examples. But you're in for a shock if you expect Marcus to dedicate page after page admiring the wonder that is the human brain and extolling the virtues of the human mind. During our relatively short lifespans, it's easy to believe that our brain is a completed organ, but nothing could be further from the truth. Marcus tells us that while our brain seems to work as a functioning whole, it is in fact what engineers refer to as a "kluge". What's a kluge? Well, put it this way: Marcus considers our brains an ad hoc mish-mash of components thrown together as has been necessary during its evolutionary development. Marcus argues that once we understand that our brains are actually a patchwork of incompatible third-party components, a whole new understanding of how our brains operate opens up. Armed with his newfound knowledge, Marcus tackles many common problems that plague the human psyche, including: why money can't buy happiness; why people choose political candidates who do not represent their well being; why humans find it difficult to recall events that they've witnessed; and why leaders won't change their minds. Marcus also addresses moods and emotions, and how they can lead to destructive thinking, bad decisions, and, potentially, mental illness; with the latter seeming to have no evolutionary purpose whatsoever. Marcus' Kluge is an easy and engaging read, and a very good introduction to some concepts in evolutionary psychology.

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments
George Johnson (2008)
ISBN: 1400041015

These days science is usually a fairly clinical, sanitary affair, devoid of much of the earlier romance of scientific discovery - but perhaps with good reason. In The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, Johnson, a regular contributor to The New York Times, takes us back to a time when science centered on people curious enough to literally prod and probe nature either at theirs or another poor creature's expense. This very appealing book is a role call of historically significant experiments that ultimately propelled scientific thinking into a new age, yet are highly questionable experiments by today's standards. Living in an era dominated by superstition and mumbo-jumbo, and equipped only with the most basic of naturalistic theory, investigators of the natural world were left to face nature mano-a-mano. Left to their own devices, many heavyweight thinkers conceived of experiments that ranged from the whimsical to the macabre. To discover how light causes vibrations in the retina, Newton pushed a needle through to the back of his eye. The English physician William Harvey tied a tourniquet tightly around his arm and used vivisected animals to observe how blood circulated around the body. The physician and physicist Luigi Galvani wired up a pair of frog's legs to an electrical current, and marveled at how the legs twitched to the surging current. And who could forget Pavlov's salivating dogs. This was science without a safety net, it was science at the coalface; where enquiring minds stared at nature and nature stared straight back.

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