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Science Books

October 7, 2005

The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History
John M. Barry (2005)
ISBN: 0143034480

With all the talk of an imminent influenza pandemic, you might want to get yourself a copy of award-winning author John M. Barry's The Great Influenza. As with his previous books, such as Rising Tide, Barry provides a detailed history that explores one of the most horrific and frightening periods in human history. Within a year, the great influenza pandemic of 1918 had killed somewhere between 50-100 million people worldwide. Barry's scathing historical interpretation reveals how a rampaging virus was able to flourish due to ignorance, apathy and some very poor political decisions. Considered only flu at the time, the U.S. government did nothing to redirect resources away from the war effort. With US troops stretched to breaking point all over the world, could these same shortsighted priorities be repeated today? It's a sobering thought. The lack of government action made certain that the virus would spread easily among the multitudes of dead and dying soldiers both on the battlefield and at home. In some U.S. states, nothing was done to try and curb the invisible death stalking the land. Doctors and nurses were in short supply, and health officials were obviously way out of their depth. In place of a public information strategy so that people had a slim chance of helping themselves, a policy of disinformation was enacted. It must have been one of the lowest points in human history. Barry's excellently written version of events captures superbly the widespread misery and suffering that followed in the wake of this unfolding tragedy. The Great Influenza is a fantastic, timely and slightly unsettling read. Forget all those cheesy apocalyptic Hollywood films, this is the real thing!

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
Ray Kurzweil (2005)
ISBN: 0670033847

You know you're guaranteed an exciting ride when you read one of Ray Kurzweil's books. Kurzweil is an author, scientist and recipient of the MIT-Lemelson Prize (for innovation). He has also been inducted into the Inventors' Hall of Fame and received the 1999 National Medal of Technology. His previous titles include The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Age of Intelligent Machines. It's little wonder, then, that those in-the-know have fallen over themselves to get a copy of this controversial futurist's latest book. The premise of The Singularity Is Near is what happens after technology has become so fast and furious that our brains eventually merge with the very machines that they conceived. This "singularity" means that we will all be living in a human-machine civilization where our experiences shift from real reality to virtual reality and where our intelligence becomes non-biological and trillions of times more powerful. Kurzweil predicts that this transformation will mean both a reversal of the aging process and pollution, and who are we to question the most respected thinker on human machine technology? Other topics brought to the fore include ridding ourselves of death and world hunger. The arguments presented in The Singularity is Near are strong, eclectic and unnervingly convincing, as you'd expect from a man with an overdeveloped brain. Kurzweil additionally offers some ethical and existential insights into the possible ramifications of our brains integrating with machines (or is it the other way around?). After reading some of the fantastic and mind-boggling ideas that Kurzweil comes up with in this book you can't help but wonder whether he hasn't already crossed the human-machine boundary.

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