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Science Books

March 8, 2007

The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession
Ken Alder (2007)
ISBN: 0743259882

We've seen them used in crime dramas, and seen celebrities use them to clear their names, but just how accurate are lie-detector machines? To science historian Ken Adler, the question is not so much a matter of how accurate the polygraph is, but whether it works at all. Adler views the polygraph as a manifestation of America's obsession with "truth" seeking, and the dystopian objective of rendering all citizens open books. Adler says that the idea of rooting out no-good liars began in the 1920s with a doctorate-wielding cop and a business-minded student from Berkeley. Together, the dynamic duo developed a machine that could read the thoughts of the criminal mind, which, over the space of a few short years, transformed police work forever. Long-standing murder cases were solved overnight, corrupt police officers were exposed, and known killers had their minds routinely probed. On other fronts, unfaithful marriage partners were rooted out, subversive government employees ousted, and dishonest workers sacked. The polygraph had delivered the truth, and America was as it should be. At least it would have been had the truth machine actually worked. It was arguably a nice idea, but the polygraph was not revealing the truth at all, and was instead revealing subjects' emotional state - fear, guilt, anger, etc. - while being questioned. Consequently, the wrong person was often accused of a crime, while others found that they were quite capable of beating the machine. One thing led to another, and eventually the machine was used as an instrument of interrogation, with the sole aim of trying to pry confessions from suspects, rather than going straight to the source, as the machine's inventors had promised. As the pair realized the fatal flaws in their beloved machine, their lives took an ugly turn. Unfortunately, it was too late to change the course of history, and, try as they may, the pair just couldn't put the genie back into the bottle. Surprisingly, the CIA still subjects its new employees to a polygraph, and polygraph tests feature highly in America's "War on Terror."

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors
Nicholas Wade (2007)
ISBN: 014303832X

While past methods of revealing human pre-history have resulted in a jigsaw puzzle of hypotheses and theories, today's DNA analysis is revealing a clear and consistent picture. Sourcing the most cutting-edge genetic science available, Nicholas Wade, science writer for The New York Times, shares with us some of the most profound answers to questions regarding human origins. Wade explains how advances in genetics can now tell us when our ancestors left Africa, our relation to Neanderthals, how big the first societies were, or even what the first human language was like. Most important to modern humans is Wade's account of how a small group of our ancestors traversed the Red Sea out of Africa approximately 50,000 years ago. While other groups of ancestors suffered extinction, it was this group that eventually came to master their environment and flourish across the globe. Wade's account also nixes creationist demands for examples of evolution in progress. He shows that despite cultures like Iceland having only been inhabited for a mere 1,000 years, it can be shown that they have developed distinctive, identifying genetic markers. Wade's "new narrative" of human history has not been without opposition and is a truly fascinating account of how science has taken yet another step toward revealing the earliest origins of humankind.

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