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Rusty's Reading List

Rusty Rockets recommends the following reading material for your edification. Simply the best of the crop of recent science related titles...

Why Does E=mc2? (And Why Should We Care?)
Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw (2009)
ISBN: 0306817586

E=mc2 is part of pop culture, but how many of us know what it actually means? There have been many attempts to explain this snippet of a larger equation, but few if any have done so in such a lucid, accessible and entertaining manner as professor of particle physics Brian Cox and professor of theoretical physics Jeff Forshaw. Cox and Forshaw break down the equation into its basic constituents to discover the iconic equation's true meaning, which come down to three fundamental questions: What is mass? What is energy? And what on earth has the speed of light got to do with any of it? As with most of the big physics problems being addressed in the 21st century, Cox and Forshaw's quest to answer these questions takes them to Geneva and the 17-mile-long Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Using the LHC and its capacity to recreate conditions similar to those immediately after the Big Bang, Forshaw and Cox provide a contemporary theory of mass. Subsequent investigations involve some truly intriguing and mind-bending discussions on why we can only move forward in time and how three dimensional objects actually move in a four dimensional universe. With two of the world's youngest and brightest physics professors on the case, Why Does E=mc2? is about as thrilling and exhilarating as physics gets.

Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist
Thomas Levenson (2009)
ISBN: 0151012784

He advanced the scientific revolution and is widely considered the most influential man in the history of science, but Thomas Levenson, MIT's professor of science writing, reveals a lesser-known side to Sir Isaac Newton in his book Newton And The Counterfeiter. As a Warden of His Majesty's Mint, Newton took his role very seriously, and was responsible for the downfall of many a counterfeiter. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictitious detective Sherlock Holmes appears incapable of replicating Newton's smarts as a detective, as is made abundantly clear in Levenson's account of Newton's dogged pursuit of criminal genius William Chaloner. Back in Newton's day, when concepts of currency were relatively new, counterfeiting was considered high treason, and if convicted perpetrators were gruesomely hung, drawn and quartered for their transgressions. This was all well and good, but trying to make a conviction of even the most flagrant of crimes stick was near impossible. Fortunately for the crown, the man with the world's biggest brain was at their disposal. Presumably snatching moments between making historic discoveries in planetary motion and formulating empirical laws, Newton somehow found time to don a disguise and frequent inns and taverns to gather evidence against counterfeiters. Newton managed to secure hundreds of interviews with witnesses, informants and suspects in this way, but still Chaloner managed to slip Newton's net. Using unscrupulous means to pass himself off as a gentleman, Chaloner accumulated many influential friends in high places. Like cyber-criminals of today, whose criminal activity involves "testing" cyber security, Chaloner demanded he be allowed to test how the Mint was run while simultaneously counterfeiting coins. In the end the best man wins, and just how Newton gets his man is, as you'd expect, pure genius.

Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, The Man Who Pursued Him, And The Age Of Flimflam
Pope Brock (2008)

Here's a story that is sure to get your goat. In 1917, the infamous conman John R. Brinkley eked out a living selling bogus patent remedies in the Southeast, until he reached a small Kansas town called Milford, where he set up a medical practice. Nothing was above board, of course, and this time Brinkley concocted a surgical method that utilized goat glands to stoke the dying embers of local farmers' virility. Critically acclaimed author Pope Brock, author of the best-selling Indiana Gothic, and who has written for Rolling Stone and Esquire, writes that Brinkley was soon to become America's wealthiest and most prominent "doctor" as a result of his quackery. But this fame came at a cost, writes Brock, as Brinkley's chicanery had attracted the attentions of renowned skeptic Morris Fishbein, who sought to shut him down and bring him to justice. But during Fishbein's pursuit of the evasive Brinkley throughout the 1920s and 30s, Brinkley managed to construct a powerful radio transmitter and offer his "medical" services to a widespread and all too willing audience. Predictably, cases of death and maiming rose proportionally to Brinkley's radio popularity. But Brinkley's dabbling in radio transmission also resulted in a revolution in political campaigning techniques (still used today), and introduced the nation to country, blues, and rock 'n' roll music. Brock captures the mind of this Janus-faced genius brilliantly, and we are left wondering whether to congratulate or condemn Brinkley for his efforts.

Elephants On Acid: And Other Bizarre Experiments
Alex Boese (2007)

If people on acid see pink elephants, what do elephants that take acid see? The mind boggles. Science historian Alex Boese writes that in 1962, Tusko the elephant was administered a large dose of LSD - 3000 times higher than a human would normally take - so that scientific researchers could observe how an elephant behaves on LSD. Why? Well, that's a good question. If the answer is: "so that we can see an elephant frantically run around its enclosure and then keel over dead," then the scientists got the result that they were seeking. But a doped-up elephant is just one of a number of wacky and questionable science experiments to which Boese, The Museum of Hoaxes and Hippo Eats Dwarf, devotes his investigative and analytical talents. Other experiments, from the outrageous to the comical, that modern scientists just had to conduct revolve around quandaries such as why we can't tickle ourselves, whether your average dog can be as helpful as Lassie, and whether the dead can be reanimated. The latter experiment most certainly falls into the macabre category, and gives new meaning to the phrase "dance of the dead." On January 17, 1803, before an audience of the Royal College of Surgeons, Giovanni Aldini hooked-up a freshly executed 26-year-old male to an electric current, and watched as his body writhed, twisted, and contorted. Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, however, Aldini never got to utter the words "It's alive!" There is something for everyone in Elephants On Acid, and Boese's tongue-in-cheek approach makes it a delight to read.

Mind, Life And Universe: Conversations With Great Scientists Of Our Time
Lynn Margulis & Eduardo Punset (Editors), David Suzuki (Foreword) (2007)
ISBN: 1933392436

One way or another, we've all been exposed to their amazing discoveries and insights, but we know very little about the heavy-weight scientists who have altered our perspective on the brain, nature, and the universe. Now, Mind, Life And Universe, a collection of interviews with renowned scientists, draws out the colorful personalities of the people behind famous scientific discoveries, and what drives their pursuit of knowledge. Forty of the most revered scientists have been gathered together and expertly interviewed by editors Lyn Margulis, a microbiologist and seasoned editor whose work can be found in journals such as Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Eduardo Punset, a celebrated and familiar popularizer of science on Spanish television. The culmination of such an ambitious project is, as you'd expect, incredibly fascinating, with more than a generous dollop of quirkiness and irreverence courtesy of this candid bunch of overachieving interviewees. Some of the big scientific brains contained in Mind, Life And Universe include James E. Lovelock, Jane Goodall, E. O. Wilson, and Oliver Sachs, who posit and respond to many profound, puzzling, and odd questions. What does science know about happiness and despair? Does life exist elsewhere in the universe? How long can the African ecosystem withstand human intervention? Will genetic engineering lead humanity down the path of darkness or light? And can chimps use sexual innuendo as, ahem... skillfully as we humans? Mind, Life And Universe is an infinite source of deep thought, profundity, and entertainment. All this and a foreword by David Suzuki! What more could you ask for?

Asylum: A Mid-Century Madhouse and Its Lessons about Our Mentally Ill Today
Enoch Callaway (2007)
ISBN: 0275997049

Even though there are few certainties when it comes to mental illness - allowing a carte blanche approach to "madness" in popular culture - we can learn from past mistakes regarding the representation and treatment of the mentally ill. In Asylum, author Enoch Callaway, from the University of California, San Francisco, sets out to make this perpetual learning curve apparent to all. Callaway is considered a leading figure among the many great minds that broke new ground with the development of biological psychiatry, and upon reading Asylum it's easy to understand how he managed to attract such acclaim. Asylum is centered on America's first state insane asylum, Worcester State Hospital, Massachusetts, founded in 1833, where Callaway details the often inhuman treatment of its inmates. But he explains that while some treatments may seem brutal by today's standards, the asylum also had its successes. Treatments using basic tools such as a hand mirror, together with a little patience and understanding sometimes led to surprising recoveries that the more dramatic approaches could never achieve. Callaway's examination of the fascinating, and at times chilling, history of the asylum, presents a picture of how our understanding and compassion towards mental illness and its sufferers has progressed over the years. With the decline of institutions specifically geared toward mental illness, and an increasing number of the mentally ill finding themselves ensnared in the criminal justice system, Callaway's message couldn't be timelier.

The Last Human: A Guide To Twenty-Two Species Of Extinct Humans
G. J. Sawyer, Viktor Deak, Esteban Sarmiento, Richard Milner, Donald C. Johanson (2007)
ISBN: 0300100477

In this truly remarkable book a bevy of experts piece together a roll-call of bygone hominids right up until the last remaining species - Homo sapiens. In an impressive collaborative effort, The Last Human draws on the vast experience of scientists who hold positions at the American Museum of Natural History, National Museums of Kenya, Arizona State University, and the National Geographic Society. There's a veritable swag of up-to-the-minute, groundbreaking details on human evolution, including some recent and lesser-known facts that may come as a surprise. The Last Human begins in Africa 6-7 million years ago, and follows the emergence of 22 human species, which ends with the arrival of Homo sapiens. But contrary to populist accounts of human evolution, The Last Human points out that Homo sapiens are not the inevitable product of one single lineage of hominids. In fact, fossil records show that the hominid family tree has sprouted many branches, which represent the forerunners, extinctions, and relatives appearing over hominid history. And if all this information doesn't grab your attention, then think about this: hominid history is predominantly characterized by the cohabitation of prehumans and humans, which means that we are currently out on an evolutionary limb, so to speak. Filled with superbly rendered 3-D scientific drawings, The Last Human details each hominid species in regard to chronology, geography, physiology, classification, habitat, cultural accomplishments, and possible reasons for extinction. The Last Human is essential reading, and a worthy addition to anyone's library.

The Motion Paradox: The 2,500-Year Old Puzzle Behind All the Mysteries of Time and Space
Joseph Mazur (2007)
ISBN: 0525949925

While the world's greatest minds have been stumped by Zeno's claim that motion is a logical impossibility, most people probably think the idea absurd. Nonetheless, Zeno's paradox - which, if solved, possibly holds the key to understanding the mysteries of time and space - is still as relevant and vexing today as it was during Aristotle's time. Now, mathematician Joseph Mazur, recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and professor of mathematics at Marlboro College, delves into the history and philosophy of Zeno's paradox, and why it has managed to withstand numerous challenges unbeaten. The puzzle presented by the Greek philosopher Zeno is, like many truly perplexing problems, relatively simple to understand, but notoriously difficult to resolve. The puzzle is best known as the race between Achilles and a tortoise, with the latter having a head start. According to Zeno, Achilles can never win against the tortoise, as he would first have to cover half the distance between himself and the tortoise, and half that distance again, ad infinitum. Basically, Achilles never makes it off the starter's block. Though Zeno's paradox is well known, Mazur's dazzling prose and lucid explanations on how the paradox is enmeshed in current mathematical modeling of motion make The Motion Paradox a great read.

The Sixth Extinction: Journeys Among The Lost And Left Behind
Terry Glavin (2007)
ISBN: 0312362315

Researchers have identified five extinction periods during Earth's history, which were, needless to say, not particularly ideal times in which to live. But before breathing a sigh of relief, you may want to consider Terry Glavin's observation that we are currently in the middle of an unprecedented extinction event: the Sixth Great Extinction. Glavin, former reporter, editor, and columnist for the Vancouver Sun, delivers a powerful and poignant account of the great unraveling of not only ecosystems, but also human culture, knowledge, and language occurring with each successive generation. Glavin claims that unless we concede that these problems are all interrelated, we too may go the way of the dinosaur, and take a great many other species with us. Citing statistics that show how a species becomes extinct every 10 minutes, a unique vegetable every 6 hours, and a language every 2 weeks, Glavin, with depressing regularity, graphically demonstrates how relentless and immediate our problem has become. But amidst all the doom and gloom, Glavin also stumbles upon many of the Earth's natural wonders that are yet to succumb to the ongoing cataclysm. Strange fruit, man-sized salmon, a Sino-Tibetan song language, and the last of the Malayan tigers are just some of the marvels found in Glavin's multi-disciplined approach to environmentalism. The positive spin on Glavin's story is that there are already a dedicated few out there working to save endangered species on protected lands, with the aim of maintaining biological diversity. But is the awe inspired by such curious beauty and environmental altruism enough to raise awareness of the precariousness of our situation?

When The Rivers Run Dry: Water - The Defining Crisis Of The 21st Century
Fred Pearce (2007)
ISBN: 0807085731

After visiting over 30 countries, renowned environmental writer Fred Pearce, With Speed and Violence, and Deep Jungle, provides a revealing snapshot of the current global water crisis. Approaching the crisis from a number of different angles - historic, economic and scientific - and the interdependence of each, Pearce's prognosis for our water supplies looks grim indeed. Far from political scare mongering, the sheer magnitude and veracity of data that Pearce introduces make his arguments both strong and compelling. Developments in this most desperate of environmental crises include the discovery of toxic levels of arsenic and fluoride in Bangladesh water wells, and the disturbing fact that the production of just one pound of coffee requires twenty tons of water. Of equal concern is the realization that many of the world's largest and most important rivers - such as The Nile and The Rio Grande - are beginning to succumb to damming and evaporation, and have slowed to all but a trickle at critical points. The dire flow-on effect of this human intervention is that residents of areas where water is now scarce or non-existent have had to tap underground water supplies that cannot meet demand. Considering that scientists have predicted that water in many large cities will run out within a decade, When The Rivers Run Dry is a biting account of a problem that should be getting far more attention than it is currently.

Too Far From Home: A Story Of Life And Death In Space
Chris Jones (2007)
ISBN: 0385514654

Everyone remembers the space shuttle Columbia's fateful return to Earth in 2003, but how many of us remember the subsequent plight of the astronauts left stranded on the International Space Station? What would have gone through these astronauts' minds as they were made aware that they no longer had a ride home? Esquire journalist Chris Jones, captures superbly the sobering mood that descended upon NASA and the astronauts of the Expedition 6 team - comprised of men such as U.S. astronauts Donald Pettit and Kenneth Bowersox, and Russian flight engineer Nikolai Budarin - after realizing that another shuttle mission may be months, or even years, away. In the short term, how could supplies be transferred to the ISS, and how, ultimately, could the men be brought home? Together, both Houston and Moscow worked against time to arrive at a solution to a problem that seemed to have come straight from the pages of a Hollywood script. There was really only one option left open, but it was a long shot, and ground control knew it. Bowersox, Budarin, and Pettit would have to stake their lives on the Russian-built Soyuz TMA-1 capsule that was attached to the ISS. The Soyuz capsule was constructed in the 1960s, and in 1971 it was responsible for the deaths of 3 Russian astronauts, so the chances of the Soyuz 11 transporting 3 more astronauts safely back to Earth seemed remote at best. Too Far From Home could quite possibly turn out to be the most heart-pounding adventure narrative of 2007... and it's all true!

The Last Forest: The Amazon in the Age of Globalization
Mark London, Brian Kelly (2007)
ISBN: 0679643052

At best, the future of the Amazon River basin and its once plentiful and diverse flora and fauna - not to mention its lush rainforests, which represent a full one-half of the Earth's remaining forests - looks bleak. Or so we've been told. Now, Mark London, a practicing attorney in Washington, D.C., and Brian Kelly, executive editor of U.S. News & World Report, have arrived on the scene to assure us that all is not lost, as Brazil's emerging democracy is likely to have a positive effect on environmental policy. Having already co-written Amazon, London and Kelly are no strangers to the region, and also to those willing to exploit it for financial gain. Back in 1980, when the pair visited the Amazon basin to research Amazon, 3 percent of the rainforests had disappeared. Today, that figure has risen to 20 percent. As a result, the team has spent a great deal of time chasing down and interviewing environmentalists, government ministers, developers, rich land owners and the poor to better understand what's in store for the Amazonian rainforests. What follows is an in-depth analysis into the question of whether the Amazon can provide a means of economic support for 21 million Brazilians, while still remaining the world's last great forest. As we discover, it is imperative that such a balance is found, and soon. London and Kelly's ability to so thoroughly convey the complexity of the Amazon problem while successfully embedding it within a truly riveting narrative is admirable. Highly recommended.

A Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter's Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial
H.L. Mencken (2006)
ISBN: 1933633174

In light of recent attempts to have Intelligent Design included in school science curriculums, this collection of Mencken's humorous and scathing coverage of the Scopes "Monkey" Trial couldn't be any timelier. Writing from the turn of the century until the late 40s, Mencken was one of America's most respected journalists. He was most notable for a trenchant wit that cut through trends, politicking and ideologues, prompting celebrated British-American journalist and broadcaster Alistair Cooke to refer to Mencken as: "The native American Voltaire, the enemy of all puritans, the heretic in the Sunday school, the one-man demolition crew of the genteel tradition." In 1925, Mencken drew the nation's attentions to a trial taking place in Dayton, Tennessee that would test the boundaries of a new law (the Butler Act) that prohibited the teaching of: "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." One enterprising individual - looking to put Dayton on the map - set about testing the law by asking a local teacher (a friend sympathetic with the cause) to teach Darwin's theory of evolution. That teacher was 24-year-old John T. Scopes. Mencken considered such a transparent attempt at keeping evolution from being taught in schools contemptible, and Scopes' ensuing trial allowed him ample opportunity to ridicule the "yokels" and "buffoons" who believed that man is not a mammal. But Mencken left his most scathing criticisms for those representing the prosecution, especially Democratic presidential candidate and fundamentalist Christian William Jennings Bryan. Despite having put the "monkey" in the Scopes Monkey Trial, and his writings inspiring both a Broadway musical and a hit movie, Mencken's commentaries have surprisingly never been presented in a single volume. This is the most intelligent and witty collection of trial reportage that you are ever likely to read. Highly recommended.

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.

Kicking the Sacred Cow: Heresy and Impermissible Thoughts in Science
James P. Hogan (2006)
ISBN: 1416520732

Throughout history scientists have had to contend with religious zealots condemning their life's work as heretical and dangerous. Blind religious faith ruled the day and scientific ideas that questioned the status quo were a no-no, regardless of their merit. Now, James P. Hogan, whose extensive background in science and technology led to a successful writing career, presents detailed and documented evidence that suggests science has accumulated quite a number of its own untouchable statements. Hogan's long and esteemed list of divisive science topics includes global warming, Darwinism, relativity, ozone holes and the cause of AIDS; all of which many would consider rock-solid science and not candidates for open-debate. It is the lack of willingness to look at alternative theories that has Hogan suspicious. If the foundations of science are really based upon reason, objectivity and curiosity, then why does science shy away from equally valid paths of scientific discovery? You would think that if the prevailing theories were as concrete as they are made out to be then they would be impervious to fresh intellectual insight. And even if a theory does need to be updated, what has science lost, save for an erroneous bit of data. Unfortunately, what Hogan discovers is that those who dare question the scientific status quo are given what is, ostensibly, a public flogging and condemned as modern-day heretics. Hogan hints that much of the problem stems from the intellectual purity of science being usurped by political figures and lobby groups eager to use its persuasive powers of "truth" as a lever for their own ends. Kicking The Sacred Cow is a book brimming over with novel ideas, fascinating explanations of established science theories and the reasons why they have become controversial.

A Mind of its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives
Cordelia Fine (2006)
ISBN: 0393062139

I used to think the brain was the most important organ in the body, until I realized who was telling me that. - Emo Phillips

How well do you think you know your brain? Do you control it, or does it control you? Cordelia Fine, research associate in the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the Australian National University, writes to inform you that your brain is a wild and dangerous thing, but adds that with a little work it can be tamed. Exploring its hundreds of billions of cells, scientists continue to be stunned and amazed at what they discover about the human brain. With so much going on in there, it should come as no surprise when we are told that we succumb to a little self-deception every now and again. Naturally enough, the brain is only trying to protect the ego from a harsh and indifferent world, according to Fine, as the truth about ourselves is drowned out by a sea of excuses, wishful thinking and idealism. Superbly written, A Mind Of Its Own uses the most up-to-date research on the human brain to show how our brains are a seething hotbed of prejudice, vanity and bigotry that clouds our view of reality. As we continue to permit our personal assessment of the world and those within it to remain unexamined; we stereotype, condemn the actions of others, and hide our own mistakes by laying blame elsewhere. Fine claims that it is possible to break out of the negative cycles that build up over the years, and optimistically argues that this can be achieved through greater self-awareness and experimental psychology. A Mind Of Its Own is a wittily written book on the subconscious world of the human brain, where the discovery that your own brain is possibly your worst enemy is both illuminating and a little disconcerting.

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