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Science Books

September 7, 2006

Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong
Marc Hauser (2006)
ISBN: 0060780703

It's the ultimate question: do humans have an instinctual, universal knowledge of what is right and wrong? Great minds have pondered this question for centuries, with the general consensus being that our morals are influenced by what society deems right and wrong. Radically, author Marc Hauser, Professor of Psychology, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, says that humans have indeed developed a moral instinct, which actually functions unfettered by the layers of institutionalized socialization, such as education, gender and religion. But Hauser adds that the moral instinct is not a static driver of human behavior, and is honed by life experience. Drawing on his many years of expertise in the field, and that of others, such as renowned linguist Noam Chomsky, Hauser argues that our faith in society as a moral compass is misplaced. Intuitively, Hauser's arguments seem to go against the grain, as we often cannot comprehend the behaviors of cultures different to our own. But when you consider that humans all have the same basic needs - food, shelter, security and companionship - regardless of culture, then it's possible to entertain the idea that a moral instinct may have developed as an evolutionary safeguard. After all, if it really were purely a dog-eat-dog world, how long would our species last? Rather than societies developing moral codes from scratch, argues Hauser, societies actually create exceptions to a set of pre-existing moral instincts that ensure group survival. Inuit culture, for example, finds infanticide morally acceptable during seasons of insufficient resources, which ensures the survival of the many at the cost of a few. But then who is to determine which morals are instinctual and which ones are not? Isn't the behavior demonstrated by Inuit culture just self-preservation, one of the strongest of human instincts? Moral Minds is a thoroughly thought-provoking read that will have you mulling over the main premise long after you finish.

The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved: How Mathematical Genius Discovered the Language of Symmetry
Mario Livio (2006)
ISBN: 0743258215

If pure mathematics has always seemed to be an extraneous, impenetrable abstraction to your life, then this book could forever change your perception of the subject. In The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved, Mario Livio, Senior Astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute and International Pythagoras Prize winner, has managed to succeed where others have failed, by successfully explaining the significance of mathematical symmetry to non-scientists. Sure, the brief moments that Livio refers to the title's formula (the "quintic" equation) may bewilder the general punter, but then Livio's goal is not to turn you into a math whiz overnight. Instead, Livio shows how the quintic equation is directly linked to our knowledge of the natural world. After thousands of years of increasingly complex algebraic problems, the quintic equation popped into existence and remained a mathematical impasse for some 300 years. Eventually, two genii, Niels Henrik Abel and évariste Galois, put their heads together and concluded that traditional methods would not solve the equation. After laboring tirelessly on the problem, the pair managed to contribute the mathematical language of symmetry, or group theory, before both succumbed to untimely deaths. The strength of The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved is not so much the nuts-and-bolts of the equation itself, but the outstanding way in which Livio couches the equation's importance in the dramatic history of its discovery.

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