Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Trending: Time Travel

Tuesday, September 27th, 2016

9780307908797_9e581“The shelves of every library in the world brim with time machines. Step into one, and off you go.”

So says Anthony Doerr in his engaging and story-filled NYT‘s Sunday Book Review (online now, in print Oct. 2) of James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History (PRH/Pantheon; RH Audio/BOT; OverDrive Sample).

Fittingly for a book that considers the concept of time travel, including how it has been imagined and used in literature, Doerr begins his review by sharing his favorite time travel stories (a key one is Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”) and then moves on to Gleick’s history, calling it,

“a fascinating mash-up of philosophy, literary criticism, physics and cultural observation. It’s witty (“Regret is the time traveler’s energy bar”), pithy (“What is time? Things change, and time is how we keep track”) and regularly manages to twist its reader’s mind into … Gordian knots … he employs time travel to initiate engrossing discussions of causation, fatalism, predestination and even consciousness itself.”

Time is a subject bound to be at the forefront this fall. In addition to Gleick’s book there is Now: The Physics of Time, Richard A. Muller (Norton) and a surprising number of TV shows on the subject. So many that it has lead the WSJ to call time a “hot concept” for the upcoming season, writing, “Television networks are consumed with time-shifting in every sense.”

Shows about time travel include Frequency, Legends of Tomorrow, Making HistoryTimeless and Time After Time (adapted from the 1979 novel by Karl Alexander).

Not exactly time travel, more deja vu,  are the many remakes and spin-offs of older shows. WSJ lists “Taken (a prequel to the Liam Neeson revenge movies) and Emerald City (billed as an edgier Wizard of Oz fantasy). Then there are the franchise expansions, with spin-off The Blacklist: Redemption and a fourth (fourth!) addition to the Chicago line of dramas from Dick Wolf (Chicago Justice) … Lethal Weapon (Fox), and Training Day (CBS) … Fox’s Prison Break sequel and a series based on 43-year-old horror classic The ExorcistMacGyver.”

All this led Jimmy Kimmel, WSJ reports, to say: “All your favorite VHS tapes are now becoming shows.” It leads Glamour magazine to point out “The past is a franchise.”

The Social Network of Trees

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

9781771642484_d154bSoaring up the Amazon sales rankings is The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World, Peter Wohlleben (PGW/Perseus/Greystone Books; OverDrive Sample) written by a German forester about the remarkable ways trees communicate and care for each other, via an “electrically alive fungal-root network now known as the Wood Wide Web.”

The book is well within Amazon’s Top 50, jumping from #246 to #44 and several libraries are showing strong holds. The rise coincides with a recent flurry of news stories and an appearance on NPR’s On Point yesterday.

This is not the first time the book has leaped on Amazon, as we wrote in January, on the strength of an article in the New York Times, the title initially reached the lofty heights of Amazon sales rankings at #22.

A surprise best seller in Germany, it is delighting readers across Europe and Canada and looks poised to also do well in the US, swept along not just by what McLean’s calls its “utterly charming” affect but by recent interests in new discoveries of just how smart living creatures are, such as Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? and Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds.

Check your holds, some locations are showing spikes as high as 10:1.

For those interested in the science, there is a TED Talk on the subject, given by another researcher in the field.

The Invisible Zoo

Friday, August 19th, 2016

9780062368591_892eaI Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong (HC/Ecco; HarperAudio; OverDrive Sample) is rising on Amazon after getting the Fresh Air bump, moving from #570 to now sitting firmly within the top 50 at #41.

Host Terry Gross talked with the author, Ed Yong, a writer at the The Atlantic and for National Geographic‘s “science salon,” Phenomena. The early part of the interview is a not-for-dinner-table conversation about fecal transplants and “fake poop.” It then moves to a more wide ranging and fascinating exploration of what the microbiome and its nearly countless numbers do.

One intriguing outtake is the fact that humans have evolved so that the sugars in breast milk feed the microbes in a baby’s stomach, sugars specifically meant for the microbe as the baby cannot digest them. Yong says “So breast milk isn’t just a way of nourishing an infant. It’s a way of nourishing babies’ first microbes. It’s really a way of engineering an entire world inside a baby’s body. You know, breastfeeding mother is a sculptor of ecosystems.”

There is also a microbe called Wolbachia that “allows some caterpillars that eat leaves to stop the leaves from turning yellow. It actually holds back the progress of fall so that … its hosts can have more to eat.”

To close the interview Gross asks Yong what he thinks about now that he knows about the microbiome multitudes and he says,

“all this biology which I thought I knew, all these creatures, these elephants and hawks and fish that I was fascinated by, these things I could see with my eyes, are actually deeply and profoundly influenced by things that I cannot see. And I know that if I go to a zoo now that every animal and every visitor in that zoo is in fact a zoo in its own right.”

HIDDEN FIGURES, Hot Trailer

Monday, August 15th, 2016

9780062363596_b2357The publication of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (HarperCollins/Morrow; HarperLuxe, Sept. 6) by Margot Lee Shetterly is heralded by not just a book trailer, but a full-fledged movie trailer for a major release, coming in January. As a result, the book jumped up Amazon’s sales rankings.

One of our GalleyChat titles for July, it was signed up back in 2015. Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) was so taken with the script that he dropped out of the running to direct a Spiderman movie in favor of this one.

It stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe as a group of African American women who worked at NASA in Langley, Virginia on the mission that sent John Glenn into space in 1962. Also in the cast are Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge and Glen Powell.

The book will be released in paperback in December. Two young readers editions, for ages 8 to 12,  are also scheduled, in hardcover and paperback.

9780316338929_25c22Earlier this year, another book on a different group of women in the space program was released, Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars, Nathalia Holt (Hachette/Little, Brown; OverDrive Sample). Also called ‘human computers” like the women in Langley, they worked in the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California in the 1960’s. One of them, Janez Lawson, was African American.

Mysteries of the Brain

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

Patient H.M.

One of the most-reviled medical practices of the last century is the lobotomy. In a book published this week,  Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets, (PRH/Random House; RH Audio/BOT), Luke Dittrich examines one of the practitioners, a neurosurgeon who lobotomized Patient H.M. in an effort to solve his epilepsy. As a result, the patient emerged from the operation unable to create new memories and, in a time when “the lines between medical practice and medical research were blurry”  became the “most important research subject in the history of brain science.” Dittrich says he finds the story personally shocking, particularly because the neurosurgeon was his grandfather.

He was interviewed on the PBS NewsHour last night.

An excerpt titled, “The Brain That Couldn’t Remember: The untold story of the fight over the legacy of ‘H.M.’ — the patient who revolutionized the science of memory” is the cover of this week’s New York Times Magazine.

UPDATE: A letter of protest sent to the NYT (but, oddly, not to the book’s publisher), signed by 200 members of the scientific community, most of them from MIT, protests parts of the story that are critical of MIT professor Suzanne Corkin.

IDIOT BRAIN

Thursday, August 4th, 2016

9780393253788_d0e37Why do some people get car sick? Why do humans exaggerate? Why are some people great at Jeopardy and awful balancing a checkbook?

Terry Gross explores those questions and much more during a Fresh Air interview with Dean Burnett, neuroscientist and author of Idiot Brain: What Your Head Is Really Up To (Norton; OverDrive Sample).

The two talk about how the brain is highly illogical – if it were a computer it would alter the information stored within it to “suit your purposes, to suit your preferences … [its] egotistical … the brain tweaks and adjusts the information it stores to make you look better.”

Burnett also explains what happens with short-term memory: why you can walk into a room and forget why you went there in the first place. He calls it as fleeting as the “foam on your coffee.”

The  fascinating and oddly practical information clearly engages Gross, who applies what Burnett says to her own life.

He offers more tidbits in a Smithsonian interview, where he explains what causes us to feel like we are falling in our sleep only to jerk awake (“It could have something to do with our ancestors sleeping in trees”) and how Tylenol can soothe a broken heart – because the brain actually feels the loss of a romantic partner and acetaminophen effects that part of the brain.

Burnett writes the “Brain Flapping” column for The Guardian. One of its competitors, the Independent, calls his book “a wonderful introduction to neuroscience [that] deserves to be widely read.”

Libraries have bought fairly low but are seeing growing holds.

Houston, We Have A Winner

Friday, July 1st, 2016

9780316338929_25c22PBS Newshour just launched Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars, Nathalia Holt (Hachette/Little, Brown; OverDrive Sample) into book sales orbit, helping it soar on Amazon from a sales rank of #6,540 to 146.

The dramatic move is due to a segment of the show’s special summer reading series that offers author interviews conducted at book shows around the country. The Newshour‘s Jeffrey Brown sat down with Holt at the Los Angeles Book Festival and the pair talked about women in science during the early years of the space program and today.

Holt says that in the early days of the Jet Propulsion Lab a group of women called “computers” figured out the calculations of the space program, doing math with pencil and paper and some very bulky calculators.

Once computers were introduced, these women became the first programmers.

Her book traces their history and accomplishments and recounts how both NASA and JPL overlooked their achievements as time went by. Case in point, none were invited to the 2008 gala held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Explorer 1 (America’s first satellite), an oversight that is particularly galling since one of the Rocket Girls, Barbara Paulson, figured out the trajectory on the night Explorer 1 launched, working in the control room. Holt says “when the first American satellite is a success, its because of her. She is the one that found out it’s actually in orbit.”

Holt also talks about how 2016 is a “desperate time for women in technology,” largely due to a lack of role models. In 1984, she says “37 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences were awarded to women. And today that number is 18 percent.” While female astronauts are doing astoundingly well, making up half of the current class at NASA, female engineers are seeing their lowest numbers in decades.

Holt hopes reading the stories of the pioneering Rocket Girls and learning what they achieved and overcame, will help change that.

Order Alert: BEING A BEAST

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016

9781627796330_01b61In a rare advanced review, the New Yorker discusses Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, Charles Foster (Macmillan/Metropolitan; BOT), coming out next month, calling it an “exercise of the sympathetic imagination.”

The natural history memoir recounts Foster’s time trying to live like badgers, foxes, otters, and birds, going so far as to live in a dirt barrow, eat worms, and catch fish with his teeth.

Already published in the UK to glowing reviews, The Guardian calls it “Illuminating and unfailingly entertaining … a tour de force of modern nature writing.”

Libraries have ordered very lightly. There are few holds, but the memoir, which is being compared to H is for Hawk, is likely to get more media attention.

9781616894054_ca634Featured in the same New Yorker article is another book about living like an animal, GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday From Being Human, Thomas Thwaites (Princeton Architectural Press; OverDrive Sample). The author, a designer, writes about his efforts to become as goat-like as possible, even using prosthetic goat limbs, to become a member of a Swiss goat herd. Published last week, it received attention from NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday as well as on NPR’s blog coincidentally titled Goats and Soda. Holds too are light on light ordering.

9780393246186_e9740Two recent books suggest that if humans want to live like animals, they need to step up their game. Primatologist Frans de Waal’s new book offers a challenge in the title, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (Norton; Blackstone Audio; OverDrive Sample). It is currently at #19 on the New York Times Hardcover Non-fiction list after two weeks.

Genius of BirdsFocusing on a specific species, Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds(PRH/Penguin; HighBridge Audio; OverDrive Sample), released in April, received attention from NPR. The two books were reviewed jointly in the NYT Sunday Book Review.

In an interview with the Washington Post, de Waal offers an explanation for this growing interest, “I think we got tired of behaviorism, which was dominant last century. More and more phenomena are coming to the fore, of animals doing things that couldn’t be explained by simple instinct or by simple associative learning. And the younger generation is much more open to seeing what animals can do on their own terms.”

Proving Einstein Right

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

9780307958198_f1384On Feb. 11 of this year scientists proved Einstein’s theory of gravitational waves. It was an idea many thought could never be tested, much less proven, but an intrepid group of scientists worked for decades to do just that.

Nonfiction author and novelist Janna Levin, a physicist and astronomer herself, has written a book about the quest: Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (PRH/Knopf; RH Audio; BOT; OverDrive Sample).

Yesterday, on the PBS NewsHour Bookshelf conversation, Levin explains that scientists were actually able to hear gravitational waves and “like mallets on the drum. They rang space-time itself.”

In what is a science adventure book, Levin details how a small number of determined and insightful researchers bet their careers on the concept that the waves not only existed but could actually be heard. She witnessed the process of building detector machines, the rivalries and jealousies of those involved in the project and “realized that this could actually read like a novel. And if you followed these characters, you could understand not only the process of science, but the internal ambitions and the drives.”

No one thought the project would work as well or as early as it did, she continues, “and then it struck. It came from 1.3 billion years ago. It struck Louisiana. About 10 milliseconds later, it crosses the continent and hits Washington state and rings that machine. It is a spectacular detection.”

Summing up the meaning of the discovery Levin says,

“You know, Galileo was just looking at the moon and Saturn. He didn’t foresee that there were hundreds of billions of stars in collections called galaxies, or that there were quasars powered by black holes … what a lot of us hope is that the future will be so vast, beyond what we have even imagined, that there are dark sources out there that will ring these detectors, they will record the sounds of space, and there will be things we have never even predicted before.”

Reception to the book is mixed. A front page NYT “Sunday Book Review” states, “Taking on the simultaneous roles of expert scientist, journalist, historian and storyteller of uncommon enchantment, Levin delivers pure signal from cover to cover. … what makes the book most rewarding is Levin’s exquisite prose, which bears the mark of a first-rate writer: an acute critical mind haloed with a generosity of spirit.”

The daily NYT nonfiction reviewer, Jennifer Senior, however, is far less generous, writing “Awkwardness is everywhere … Editors. Where are they.”

But readers are not bothered. The book is currently ranked just outside of Amazon’s Top 100 and libraries are showing strong holds on light orders with several locations we checked tipping over a 3:1 ratio.

A succinct explanation of gravitation waves below:

LAB GIRL Blooms

Monday, May 16th, 2016

9781101874936_d2c41The most recent audio book club pick by Slate [UPDATE: sorry, the audio is no longer on the Slate site. It is available free on iTunes]  Lab Girl, Hope Jahren (PRH/Knopf; BOT; OverDrive Sample), currently #18 on the extended NYT Hardcover Nonfiction Best Sellers list and a GalleyChat favorite.

Slate critics Susan Matthews, Laura Miller, and Katy Waldman offer glowing praise, calling it “wonderful” “beautiful” and “endearing” and saying it is already one of the 10 best books of the year, comparable to H is for Hawk and to the work of Oliver Sacks.

Beyond the style of the memoir and its tone, the Slate critics centrally appreciate the detailed insider look at what it is like to “do science.” They also appreciate the way Jahren approaches science as not about getting the world to tell you what you want it to, but listening to what is really happening.

They conclude the conversation by saying the book should be required reading.

Readers seem to agree, holds are strong at libraries we checked with spikes well above a 3:1 ratio at some locales.

The NYT Jumps the Gun for
THE GENE

Monday, May 9th, 2016

9781476733500_59c6eA week in advance of publication, the daily NYT reviews The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee (S&S/Scribner; S&S Audio), signaling high expectations for the book. The first consumer review, it follows stars from all four trade publications of Mukherjee’s second book after his Pulitzer Prize winner and best seller, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (S&S/Scribner, 2010).

Jennifer Senior, the NYT‘s daily nonfiction reviewer, is not as engaged as she would like to be and her review, while appreciative, expresses reservations.

She writes, “Many of the same qualities that made The Emperor of All Maladies so pleasurable are in full bloom in The Gene. The book is compassionate, tautly synthesized, packed with unfamiliar details about familiar people,” but she regrets that its deeper waters are not more clear or its narrative more personal and compelling.

As an example, on the topic of genetic reports she says: “Is there any value in knowing about the existence of a slumbering, potentially lethal genetic mutation in your cells if nothing can be done about it? (Personally, I wish he’d dedicated 50 pages to this question — it’d have offered a potentially moving story line and a form of emotional engagement I badly craved.)”

Libraries have bought it surprisingly cautiously, considering the strong trade reviews and the popularity of Mukherjee’s first book. Expect much more media attention.

Math with Taste, Not Tests

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016

9780465097678_e1ae6A front page feature in the NYT‘s Science section sent How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics, Eugenia Cheng (Perseus/PGW/Legato/Basic Books) racing up the Amazon sales rankings.

Currently #136 (up from 4,803), the book mixes fundamental mathematical principles with recipes, offering Gluten-Free Chocolate Brownies to get things going. Don’t expect a cookbook however; Dr. Cheng is focused on the math, offering an accessible, quirky, and clever tour of how it works.

The NYT‘s feature highlights Dr. Cheng’s mission as a “math popularizer,” pointing out her rising fame – she has been a guest on Late Night With Stephen Colbert and hosts extraordinarily popular online math tutorials – and her conviction that “the pleasures of math can be conveyed to the legions of numbers-averse humanities majors still recovering from high school algebra.”

To get a sense of Dr. Cheng’s culinary chops, the article offers a recipe for Bach pie, a treat to honor the composer mathematicians adore, complete with “an Escher-like braid of four glazed pastry plaits that followed divergent trajectories, never quite crisscrossing where you expected them to.”

The paperback edition of How to Bake Pi goes on sale next week. Libraries we checked are seeing steady circ. on the hardback edition, which came out last year.

For all those going to BEA, Cheng is a participant in this year’s Day of Dialog, a featured author of the Art of Nonfiction panel.

Below, she frightens Colbert:

The Smartest Animals

Monday, April 25th, 2016

9781594205217_9b364Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds (PRH/Penguin; HighBridge Audio; OverDrive Sample) is taking flight on Amazon’s sales rankings, rising on the strong coverage in The Wall Street Journal [may require subscription], which calls it “a gloriously provocative and highly entertaining book [and] a work of wonder and an affirmation of the astonishing complexity of our world.”

Exploring bird cognition, Ackerman says that we will have to count them among the smartest of animals – so move over dolphins – and humans. As the paper relays, Ackerman has found that even the most common of birds have outperformed humans (even those trained as mathematicians) in statistical tests. Tool-making, impressive memories, bird song, and the ability to plot and plan with the best of them further prove our feathered friend’s intellectual capacity.

Ackerman has also been featured on NPR’s “On Point,” Audubon ran an interview and  Scientific American granted its recommendation.

Holds are strong on light ordering.

Order Alert: THE HIDDEN LIFE
OF TREES

Monday, February 1st, 2016

9781771642484On the strength of an article in Saturday’s New York Times, a book on forests and trees soared up the Amazon sales rankings to #22.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World, Peter Wohlleben (PGW/Perseus/Greystone Books; ISBN: 9781771642484;09/13/2016) explores the wonders of trees and the ways they communicate with, and care for, each other – through their own version of a social network.

Already a surprise best seller in Germany where it remains atop the German news magazine Spiegel’s nonfiction list sixth months after publication, it has the potential to become a hit here as well, caught not only in the wake of interest in wild spaces in general, but also in books that present personal views of nature such as H Is for Hawk and The Shepherd’s Life and nature/science books such as The Soul of an Octopus.

The NYT’s feature reports how Wohlleben’s book has enchanted and intrigued readers in Germany:

“The matter-of-fact Mr. Wohlleben has delighted readers and talk-show audiences alike with the news — long known to biologists — that trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.”

Canada’s Greystone Books (distributed in the US by Publishers Group West/Perseus) will publish an English version in September. It is listed on wholesaler catalogs.

Bill Gates Reviews
THING EXPLAINER

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

Thing ExplainerTrade reviews skipped over Randall Munroe’s newest book, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words (HMH; OverDrive Sample), but Bill Gates steps in, posting on his blog a glowing endorsement of Munroe’s mix of illustrations and information.

Gates calls the detailed and over-sized drawings accompanied by clear explanations using common words a “brilliant concept” and “a wonderful guide for curious minds.” He goes on to say that Munroe reminds him “of Sal Khan of Khan Academy, or the novelist and Crash Course host John Green … polymaths who not only know a lot but are also good at breaking things down for other people.”

Thing Explainer is already in Amazon’s Top 100 (at #82). Munroe’s previous book, What If? (HMH, 2014) was on the NYT Hardcover Nonfiction list for over 40 weeks, and debuted at #1 during its first week of publication.

Holds are not strong yet for the new book. but expect them to grow. Monroe is getting attention, including a profile in the Wall Street Journal where he says that his favorite research technique is “googling a few search terms plus ‘pdf.’ It’s amazing what’s buried in old, poorly digitized PDFs hosted on some random professor’s website.”

The entire interview is likely to have readers googling – it is full of curiosities, including strange cloud formations and an odd animal that looks like be a cross between a cat and a lemur.