Books to Read Now

Seed Picks

April releases follow geoengineers on their climate-cooling mission; imagine life on a forsaken planet; and challenge the quest for elegance and symmetry in the cosmos.

How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate
By Jeff Goodell (Houghton Mifflin)
When lye, a corrosive basic substance, comes in contact with air, it binds to acidic carbon dioxide and transforms into sodium carbonate, a common ingredient in things ranging from soap to toothpaste. Mix the sodium carbonate with lime, throw the mixture into a kiln, and pure streams of CO2 come out—which can then be stored underground. “The basic chemistry is stuff any high school student could understand,” says David Keith, one of several geoengineers that journalist Jeff Goodell hangs out with in his survey of the brave new world of climate remediation. Keith’s work is centered on carbon-scrubbing technology—creating ways to pretty much suck CO2 straight out of the air, an alluring though expensive pursuit. Goodell’s travels also take him to the labs of cloud-brighteners and stratospheric sulfur-seeders, into the annals of geoengineering history, as well as through philosophical musings on traditional environmentalists versus techno-optimistic “greens” (“In some ways, geoengineering is a lot like cloning, or genetic engineering, or even nanotechnology. It scrambles old political alliances and carves out new ideological fault lines.”) A geoengineering skeptic at first, Goodell’s thorough parsing of the scientific evidence, coupled with his earlier foray into coal , convince him that human interventions to cool the planet are likely inevitable. And since the danger isn’t geoengineering itself—it’s that we’ll do it badly—we might as well get good at it.

A Tear at the Edge of Creation: Searching for the Meaning of Life in an Imperfect Cosmos
By Marcelo Gleiser (Free Press)
Much of the march of science, from the ancient Greek atomists up through the Renaissance and into today, can be seen as a quest for explanations of nature’s mysteries that are, above all else, elegant and symmetrical. From such motivations sprang the Pythagorean music of the spheres, the Newtonian laws of motion, and modern searches for a grand unified theory of physics. But, according to Dartmouth  
astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser, the quest for elegance is ill-conceived and doomed to failure: The very things that make the cosmos interesting (and allow thinking creatures to evolve to contemplate it) are its multifarious asymmetries. Peppered with personal anecdotes and wisdom from one of the science’s most eloquent statesmen, this sweeping exploration of the imperfections at the heart of existence culminates in a hopeful message for humanity’s self-fulfilling purpose in an otherwise meaningless universe.

The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion
By Herman Wouk (Little, Brown and Company)
To understand Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herman Wouk’s new book as an attempt to reconcile the ideas of science and religion is perhaps to miss the point. Wouk begins The Language God Talks with a metaphorical story of a man who, after spending 40 quiet, happy, years in Western Australia, decides to return to Nevada, the place of his birth. “This lovely sunlit Earth is an exile all of us must leave, one after the other, to return whence we came,” Wouk writes. “I embark here on a tour of our beautiful little Australia in space, this child’s garden of God, at a pause in my storytelling, anticipating a sure farewell at an uncertain time.” On this tour Wouk remembers stories of his war service, his struggles to become a writer, and his friendship with scientists and scholars like Richard Feynman as he searches for a common ground between science and religion. But at bottom, The Language God Talks is simply and wonderfully an old and gifted writer’s fascinating look back on a world that, for 94 years, he has called home.

Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet
By Bill McKibben (Times Books)
Longtime eco-activist Bill McKibben begins his new book on global warming in a somewhat paradoxical manner, simultaneously admitting defeat and urging like-minded people not to stop fighting. The battle that has already been lost, and the one that remains, is represented by McKibben’s quizzical title. The Earth is doomed, so we must now learn to live on the planet that has replaced it: Eaarth. This new world is similar to the old one, but the way of life it can sustain more resembles that of the Middle Ages. This, of course, means giving up certain niceties, such as Las Vegas, unsustainably cited in waterless desert country . While “bright” greens will disagree with McKibben’s assessment that we are past the point of no return (including nuclear power’s inability to keep modern civilization going), his suggestions of a more connected and sustainable way of life are things we should consider adopting anyway.

Inside the Outbreaks: The Elite Medical Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service
By Mark Pendergrast (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
FBI, CIA, CSI—there’s no shortage of three-letter agencies that solve the world’s deadly problems with brains and bravery, rather than pure brawn. All but unknown amongst this group is the EIS, the Epidemic Intelligence Service. As the shoe-leather branch of the Centers for Disease Control, the EIS consists of epidemiologists that use a combination of microbiology, forensic science, and old-fashioned detective work to deal with outbreaks as—and where—they happen. In that sense, these scientists are putting their lives on the line to hunt down serial killers whose body counts dwarf those of even the most notorious human criminals. Pendergrast ably recounts the last half-century of these cases in an episodic fashion, complete with the mystery, intrigue, and gory details of your favorite police procedural drama.

Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do
By Albert-László Barabási (Dutton)
In his first book, Linked, Barabási introduced us to the interrelatedness of the universe and to the emerging field of network science. Here, the physicist shows how to use that knowledge to predict seemingly random human behavior. Or the spread of a viral epidemic through populations. Or the convoluted trails that money follows. Like the “unexplained” erratic motion of tiny objects floating through water that fascinated Einstein at the turn of the 20th century, apparent stochasticity, says Barabási, can all be explained—and predicted—by elegant mathematical formulas. And for the first time in history, we’re beginning to have the right data to plug into such formulas. Using algorithms built in his lab, fueled by reams of data we unthinkingly create in our daily digital interactions (carrying around and communicating with mobile devices, withdrawing money from ATMs, making online purchases), Barabási demonstrates how much of human activity occurs in quantifiable patterns known as “bursts.” These bursts seem to define us: from our emailing and web-browsing patterns to how we move about the world. But in Bursts, this realization surfaces only as the sum effect of a nigh-schizoid storyteller’s account of historical and personal events. Driven by colorful characters and an experimental plot structure that jumps between ostensibly unrelated narratives, the book weaves a bloody crusade, the papacy, 9/11, and FBI surveillance into a tidy package. The effect is enthralling: less like listening to a lecture at a research conference, and more like sitting at a bar with a clever friend who charms you with his semi-implausible anecdotes. After nursing the last beer, beyond being amused, you’ll have learned something truly profound about the curious paths of human activity.

Originally published April 1, 2010

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