Long for this World: The Strange Science of Immortality
By Jonathan Weiner (Ecco)
In an ideal world, a book about immortality would start with a conversation with Rasputin, or perhaps Methuselah himself, as a proof of principle. Jonathan Weiner gets the next best thing: Aubrey de Grey. Weiner doesn’t need his considerable authorial gifts to make the wizard-bearded, sometimes-drunken gerontologist leap off the page, but they shine as he follows de Grey on his quest to end aging back and forth through history, philosophy, literature, and science. Weiner’s deftness and insight are vital in making sense of the many factions and perspectives vying for the one scientific goal that might properly be called the Holy Grail.
How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like
By Paul Bloom (W.W. Norton)
Certain pleasures—food, water, sex—are common to all living creatures. Others, like art, fiction, religion, and science, pertain to our species alone. This raises the provocative question: Is pleasure something that we’ve evolved (i.e., a perceptual, low-level, ‘stupid’ impulse) or something that we’ve learned (a smart, cultured response)? According to Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, pleasure has elements of both. It is at once embedded in deep intuitions and the product of higher cognition, instinctive and yet intelligent. With a range of anecdotes that runs from Vermeer art forgeries to tales of human cannibalism, Bloom draws upon neuroscience, child development, philosophy and behavioral economics to explain why facsimiles just don’t cut it, why macabre fetishes persist, and why, all things considered, humans like what we do. Deftly written and meticulously researched, Bloom makes a powerful argument that only by understanding pleasure will we advance the science of the mind.
Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error
By Kathryn Schulz (Ecco)
We are so enamored of being right that we consistently get the quality, frequency and implications of being wrong, well, wrong. “Wrong” can mean “incorrect,” but it can also mean “bad,” and we seem to have no trouble mixing up the two, even in realms where we’re fully aware that “right” and “wrong” don’t apply. In Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong (amazingly, her first), a new field of “wrongology” is presented, wherein she examines just what makes being wrong—and admitting it—so hard for us. Schulz’s exploration of wrongology’s many themes is clever, relatable, and often personable, though those themes underpin the biggest questions and dilemmas of the human experience.
Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if it were Produced by People with Bodies, Situate in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority
Steven Shapin (John Hopkins Press)
After a subtitle like that, one wonders if a review of the book in question is strictly necessary. However, if you’re already familiar with the author and know that this is a collection of his essays over the course of his illustrious career in the history and sociology of science, you might not even need the subhead. This is a daunting subject, made somewhat more intimidating by Shapin’s referencing seemingly every person who has ever philosophized about science in the past 2000-plus years. And while it might not be for novices, anyone who is interested in how and why science enjoys a privileged position as a source of knowledge should read Shapin’s take on the authority given to it vis-à-vis religion and morality, why it is compliment to be both a gentleman and a scholar, and why it matters whether Newton ate chicken or Darwin farted.
The Disappearing Spoon
Sam Kean (Little, Brown and Company)
If only The Disappearing Spoon were required textbook reading, high school students would surely have an easier time committing the periodic table to memory. Like the scientists who observe them, some of the 118 elements on the table have become household names while others are relegated to obscurity. But the stories of our early experimentations with even these most overlooked characters—beryllium, rubidium, neodymium—are at turns humorous and tragic, ironic and inspiring. Sam Kean manages to provide a quirky and refreshingly human look at a structure we usually think of as purely pragmatic.
Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World
Naomi S. Baron (Oxford)
It’s no secret that the Internet and mobile phones are changing the way we communicate with each other – but are they changing the quality of our social relationships and our written language? In Always On, Naomi S. Baron investigates how we are adapting our behavior to cope with the strangely modern status of being accessible at all times, through multiple corridors. Baron uses observations on the use of online and mobile technology gathered in her own classroom to inform her conjectures, and the results are nothing short of fascinating. Ultimately they reveal what most of us already suspect—that we as a society are not yet entirely comfortable—if indeed we will ever be – with being “always on.”
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Nicholas Carr (W.W. Norton)
The author of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” returns to his thesis at book-length—but can our web-truncated attention spans handle so much prose? With Carr at the wheel, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Carr takes us on a spin through the history of brain plasticity and describes how our brains constantly remodel themselves, with consequences both delightful and dire. In this age of constant stimulation, he writes, we have begun to find it difficult to follow complicated arguments or focus for long periods of time; we’re in danger of being trapped in the shallows of the mind. Carr is no Luddite—he loves the freedom the web has given him as journalist—but, he confesses, “I miss my old brain.” For the many who share his complaint, The Shallows is a guide for understanding—and even regaining control of—your brain on the internet.
A Little Book of Language
David Crystal (Yale University Press)
David Crystal’s A Little Book of Language is exactly as it sounds, a broad-spectrum look at language in its various forms that drives home the complexity and capriciousness of our many tongues – in speech, in writing, and in recent computer-based communication that is something of both. From the foundations of linguistics to why we love to slap a name on everything around us, to how advertisers select words to strategically woo buyers, Crystal rolls the basics of language – plus a few quirky insights - into one neat little package.
Originally published June 17, 2010