Books to Read Now

Seed Picks

May releases trace the modern obsession with bottled water; revisit the birth of quantum theory; and document an elusive quest for absolute silence.

ThermoPoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science
By Barri J. Gold (MIT Press)
It is often the case, observes Barri Gold in his new book ThermoPoetics, that when we attempt to explore the interaction between science and literature, we restrict ourselves to considering the ways in which formalized scientific ideas influence our stories and poetry. Gold’s book departs from this approach, examining how ideas about nature—and thermodynamics in particular—often manifest themselves in Victorian literature before they are articulated scientifically. Gold posits that a prime example of this is Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam: “Though ‘energies’ itself appears only twice, the concepts that energy eventually comprehends—heat, light, power, force—surface again and again, as do images that suggest the concerns of thermodynamics more broadly: loss and gain…the behavior of gases, order and disorder, and changes of state and form.” Considering that Tennyson worked on In Memoriam for two decades before publishing it the same year as William Thomson published “On the Dynamical Theory of Heat,” it seems there is merit to Gold’s argument. By weaving compelling examples like that of In Memoriam in with quirky history of 19th century Europe, ThermoPoetics provides readers with a fascinating investigation of the interplay between science and literature in the Victorian era.

Ten Technologies to Save the Planet: Energy Options for a Low-Carbon Future
By Chris Goodall (Greystone Books)
As evidence for anthropogenic climate change becomes increasingly difficult to dismiss and more people become convinced of its reality, a “green”-tinged torrent of eco-themed PR has hit the media. Sadly, much of this output consists of opportunistic screeds that offer, at best, dubious ideas for protecting the environment. Books—some by seasoned journalists and others by scientists—have done a generally good job of eschewing the greenwash, providing grounds for a meaningful discourse to shift public debate and influence the fate of the planet. Chris Goodall’s is one of these works, since it manages to capture the complexities inherent in dealing with global-scale issues of energy and climate transitions while also using simple and clear explanations that even a recalcitrant politician would understand. As a primer for a possible cleaner, brighter future, Ten Technologies to Save the Planet is balanced, thorough, and unflinching.

Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water
By Peter Gleick (Island Press)
They are everywhere—at the drugstore and supermarkets, on street corners and conference tables, stocking conference halls and vending machines at schools, gyms, and offices around the world. They are bottles of water, and as Peter Gleick points out, their rise to ubiquity has been one of the greatest commercial successes of the past 100 years. It’s no question that water is now a big business—a fact long loathed by environmentalists and anti-globalization activists. But how damaging is this trend? The desire to drill down to scientific answers led Gleick, a MacArthur genius and renowned water expert, to delve into the history of water sanitation, meet with top business executives and eco-activists, and mine the public records for industry claims about the safety, convenience, and taste of bottled versus tap water. Alongside fascinating discursions into the history of the public water fountain, cholera, and Kabbalah, Gleick provides an dispassionate glimpse into purposeful distortions of science that drive us to believe bottled water will make us “healthier, skinnier, or more popular.” Beyond the steep environmental costs of packaged H20—the mountains of plastic waste and the energetic expense of hauling megatons of liquid—he explores bottled water’s social costs: the “strange reality” of today, where “suburban shoppers in America lug cases of plastic water bottles from the grocery store back to homes supplied with unlimited piped potable water” while women in Africa carry containers of filthy water from distant contaminated sources to homes with no water at all. Gleick’s point, however, is not to shame us into better behavior. What’s really at stake are bigger questions about public rights versus private goods, the appropriate role of government and business, and our collective use of an invaluable resource—one that eventually hurts us when sold.

Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality
By Manjit Kumar (Norton)
Just as with the history of all other human endeavors, science has its list of “greatest hits,” dramatic stories that will be told and retold, generation after generation, ad infinitum. Of these, the birth of quantum theory seems destined to be foremost: Other narratives may rival in their sweeping scopes, scenic settings, and cast of characters, but no other area of science has raised deeper questions about the very nature of reality. In Quantum, Manjit Kumar breathes new life into this classic story through superb writing and careful research, focusing on a philosophical conflict between Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein that still resonates through physics to this day.

Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence
By George Michelsen Foy (Scribner)
In Zero Decibels, George Michelsen Foy is on a quixotic mission. Discovering and writing about a kind of nothingness—the total absence of sound—is tough, but is made even harder by the fact that such absolute silence may not actually exist. We join Foy as he travels the world on this quest, delving into the artistic, architectural, biophysical, cultural, historical, psychological and philosophical aspects of silence. This generally involves Foy pointing his decibel meter at all manners of interesting things, including rumbling New York subway trains, a Space Shuttle launch in Florida, and the sound-canceling foam wedges of the anechoic chamber at Orfield Labs, rated by the Guinness Book of World Records as the quietest spot on Earth. A novelist by nature, Foy brings a literary sensibility to each excursion, experiment, and subtopic under the grand umbrella of silence.

Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success
By Matthew Syed (HarperCollins)
Most of us preside under the belief that world class performers in complex tasks like music and sports are born with an extra something special, the beneficiaries of innate, genetically-imparted talent. In Bounce, Matthew Syed strips us of that notion, revealing chess grandmasters, Olympic athletes, and musical virtuosos for what they are—the end result of ten thousand hours of practice, at minimum, enabled by the right combination of opportunities. Syed himself was once the number one table tennis player in Great Britain, and his firsthand accounts of the road to success illustrate each chapter of the book, from what sparks motivation, to why top performers “choke,” to how the brain’s wiring changes to store complex information in accessible chunks. The implications of this understanding of achievement are immense, changing the way we look at individual potential and the power of perseverance.

Originally published May 3, 2010

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