Books for late summer: from genius genes to tyrannosaur musings.
--J.A. Miller, Editor in Chief
Who's Your Daddy? THE GENIUS FACTORY: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank
DAVID PLOTZ Random House, 2005
Nature or nurture: Which one has more pull? That question might have been answered by a project initiated in the early 1980s. The original idea was to coax some of the world's most intelligent and accomplished men--Nobel prize winners--to provide sperm to inseminate a select group of smart, driven, young women. The sperm bank's founder, ophthalmologist and eccentric millionaire Robert Graham, had expected to produce a crop of genius babies. However, this eugenics experiment was doomed from the beginning.
Only three Nobel prize winners deigned to contribute to the endeavor, and the sperm from these geriatric donors didn't get anyone pregnant. In a push to keep the specialized sperm-bank business afloat, Graham changed his focus. He decided to simply recruit accomplished men, then eventually to accept donations from practically any man who considered himself gifted--no questions asked.
As storyteller David Plotz details in The Genius Factory, 215 babies were born of the endeavor. They now range in age from preteens to early 20s. Plotz tracked down many people associated with the project and concluded that the "genius" genes aren't all they have been cracked up to be.
For example, Tom Legare, a pseudonym Plotz uses for one of the sperm bank's kids, flounders in school, becomes a teenage parent, and struggles with finding a focus in life. Legare's half-brother Alton, created by sperm from the same donor but born to a more affluent mother, who lives in a better school district, seems to excel at almost anything he tries. Most of the kids produced with the bank's help hover in the average range of intelligence and accomplishments, "genius" dads notwithstanding.
Plotz also points out that qualifying to donate to the sperm bank didn't guarantee success in life. Only one of the three Nobelists who made deposits to the bank ever acknowledged his involvement: William Shockley, winner of the 1956 prize in physics, whom Plotz describes as a confirmed racist whose lack of business acumen ultimately overshadowed his scientific successes.
The author manages to dig up a sordid assortment of other donors, including a Nobel winner's son who has no discernable job other than donating to multiple sperm banks. When Plotz eventually locates Tom and Alton's genetic father, he finds a man living in a filthy, one-bedroom house who had produced so many offspring through channels other than sperm banks that he can't afford to support them.
It's clear from the detailed and thorough reporting that Plotz was fascinated by his subject matter. This enthusiasm is contagious--it's easy to get caught up in the soap opera lives of many of the characters. However, some parts of the book, especially those giving
background information on the bank's history, become tedious. Overall, the thought-provoking text gives readers plenty to contemplate about how genes and environment shape people and their lives.--C. BROWNLEE
Code Breaking: A Toy Story POPCO
SCARLETT THOMAS Harcourt, 2005
It's a rare novel that includes not only a cake recipe but also a table of the first 1,000 prime numbers, a cryptic crossword puzzle, the frequency of occurrence of letters of the alphabet in English, and references to Fibonacci numbers, the continuum hypothesis, logic paradoxes, and other mathematical lore.
These elements play important roles in the entertaining, clever, and beguiling novel PopCo.
The story's heroine, Alice Butler, is a onetime crossword-puzzle compiler who works for a cool, up-and-coming toy company. She has already made her name as the creator of the product lines known as KidSpy, KidTec, and KidCracker, which are aimed at children who want to be spies, detectives, or code breakers.
Along with a coterie of other top "creatives" at her company, she finds herself at a secluded estate in the English countryside, charged with inventing the next great thing for teenage girls. As she goes through her vaguely sinister mind-camp experience, her thoughts return repeatedly to her own unusual background: a treasure-seeking father, a cryptanalyst grandfather, and a mathematician grandmother striving to prove the Riemann hypothesis, perhaps the most famous unsolved problem in mathematics.
As the stories of the past and present tangle and unwind, readers get fascinating glimpses of several different worlds, along with quick lessons on famous cryptograms, the psychology of marketing to girls, some fine points of sailing, homeopathic remedies, and the inscrutable game of Go. And there are puzzles for readers to ponder and solve as Alice tries to figure out who is sending her eerie messages, written in simple codes, and whether her grandfather left her a hidden key to a long-lost pirate treasure.
The author weaves genuine mathematics into a compelling, quirky story. She makes it seem natural for sophisticated mathematical ideas and discussions to come up in everyday life. A few of her examples and explanations may appear mathematically naive, but they don't get in the way of the story.
PopCo is exhilarating with its unusual blend of modern commerce, mathematics, high-seas adventure, romance, and girl-coming-of-age sensibility. However, the ending seems a bit flat and perfunctory, given the richness and intrigue of what comes before. Although the finale resolves all the mysteries and dilemmas posed in the story, elements of it aren't believable. Nonetheless, PopCo is a highly original, fast-paced story that will be entertaining and accessible even to people proclaiming a fear of math.--I. PETERSON
Thinking about Tomorrow FIELD NOTES FROM A CATASTROPHE: Man, Nature, and Climate Change
ELIZABETH KOLBERT Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006
More than a century ago, the first scientist to calculate that industrilization would warm the planet was pleased by the prospect.
In a pithy and powerful introduction to global warming, author Elizabeth Kolbert includes the story of Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius. When he started studying climate dynamics in the 1890s, scientists already knew that atmospheric carbon dioxide traps heat and warms the Earth. Working with pen and paper for a year, Arrhenius arrived at figures for how much the doubling of atmosphere carbon dioxide from burning of fossil fuels would eventually raise the average global temperature. Surprisingly, given that some of his assumptions were dead wrong, Arrhenius' results and today's findings match.
Arrhenius wrote, "We hope to enjoy ages with more equable and better climates." He was working in a different era, Kolbert reminds us, and experiencing Scandinavian weather. She presents the case for human-driven climate change primarily through evidence that she witnesses firsthand and testimony from the experts she visits. None of them looks forward to Arrhenius' equable clime.
The book grew out of three articles published in 2005 in the New Yorker. Kolbert writes in the preface that the articles and book have the same goal: "to convey, as vividly as possible, the reality of global warming." She builds her case powerfully from material presented in an understated, observational tone.
Kolbert's concrete observations give the book surprising charm. The sections aren't just boluses of doom. A few deft details in each section evoke a personality or a place.
Kolbert opens the book with scenes from her travels around Alaska_ She visits the Inupiat village of Shishmaref (population 591), where hunters tell her they used to drive snowmobiles some 20 miles across seasonal ice to catch seals. Now, by the time the seals arrive, the ice at just half that distance has thawed to the consistency of a slush-puppie ice drink.
What's more, the ice no longer forms early enough in winter to protect the village from storm surges. Incoming water has ripped houses into the sea, and the residents have voted to abandon their homes and relocate.
Kolbert touches on many elements in the current climate debate: melting glaciers, climate models, changes in animal ranges, ice-core data, signs that ancient civilizations collapsed during climate changes. Then, she gets to the politics of reducing carbon emissions and planning for climate change. She visits the Netherlands, which has at least a quarter of its land below sea level. The government is preparing for higher water in the years ahead by devising scenarios that expand water surge--protection areas. She drops in on Dutch families living in experimental floatable houses that can rise with the storm waters and then settle gently as the floods recede. Side by side, with curved metal tops, the homes look like a row of toasters, says Kolbert. Compared with Europe, the United States doesn't seem to be taking the issue seriously, Kolbert reports. U.S. federal policy seems to share Arrhenius' misguided nonchalance.
This is a sobering book, but it's not without hope. Engineer Robert Socolow compares cutting carbon emissions with the challenge that the United States once faced in wiping out child labor. He tells Kolbert: "I think it's the kind of issue where something looked extremely difficult, and not worth it, and then people changed their minds."--S. MILIUS
Murder and Old Bones TYRANNOSAUR CANYON
DOUGLAS PRESTON Forge Books, 2005
Veterinarian Tom Broadbent rides his horse through a remote New Mexico canyon one evening in search of peace and quiet. Four shots ring out nearby. When he takes a quick detour to investigate, he discovers a man, apparently a prospector, shot in the back and lying facedown in the sand. Broadbent momentarily revives the mortally wounded man, and after the prospector realizes that he's not in the grip of his killer, he forces Broadbent to take a small, leather-bound notebook filled with page after page of cryptic numbers. "It's for Robbie.... My daughter ... No one else ... For God's sake not the police ... You must ... promise."
Thus begins the novel Tyrannosaur Canyon and a fervent race to locate what would be a historic paleontological find. The cast of characters includes an assistant museum curator who yearns to redeem his career with a fantastic discovery, the bright yet unappreciated female postdoc who does all the glory-grabbing curator's lab work, illegal fossil hunters and distributors, and an ex-CIA-cryptologist-turned-novitiate at the local monastery--a character quite handy for a veterinarian who needs to decode a notebook full of numbers.
Broadbent has trouble convincing detectives that he's not involved in the prospector's death. Meanwhile, the prospector's murderer, in his quest to retrieve the notebook, makes life difficult for Broadbent and his wife. Near the end of the chase come the guys from a shadowy government unit that flies black helicopters and missile-equipped drone aircraft. Gradually, the book's prologue about a missing moon rock begins to make sense.
To accompany all this action, the book often flashes back 65 million years to describe the thoughts of one of the largest tyrannosaurs ever to have walked the planet.
A friend recommended Tyrannosaur Canyon to me because of the author's keen eye for geological detail, but it's the rollicking yet suspenseful story that should earn this novel a spot in your travel bag.--S. PERKINS
Decoding Decision Makers BLINK
MALCOLM GLADWELL Little, Brown, 2005
THE WISDOM OF CROWDS
JAMES SUROWIECKI Doubleday, 2004
Two New Yorker staff writers wrote books in the past few years about decision making. One volume sold big. The other didn't. Guess which book says something profound about how we think. Malcolm Gladwell's bestseller Blink celebrates snap judgments and selected psychological research on rapid thinking. The author rightly points out that much thinking takes place in the blink of an eye. His anecdotes, however, add up to an unsatisfying theme: Sometimes snap judgments work out great, sometimes they fizzle.
It's interesting to read Gladwell's account of bigwigs at a major museum getting suckered into buying an allegedly 6th-century B.C. Greek statue that a few art authorities later recognized as a fake with just a glance. But experts in various areas, including art authentication, frequently disagree in their determinations. Why do some achieve more accuracy than others do, both in deliberative and intuitive judgments? What about the many complex decisions for which no clear answer exists? Gladwell's anecdotes yield no answers.
Part of the problem lies with his assumption that the unconscious mind works like a monolithic computer, quickly processing all of a person's relevant prior experiences and knowledge to foster snap judgments. Research not mentioned in this book suggests that rapid decisions don't result from instant number-crunching in the brain but from unconscious learning over time that makes it possible to, say, discern when your boss is angry at you or whether the guy in the green convertible is about to change lanes.
Gladwell also extols the Implicit Association Test as a gauge of unconscious racial attitudes without mentioning that social psychologists heatedly disagree about what that test actually measures and how the mind makes the rapid associations that the test traffics in.
In its favor, this book is written dearly and jargonfree. Like a late-afternoon latte, Blink goes down smooth but leaves the reader hungering for something substantial.
Satisfaction comes in the form of The Wisdom of Crowds. Its author deftly blends research and anecdotes to defend the beleaguered notion of collective intelligence. He argues that under the right conditions, groups are smarter than the sharpest individuals. Collective insight thrives when group members possess a diversity of relevant knowledge and insight, make independent decisions, draw on personal experience without any direction from above, and tabulate their private judgements into a collective verdict by some consensus-achieving method.
Surowiecki shows how, on the day in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, group intelligence enabled the stock market, through its determination of a reduced stock price, to label one company as responsible for the disaster. That company, Morton Thiokol, was eventually found to have made defective seals for the shuttle's booster rockets.
The author also details how scientific collaboration led to the remarkably fast identification of the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, virus in 2003.
Other sections describe situations in which collective thinking misfires, such as the periodic tendency of investors to create portfolio-busting stock market bubbles.
Surowiecki uses research on collective wisdom to mount a rousing defense of capitalism and democracy.
So why does Gladwell's book, but not Surowiecki's, set cash registers ringing? Sometimes, it seems, the crowd just needs to wise up.--B. BOWER
A Curious Gaze at the Heavens FIND THE CONSTELLATIONS
H.A, REY Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976
ZOO IN THE SKY: A Book of Animal Constellations
JACQUELINE MITTON National Geographic Society, 1998
ONCE UPON A STARRY NIGHT: A Book of Constellations
JACQUELINE MITTON National Geographic Society, 2004
If summer takes you to a place where the stars shine bright, let me recommend a guide to the heavens. Actually, you may want to look up at the skies even if you find yourself citybound.
A Greenwich Village rooftop isn't the best place to gaze at the heavens, but that's where I learned to use a telescope. It was during my one and only observational-astronomy course, and I was in my sophomore year at New York University. The roof of Shimkin Hall, one block south of Washington Square Park, featured an old water tower and a concrete observing area with several 6-inch telescopes. It also had a great view of the Empire State Building, which came in handy during those not infrequent evenings when a combination of the city's smog, bright lights, and clouds made it fruitless to peer into the night sky.
But if the viewing was less than memorable, I still recall the book somewhat sheepishly recommended by my astronomy teacher Olav Redi. Find the Constellations by children's author H.A. Rey, best known for Curious George, is hardly a college-level text. It's a thin book with simple pictures and words: "At night time, when the stars are out, the sky all of a sudden becomes a huge Picture Book. You can look up and see a lion and a whale, an eagle, a swan, a dog, a hare, and a lot other pictures; that is, of course, if you know how to find them."
To my untrained eyes, the book was invaluable for its straightforward depictions of the constellations, with and without lines connecting the stars into the shapes that give the constellations their names. Without those diagrams, I couldn't have picked out the Great Bear, let alone the bear's paws. The book's year-round views of the sky, as seen from the middle and northern United States (latitude 40[degrees]), gave me the first real feel for the celestial sphere--the movement of stars day to day and season to season relative to Earth.
I recently purchased a used copy of Find the Constellations. For two more-recent publications for beginning sky watchers, I recommend Zoo in the Sky: A Book of Animal Constellations and Once Upon a Starry Night: A Book of Constellations. Both books have gorgeous illustrations by Christina Balit, and Jacqueline Mitton provides charming descriptions of the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses whose stories underlie longstanding interpretations of the heavenly patterns.--R. COWEN
A Journey through the World's Backwaters THE ENDS OF THE EARTH
ROBERT D. KAPLAN Random House, 1996
It's nice to know that someone is willing to investigate down-and-dirty parts of the world that most of us would rather not set foot in.
In The Ends of the Earth, Robert D. Kaplan explores what he calls "the coming anarchy"--a collision course of population growth, tribal disputes, disease, crime, and environmental degradation in the developing world.
Ten years after its publication, the book remains a vivid lesson in human geography. It reads like an adventure story, riddled with interviews of corrupt local officials, cynical expatriates, and smugglers--plus tidy doses of history to carry the reader through. Kaplan provides a smooth read and context for today's unsettling headlines from faraway places.
Kaplan does his reporting the old-fashioned way, hopscotching across West Africa, the Middle East, and Asia with a notebook. He finds that cultural animus has supplanted national identity in many countries whose people--cut loose by the end of lucrative Cold War alliances--find themselves living hand-to-mouth.
The desperation is often palpable. Riding in a taxi in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Kaplan finds his view suddenly blocked by a dozen hands on the windows as the car pulls up to a bus station. Young men "yanked open the door and demanded money for carrying my luggage a few feet to the bus, even though I had only a light rucksack. I was to find youths like these throughout urban West Africa: out of school, unemployed, loose molecules in an unstable social fluid that threatened to ignite," he writes.
Yet amid garbage and buzzing flies in Conakry, Guinea, Kaplan sees hope. He locks eyes with "a miraculously healthy-looking teenager" standing near a zinc-roofed shack. "To thrive in this miasma, merely to survive, indicated a vitality that I would never be able to muster," he says. "I smiled back at what I knew to be my genetic superior."
As some countries endure a daily struggle, others try to recover from the past. In the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Kaplan notices dozens of amputees--victims of land mines. In the mid-1990s, that country still had about 10 million mines in the ground left over from civil wars. It's an economic problem: A land mine costs less than $4 to install, but hundreds of dollars to remove.
Fortunately, Kaplan in his travels found some good news to temper the bad. His impression of Turkey is refreshing. Entering a shantytown built into a steep hillside of Ankara, Kaplan finds not a slum but a stacked, middle-class neighborhood: "The architectural bedlam of cinder and sheet metal and cardboard walls was deceiving. Inside was a home. I saw a working refrigerator, a television.... The other homes were like this, too." He writes, "Crime was infinitesimal."
In the region of the former Soviet Union between Iran and Russia, Kaplan picks his way through nations with irrational borders and that lack a clear national identity. Those areas are predominately populated by people of Turkie race who speak Persian languages and practice Islam, a religion that began in Arabia.
In a shabby nightclub in Uzbekistan, Kaplan asks his translator what the army officers in uniform at the next table are saying. "They are discussing which is the best country from which to hijack a plane," the man says. The coming anarchy indeed.--N. SEPPA
Ice Age: From Heroic Scientists to Black-Op Spies FIFTY DEGREES BELOW
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON Bantam Dell Books, 2005
"I am no longer skeptical ... have no doubt at all. Climate change is the major challenge facing the world." This quote from the naturalist and film producer David Attenborough, which I spotted on May 24 in a British newspaper, especially resonated with me because I was finishing Kim Stanley Robinson's Fifty Degrees Below. Attenborough's declaration addressed issues at the core of Robinson's science fiction book.
The novel takes place in the aftermath of a flood that has devastated Washington, D.C. Think Hurricane Katrina-type wrath wrought on lawmakers and monuments. While the mostly abandoned city is drying out, orangutans, jaguars, and other animals that escaped the National Zoo run wild. Disenfranchised people of various strata forge nontraditional living arrangements to cope with a suddenly destabilized climate.
Among the refugees is Frank Vanderwal, a sociobiologist who returns to work at the National Science Foundation after the storm. He constructs a tree house in the city's Rock Creek Park, a forested strip that also houses the escaped animals. Eventually, coping with the beasts--as well as with thugs and spies--becomes a badge of honor for Vanderwal. His new lifestyle lures him into an evolving postflood counterculture to which even his closest colleagues never catch on.
By day, Vanderwal and his coworkers track continuing climatic catastrophes, such as quick melting of Arctic ice into the North Atlantic, stalling of the Gulf Stream, and a feedback loop that produces melting at the poles. Along the way, Washington experiences a prolonged winter deep freeze, portending worse weather to come.
Vanderwal's agency responds with uncharacteristic activism that would surely warm Attenborough's heart. The agency sponsors unusual studies and a global collaboration to restart the Gulf Stream and recool the poles.
Being set in Washington, the story has political subplots. A major one includes Tibetans who migrated from a home destroyed by climate change. They eventually settle in the capital's Virginia suburbs, and their wizened spiritual leaders imbue the story with a hint of mysticism.
Vanderwal also develops love interests, one of whom reveals that the sociobiologist and his nonconformist friends are under surveillance by the military.
Despite a chaotic plot, the book hangs together as a page-turner. And despite its conceit and partisan outlook, it doesn't seem geeky or preachy on the topic of global warming.
Although this book can stand alone, it is the second in a trilogy, so the fate of Earth and Vanderwal's mental health remains uncertain. Overall, Robinson's engaging book is a fast-moving, upbeat romp driven by science.--J. RALOFF
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|Date:||Aug 5, 2006|
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