Want to get a deeper understanding of our biggest scientific mysteries? Here are five great books about the search for the Higgs Boson, the secrets of quantum mechanics, and the power of "proofiness," from Jennifer Ouellette with Cocktail Party Physics.
Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, by Brian Switek. I get warm and fuzzy just thinking about this book, since I watched Brian struggle with it in the earliest stages of development. So yeah, there's some personal bias at play. But I'm delighted to say that it came together beautifully — it's a commendable work by a promising young science writer with a bright future ahead of him. I write primarily about physics and math, so the subject matter of Brian's book — evidence for evolution in the fossil record — was largely new to me, making me the ideal reader for this insightful introduction to the topic.
He starts off with a bang, opening with the ruckus raised in May 2009 over the unveiling of the ancient and highly photogenic fossil affectionately known as "Ida" — wrongly dubbed a "missing link" in the frenzied press coverage that introduced Ida to the world. That was actually as much the fault of those who discovered her — the whole affair was carefully orchestrated for maximum exposure and, frankly, personal profit — and Brian gives an excellent summation of the events leading to the media circus. (Fortunately for science, the general public probably remembers very little by now, save, "Hey, wasn't Ida that really cool fossil?" And gosh darn it, Ida is still pretty cute.)
But the real significance of Ida — and the reason Brian chose to open Written in Stone with that story — has to do with the "missing link" claims, and the public's misperceptions about evolution. The iconic image of evolution is the March of Progress, showing the progression from early primate to modern man — a notion that Brian rightly points out has its roots in the Renaissance notion of the Great Chain of Being. And while Creationists love to spout off about how ridiculous it is to assume we came from apes, what evolution actually claims is that mankind and apes share a common ancestry. There is a difference between those two statements.
Evolution is far more complicated, and this forms the central thesis of the book. Our journey through the fossil record, and encounters with such fascinating historical figures as Nicholas Steno, the charlatan Albert Koch, and Athanasius Kircher (one of my all-time favorite historical figures), serve to illustrate one basic point: evolution is more of a branching process, often taking many different paths (even if the end result is similar), with one species evolving and another staying largely unchanged — a constantly shifting dance. It's kind of messy, with progress occurring in fits and starts — the furthest thing from the idealized March of Progress. I'll let Brian have the last word:
"For to ask 'What makes us human?' assumes that there was some glorious moment, hidden in the past, in which we transcended some boundary and left the ape part of ourselves behind. We forget that those are labels we have created to help organize and understand nature.... There was never an 'ascent of man,' no matter how desperately we might wish for there to be, just as there has not been a 'descent of man' into degeneracy from a noble ancestor. We are merely a shivering twig that is the last vestige of a richer family tree."
Proofiness: The Dark Art of Mathematical Deception, by Charles Seife. I used to hang out with Charles in the press room at American Physical Society meetings as a budding young science writer, and his classic book, Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea (still in print!) made me realize that the world of numbers could be as fascinating as physics. With Proofiness — and with that title, why has Charles not yet been on Colbert? Why? — he tackles the myriad ways our cultural innumeracy blinds us to the many deceptions perpetrated by a misuse of numbers, particularly statistics and probability. There's a lot about election polling and census results, these being hot topics of the day, but even if you're not particularly interested in those, Charles has such an engaging style and wry wit that his prose is bound to draw you in. Also? The cover design is really cool. In this case, you really can judge the quality of the book by its cover.
The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics, by Jim Kakalios. The author of The Physics of Superheroes is back with another installment, this time exploring how quantum mechanics changed the world and ushered in a future very different from the one envisioned by the classic comics of the 1950s. We were promised jet packs and flying cars, dammit! And I'm still bitter about the lack of progress on human teleportation. I was struck by a comment Jim made this past summer when we were both on a science panel at CONVergence/Skepchicon in Minneapolis. Someone asked what he thought would be the technological breakthroughs of the next 50 years, and he replied that anything requiring huge breakthroughs in energy would probably not transpire — but anything related to the explosion in information? Now that would be something capable of transforming the future.
That's kind of the underlying premise of The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics: we didn't get jet packs or flying cars, or unlimited supplies of free energy, but we got tons of amazing things we weren't expecting at all. We got atomic bombs, nuclear magnetic resonance (and MRI), lasers, death rays, MP3 and DVD players, spintronics, and the World Wide Web. This is a fantastic primer on the intricacies of the quantum world, using entertaining examples from — yes — classic comic books to illustrate his points. Along the way, we are treated to a broad overview of some of the coolest things quantum mechanics has given us, and a sneak peek at what might be in store.
Massive: The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science, by Ian Sample. Good news for fans of objectivity! I don't know Ian Sample personally! So when I tell you that Massive turns the dry-sounding hunt for the Higgs boson into the equivalent of a scientific detective story that you can't put down, you know it's not coming from a biased perspective. Also? There's only one mention of the dreaded "god particle" — a nickname, coined by Leon Lederman (who co-authored the popular book), that is universally loathed in physics circles, and badly misunderstood by the general public as claiming it holds the answer to spirituality. Of course, it has nothing to do with religion, or the existence (or lack thereof) of a god.
In an intriguing side anecdote — one of many — Sample writes that Lederman originally wanted to call his book The Goddamned Particle because it proved so difficult to find, but it was shortened to The God Particle. For Lederman, the name is apt because the Higgs (writes Sample), "is critical to our understanding of matter, yet deeply elusive." (More literal-minded sorts miss the subtlety.) That's the kind of vivid detail and backroom chatter that makes Massive such a compelling read: it's about science as that science is being done, and we don't yet have all the answers — the Higgs continues to elude us. But for anyone curious about the story of the Higgs so far, you're not likely to find a better book than Sample's on the subject.
How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, by Mike Brown. You might know Mike by his Twitter handle, @PlutoKiller (it's an entertaining feed; you should follow him). Clearly, he takes a certain amount of pleasure in his role demoting this smallest of planets — or, in this case, former planet — even though it means he gets a steady stream of hate mail and a surprising number of obscene phone calls. People have an unusually strong passion for Pluto. But Brown didn't actually set out to cause such a ruckus; he was just going about his business, hunting planets, and what he found was Eris, briefly touted as a "10th planet" before astronomers decided it didn't really meet the criteria — and if Eris didn't qualify, neither did poor Pluto, or any of the large number of similar objects that have come to light in recent years.
Like Sample's Massive, Brown's book gives us that rare glimpse behind the curtain, a peek at how science is actually done. The guy can spin a yarn, that's for sure, and he's got some great material, and a great sense of humor (and perspective!). Even those who champion Pluto's eventual return to planetary status — yes, the debate rages on — will find it pretty difficult to continue hating Brown after reading this book; he's just too damned likeable. As James Kennedy wrote in his Wall Street Journal review, Brown's book presents "the scientist neither as madman nor mystic, but mensch."
Pluto art via NASA.
Jennifer Ouellette is the author of The Calculus Diaries. This post originally appeared over at Cocktail Party Physics.