What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe, 5/5
He’s done it again! This sequel to What If? is laugh-out-loud funny and I enjoyed how the author used longer-running jokes throughout, as well as short-answer segments to add some [admittedly unneeded] variety.
Why I read it: I’m a fan of the author and his webcomic, xkcd.
Botanical Art from the Golden Age of Scientific Discovery by Anna Laurent, 5/5
I borrowed this book from the library just to flip through the pictures, but it turned out to be an unexpectedly delightful read. The text perfectly balances with the images, providing just enough additional information to capture the reader’s interest and encourage a more in-depth examination of the many botanical wall-charts it features.
Why I read it: a brief intention to create my own botanical art lead me to order all related books from the library (there weren’t many).
Experimenting with Babies: 50 Amazing Science Projects You Can Perform on Your Kid by Shaun Gallagher, 5/5
This book is very good for what it is–a light-hearted and accessible collection of activities, based on scientific experiments, that highlight the nuances of a baby’s development. The presentation is not at all rigorous and might even uncharitably be considered “dumbed-down,” but does go well beyond the few common reflexes (e.g. rooting, Moro, stepping, etc.) with which parents might already be familiar. Personally, I do not feel motivated to actually perform any of the experiments with my own baby, but it was still fascinating to learn more about his fascinating progression from potato to person.
Why I read it: A friend lent it to me.
Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, 4/5
This book gave me a feeling of déjà vu since it is the third I’ve read on the same general topic, preceded by Coyle’s The Talent Code and Gladwell’s Outliers. On paper, Peak should have been my favorite of the three. Ericsson, a respected professor of psychology, is able to provide the academic backbone that was missing from Coyle’s otherwise very enjoyable take on the subject. And, as one of the researchers responsible for the original study that Gladwell later contorted into the “10,000-hour rule,” Ericsson is both qualified and motivated to debunk that incorrect (yet annoyingly memorable) interpretation of his work.
That said, I felt that Peak was rather a latecomer to the party and the authors’ efforts to transcend the genre of pop psychology relaxed in the book’s later chapters. Their painstaking attempt to distinguish between “deep practice” and mere “purposeful practice” felt contrived, and the concept of “mental representations,” so vital to Ericsson’s psychology-based perspective on the topic, was discussed in a consistently wishy-washy way. I couldn’t resist an eye roll upon encountering the section about London taxi drivers and their overdeveloped hippocampi, a study that has already been beaten to death (à la the Stanford Prison Experiment). Overall, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I remember enjoying Coyle’s more biology-based perspective and discussion of the topic in terms of deep practice, ignition and master coaching in The Talent Code.
While it might not have lived up to my six-year-old memory of a similar book, Peak still has a lot to offer. I was very interested in the application of the science of expertise to the field of medicine, specifically surgery. No one wants their medical practitioner to be just “average,” but the old joke that goes “What do you call the medical student who graduated last in his class? … Doctor” is unsettlingly accurate. Ericsson poses a real “moneyball” moment for the medical industry by showing how studying the highest performing outliers and applying science-based teaching techniques can raise the success rates of “average” surgeons.
Why I read it: my brother piqued my interest by telling me interesting stories from it.
How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems by Randall Munroe, 5/5
This book does not disappoint! It is filled with hilarious, ridiculous, scientifically strenuous “solutions” to problems ranging from “how to jump really high” to “how to change a light bulb.” As a piano teacher, I found the chapter on how to play the piano particularly hilarious and thought-provoking. I’ve never thought to ask questions like “how many keys would need to be added to the piano keyboard to make music for whales?” (spoiler: it’s not as many as you’d think!).
Miracles: A Preliminary Study by C.S. Lewis, 5/5
It’s like no one told C.S. Lewis that you can’t prove the existence of God, so he just does. And that is merely to lay the foundation for his main topic, which I actually found much less interesting and convincing than the preliminary discussions–the man does not shirk an intellectual challenge. Though I have occasionally sensed some antagonism from him towards science, in this book he cheerfully tackles both the known and unknown with the grace, focus and rigorous logic that make me sometimes fear that I tend to put more faith in him than in God. Of course, no matter how hard one tries to be open-minded and logical, it cannot be too difficult a task to convince someone of something they already believe. With that in mind, I would love to know how this book is perceived by people with different backgrounds and beliefs than me.
Why I read it: C.S. Lewis is one of my favourite authors and thankfully, every time I think I’ve read all his books I come across a new one.
The rare combination of humility and genius is as beautiful as it is surprising, especially when encountered in one of the greatest physicists of the modern age. These three lectures, given at the University of Washington in 1963, explore a variety of unscientific topics–from politics to religion–and surprisingly, do not provide any answers. What they do give, however, is the opportunity to see non-scientific issues from the point of view of a scientific genius. This point of view is very different from the arrogant, condescending, closed-minded attitude that comes across from many figures in popular science, who seem to feel that their expertise in a narrow field qualifies them to make pronouncements on everything. In fact, the emotion that stands out most in these lectures is doubt. Not a lazy, depressing, hopeless sort of doubt, but a humble, searching doubt that fuels relentless curiosity. Feynman seems unwaveringly respectful of opinions and beliefs that contradict his own, while applying a formidable intellect and rational approach to the less scientific aspects of human existence.
Why I read it: I’ve enjoyed the two other books by Feynman I’ve read (QED and Six Easy Pieces) and jumped at the chance to read a less challenging book by him when I came across it in Henderson Books.
Readers looking for more than a heartwarming animal story will be disappointed by this relentlessly unscientific book. Pepperberg spends more time complaining about being unappreciated by the scientific community, blatantly anthropomorphizing her parrot and giving unsubstantiated anecdotes of Alex’s human-like behaviour than providing anything of academic interest. I was annoyed right from the beginning of the punishingly emotive first chapter, which is all about the emotional trauma that Alex’s death caused the author. Pepperberg appreciatively quotes a letter from a lady who said the parrot’s demise caused her as much grief as the death of her only child, even though this long-distance sympathiser had never even met Pepperberg or Alex! Now that’s just crazy talk, but the author treats it as a matter of course. While some interesting comments are made about the model/rival method of teaching (where the learner observes two trainers interacting), no satisfying explanation is given of the time between Alex being taught, with difficulty, his first word and Alex spontaneously spouting grammatically correct, complete sentences in response to complex social scenarios. Given Pepperberg’s credentials, I can only assume that she is a legitimate scientist, but this book is not at all convincing.
[Why I read it: frustratingly, this book has been sitting by my bed for so long that I can’t even remember why I ordered it from the library in the first place. I think it might have been mentioned in some other book I read.]
Exploring the manifestations of talent in diverse subjects that range from Brazilian footballers to the Brontë sisters, Coyle proposes three factors that give rise to all the athletic, musical and mental skills that seem so innate and unattainable to us otherly-gifted: deep practice, ignition, and master coaching. Of these three elements, I found the first to be most interesting because it provides a description of the physical effects of concentrated practice. Now, I have logged numerous hours of piano practice (though, admittedly, somewhat fewer hours of “deep practice”), but never understood that this kind of focused skill-development was actually wrapping nerve fibers in my brain in layers of an insulating substance called myelin. This magical myelin affects the timing with which neurons fire electrical impulses and the speed with which these impulses travel, resulting in an increase in whatever skill is being practiced, regardless of the nature of the skill or the “natural talent” of the person involved. The implications are immense: suddenly it seems that real genius is the drive to perform thousands of hours of deep practice, not to have a high IQ, innate ability, or access to top coaching from the beginning. Also, it definitively establishes the value and efficiency of that painfully-focused, mentally-exhausting style of practicing that might otherwise cause discouragement when it does not generate immediately-impressive improvement.
Coyle’s writing style is entertaining and easy to read, but is somewhat lacking from a scholarly point of view; he is, after all, no neurologist or scientific researcher. Some of the studies he references and examples he uses seem questionable, and his sources are rather casually collected in sparse end notes. All in all, this book’s value is more in its descriptive powers than its prescriptive ones: lacking any of the three elements of talent (deep practice, ignition or master coaching), you are unlikely to become a world-class anything, whether you read it or not. However, lots of Coyle’s observations and claims resonated with me because I am fascinated by the learning process and hunger for accomplishment in a variety of areas.
[Why I read it: a friend, Joy, mentioned that she was reading it and got me interested.]
What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant? Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns? From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?
With his trademark wit, scientific know-how, and ability to draw strangely hilarious stick figures, Randall Munroe answers some of the vital questions that have been asked by readers of his webcomic, xkcd. I expected this book to be underwhelming and a bit of a chore to read (à la almost all the other books based on webcomics I’ve encountered), but it was hilarious and accessible–my teenaged brother got his hands on it before me and read the whole thing in short order. The content seems well-suited to book format and, surprisingly, I found it to be even funnier and more readable than the What If? blog that inspired its creation.
[Why I read it: I’ve been a fan of xkcd for several years now.]