Volumes of Science

This weekend featured the latest edition of the LA Times Festival of Books, the largest book festival in the U.S., and a great celebration of the written word. The Saturday and Sunday festivities feature a bounty of author events, especially conversations between different writers, and it’s always a treat to see huge numbers of people (with lots of kids included) come out to hear about words and ideas. Good to be reminded that there really is a community of readers out there.

booksbooksbooks The festival kicked off on Friday night with the annual Book Prizes, which cover categories from history to mystery. For the last couple of years, Jennifer has been on the jury for the Science and Technology prize, which is a lot of work but a good way to become familiar with the science books written during the year. I bet you wouldn’t think it would be possible to become dismayed when more free books were mailed to your door, did you? But when over a hundred come your way over the course of a couple of months, it can get overwhelming pretty fast.

The bad news about being married to a judge is that your own book doesn’t have a chance to get considered. But that meant I was an easy choice to be the presenter of this year’s prize, which was a lot of fun. Got to meet both Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Lethem, so that was a treat. And I got to announce the finalists and winner, which were some great popular science books. Here’s what I said about each of the finalists:

  • QUIET: THE POWER OF INTROVERTS IN A WORLD THAT CAN’T STOP TALKING, by Susan Cain, conveys one of those ideas that is simple and obvious, but only after someone else has figured it out: it’s okay to be an introvert. Cain explains how a dynamic public speaker might have a strong need to recharge in private after a talk, and how a quiet woman like Rosa Parks can change the world.
  • TURING’S CATHEDRAL: THE ORIGINS OF THE DIGITAL UNIVERSE, by George Dyson, tells a story overflowing with brilliant scientists and world-changing ideas. In the 1930’s Alan Turing explicated the idea behind a universal digital computer; in the 1940’s, John von Neumann led a team that made it a reality. Things, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, were never going to be the same.
  • THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL: HOW STORIES MAKE US HUMAN, by Jonathan Gottschall, links the familiar act of storytelling to the mysteries of biology, psychology, neuroscience, and virtual reality. Our penchant for telling stories is part of our evolved tendency to perceive patterns in the world. Stories aren’t just a way to pass the time, they are a tool for making sense of everything around us.
  • THE SIGNAL AND THE NOISE: WHY SO MANY PREDICTIONS FAIL — BUT SOME DON’T, by Nate Silver — who in the 2012 Presidential elections garnered a lot of attention for making predictions that didn’t fail. No magic or deals with the Devil were involved; just a lot of careful and clear-eyed examination of data. The modern world is awash with data, and separating the signal from the noise has never been more important.
  • BREASTS: A NATURAL AND UNNATURAL HISTORY, by Florence Williams, tackles a subject whose cultural or personal interest tends to obscure questions of science and health. Mammals use breasts to feed their young, but only humans have breasts continuously from puberty onwards — and nobody is quite sure why. Science and history mix in a tale of bodies, feminism, and modern life.

And the winner was … Florence Williams, for Breasts. A subject that our culture kind of obsesses about, obviously, but not always in a level-headed and healthy way. A very worthy winner, amidst an intimidating collection of great competitors.

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6 Responses to Volumes of Science

  1. michael says:

    psst: please check the spelling above for ‘Tur_ings Cathedral” . . . thanks.

  2. Sean Carroll says:

    Oh yeah, I noticed that and yet somehow didn’t fix it. Thanks.

  3. michael says:

    something unrelated: Would it be possible to learn the level of morale over time, among inhabitants of the ISS and see any interesting excursions or patterns?
    Just curious.

  4. Here’s a little anecdote about introversion. It doesn’t directly relate to the blog post, but it’s one I’ve been reminded of in the past when Susan Cain’s work is discussed.

    It happened on a school camp I went on early in my school years. Not sure of the exact year, but definitely no later than third grade. I always hated school camps, but this is one of my few happy memories.

    We had recently arrived at what would be our accommodation for the week, and were all in the large communal room enjoying free time before bed. Most of my peers were doing something rowdy in the back. I forget what. Pingpong tables may have been involved.

    As for me, I was either sitting or lying down, reading a book that I’d found on a shelf, one belonging to the establishment. Suddenly there was a beam of torchlight shining directly on me from the teachers’ table. I guiltily put the book back on the shelf.

    Then a teacher came over and gently explained that, actually, the reason for the torchbeam was that they’d been talking about how they wished all the students were like me, quietly reading a book instead of making all that noise.

  5. edward hessler says:

    Thanks for posting your comments about each of the finalist’s books. Nice thumbnail comments. As I looked at the list I was struck by the daunting task of the panelists. Whew! In addition, the asymmetry of the content makes the task even more difficult. I surprised myself and read “Breasts” a few weeks ago (It was on the new additions shelf.). I might not have read it were it not for Carl Zimmer’s blurb on the back. I’m glad. It is well written and made me think about evolution, cancer and as you noted contemporary life, in ways I might not have otherwise. I recommend it.

  6. Meh says:

    the signal and the noise is very good. I’d recommend it to anyone trying to really understand the basis of probability and statistics; it helped me half way through my statistics class. It doesn’t teach you statistics, to be clear; it just helps you understand the foundation and why we need it in the world.