The maths of everything

Jennifer-Ouellette-credit-Ken-Weingart-2This interview was originally published in COSMOS Magazine, issue 51.

Los Angeles-based Jennifer Ouellette writes about science, particularly physics, for The Wall Street JournalNew Scientist and Physics World. Her most recent book, The Calculus Diaries, tackles many students’ nemesis, mathematics. She tells COSMOS reviews editor Rivqa Rafael why she took up the challenge.  Continue reading

Theft, lies and medical breakthroughs

peter-pringleThis interview was originally published in COSMOS Magazine, issue 49.

British-born Peter Pringle spent 30 years as a foreign correspondent, writing for magazines and newspapers such as The New York TimesThe Observer and The Atlantic. Now based in New York City, he has authored or co-authored eight books, most recently a story of a famous scientific rip-off that followed the discovery of a cure for tuberculosis. He chats to COSMOS reviews editor Rivqa Rafael about the controversy. Continue reading

Harder, better, faster, stronger

better-human-247x373How to Build a Better Human: an Ethical Blueprint
By Gregory E. Pence (2012), Rowman & Littlefield

This review was originally published in COSMOS Magazine, issue 50.

Stay calm – the brave new world of post-humanism is further away than you think.

That’s the take-home message of Gregory Pence’s excellent guide to the ethics of human modification.

Pence’s approach is best summarised as pragmatic philosophy, if such a tautology can be forgiven. Rather than speculate about near-impossible hypotheticals, he focusses on what can be (and is) done now, or might be in the near future. As such, a great deal of the book is taken up with deconstructing the ‘slippery slope’ arguments against pharmaceutical, surgical and genetic augmentation.

In a conversational, easy-to-read tone, he cautions against “comic book stereotypes” and begs for nuance in the debate about what we should and shouldn’t do to better ourselves. He dismantles the protests of Alarmists and the fantasies of Enthusiasts (his capitals), arguing for a commonsense approach in place of either extreme.

After running through the viable techniques for enhancing adults, children and embryos, Pence offers practical suggestions for scientists, politicians and anyone else who’s interested. Clocking in under 200 pages, the broad appeal of How to Build a Better Human is impressive: experts, futurists and casual readers might not agree with everything Pence says, but they’ll enjoy the journey regardless.

Hard to imagine

barely-imagined1-237x373The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary
By Caspar Henderson, Allen & Unwin (2012)
This review was originally published in COSMOS Magazine.

Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid judging a book by its cover.

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, with its gilded cover, rich illustrations and gorgeous typesetting, is one such volume. Clearly, an unusual amount of care went into designing this book. But as I started reading it, the thought crossed my mind that the substance might not match the form.

Happily, this wasn’t the case. Henderson’s writing is engaging, descriptive and often drily humorous. Using the format of the old-fashioned bestiary, but with better science to back him up, Henderson celebrates the “fantastic diversity of living things, from lampreys to Lady Gaga”.

Each chapter of this A-to-Z guide is really a standalone essay, chock-full of interesting facts and with a strong conservationist and ethical message. A discussion of the Quetzalcoatlus, an extinct flying reptile, diverges into the history, both wondrous and perilous, of human aeronautics as well as flight in the animal kingdom.

Henderson is a Wallace for our time, delighting in the strange and beautiful creatures that nature has to offer. In describing them, he draws from literature and scientists both old and new, as well as coining some wonderful phrases of his own. (Gonodactylus is a shrimp with “the fastest genitals in the West”; and a kangaroo is a “marsupial pogo stick”.) But he also unflinchingly tackles darker sides of biology, such as social Darwinism and cruelty in the animal world – including humanity.

Henderson’s modern bestiary is a book to read and treasure in hardcover if ever there was one.

I looked physics in the eye and I did not flinch

Credit: CERN

I haven’t studied physics formally since year 10. I found it boring (really, high school physics is pretty dull, especially if your teacher isn’t engaging in the slightest) and I wriggled out of it at uni.

I had a vague sense that my chemistry at uni was suffering as a consequence, but I didn’t dwell on it as I moved further into biological sciences (ironically including a biophysics component, but I didn’t need to understand how the x-ray crystallography machine worked) and later out of research science altogether.

So it was with surprise and trepidation that I found myself not only reviewing two physics books, but also interviewing a physicist-turned-writer.

But as it turned out, I picked the perfect material to gently reintroduce me to what may be the most daunting field of science. Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe tackles people with alternative theories of the universe and everything in it. These outsider physicists are usually studiously ignored by the establishment, but in examining them Wertheim elucidated some uncomfortable truths about the state of the physics, particularly theoretical physics. Our interview touched on these topics and made me think about why I’d abandoned physics so long ago.

I also reviewed Einstein’s Jewish Science, in which Steven Gimbel – with grace and panache – took on the Nazis’ claim that Einstein’s science was unacceptable because he was Jewish. As well as the history and philosophy of science, he explains some of the Einstein’s trickier concepts in an approachable, understandable way.

All up, a big boost in my physics… but now I’m going to kick back with some sci-fi and give my brain a rest.