Science

If you have ever wondered about the imaginative, wondrous side of science – for instance, how Einstein used maths to predict the existence of gravitational waves, or how a metaphor led to the astonishing discovery that the spinning earth drags space-time around it like molasses around a spoon, this is not the book for you. But if you want to know why scientists had the patience to keep refining their experiments until they detected this barely perceptible rippling of space-time, or why they have the kind of grit made legendary by Marie and Pierre Curie, sifting through tonnes of pitchblende for a speck of radium, you will find an intriguing, bold, and controversial answer in The Knowledge Machine.

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Founded in 1831, the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) sought to redress impediments to scientific progress that arose in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, determining that the BAAS would ‘give a stronger impulse and more systematic direction to scientific inquiry … [and] promote the intercourse of cultivators of science’.

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Celestial Tapestry is a gem, indeed, a trove of gems: lavishly illustrated cameos from the science and history of art and mathematics, woven into a narrative about pattern and symmetry. We humans have an innate appreciation of symmetry, judging from 5,000 years of art, architecture, mathematics, and mythical and religious symbolism. After all, symmetry is all around us – in the shapes of our bodies, snowflakes, and seashells, and in the fractal-like branching of twigs and blood vessels. In its abstract, mathematical form, symmetry even underlies our modern theories of fundamental physics.

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There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness by Carlo Rovelli, translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell

by
March 2021, no. 429

In a recent interview, Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli confessed that the book he would most like to be remembered for is The Order of Time (2018), a work in which time, as it is commonly understood, ‘melts [like a snowflake] between your fingers and vanishes’. The Order of Time, Rovelli admits, only pretends to be about physics. Ultimately, it’s a book about the meaning of life and the complexity of being human.

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Undertaking fieldwork in Iceland, anthropologist Hugh Raffles was combing a beach when he noticed, and became transfixed by, a ‘large rectangular black stone’. So transfixed, in fact, that he decided to take it back to New York. On his return to his car, everything was in chaos. The alarm went off, piercing the tranquil landscape; the ‘door open’ icon flashed, despite all the doors being closed. Raffles began to drive, but the alarm and blinking light were unceasing. So he pulled over, gently placed the stone by the side of the road and drove on in relieved silence. Upon hearing this story, his Icelandic friends laughed knowingly. ‘Everything is alive,’ they said. Later, poring over archival material, Raffles discovered that the coastline on which his brush with the supernatural had occurred was known for causing chaos with ships’ navigational instruments, ‘perhaps because of high levels of magnetite grains in the basalt’.

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One of the blessings of Covid-19 lockdown was discovering the wildlife cameras streaming on the internet in real time. With a click it became possible to observe brown bears catching salmon in Alaska, sea lions clambering on and off a rocky beach in British Columbia, and white-bellied sea eagles nesting in an eyrie high in bushland on Sydney’s fringes. Watching newly fledged eaglets literally stretching their wings as they stare across the treetops, it’s impossible not to wonder what they must experience in that moment, as they sense for the first time the instinctive urge to take flight. What does it feel like to be a bird? What sense does a bird have of itself as a subjective, experiencing being? How might its consciousness be characterised?

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A Letter to Layla is very much a book of our times. Its impetus lies in our rapidly changing climate, and it concludes with the unexpected impact of Covid-19. In between, the book explores both our distant past and our future.

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The announcement in June 2000 that a first draft of the human genome had been completed was rightly recognised as a landmark in scientific endeavour. Predictions were that the sequencing of the genome would allow for the pinpointing of genes responsible for conditions such as Alzheimer’s and heart disease, and lead to finely targeted, even personalised, treatments for a range of disorders. That these ambitions are still some way from being met doesn’t make the discovery any less remarkable. The Human Genome Project (HGP) gave us the capacity to read the basic building blocks of life. Research into the human genome is teaching us that the relationship between our approximately 30,000 genes and who we are is enormously complex, the result not merely of the action of individual genes but also of the ways in which those genes interact with each other and with their environment.

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While climbing in British Columbia, Canadian writer and journalist Eva Holland becomes paralysed by fear. She has long been troubled by exposed heights, but this is different. What she experiences is an ‘irrational force’ that prevents her from moving. It is only the dogged encouragement of friends that allows her to make her tentative way back down the mountain.

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In lectures delivered at Princeton University in November 2016, science historian Naomi Oreskes asked why, at a time when the epistemological and cultural relevance of science is subject to increasing doubt, we should still have confidence in science as our primary source of knowledge about the physical world. Why Trust Science? is the culmination of those lectures, and includes not only Oreskes’s appraisal of the scientific method but also four commentaries on the lectures. It is a work predicated, rightly or wrongly, on the assertion that the eminence of science ‘can no longer be maintained without argument’.

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