Tag Archives: science

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

book coverThe Disappearing Spoon: and other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements is a history of the development of our modern periodic table and the discovery and uses of some elements on that table. The book is divided up based on themes, for example; elements during war, politics, money, art and mental health. Elements are the building blocks of the universe, so it would have been easy for this type of book to bogged down in trying to cover too much, however I thought Kean balanced it well. It isn’t necessary to have a lot of chemistry knowledge to understand this book, as he gives an introduction to reading the table in the beginning. I recommend this book for people who are interested in chemistry, physics and science history.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI, SMCM
Review Submitted by:  Joanne Hoppe
Rating:  Highly Recommended

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

book cover

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of the HeLa cell line, a group of cells that can reproduce indefinitely, and the family of the woman who “donated” them. These cells have been used since they were first harvested from Henrietta Lacks, without her knowledge, in 1951 before she died from cancer at 31 years old. Since then her cell line has been replicated trillions of times, have been used to create the polio vaccine, cancer treatments, and has advanced researched into genetics, virology and many other fields. The author developed a very close relationship with the family and tells their story with empathy and in a tactful way. The science is also outlined so it’s understandable without any background knowledge.

Availability:  COSMOS, SMCM, USMAI
Review Submitted by:  Joanne Hoppe
Rating:  Must Read

Endurance by Scott Kelly

Scott Kelly’s writing style is very personal which makes Endurance an easy read. He writes as if you are having a one on one conversation over coffee. There were many times he would talk about something happening in space, and I would have to take a moment to comprehend how strange and different that environment is compared to our planet with all its luxuries like gravity. He goes into detail about how he got to spend a year on the ISS and the intricacies of his day-to-day routine. He also discusses how hard it was for him to concentrate in school. As a result, he wasn’t the best student, but when he got the notion in his head that he wanted to be a pilot he made sure to try everything he could to achieve that goal. His drive is contagious. In general, Kelly is very inspirational. I had followed his year in space loosely while it was taking place, but once he announced he was writing a book, I immediately wanted to read it. After finally getting the chance, I was not disappointed.

Availability: COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by:  Erin Crawford
Rating: Must Read
Challenge: Book with a one word title

Enriching the Earth by Vaclav Smil

Enriching the Earth coverEnriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the transformation of world food production

There is one industrial product that has allowed for humans to be able to support the > 7.6 Billion people on this planet. It isn’t the internet, or space shuttles, or anything like that. It is ammonia – the foundation of the world’s fertilizer.

Historically, farm land would be fertilized with manure and compost, but at an industrial scale, this doesn’t work. For a while in the 1800’s, bird guano was shipped around the world from Peruvian islands as a fertilizer but the limited supplies were quickly exhausted. The key limitation on farm fields is nitrogen, which, though the most abundant element in our air, is difficult to form in to a molecule that is usable by plant life. Ammonia (a molecule that includes nitrogen – NH3) was, of course, terribly difficult to synthesize in a laboratory or at an industrial scale.

In 1909, Fritz Haber was the first to synthesize ammonia in a laboratory in a way that was scalable. Carl Bosch, another chemist at the chemical company BASF has an insight that allowed for the massive production of ammonia.

Many recent estimates have said that without the invention of the process to synthesize ammonia at industrial scales, the earth would be able to support only about 1/3 of the current population. Sounds like a pretty good reason to read a book about the development of the process, eh?

Availability:  SMCM
Review Submitted by: Kevin Emerson
Rating: Highly Recommended

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J Levitin

This is Your Brain on Music cover
This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J Levitin is a thought provoking look at what makes the connection between various forms of music and the human brain. Levitin, both a musician and neuroscientist, delves into the exact ways music is interpreted in our brains and the many ways music shapes our lives. Found in COSMOS, this was a tough, but recommended read.

Availability:  COSMOS, SMCM, USMAI
Review Submitted by: M Denise Brace nee Lerch (’82)
Rating: Recommended

Lysenko’s Ghost by Loren Graham

Lysenko's Ghost cover

There are many cases in history where great harm was done when political ideology trumped scientific knowledge. One of the most influential cases involves the Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko, who as the director of the Institute of Genetics within the USSR’s Academy of Sciences, rejected modern genetic advances as ‘western’ while supporting a theory of genetics that was more in line with Stalinist doctrine. There was a political rejection of Mendelian genetics in favor of a more Stalin-friendly theory of genetics that allowed for the inheritance of acquired characteristics. There are many ‘strange’ theories of biology that came from Lysenko, including the idea that crop seeds should be planted as close together as possible as ‘no members of the same class will compete with one another.’

During the time of Lysenko’s influence in the Soviet Union, many scientists and academics were jailed or killed as a result of contradicting Lysenko and likely a minimum of hundreds of thousands of people were killed as a result of the famine produced when farmers were required to follow Lysenko’s rules. By most measures, Soviet genetic research, which until then was at the top of its game, was set back at least 50 years.

This book revisits the story of Lysenko through the eyes of the modern resurgence in the study of epigenetics – the idea that the environment that one finds oneself in can have an influence on heredity – an idea that some discuss as the inheritances of acquired characteristics. This has led the modern Russian government to interpret this as a vindication of Soviet science, and Lysenko more directly. There is a resurgence of Russian pride in its science and a strong belief that Lysenko himself was persecuted for his science, that they now see as having been ‘correct’.

This really is a misinterpretation of the truth. Lysenko was wrong. Thousands were killed. A small aspect of one of the things Lysenko believed in is a bit more correct than it once was.

Scientific understanding is essential in our modern world. This book is a tale of what happens when political ideology trumps scientific advancement. There is no historical case where ideology has come out ahead in the end.

Availability:  SMCM
Review Submitted by: Kevin Emerson
Rating: Highly Recommended