Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme.  These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

This column’s theme:  Science for everyone!
Science is, by and large, figuring out how stuff works, and to me, the interesting part of that is not necessarily the answers (that’s the most satisfying part) but the process of getting those answers.  How could you know that it’s five billion light years to a galaxy, and that that galaxy is moving away from us? How would you figure out if a plant you’ve never seen before is safe to eat? How could you use this process to extrapolate solutions to the most unlikely of scenarios?

So this month we’re taking a look at books that ask the questions, provide the answers, show their work and explain it all in a way that doesn’t require a post-graduate degree to understand.

So if you like

Providing decisive ends to theoretical arguments.

Countering children’s questions with even better ones.

Taking scientific reasoning to absurd extremes.

You might like

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe

Overview

Munroe, author of the XKCD web comic and physicist by training, applies science to examine the consequences of hypothetical scenarios, like:

  • What would happen if you could throw a baseball at 90% the speed of light?
  • How long would the crew of a nuclear submarine survive in earth orbit?
  • Why is creating a periodic table with real elements a terrible idea?
  • What would happen if everybody on earth jumped at the same time?

Sample passage

From his explanation of throwing a baseball at 90% the speed of light:

Suppose you’re watching from a hilltop outside the city. The first thing you would see would be a blinding light, far outshining the sun. This would gradually fade over the course of a few seconds, and a growing fireball would rise into a mushroom cloud. Then, with a great roar, the blast wave would arrive, tearing up trees and shredding houses.

Everything within roughly a mile of the park would be leveled, and a firestorm would engulf the surrounding city. The baseball diamond, now a sizable crater, would be centered a few hundred feet behind the former location of the backstop.

Major League Baseball Rule 6.08(b) suggests that in this situation, the batter would be considered “hit by pitch,” and would be eligible to advance to first base.

Takeaway

I really can’t recommend this book highly enough for everybody from grade school age on up. It’s the sort of book I’d have loved as a 4th grader, and I love it as an adult. The explanations are really straightforward and provide insight into how one would go about getting answers to any question. Munroe’s sense of humor is present without being overwhelming, and his stick figure illustrations just add to the whole effect. Every house needs this on their bookshelf.

Or if you like:

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

Survival Prepping on a budget

Playing Sid Meier’s Civilization
A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Past

You might like

How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, by Ryan North

Overview

This survival guide for the stranded time traveler will let you reboot civilization in a fraction of the time it took our ancestors, and since you’re not going home, what else are you going to do?

Sample passage

This huge expanse of time—the 150,000 years between 200,000 BCE, when humans first appeared, to 50,000 BCE, when they finally started talking—is where you can have the single greatest effect on history. If you can help humans of this era become behaviorally modern as soon as they became anatomically modern—if you can teach them to talk—then you can give every civilization on the planet a 150,000-year head start.

It’s probably worth the effort.

The unique challenge facing you in this era is how to teach a language to people when the very idea of spoken language may be new to them. It’s important to remember that most humans you encounter may not have language, but they’ll still communicate with one another, through grunts and body language. All you need to do is move them from grunts to words, and don’t worry: a complicated language like English with things like “subjunctive clauses” and “imperfect futures” (used here in the grammatical sense, not the time-travel sense) is not necessary, and you can get by with a simplified version of the language you already know, called “pidgin.” You will also have better results if you focus on teaching children. The older humans are, the harder it is for them to learn languages, and fluent acquisition of a first language becomes much more challenging—if not impossible—after puberty.

Takeaway

Written in the form of a manual that comes with every time machine, this book is a guide to the best ideas humanity has come up with, without the ignorance and trial and error that took them so long to be invented in the first place.  One of the more interesting sections lists when technologies could have been invented, versus when they were actually invented. It’s amazing how far one could jump start modern humans (first seen around 200,000 BCE) with a language (first seen around 50,000 BCE), literacy (first seen around 3200 BCE) and “non-sucky numbers” (which would be Hindu/Arabic numbers featuring 0, first seen around 1700 BCE).  While the book generally maintains its Hitchhiker’s Guide tone, it does get a bit more dense around the end when it digs in to trigonometry and computer design. Still, if you’ve got an interest in any of the leading topics, this is well worth checking out.

Or if you like:

Either version of the TV series Cosmos

Learning how scientists could possibly know something

Physics without the math

You might like

Death by Black Hole, by Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Overview

This book is a collection of essays on astrophysics and related scientific topics, written in an easily accessible manner, that don’t have to be read in any particular order.

Sample passage

One needn’t look far to find scary predictions of a global holocaust by killer asteroids. That’s good, because most of what you might have seen, read, or heard is true.

The chances that your or my tombstone will read “killed by asteroid” are about the same for “killed in an airplane crash.” About two dozen people have been killed by falling asteroids in the past 400 years, but thousands have died in crashes during the relatively brief history of passenger air travel. So how can this comparative statistic be true? Simple. The impact record shows that by the end of 10 million years, when the sum of all airplane crashes has killed a billion people (assuming a death-by-airplane rate of 100 per year), an asteroid is likely to have hit Earth with enough energy to kill a billion people. What confuses the interpretation is that while airplanes kill people a few at a time, our asteroid might not kill anybody for millions of years. But when it hits, it will take out hundreds of millions of people instantaneously and many more hundreds of millions in the wake of global climatic upheaval.

Takeaway

These essays cover a lot of the same ground that the series of Cosmos Tyson hosted did, though to varying degrees. I’d enjoyed both, and these essays provide a general understanding of things like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, as well as the history of scientists’ attempts to understand the universe, and what they’ve found there. The writing style is pretty approachable, and would be appropriate for a ten year old, since it presents all the payoff of scientific research without getting overly deep into the details of how scientists got there.

 

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts where you found the link, and stay tuned for my next column, where the theme will be: Road Trip!

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