Book Review: Frequently Asked Questions about the Universe by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson

Cover of the book Frequently Asked Questions about the Universe by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson
Frequently Asked Questions about the Universe
by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson
Riverhead, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on September 15, 2021.

Cham, a robotics scientist, and Whiteson, a professor of physics and astronomy, are cohosts of the podcast, Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe. In their new book, they attempt to answer the most frequently asked questions they receive from their listeners. In twenty chapters, interspersed with tongue-in-cheek comic illustrations, they tackle topics ranging from the origin of the universe, time travel, warp drives, black holes, how the world will end, the predictability of human behavior, and even whether we’re all living in a giant computer simulation. These are some of the biggest questions humanity has ever asked and the authors tackle them with wit, humor, expertise, and humility. The chapters are just the right size to mull over and digest one at a time, but the book also reads quickly enough that it can completed cover-to-cover in one or two sessions. It can also be read out of order, picking the chapters that are of the greatest interest. This is an excellent, easy-to-understand resource for curious people who want to start learning about cosmology.

This title has been recommended for young adult readers:

YA/General Interest: The format and style make this especially well-suited for inquisitive teens.

Book Review: Ten Days in Physics That Shook the World: How Physicists Transformed Everyday Life by Brian Clegg

Cover of the book Ten Days in Physics That Shook the World: How Physicists Transformed Everyday Life by Brian Clegg
Ten Days in Physics That Shook the World: How Physicists Transformed Everyday Life
by Brian Clegg
Icon, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on September 15, 2021.

Science writer Clegg argues that physics and engineering have shaped our world in profound ways. He identifies ten developments which he believes have had the greatest influence on our daily lives, each dated to the publication of a work, the date of patent, or a specific event. Newton’s Principia, harnessing electricity, steam engines, the discovery of radium, Einstein’s most famous equation, LEDs, transistors, and the first connection of the modern internet are all foundational to the modern world. Chapters contain a historical summary of the time period, brief biographical details of the individuals involved, a summary of the event, and an exploration of how it affected—and continues to affect—our lives. Some are discoveries which revolutionized our fundamental understanding of physics. More recently, the focus shifts to engineering and the application of physics to technology. He concludes with an exploration of what day 11 might bring. Despite the title, this isn’t quite a worldwide view of the subject since all ten events took place in Europe or America, but it is a good addition to popular science collections.

Book Review: Life Is Simple: How Occam’s Razor Set Science Free and Shapes the Universe by Johnjoe McFadden

Cover of the book Life Is Simple: How Occam's Razor Set Science Free and Shapes the Universe by Johnjoe McFadden
Life Is Simple: How Occam’s Razor Set Science Free and Shapes the Universe
by Johnjoe McFadden
Basic, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on September 1, 2021.

Occam’s razor, “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity,” is more than just a useful tool. McFadden believes it’s the key that unlocked the potential of modern science. More than a search for truth, science is a search for simplicity, where every major paradigm shift leads to a simplification of our understanding of the cosmos. McFadden places the Franciscan friar William of Occam in the historical context of the fourteenth century, exploring the religious and intellectual culture that gave rise to his philosophy. He then traces how his eponymous razor, ideas of nominalism, and his insistence on the separation of science from religion influenced the subsequent course of science in the Western world. From Copernicus, Galileo, and da Vinci to Darwin, Einstein, and Planck, encompassing mathematics, physics, statistics, and biology, Occam set us on a path to seek simpler solutions. As it turns out, simplicity appears to be a bedrock of our universe. This is a compelling assessment of an idea many of us know but few deeply understand. William’s legacy is one for the ages.

Book Review: The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence by Stephen Kurczy

Cover of the book The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence by Stephen Kurczy
The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence
by Stephen Kurczy
Morrow/Dey St., 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on August 20, 2021.

The National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ) was established by the federal government in the Appalachian area around Green Bank, West Virginia, in 1958, to protect a National Science Foundation radio telescope from signal interference. Within the NRQZ, everything from cellphones to WiFi to microwave ovens is restricted by law. In addition to attracting world-class astronomers to the region, the lack of technology over the years has attracted hippie communes, back-to-nature homesteaders, people suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome, and even the famous clown doctor, Patch Adams. In addition, the remote location made the NRQZ an ideal location for one of the most dangerous neo-Nazi organizations in the country, an NSA surveillance site, and murder and disappearances. Kurczy, a millennial journalist who rejects cellphones, spent several years visiting the NRQZ to learn why this place, of all places, would bring such disparate folk together. Turns out, the quiet zone isn’t all that quiet and not everyone wants it to be. An engaging and sympathetic study of the myriad people who call this unique place home.

Book Review: Where Did the Universe Come From? And Other Cosmic Questions by Chris Ferrie and Geraint F. Lewis

Cover of the book Where Did the Universe Come From? And Other Cosmic Questions by Chris Ferrie and Geraint F. Lewis
Where Did the Universe Come From? And Other Cosmic Questions
by Chris Ferrie and Geraint F. Lewis
Sourcebooks, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on July 21, 2021.

**STARRED REVIEW** Our understanding of how the universe works is governed by two models: relativity and quantum mechanics. Both models have proven their accuracy time and again, but we also know that both can’t be true. The quest to marry the two into a single coherent model remains the ultimate goal of physicists. In Where Did the Universe Come From? two physicists explore the various ways our universe is governed by both relativity and quantum mechanics, from its origins in the big bang to the evolution of galaxies, from the death of stars to the heat death of the universe. They also summarize the history of how these concepts developed. They identify the gaps in our understanding and examine ideas for how a “theory of everything” might be forged. The authors do an exceptional job of explaining quantum-physical concepts in layperson’s terms, using examples and metaphors to illuminate the important ideas without the need to understand the mathematics. This is incredibly complicated stuff and it can only be simplified so far. Where Did the Universe Come From? is one of the most accessible summaries of the present state of cosmology on the market.

Book Review: Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium by Lucy Jane Santos

Cover of the book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium By Lucy Jane Santos
Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium
by Lucy Jane Santos
Pegasus, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on June 1, 2021.

Given the known dangers of radiation, it’s difficult to comprehend how anyone could have thought it was healthy. But for nearly half a century after the discovery of radium, radiation was touted by scientists and medical experts as a cure-all for a whole range of maladies, from cancer to tuberculosis to various skin conditions. Radium was used in spas, steam treatments, salves and poultices, face creams, hair tonics, toothpaste, and more. People were even encouraged to drink radioactive water. Scientists recommended a range of radiation-based medical treatments and worried about unscrupulous businesses selling patent medicines that falsely claimed to contain radium. It was only over time that the dangers of radiation became clear. The development of the atomic bomb marked the end of radium’s golden age. In telling this history, Santos is careful not to judge from the perspective of hindsight: the use of radiation in medicine wasn’t quackery, it was supported by the best current scientific understanding. It’s an entertaining and eye-opening tale of a strange time in the early history of modern science.

Book Review: The Science of Jurassic World: The Dinosaur Facts Behind the Films by Mark Brake and Jon Chase

Cover of the book The Science of Jurassic World: The Dinosaur Facts Behind the Films by Mark Brake and Jon Chase
The Science of Jurassic World: The Dinosaur Facts Behind the Films
by Mark Brake and Jon Chase
Skyhorse, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on May 15, 2021.

The original Jurassic Park movie attempted to be as scientifically plausible as possible; subsequent entries in the franchise have been less so. But just how accurate is the science behind the series? Brake uses the films as a framework to explore the current state of what we know about dinosaurs, as well as what we don’t. This is a broad overview, covering everything from the Bone Wars to the latest discoveries. He explores how dinosaurs evolved and spread across the earth, what they were like, how they behaved, how they went extinct, and how new evidence is continually reshaping our understanding. He even considers what dinosaurs can teach us about our current world and the challenges we face today. Brake’s stated goal is to create a dinosaur book for adults that’s as engaging as books on the subject for children. He mostly succeeds, although some of the connections to the movie franchise feel a bit forced. It’s a good introduction and overview of the field and our current understanding of dinosaurs. Recommended for any library collection.

This title has been recommended for young adult readers:

YA/S – special interest: An excellent selection for teens interested in paleontology.

Book Review: Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World’s Most Successful Insects by Jonathan Balcombe

Cover of the book Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World's Most Successful Insects by Jonathan Balcombe
Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World’s Most Successful Insects
by Jonathan Balcombe
Penguin, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on May 1, 2021.

Flies, two-winged flying insects that include everything from houseflies to mosquitoes to midges, are some of the least studied insects on the planet, which is surprising given that they’re among the most populous and varied. But associations with filth and blight, biting and pestilence, and crop destruction don’t make them very appealing. Balcombe wants to change that. Flies are fascinating, vital, and beautiful creatures. Flies are essential to the food chain, among the most common plant pollinators, and clean up rot and decay. They help solve crimes and heal wounds, and even unlock the possibility of insect sentience. Most famous for helping scientists study genetic inheritance via fruit flies, Diptera, it turns out, have far more to teach us. Balcombe also warns of the potential catastrophic effects of human actions on fly populations. Monoculture and pesticides are greatly reducing their numbers, but without flies, ecosystems will collapse. They may be pests, but flies deserve our respect and admiration. This is an excellent overview of what we know and what we’re discovering about flies.

Book Review: Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement by Faith Kearns

Cover of the book Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement by Faith Kearns
Getting to the Heart of Science Communication: A Guide to Effective Engagement
by Faith Kearns
Island, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on April 30, 2021.

With more than 25 years of experience as a science communicator, Kearns has a persuasive vision for how to improve the relationship between science and the public. She covers the history of science communication and offers guidance to make it more effective, illustrated by the experiences of a range of science communicators at work today. Science communication can’t be an objective authority handing down information to the public. Communicators must connect with people in the context of lived experience and the trauma that accompanies the natural and human-made disasters science seeks to solve. Science communicators aren’t separate from the public, instead often living in the communities they serve and affected by the same traumas. Science communication must engage with empathy, negotiate interpersonal and structural conflicts, interrogate the privilege and lack of diversity in the field, and embrace the emotional landscape of science. This book is written for professional science communicators but will appeal to anyone interested in a growing field, and it offers good advice about communication that applies far beyond the confines of science.

Book Review: Chemistry for Breakfast: The Amazing Science of Everyday Life by Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim

Cover of the book Chemistry for Breakfast: The Amazing Science of Everyday Life by Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim
Chemistry for Breakfast: The Amazing Science of Everyday Life
by Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim
Greystone, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on April 1, 2021.

Nguyen-Kim is a chemist and a science communicator who runs a popular German-language YouTube channel. Her first book takes readers on a journey through her typical day, from waking up and having her first cup of coffee through visiting a friend to charging her smartphone to an evening dinner party, showing how chemistry defines the world along the way in terms understandable to science newbies. Chemistry is central to food and nutrition, cosmetics and cleaning products, technology, even moods and how we fall in love. (The nutrition labels examined are German, not American.) Nguyen-Kim uses everyday examples to teach the basics of chemistry, and illustrates (aided by illustrations by claire Lenkova) that scientists are cool and interesting people, far from the stodgy stereotype. The more we know about how chemistry works, the better choices we can make about the things we use and consume. Ultimately, she wants to inspire a passion for science, which makes the world more fascinating, more beautiful, and more complex. Altogether, this is an impassioned, quirky, fun, and engaging read.

This title has been recommended for young adult readers:

YA/Curriculum Support: Teens needing a rudimentary breakdown of chemistry will find this engaging book helpful. —Susan Maguire