After a period when my reading fell by the wayside, and before I disciplined myself to stay off the Internet in the evening, I’ve finally gotten back in the swing of reading for several hours each night. (I swear that the Internet, with the short attention span it fosters, will be the death of books.) Here’s what’s on my bedside table (I invariably read in the supine position):
Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science by Alice Dreger. I finished this on Thursday, and give it 1.5 thumbs up. I heard about the book not only from readers here, but from Elizabeth Loftus, who recommended it highly at the American Humanist Association meetings.
Dreger, a bioethicist who recently resigned from Northwestern University in protest against censorship by her dean, has produced an absorbing account of her struggles against bands of Regressive Leftists and Scientific Authoritarians who held their ideologies higher than the inconvenient truth. The several stories she tells include her fight against sex-reassignment surgery performed on babies or children who can’t consent; her struggle to get a doctor, Maria New, to stop using untested hormone therapy on fetuses whose mothers might have been carriers of genes producing intersex offspring; and her exposure of the abysmal treatment given by his colleagues to Napoleon Chagnon, a noted anthropologist whose work on the Yanomama of Brazil has become iconic. (Chagnon was falsely accused, among other things, of deliberately infecting the Yanomama with measles and paying them to kill each other for his research.)
Dreger is clearly a woman of great courage and tenacity, but endearingly exposes her own fears and weaknesses. If you want to see how some cultural anthropologists or gender studies professors can ride roughshod over facts to promote their own political agendas, the book is well worth reading. Its only flaw is that at times it dwells too extensively on gossip that seems irrelevant, though even that serves to humanize Dreger’s story.
The New York Times’s review is also positive, and says this:
“We are almost always too late,” Dreger writes. “We can bear witness afterward, of course. And witnessing matters. But so many days, I find myself selfishly wishing that witnessing felt like enough.”
Dreger’s lament aside, I suspect most readers will find that her witnessing of these wild skirmishes provides a splendidly entertaining education in ethics, activism and science.
The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments, by Jim Baggott. In my lifelong (and largely futile) attempt to understand the weirdness of quantum mechanics, I acquired this book, sent to me (and edited) by Latha Menon, my own editor at Oxford University Press. I’m about 2/3 of the way through it, and although it’s hard slogging at times (when Baggott proffers equations or technical explanation), it’s fascinating and well worth a read. Baggott, a former physical chemist who has written a slew of popular science books, divides the history of quantum mechanics into 40 chapters, starting with Planck and black body radiation and going through string theory and the discovery of the Higgs boson (you can see the contents on the Amazon site). It’s a masterful interweaving of the tortuous history of this branch of physics with the often colorful people who advanced it. I give it, again, 1.5 thumbs up (- 0.5 thumbs because of the sporadic difficulty of the text). And just maybe, when I reach the end, I’ll finally understand Bell’s Inequality and the experiments on quantum entanglement. But I hold out little hope.
The book sold very well, especially for something from a university press, and has been added to OUP’s “Landmark Science” series.
Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why do they Say It? by Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman. Shermer previously wrote one excellent chapter on Holocaust denialism in his 2002 book Why People Believe Weird Things, and he and Grobman have now expanded that treatment into an entire book. As I’ve just started it, I can’t say much about it, except that it looks thorough and worth reading by those who either deal with this kind of denialism, increasingly pervasive in the Arab world, or want a case study in confirmation bias and pseudoscience.
And here are two books that are next on my list:
The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself by Sean M. Carroll. This book deals with the implications of physics for philosophy and our own self-image, espousing what Carroll calls “poetic naturalism”. I’m a big fan of Carroll’s popular writing: as you know—he’s our Official Website Physicist™—and he’s my go-to person to explain arcane physics stuff. Here he synthesizes much of his thinking over the last few years (he’ll present it as well in the prestigious Gifford Lectures this winter), and the title is self-explanatory. The book has sold extremely well, even making the New York Times‘s best seller list, and has gotten generally excellent reviews (the NYT one is here). I suspect I’ll like it a lot—except for the bit on free will, for I’ve heard that Carroll comes out as a compatibilist.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The older I get, the less fiction I read, as the real world just seems more interesting to me in my dotage. But I won’t give up fiction, and this is one book I’ll read. Our local Powell’s bookstore has a discard box outside the shop, where they put out for free all the used books people try to sell them but they don’t really want. I saw a mint copy of The Goldfinch in this box, and, recognizing the name and the book’s reputation (it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014), I snapped it up. I barely know what it’s about (see details here), but the critical acclaim has been tremendous, and I’m looking forward to getting acquainted with an author I’ve never read.
Finally, I’m reading a SuperSecret book that I can’t name as I’m going to review it formally. Stay tuned.
Now it’s your turn, as once or twice a year I solicit book suggestions from readers. What are you reading now, and do you like it? What summer books do you recommend for other readers?