Brief book reviews: four popular science and history of science books

A while back I asked y’all for recommendations for popular science books that a scientist would enjoy. Meaning, not written a too low a level, not too hype-y, etc. There were so many great recommendations that it was hard to choose! But in the end, I decided to start with:

Brief reviews below the fold. tl;dr: The first three are all well worth your time. The Book That Changed America is a bait and switch and eminently skippable.

How I Killed Pluto is by the Caltech astronomer whose discovery of numerous planet-like bodies in our solar system eventually led to Pluto (the largest of such bodies) being demoted from “planet” status. Wonderful little book–funny, charming, and insightful. Gives the blow-by-blow of Brown’s planet hunting, which was widely seen as a wild goose chase (including sometimes by Brown himself). Brown interleaves the science with stories from his life–he got married and had a family while he was killing Pluto. The book is more eventful than you might expect–for instance, another astronomer committed blatant misconduct in an attempt to scoop Brown. And Brown is thoughtful and insightful on why what might seem like a matter of arbitrary definition–what’s a “planet”–actually is important to address in a principled way. Convinced me that Pluto should not be a planet, though not everyone is convinced. Some astronomers are still proposing new definitions of “planet” to try to bring Pluto back to planetary life.

There’s a joke in philosophy (due to Alfred North Whitehead) that all philosophy is just footnotes to Plato. The Invention Of Nature argues that all thinking about nature is footnotes to Humboldt. Wulf makes the case that Alexander Von Humboldt was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived and deserves to be as famous today as he was when he was alive (which would make him as famous as Newton or Darwin). Traces back to Humboldt the modern idea of “nature” as an interconnected whole, the balance of which man disturbs at his peril (Wulf credits Humboldt with the discovery of anthropogenic climate change). Interesting and well-written, I enjoyed it. Enough information to be meaty and serious but not so much as to become a slog. Not entirely convincing; sometimes tries too hard to give Humboldt credit for mere passing remarks, or vague hints of ideas that others later developed much more fully. For instance, Wulf more or less implies that Darwin got the idea of evolution by natural selection from Humboldt.

Lovelace and Babbage is easily my favorite book in this post. Utterly unique. The closest comparison I can think of is the Science of Discworld books, each of which interweaves a humorous science-themed fantasy story with non-fiction chapters about the science underpinning the fantasy. Lovelace and Babbage is a hilarious mini-graphic novel with footnotes. The comics present an alternative steampunk universe in which Charles Babbage completes his Analytical Engine, and he and Ada Lovelace use it to have adventures (fighting crime, battling street musicians, saving the British economy…). But less than half the book is comics. The rest is comprised of extensive and entertaining footnotes and endnotes to the comics that give you the historical background you need to fully appreciate the comics. Think of it as fan fiction-slash-computing history-slash biography. I was surprised just how informative it is. Padua did a lot of background research, including looking up original documents in online archives and even making a modest historical discovery. She even provides balanced, thoughtful commentary on controversial topics such as exactly how to apportion credit between Lovelace and Babbage. And if you’re worried that her geeky obsessiveness will be overwhelming, well, don’t be. Padua’s a huge admirer of Lovelace and Babbage, but she’s self-aware about it and often pokes fun at herself for it. If you or someone in your life would enjoy geeking out about the dawn of computing, you should drop whatever you’re doing and order this book.

The Book That Changed America would be better titled One Book Among Many Others That Boston Abolitionists Read And Discussed In The Run-up To The Civil War. Too narrowly focused to function as a scholarly or even popular study of the spread of the ideas in The Origin of Species in the US. Heck, it doesn’t even show that the Origin changed the Boston abolitionists in the 1850s-60s. Indeed, in many cases it seems like the Boston abolitionists read the Origin as confirming what they already believed, so that it hardly changed them at all. The reason the book doesn’t make the case for the claim in the title is that it doesn’t even try. Much of the book isn’t about the Origin at all. It’s about other things that Boston abolitionists were doing in the 1850s and ’60s, like funding John Brown. As an aside, Fuller gives Darwin credit for being a massive influence on Thoreau. I found this amusing because Andrea Wulf gives Humboldt that credit. This is a small illustration of how you can’t show that author A massively influenced author B just by focusing on author A. To make a convincing case, you have to put the influenced at the center of your story, not the (purported) influencer. You have to look not just at B’s reading of A, but B’s reading of C, D, E, etc.

3 thoughts on “Brief book reviews: four popular science and history of science books

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #46 | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Thanks to this post, I read How I Killed Pluto while on vacation last week and second your recommendation! It was great.

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