Book review: The Signature Of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

On the recommendation of our commenters, I just finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature Of All Things. Here’s my (brief) review.

tl;dr: This is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

Warning: a few very mild semi-spoilers ahead. Honestly, I wouldn’t consider them spoilers myself. But I know some people don’t like to know any details about a book before they read it.

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Some thoughts on The Undoing Project, especially related to science, academia, and mentoring

I recently finished Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project, which focuses on the lives and work of psychologists Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky. They changed how we think about how we think, with their work on psychology having major influences in economics and medicine, in particular. I really enjoyed the book, and there were a few points I wanted to write about here, as I think they are important for scientists, mentors, and/or academics to consider. It’s not a full review of the book* – I’m just focusing in on a few areas that I thought were particularly notable.

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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.

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Thanks readers! I’m working my way through the popular science and lab lit you recommended

A little while back I asked you for your favorite novels featuring scientists, and your favorite popular science books that a scientist would like, and you came through in spades. Just a quick post to say thanks again for all the recommendations; I added a bunch of them to my Goodreads list and my wife got my some of them for Christmas!

So far I’ve read The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, which as loyal reader Jeff Ollerton guessed was right up my alley. And All The Birds In The Sky, which is hard to describe. Cautionary scifi-fantasy mashup? Interesting, I liked it, but the Big Idea was too obvious for my taste. The characters worked as characters, but they had to do double-duty as The Engineering Worldview and The Left-wing Environmentalist Radical Worldview. I dunno, maybe I’d have found it more compelling if I was less of an optimist and thought that the world really was at risk of being destroyed by a war between those two worldviews.

I just started The Invention of Nature (good so far), and then after that is How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.

So, what science-y reading did you get for the holiday?

What are your favorite novels featuring scientists? (updated)

In a recent post, we came up with a great list of popular science books that appeal to scientists. Now let’s do the same thing for fiction. What are your favorite novels featuring scientists? I’ll accept novels about academia too.

I’ll kick things off with four very different but equally-excellent selections:

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Recommendations of popular science books that scientists would enjoy? (UPDATEDx2)

I like to read about science and scientists. I like books that get me thinking about science and how to do it. But I find it difficult to identify popular science and history of science books that I will enjoy. The problem is that I’m a scientist. Many popular science books are too basic/slow-moving for me, too familiar, or else too wildly speculative.*

That’s where you come in. In the comments, please share your recommendations for your favorite popular science and history of science books. Specifically, ones that you think that scientists would especially enjoy.

To kick things off, here are some of my favorite popular science books, books that I think readers of this blog would really like as well. I also threw in a book you’d probably think I would’ve liked, but I didn’t.

(UPDATE #2: You have GOT to read the comments as well. Our commenters came through big time, as they always do. I love our commenters!)

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Book review: How the Hippies Saved Physics

Yes, it’s another of my patented non-timely book reviews. At the long-ago suggestion of frequent commenter Jeff Ollerton Artem Kaznatcheev, I just read David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics. Here’s my review, which as usual is less about the book and more hopefully-interesting thoughts inspired by the book.

Yes, I know this is useful to like minus-seven of you. Whatever. If all our posts were useful, you’d forget how useful the useful ones are. You’d get tired of winning reading useful posts.* 🙂

tl;dr: It’s a fun and thought provoking book, you should totally read it. Click through if you care why I say that, or if you want to read my half-baked thoughts on the non-tradeoff between creativity and rigor in science, the challenges of pursuing theory-free research programs, and whether there’s really such a thing as a “productive mistake”.

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Brief book reviews: four novels featuring scientists (UPDATE)

A long while back I linked to a list of novels* featuring realistic scientists as central characters, taking place in realistic settings (as opposed to speculative sci-fi). I picked out a few to read, here are my brief reviews.

My hope is that I’m adding a bit of value by reviewing these from my perspective as a scientist, thereby helping you avoid reading stuff that wouldn’t work for a non-scientist. What’s plausible to a non-scientist might well be implausible to a scientist.

Warning: mild spoilers ahead for the last book on the list.

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Book review: Lab Coats in Hollywood by David Kirby

A while back I read Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema by David Kirby. It’s about how scientific consultants shape the portrayal of scientists and science in Hollywood movies, and how the movies feed back to affect public perceptions of science and occasionally even the direction of science itself. Here’s my review. Links to other reviews here.

tl;dr: If you like movies, like science, and and are all curious about how science ends up on screen, you need to read this book. It’s a lot of fun, and you’ll learn something.

Author David Kirby knows whereof he speaks. He holds a Ph.D. in molecular evolution from the University of Maryland, but left a tenure-track biology professorship to retrain in science and technology studies at Cornell. He’s now a senior lecturer in science communication at the University of Manchester. And as background research for the book, he appears to have spoken at great length to every scientist who’s ever advised on a Hollywood film, and to every filmmaker who’s ever hired a science consultant. Ok, not really.* But I’ve never read a book that packs in so many examples to illustrate its points.

Those examples are the biggest strength of the book. They’re entertaining—Kirby dug up scads of great anecdotes, about films ranging from Contact to Finding Nemo to The Nutty Professor.** They’re fascinating—I loved learning about all the little decisions and moving parts that go into making a movie. They’re organized—Kirby doesn’t just string together anecdotes, he’s got a sensible framework in which they all fit. And they’re informative—the book disabused me of my over-simplified view of how science feeds into Hollywood movies.

Some of big takeaways of the book for me:

  • It’s often said that the need to make a film entertaining ultimately trumps scientific realism. That was my view before I read the book, and at some level it’s true. But that broad-brush picture is tremendously oversimplified. “Entertainment” is an umbrella term for a huge range of considerations—everything from the difficulty of filming people on a dark comet in Deep Impact, to the boring sound that a “realistic” extraterrestrial signal in Contact would actually make, and so on. There are so many judgement calls, so many moving parts, and so many difficult tradeoffs involved in filmmaking!
  • That broad-brush picture also misses the rich cinematic possibilities created by scientific uncertainty, and the complex challenges created by what scientists think is true vs. what the general public thinks is true. For instance, Jurassic Park succeeded in part by pushing back against what was at the time the common public image of dinosaurs as slow, dumb, tail-dragging reptiles. What films need isn’t necessarily to be realistic, or even necessarily to be seen as realistic because they’re consistent with what the general public thinks is true. What they need is to be plausible, and that’s a more complicated notion than you might think. For instance, the Hulk isn’t plausible in any ordinary scientific sense. But there is absolutely is such a thing as a more or less plausible explanation for the Hulk, in the context of the narrative and themes of Ang Lee’s Hulk.
  • Following on from that last remark: films, and filmmakers, vary in their goals. A treatment of science that would work in one sort of movie might not work in a different sort of movie–or even in a seemingly-identical sort of movie! Kirby makes this point by contrasting the treatment of science in different Hulk movies, and in different asteroid/comet-based disaster movies.
  • Science consultants vary, in all sorts of ways. In what they’re asked to advise on (their job is not just to check accuracy in most cases). In their reasons for consulting. In what scientific matters they’re prepared to compromise on. And more. In general, the science consultants who are most successful seem to be the ones who understand what filmmakers are trying to do. Who help filmmakers overcome constraints and spot opportunities, rather than just trying to impose constraints by saying “that’s not realistic”. The most successful science consultants also seem to be the ones with a healthy sense of what battles to pick. Paleontologist Jack Horner, who consulted on Jurassic Park, is a good example here. He’s sensible enough to realize that a movie that puts evolution front and center (by making “birds are dinosaurs” a central theme), and that portrays paleontology as an exciting career and paleontologists as brilliant heroes, is a godsend for science. In contrast, it doesn’t matter one whit for public understanding of science that Jurassic Park gave Dilophosaurus a neck frill it didn’t actually have. (If you as a scientist insist on worrying about some aspect of the science in Jurassic Park, worry about how it reinforces the popular notion that genetic engineering is inherently dangerous.)
  • Filmmakers don’t get enough credit from scientists for the details they get right, relative to how much they get ripped for the details they get wrong. Did you notice how Russell Crowe writes equations in A Beautiful Mind? Probably not—which means the filmmakers did their job. If you’d noticed, it would’ve been because the writing somehow looked “wrong”. As soon as viewers notice that sort of thing, they become conscious that they’re watching a movie, rather than just watching the movie. Which is why the filmmakers employed a real mathematician as a hand double to write the equations.
  • All sorts of behind the scenes stuff you’ve probably never thought about. Like what determines who gets to be a science consultant. It’s often less about your expertise and more about “Can you spend a month on set in LA?”

Here are a couple more teasers from the book, to encourage you to read it:

  • Kirby begins the book with an extended discussion of the Hollywood film that paid much more attention to scientific realism than any movie before or since. Try to guess it in the comments!
  • You’ll have to read the book to find out what caused Ang Lee to say to his science consultant, “So, Hulk is a plant?” 🙂

I liked that the book isn’t overstated. Kirby doesn’t overrate the importance of his subject, noting that it’s hard to identify any movie that suffered at the box office because of its portrayal of science. I do think Kirby slightly overrates the effect that movie science has on science funding and science policy. I think he may be overgeneralizing from a few exceptional cases. I also think he slightly overrates the potential for movies to affect debates among scientists. Yes, there are scientists who’ve been quite keen to get their pet hypotheses into films: Jack Horner in Jurassic Park, fringey geophysicist J. Marvin Herndon in The Core, others. But that doesn’t imply that those films actually affected internal scientific debates in any important way, and Kirby doesn’t suggest any mechanism by which they could’ve done so. I suspect the hypothesis that birds are dinosaurs would’ve won the day in scientific circles, and done so just as fast as it actually did, even if Jurassic Park had never been made, or had had an opponent of the hypothesis as its scientific consultant. But that’s just a gut feeling on my part, I could be wrong.

In summary, Lab Coats in Hollywood is worth your time, I recommend it.

*As an ecologist, you might be a little disappointed that Kirby has very few examples involving ecology–Finding Nemo is the only one I recall. I was curious if any ecologists consulted on Avatar, but that movie doesn’t come up.

**Yes, The Nutty Professor had science consultants. You’d be surprised at some of the films that did.