Science/Technology Book Reviews

by Mac Tonnies

The following are a few of the best, most thought-provoking popular science texts to be found. From extraterrestrial life and quantum computing to nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.


SKEPTICS AND TRUE BELIEVERS Chet Raymo

Science writer Chet Raymo's "Skeptics and True Believers" is an eloquent attempt to meld the sense of numinosity inspired by scientific discovery with experiential reality. Subtitled, somewhat misleadingly, "The Exhilerating Connection Between Science and Religion," Raymo's impassioned dissertation is less an effort to unify religion and science than an argument that both are intrinsically connected and that our society's flaw is trying to view them as distinct, exclusive entities.

Raymo takes the True Believers of his book's title to task for their nostalgia for an anthropocentric universe and critiques science's repeated inability to communicate its wonders to the general public. According to Raymo, our culture is marred by a devastating schism between dispassionate intellect and human spirit. Instead of embracing both modes of knowing, we suffer from a persistent form of mass schizophrenia, content to reap science's material harvest but rejecting discoveries that tell us about our role in the cosmic scheme.

"Skeptics and True Believers" faults traditional religions with our collective wish for a "warm and friendly" universe. Not one to misrepresent his own field of study, Raymo makes no apologies for the universe as revealed by 20th century cosmologists: Yes, it is a staggering, forbidding place. But it's also an unthinkably rich source of awe and beauty, which we've chosen to ignore in favor of existential quick-fixes.

"Skeptics and True Believers" is a genuine must-read for our young century. Although marred by a lamentably barren chapter that dismisses UFOs from the evidential stage, Raymo's slender book speaks volumes about the politics of belief and our potential for partaking in the sublime.

THE UNIVERSE NEXT DOOR Marcus Chown

Marcus Chown's "The Universe Next Door" is a slim but riveting masterpiece of popular science writing. Chown illuminates some of the most fascinating new developments in theoretical physics, including parallel universes, the possibility of habitable planets drifting in the inconceivable cold of interstellar space, alien artifacts, and the mind-blowing prospect of creating artificial universes in a laboratory. Chown writes with simple eloquence and economy, letting the explosive ideas at the book's core take center stage.

OUR POSTHUMAN FUTURE Francis Fukuyama

By almost any standard, social philosopher Francis Fukuyama's "Our Posthuman Future" is an important book. In it, he explores near-term breakthroughs in neuropharmacology (i.e., Prozac, Ritalin, Zoloft), genetic screening and the looming prospect of germ-line genetic engineering, which could conceivably fracture the human race beyond recognition a la Aldous Huxley's cautionary masterpiece "Brave New World." Fukuyama is an engaging polemicist who knows biotechnology and harbors understandable reservations about its potential. So perhaps it's surprising that I don't agree with his thesis.

Much of "Our Posthuman Future" is devoted to Fukuyama's case for "human nature" and "human dignity." One can hardly blame him; the technologies he describes pose grave existential questions for the human condition. We may very well evolve into a "posthuman" stage of being. My central problem is Fukuyama's negative reading of the term "posthuman"; though he applauds biotech breakthroughs that have prolonged and improved human life, he equates "posthuman" with the soulless "happy slaves" of dystopian science fiction. He seems unable or unwilling to foster the notion that willfully upgrading the human species through psychotropic drugs or genetic intervention might result in a legitimate long-term improvement. Fukuyama accomplishes his literary mission by vigorously defending what he terms "human nature." To his credit, he gives us a robust historical model of what it means to be human, citing philosophers from Aristotle to Nietzsche and even name-dropping roboticist Hans Moravec and artificial intelligence advocate Ray Kurzweil. But he refuses to acknowledge that the definition of "human" is conceivably in our hands and not the exclusive domain of blind natural selection, thus ignoring the opportunity to develop an authentically new transhumanist philosophy.

Any reader will naturally sympathize with the impending bioethical controversies scrutinized in "Our Posthuman Future." For example, will germ-line engineering lead to a race of superhumans and, if so, what happens to the founding principles of liberal democracy? Will parents of the near-future screen prospective embryos for desired characteristics, resulting in a genetic aristrocracy? Unfortunately, Fukuyama's arguments are rendered toothless by his unwillingness to challenge the prevailing biomedical paradigm, which seeks to treat the sick yet leave well enough alone. For Fukuyama, death is not merely acceptable in a society of potential immortals, but confirmation of "human nature." Predictably enough, he ends his book with a rallying cry for increased governmental precautions and legislation against technologies that might revise his quaint definition of "human."

To be sure, "Our Posthuman Future" is worth reading. Fukuyama is intelligent and sincerely cares about the future of humanity and civil liberty, which is more than can be said for many of his contemporaries. But even his best arguments are burdened with thinly disguised neophobia.

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PROBABILITY 1 Amir Aczel

Most astronomers concede that life (of some sort) elsewhere in space is a statistical inevitability. Amir Aczel's "Probability 1" is the only book I know that goes so far as to "prove" this assertion. Aczel introduces the reader to the realm of probability theory, zeroing in on one of the human race's most beckoning questions: are we alone? According to Aczel, we aren't. Regardess of whether or not one endorses the author's mathematics, Aczel's study of the likelihood of extraterrestrial life is a significant and interesting book that succeeds in conveying the sheer vastness of the Cosmos.

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THE DANCING WU LI MASTERS Gary Zukav

Gary Zukav's introduction to quantum physics and relativity is quite possibly the best popular science book I've ever read. "The Dancing Wu Li Masters" is conveyed in crisp, sensible prose, revealing a universe governed by bizarre laws and home to inconceivably strange subatomic phenomena. Zukav's book is an immediate classic that will redefine your relationship with reality. A must-read, whether you think you like science or not.

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BORDERLANDS OF SCIENCE Charles Sheffield

"Borderlands of Science" is an arresting guide to physics, chemistry and biology written by a seasoned science fiction writer. "Borderlands," while a fun factual adventure for readers of any persuasion, is especially good reading for aspiring SF writers. Sheffield's prose is brisk and conversational, and his book successfully balances the seriousness of science with the sheer fun it can be when translated to the medium of fiction. "Borderlands" is a compulsively readable refresher course comparable to the popular science works of Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov.

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GREAT MAMBO CHICKEN AND THE TRANSHUMAN CONDITION Ed Regis

Ed Regis' "Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition" is a witty and well-researched introduction to the far-flung, high-tech tinkering that promises to reshape our world. Regis delves into commercial spaceflight, cryonic suspension, mind uploading and space colonization with a journalistic vigor that's refreshingly skeptical, letting the personalities in question voice their own thoughts. Regis' book is a wonderfully entertaining plunge into scientific hubris, packed with useful ideas and more than a few laughs.

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MIND CHILDREN and ROBOT Hans Moravec

Roboticist Hans Moravec's "Mind Children" is a seminal transhumanist work describing the likely future of artificial intelligence over the next few thousand years. Moravec's scenarios are liberating, brilliant and quite plausible taken in the context of today's unrushing advances in computer and nano-technology. "Mind Children" also serves as a helpful look back at the origins and methods of the computer industry; using history as a guide, Moravec muses on the genesis of human-intelligent machines, brain uploading (and downloading), interstellar info-viruses and a dizzying variety of postbiological ecologies. This is heady, potent stuff, and must-reading for anyone who wants their boundaries challenged or expanded.

Moravec's "Robot" is an updated and ideologically expanded version of "Mind Children," in which he mused on the future of semi-intelligent machines and their role in 1990s postindustrial society. Apparently cautioned by the failed predictions of his previous work, Moravec presents a lucid, optimistic future that sees humanity gradually usurped by intelligent machines able to hasten their own evolution. Sweeping and deeply thoughtful, "Robot" is a central text on the consequences of artificial intelligence.

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THE AGE OF SPIRITUAL MACHINES Ray Kurzweil

User-friendly and endlessly compelling, "The Age of Spiritual Machines" is an infectious blueprint for the new millennium. Like colleague Hans Moravec, Kurzweil sees the line seperating us from our machines blurring and vanishing as computer technology and interactivity increase to the point where reality itself becomes a sort of concensual digital hallucination. Kurzweil argues that artificial intelligences will not likely replace us, but rather become our friends, mentors and even sexual partners. "The Age of Spiritual Machines" is thoroughly engaging, offering a glimpse into a mind-boggling future that's already happening.

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THE MILLENNIAL PROJECT Marshall Savage

"The Millennial Project" is a fervent and inspiring manifesto that colorfully outlines some of the options available to us if the human species decides to make the move off-planet. Savage writes with the enthusiasm of Gerard O'Neill on speed, and it's unlikely if events come to pass as outlined here. Nevertheless, Savage's main point is one of vast importance: our planet is dying under the burden of its super-industrialized human population. Populating space may in fact be the only way we can allay ecological catastrophe and guarantee our survival as individuals and as a species.

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VISIONS Michio Kaku

"Visions" presents the spectrum of likely human scientific achievement for the next hundred years. Futurism of this sort is deceptive territory, but Kaku handles it very well, staying within the realm of the possible and bolstering his assertions with commentary from today's leading scientists in a variety of diverse fields. Kaku examines the future of fusion power, superconductors, robotics, spaceflight and communication, keeping in mind that our present scientific paradigm is an interplay of three forces: the quantum, biotechnological, and computer revolutions. When these three trends merge, argues Kaku, some of the 21st century's wildest fantasies will make a quantum jump closer to plausibility--and may well benefit most humans alive today.

Kaku's book, for all of its predictive content, is actually more an exercise in science journalism than scientific speculation. As such, Kaku limits his subject matter to technologies that appear quite near at hand; most of "Visions" takes the form of well-researched extrapolation, perhaps unwisely assuming that, despite our limited vantage, we're still more or less capable of "knowing it all." Ultimately, some of Kaku's predictions will pan out as he says they will; others, I suspect, will find themselves usurped by technologies we haven't yet dreamed up. In "Visions," Kaku plays it relatively safe. But it's fascinating what even a conservative futurist sees in store for us in the next century.

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THE COMING GLOBAL SUPERSTORM Art Bell, Whitley Strieber

Bell and Strieber's "The Coming Global Superstorm" is an articulate speculative book that predicts a possible "superstorm" brought on by cyclic changes in the North Atlantic Current. Strieber presents compelling evidence that such "superstorms" have happened before, and muses that perhaps our civilization was prefigured by another that perished in prehistory (the victim of ancient climatic chaos). Strieber and Bell are nonscientists, but their apocalyptic theory is a welcome addition to the debate over our disintegrating global climate. Let's just hope they're wrong.

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DEADLY FEASTS Richard Rhodes

A succinct medical detective story that builds to a cautionary and ominous finale. Rhodes documents the proliferation of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, a disease that spreads through meat and incubates in the brains of its victims. Rhodes casts a disturbing light on the future of biotechnology and human survival.

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THE WHOLE SHEBANG Timothy Ferris

Ferris addresses all of the current theories used to account for the beginning of our universe, neatly detouring into quantum theory, dark matter, relativity, spacetime wormholes and much more. It's rare to encounter a science writer whose prose is up to speed with his ambition. Ferris is one of the few that can make the Cosmos close-to-home.

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THE CASE FOR MARS Robert Zubrin with Richard Wagner

Mars guru Robert Zubrin's "The Case for Mars" is easily the most inspiring book on space exploration since Gerard K. O'Neill's "The High Frontier." Zubrin and Wagner offer a convincing case for colonizing Mars, documenting novel technologies that challenge the way we think about rocket propulsion and life support. "The Case for Mars" describes in detail how propellant and water can be extracted from the Martian surface, allowing colonists to "live off the land" in a time-honored pioneer spirit. "The Case for Mars" is an invigorating call to arms.

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME Stephen Hawking

"A Brief History" is Hawking's bestselling account of the origin and fate of our universe. Beautifully written and contagiously exciting. Hawking's smooth prose and enthusiasm make concepts such as quantum uncertainty and gravitation compelling and understandable.

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THE LAST THREE MINUTES and ARE WE ALONE? Paul Davies

"The Last Three Minutes" is a marvelous exploration of the end of our universe. Celebrated physicist Paul Davies is a fantastic tour guide and addresses the "Big Crunch" in chilling detail. Never has a subject so cosmically bleak been so hard to put down.

In "Are We Alone?," Davies takes on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Davies takes a refreshingly multifaceted approach to a timeless inquiry.

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THE HOLOGRAPHIC UNIVERSE Michael Talbot

Michael Talbot's plunge into the unknown results in a unique and plausible model of reality (as Whitley Strieber puts it, "a unified field theory of the occult.") Talbot makes a case for the universe's "holographic" nature: a premise that sets the stage for some pioneering insights into the nature of so-called "paranormal" phenomena. Those who think we "know it all" will find "The Holographic Universe" profoundly disturbing.

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THE HOT ZONE Richard Preston

The story of Ebola-Zaire, the dreaded and elusive African virus. Cinematic and shocking journalism about what might be the greatest threat to human survival in the 21st century. Comparable to Stephen King's "The Stand."

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ENGINES OF CREATION K. Eric Drexler

"Engines of Creation" is a contemporary classic about the emerging science of nanotechnology as well as a sophisticated outlook on the human future by a pioneering researcher. Can molecule-sized machines prevent aging? Can rocket motors be crystallized in computer-controlled vats? Will diamond become as inexpensive as stryrofoam or newsprint? Drexler's brilliant text makes a case for an exciting future of nanotechnological breakthroughs.

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IMAGINED WORLDS Freeman Dyson

Freeman Dyson's exploration of science and technology at the end of the 20th century is provocative and brilliant. Whether he's debating the best method of averting Earth-bound comets or envisioning humanity's postbiological future in deep space, Dyson's intelligence and direct writing style will grip you. "Imagined Worlds" contains excellent chapters on the anatomy of scientific progress, genetic engineering, the digital revolution, and near-future astronomy. Dyson excels in critical science writing that inspires and invigorates.

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THE HIGH FRONTIER Gerard K. O'Neill

"The High Frontier," published in the 1970s, served as the manifesto for the L5 movement. O'Neill elegantly presents his case for near-Earth space colonization as a way to curb rising populations and provide cheap, renewable energy to Earth-bound and space-based communities. This book is not the utopian blather one may expect. O'Neill's visions of lunar mining facilities, geosynchronous microwave transmitters and spheroid orbital habitats (capable of housing thousands in literally unearthly comfort) are grounded firmly on established engineering principles. Had we heeded O'Neill's advice, the late 1990s would have witnessed an explosion of space infrastructure and a decisive cure for many of our planetary ills. Ironically, "The High Frontier" reads at least as sensibly as it did twenty years ago. O'Neill's dream is one we would do well to remember.


Check your local library or used-book store for the following...

EXTRATERRESTRIALS: SCIENCE AND ALIEN INTELLIGENCE Ed Regis, ed.

This is a good introduction to the scientific puzzles surrounding the issue of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Is anyone out there? Will we understand them if they try to communicate with us? Will they be benevolent or "evil"? If they're so advanced, then why aren't they routinely visiting us--assuming they aren't (an assumption the contributing writers unanimously take)? "Extraterrestrials" is thought-provoking reading, with essays by Marvin Minsky, Carl Sagan, Frank Tipler, Ed Regis, and others. Required reading.

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