Saturday, January 12, 2008

36 fireside chats

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, scientists, interviews

The trouble with a book like Mind, Life, and Universe: Conversations with Great Scientists of Our Time is that it is all to easy to read one interview, then set the book aside and spend quite a bit of time musing. Lynn Margulis and Eduardo Punset are listed as the Editors, but in actuality, Dr. Punset conducted these interviews over a number of years, then he and Dr. Margulis organized them as to content. He is very well known in Spain for his science writing and on-air interviews.

Most of the chapters begin with a bit of commentary by the former, from a line or two to a page or more; the rest is a condensed interview (most of them began as a transcript of a conversation lasting an hour or two). From time to time, the latter Editor adds comments of her own as footnotes.

The content of each chapter is meaty enough to fuel a book of its own...and is often extracted from a meaty book or two by the interviewee. The Editors allowed each scientist to recommend two, and only two, books or articles, their own or others', for further reading. The seventy-plus items in "The Readings" would constitute a good starting library of science and ideas.

The "Great Scientists" of the subtitle is a bit hyped. Each of the thirty-seven scientists (one interview was of two of them together) has won renown—quite a number are Nobelists—, yet not that many are household names. I am better read than most, but recognized just under half the names. Guess I've a bit more reading to do!!

Anyway, because of the "think time" needed, I am at this point just over halfway through the book, and thought it best to report on it without further delay. It has been four days, after all. I'll begin something lighter, while I continue reading these interviews and giving each appropriate thought.

A few highlights that I have enjoyed so far:
  • For those who think office work burns them out, Robert Sapolsky might say, "For the typical mammal, stress is induced by another who is intent on eating you in the next two minutes."
  • Robert Hare says of psychopaths, "In a Utopian world, psychopaths would stand out, as they would be predators,... Even if we could achieve a perfect social utopia, the psychopaths would not disappear." I guess this is why Jesus said we must be "wise as serpents but harmless as doves." Those who are only "wise as doves" are the serpents' victims.
  • While interviewing Kenneth Kendler, Dr. Punset mentions work that indicates people with loose joints have higher anxiety. The ensuing discussion, however, seems to indicate the loose joints are the cause; to me, they are the effect: the anxious are prone to giving up.
  • I have no simple quote from the interview with Jane Goodall, but it was clearly brought out that she caused us all to re-define "human" several times during the forty years she studied Chimpanzees. Had we not done such re-definition, we'd have had to admit that chimps are human, or at least hominids (and I think they are hominids and belong in the genus Homo).
  • Diana Deutsch discovered a number of auditory illusions. Her web site has links to sound files that illustrate them. My favorite is the Tritone Paradox, in which two computer-generated, slightly buzzy notes are sounded: one, then the other. For some pairs, the first note sounds higher, and the reverse is true for other pairs. I had a colleague from Korea standing next to me as four of these were played. We agreed on three, but for one of the pairs, she thought the second note had a lower pitch, while I thought the second pitch was higher.
I may have further highlights later. I plan to copy the "Readings" list, and gather at least a few of the volumes therein.

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