Thursday, December 15, 2011

Top 10 Science Books of 2011

The story of information begins in a time profoundly unlike our own, when every thought and utterance vanishes as soon as it is born. From the invention of scripts and alphabets to the long-misunderstood talking drums of Africa, Gleick tells the story of information technologies that changed the very nature of human consciousness. He provides portraits of the key figures contributing to the inexorable development of our modern understanding of information: Charles Babbage, the idiosyncratic inventor of the first great mechanical computer; Ada Byron, the brilliant and doomed daughter of the poet, who became the first true programmer; pivotal figures like Samuel Morse and Alan Turing; and Claude Shannon, the creator of information theory itself.

And then the information age arrives. Citizens of this world become experts willy-nilly: aficionados of bits and bytes. And we sometimes feel we are drowning, swept by a deluge of signs and signals, news and images, blogs and tweets. The Information is the story of how we got here and where we are heading.

In Willpower, the pioneering researcher Roy F. Baumeister collaborates with renowned New York Times science writer John Tierney to revolutionize our understanding of the most coveted human virtue: self-control.
In what became one of the most cited papers in social science literature, Baumeister discovered that willpower actually operates like a muscle: it can be strengthened with practice and fatigued by overuse. Willpower is fueled by glucose, and it can be bolstered simply by replenishing the brain's store of fuel. That's why eating and sleeping- and especially failing to do either of those-have such dramatic effects on self-control (and why dieters have such a hard time resisting temptation).

Drawing on decades of research in psychology that resulted in a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, Daniel Kahneman takes readers on an exploration of what influences thought example by example, sometimes with unlikely word pairs like "vomit and banana." System 1 and System 2, the fast and slow types of thinking, become characters that illustrate the psychology behind things we think we understand but really don't, such as intuition. Kahneman's transparent and careful treatment of his subject has the potential to change how we think, not just about thinking, but about how we live our lives. Thinking, Fast and Slow gives deep--and sometimes frightening--insight about what goes on inside our heads: the psychological basis for reactions, judgments, recognition, choices, conclusions, and much more.  --JoVon Sotak

From Marie Curie to x-rays to the Manhattan Project, Radioactivity traces the history of atomic physics and its transformation from a fringe science into a field that seized the popular and political imagination with discovery after spectacular discovery. Marjorie C. Malley shows that the discovery of radioactivity had profound consequences besides The Bomb: it allowed women more opportunities to become scientists; it helped doctors treat cancer and diagnose battlefield wounds more effectively; it prompted scientists to reconsider some of the most fundamental rules of physics. And inevitably, it became yet another arena for political gamesmanship during the early 20th century. Like the Very Short Introductions series, Radioactivity is an efficient and straightforward guide to the history of a science whose endpoints are well-known, but whose growth and development have remained underappreciated for a long time. --Darryl Campbell

The Psychopath Test is a fascinating journey through the minds of madness. Jon Ronson's exploration of a potential hoax being played on the world's top neurologists takes him, unexpectedly, into the heart of the madness industry. An influential psychologist who is convinced that many important CEOs and politicians are, in fact, psychopaths teaches Ronson how to spot these high-flying individuals by looking out for little telltale verbal and nonverbal clues. And so Ronson, armed with his new psychopath-spotting abilities, enters the corridors of power. He spends time with a death-squad leader institutionalized for mortgage fraud in Coxsackie, New York; a legendary CEO whose psychopathy has been speculated about in the press; and a patient in an asylum for the criminally insane who insists he's sane and certainly not a psychopath.

Ronson not only solves the mystery of the hoax but also discovers, disturbingly, that sometimes the personalities at the helm of the madness industry are, with their drives and obsessions, as mad in their own way as those they study. And that relatively ordinary people are, more and more, defined by their maddest edges.

Top 10 Science Books of 2011

If the conscious mind—the part you consider to be you—is just the tip of the iceberg, what is the rest doing?
In this sparkling and provocative new book, the renowned neuroscientist David Eagleman navigates the depths of the subconscious brain to illuminate surprising mysteries: Why can your foot move halfway to the brake pedal before you become consciously aware of danger ahead? Why do you hear your name being mentioned in a conversation that you didn’t think you were listening to? What do Ulysses and the credit crunch have in common? Why did Thomas Edison electrocute an elephant in 1916? Why are people whose names begin with J more likely to marry other people whose names begin with J? Why is it so difficult to keep a secret? And how is it possible to get angry at yourself—who, exactly, is mad at whom?
Taking in brain damage, plane spotting, dating, drugs, beauty, infidelity, synesthesia, criminal law, artificial intelligence, and visual illusions, Incognito is a thrilling subsurface exploration of the mind and all its contradictions.

Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever seen. Yet as New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows in this startling and engaging new work, just the opposite is true: violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species's existence. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life. But today, Pinker shows (with the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps) all these forms of violence have dwindled and are widely condemned. How has this happened?

Following in the footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci and Jules Verne, Kaku, author of a handful of books about science, looks into the not-so-distant future and envisions what the world will look like. It should be an exciting place, with driverless cars, Internet glasses, universal translators, robot surgeons, the resurrection of extinct life forms, designer children, space tourism, a manned mission to Mars, none of which turn out to be as science-fictiony as they sound. In fact, the most exciting thing about the book is the fact that most of the developments Kaku discusses can be directly extrapolated from existing technologies. Robot surgeons and driverless cars, for example, already exist in rudimentary forms. Kaku, a physics professor and one of the originators of the string field theory (an offshoot of the more general string theory), draws on current research to show how, in a very real sense, our future has already been written. The book’s lively, user-friendly style should appeal equally to fans of science fiction and popular science. --David Pitt

Take any of physics' major theories of the fundamental nature of the universe, extrapolate its math to the logical extreme, and you get some version of a (so far unobservable) parallel universe. And who better to navigate these hypothetical versions of the "multiverse" than Brian Greene? Normally an unflinching apologist for string theory, the bestselling author of The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos here treats all viable alternate realities to a laudably fair shake. For a book exploring the most far-reaching implications of bleeding-edge mathematics, The Hidden Reality is surprisingly light on math, written as it is "for a broad audience … its only prerequisite the will to persevere." Such perseverance pays off with a motley cast of potential universes featuring doppelgängers, strings, branes, quantum probabilities, holographs, and simulated worlds. The result is that rare accomplishment in science writing for a popular audience: a volume that explains the science and its consequences while stimulating the imagination of even the uninitiated.

The next twenty years will be completely unlike the last twenty years. The decisions you make today are critical.The world is in economic crisis, and there are no easy fixes to our predicament. Unsustainable trends in the economy, energy, and the environment have finally caught up with us and are converging on a very narrow window of time—the "Twenty-Teens." With solid facts and grounded reasoning presented in a calm, nonpartisan manner, The Crash Course explains our predicament and illuminates the path ahead so you can face the coming disruptions without fearing the future or retreating into denial.

Our money system places impossible demands upon a finite world. Exponentially rising levels of debt, based on assumptions of future economic growth to fund repayment, have shuddered to a halt and are reversing, with severe and lasting consequences.

Oil is essential for economic growth. The reality of dwindling oil supplies is now internationally recognized, yet virtually no developed nations have a Plan B. The economic risks to individuals, companies, and countries are varied and enormous. Best case: living standards will drop steadily worldwide. Worst case: systemic financial crises will toss the world into jarring chaos.

This book is written for those who are motivated to learn about the root causes of our predicaments in order to protect themselves and their families, mitigate risks as much as possible, and control what effects they can. With challenge comes opportunity. The Crash Course offers a positive vision for how our lives can become more balanced, resilient, and sustainable.

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