Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, by George Dyson
This year marks the centenary of British mathematician Alan Turing, whose researches in the unlikely and very abstruse field of mathematical logic did much to create the world in which we now live. In 1936 Turing published a paper titled "On Computable Numbers" in the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society. The paper received almost... Read More
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker
In this, his most ambitious book to date, Steven Pinker describes, and attempts to explain, a curious historical phenomenon: the decline in all kinds of violence among human beings, from pre-civilized times to the present. The first thing one wants to ask is: Has there actually been such a decline? Given the tremendous wars and... Read More
The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance, by Jim...
I used to attend regularly at an office of the New York City government to transact some business with a very pleasant young female African American city employee. On the wall of her office was a poster listing, in quite small print, all the scores of inventions and discoveries that, according to the poster, African... Read More
The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, by David Brooks
If the proper study of mankind is man, it has taken a remarkably long time to get that study on a truly scientific footing. From the founding of the Royal Society to the present has been more than 350 years, yet only in the last 50 of those years have quantified, replicable results about human... Read More
Bad Students, Not Bad Schools, by Robert Weissberg
Front page headline in my New York Post this morning: The accompanying story describes a further dumbing-down of state math tests for kids in grades 3 to 8. Half marks are given for fragments of work; also for wrong answers arrived at via correct methods: "A kid who answers that a 2-foot-long skateboard is 48... Read More
Two steps forward in genomics.
The science news this month was dominated by two genome stories. An organism's genome is the sum total of all its genetic information — its DNA. In sexually reproducing species, a child gets half its genome from one parent, half from the other. Asexual organisms like bacteria just copy DNA from one generation to the... Read More
But not necessarily scientists.
Well, of course we all do trust science. We trust Bernoulli's Principle every time we get on a plane; we trust celestial mechanics when we take the kids outside to watch a scheduled lunar eclipse; we trust subatomic physics when we relax with an iPod; we trust the laws of chemistry every time we strike... Read More
The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, by Nicholas Wade
With this new book, New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade positions himself as a serious challenger to Steven Pinker for the title Best Living Popularizer of the Human Sciences. Wade's 2006 book Before the Dawn was a masterly survey of current knowledge about our deep ancestry, informed by recent discoveries in genetics and archeology.... Read More
Goodbye and good riddance to the Space Shuttle.
In the first third of the 15th century, while the Hundred Years War between England and France stormed dramatically to its denouement (Agincourt, Joan of Arc), and Muslims held on by their fingernails to their last fragment of Spain, and the Ottomans regrouped following the ravages of Tamurlane, and Ladislas II was breaking the power... Read More
Back in October last year I wrote a column titled "Will Obama Kill Science?" arguing that an Obama administration, stuffed as it surely would be with postmodern leftists, would do what they could to kill off some key branches of the human sciences, for fear of what they might turn up. I concluded with: That... Read More
The science news this past few weeks has concentrated on the Large Hadron Collider, which officially began operations on September 10. So far not much of anything has actually been collided, but the physicists whose eight billion dollar toy this is are working their way up in baby steps to the big, glamorous experiments. Still,... Read More
————————— Can there be a science of mind? There has of course been a philosophy of mind since the time of the Ancients, but is this really an area that the scientific method can penetrate? A growing body of academics from several disciplines are betting that it is. Hoping to find out whether or not... Read More
OK, I've arrived here in Tucson for the Toward a Science of Consciousness conference. Didn't really absorb much from the first day's meeting. I caught a really bad cold the day before leaving New York, so to protect my ears from damage when flying, I dosed up on Benadryl. Didn't work. At least, the drying... Read More
[The flap over geneticist Jim Watson's remarks about race differences in IQ has generated some interesting mainstream comment. Some highly respectable outlets — the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Slate.com — have stepped away from the traditional "Shocked! Scandalized!" template to actually look at the science and say interesting things about it. This dawning... Read More
I can never think about the topic of IQ without recalling the late Willard Espy's immortal "I-ku haiku." From memory: Espy's lines don't make much sense, but they make more sense than a lot of the stuff that gets written about IQ. Case in point: David Brooks's remarkably lame-brained piece in the New York Times... Read More
Several readers have asked me to take up cudgels against Bill Buckley's piece on NRO last Friday, in which WFB spoke up for the Intelligent Design people and their arguments. I am not exactly going to do that: not because I think the writer's age and accomplishments place him above cudgeling — I don't think... Read More
Before the Dawn, by Nicholas Wade
"The proper study of mankind is man." The application of scientific method to that study has, however, proved to be much more difficult than an English gent of the 1730s could reasonably have anticipated. Our common sensibilities rule out all but a very limited range of planned experiments on our fellow humans. Observation and classification,... Read More
Not for shuttles, stations, or "visions."
Some of the greatest advances of human knowledge in the present age have occurred in the space sciences. There are those wonderful pictures of the planets returned to us by robot spacecraft, resolving what had been fuzzy blobs or mere points of light in the telescopes of just 50 years ago into landscapes and skies,... Read More
You know how once in a while you read something that leaves you feeling vaguely disturbed — suddenly unsettled and insecure, as after a minor earth tremor? Well, that's my current state. The offending text was Eric Konigsberg's piece "Prairie Fire" in the January 16 issue of The New Yorker. The piece is about Brandenn... Read More
It is a longstanding cliché that human knowledge of the universe advances by a series of dethronements. There was a time when men thought that the whole world was alive with spirits whose main purpose and pleasure was to watch us. Great bonfires were lit to stir the sun from his midwinter torpor; kings were... Read More
Conservatively, from consensus.
Catching up on back news this past few days — I was out of the country for the first two weeks of August — I caught President Bush's endorsement of teaching Intelligent Design in public school science classes. "Both sides ought to be properly taught," President Bush told a reporter August 2, "so people can... Read More
Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, by Nicholas Ostler
Most of us have, at one time or another, puzzled over such historical-linguistic conundrums as: Why did only Britain, of all the Roman provinces overrun by Germans, end up speaking a Germanic language? Why did the Portuguese language "take" in Brazil, but not in Africa, while Dutch "took" in Africa but not in Indonesia? If... Read More
Madame Bovary's Ovaries, by Daniel P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash
It is 41 years now since zoologist William D. Hamilton worked out the evolutionary mathematics of kin altruism, demonstrating that even behavior that seems to belong to the moral and educational superstructure of human nature can be explained by natural selection. Sociobiology was on the march. That march did not, of course, go unopposed. The... Read More
Like the monster in some ghastly horror movie rising from the dead for the umpteenth time, the Space Shuttle is headed back to the launch pad. This grotesque, lethal white elephant — 14 deaths in 113 flights — is the grandest, grossest technological folly of our age. If the Shuttle has any reason for existing,... Read More
The aftershocks of the Lawrence Summers brouhaha ripple on. Summers, you may recall (well, it was several news cycles ago) scandalized the academic establishment by suggesting that the scarcity of female scientists and mathematicians might have its origins in the different biology of men and women. Our own Stanley Kurtz has a nice follow-up piece... Read More