Book Reviews

The Half Life Of Facts


Samuel Arbesman,
Current, Penguin Group 2012-13

This review also appeared in

When protons themselves, particles that characterize elements, have half-lives, it should not be shocking that knowledge is not forever. The proton’s half-life, however, is on the order of 1033 to 1034 years. Other radioactive processes, such as beta decay, operate on a much more imaginable time scale, and it’s the latter variety that forms the basis of Arbesman’s metaphor. In the same way that we cannot predict which individual nuclei will decay, we don’t know which facts from our everyday world will soon become obsolete. But on the whole, it seems that half will decay during an observable time scale.

The “facts” of science are not immune to this decay process, and as the author points out, this is to be expected from the nature of science, which deals with models of reality, not absolutes. These models are constantly refined and occasionally overturned as a combination of new technology and human insight surface. Other factors that alter the landscape of facts include the sheer number of scientists at work today (80% of the total who have ever lived); experiments that are often published without being verified by neutral parties; and fields of investigation such as nutrition and cancer research, which involve many uncontrollable variables.

As much as I enjoyed the book, I wish Arbesman had spent more energy investigating different half-lives of knowledge in various subjects. The author does cite research by Rong Tang, who investigated the half-lives of scholarly books. The half-lives range from 13.07 to 7.15 years for subjects ranging from physics to psychology, respectively. How Tang manages three to four significant figures is suspect, but, more importantly, the reader is left wondering why the books became outdated. Is it high standards — if 10% of the content is no longer factual, a new book must surface? Or is it because the books are centered around cutting edge research, which deal with many hypotheses that are still being tested?

One interesting chemistry-related example explored by Arbesman involves the 1904 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, awarded to Sir William Ramsay for the discovery of four gases. These gases were labeled as inert. About six decades later, chemists managed to get three of the four to react, but only by using powerful electron muggers. So over the last century has the idea of “inert gases” become an obsolete fact? It is not completely thrown out when all noble gases are still known to be inflammable and incapable of reacting with any of the alkali metals, the most reactive of the elements. More importantly in my view, Ramsay’s work — although rarely cited in current research and which could be used as “evidence” for decayed knowledge — remains an intellectual gem. His original paper is an excellent example of careful scientific thought. Using experimental evidence, Ramsay thoroughly considered alternative explanations for the nitrogen-density disparities that led to the discovery of argon. But that kind of thought process did not make media headlines at the turn of the century, nor does it now. Instead, the superficial facts or often premature research claims sell better. As a result, they can also, unfortunately, distort our sense of the half-life of knowledge.

What also remains unexplored is how the half-lives of different aspects of factual knowledge vary in a given field, such as chemistry. The number of elements in the periodic table and the decimal places of atomic masses are constantly mutable, but sodium’s reaction in water will still be violent four thousand years from now.

In chemical education, while providing students with a foundation of central concepts, we point out that certain basics have not changed for a while. At the same time, we cannot create the illusion that all will remain unshaken. It’s not long ago that the relative inertness of gold, the poisonous characteristics of thallium and liquid nature of mercury were all explained by considering Einstein’s relativistic effects of certain large nuclei on s orbitals. A decade ago, while listing the halogens, it was a good idea to place a “to be discovered” square under astatine. Now it’s been filled with 117Uus. That in itself isn’t earth-shattering news. The addition of new elements is akin to Arbesman’s example of extrasolar planets. Such a list grows monthly. But the more interesting storyline is the hope of finding life elsewhere. Similarly, in chemistry, with relation to the synthesis of large nuclei, the exciting possibility is that a new island of stability is lurking somewhere high among the atomic numbers.

The Ascent of Man

Jacob Bronowski
Little, Brown and Company, 1973

High school history is little more than political history: not irrelevant but a sad omission of our intellectual heritage . Bronowski begins to make up for this negligence with a book based on his 13 part BBC series on the history of civilization and science.

Having worked with the medium of television, he points out the advantages of the written word over visual images. The reader is exposed to more detail of evidence and can pause to reflect, whereas the viewer cannot. Of course, he said this in pre-VCR days, but the truth about detail still holds , and other scientist- broadcasters (i.e David Suzuki) who were initially enthusiastic about television now seriously question its power as an educational tool.

While the counterculture was busy celebrating our links to the animal world, Bronowski looked at those gifts that allow us to stand out from the rest of the kingdom. Our ability to move our minds through space and time is taken for granted, and yet it is what has made our lives both more comfortable and more meaningful. And while the media focused on the corruption in society ( at the time of publication, there was the Vietnam War and Watergate ), Bronowski looked at major steps in its evolution: the transition from hunting and gathering to farming and eventually to building cities. Without the evolution of culture itself, man’s potential would never have flowered.

Bronowski argues in his concluding chapter that the longest childhood has been that of civilization, learning to understand the tremendous potential of the child’s brain. As western society came to grips with that truth about human nature, science flourished, giving us, in turn, even more insight into who we are.

Aside from the generalities there are wonderful tidbits (delicious in themselves) on the history of science–which of course are eventually tied into his general themes and often parts of powerful narratives:
(1) When Pythagoras proved a+ b= c, he offered a hundred oxen to the Muses in thanks for the inspiration. Contrast that to the modern day athletes who expect and get millions for throwing balls through hoops and hitting balls over fences.
(2) The Inquisition threatened Galileo twice with torture. He recanted his beliefs about the Copernican system, and the Scientific revolution moved from the Mediterranean to Northern Europe. Ironically, in the year that Galileo died, Newton was born.
(3) Dalton measured the rainfall and temperature in Manchester for 57 years, which amounted to nothing. But his curiosity about the weights of molecules led to modern atomic theory. Bronowski writes, ” In science, ask an impertinent question, and you get a pertinent answer. ”
(4) In a lifetime, ” Einstein joined light to time and time to space; energy to matter, matter to space and space to gravitation. ”
(5) Leo Szilard, who with Fermi had developed the first nuclear reactor, wanted the atomic bomb to be tested openly before the Japanese and an international audience, so that the Japanese would surrender before millions died.

Dreams of a Final Theory

Steven Wienberg

The title’s “Final Theory” is the grand unified theory that Einstein pursued unsuccessfully for the latter half of his career. The theory, if synthesized, would place nature’s four forces: weak, strong, electromagnetic and gravitational, within the same mathematical framework.

Obtaining the story from Weinberg is getting it from the horse’s mouth. After all, along with Glashow and Salam, he demonstrated that different aspects of the same exchange processes are involved in electromagnetic and weak forces. This was verified experimentally, suggesting that dreams of a Final Theory are realizable goals.

His book was written before the Super Conducting Super Collider project was cancelled. ( Shouldn’t the word super be struck out of the dictionary?!) The fact that the project was a divisive issue among physicists, I’m sure, was a motivating force behind the book. Occasionally this becomes transparent, but it hardly takes away from what is a well-written account of twentieth century physics from a doer who can teach with equal talent.

Before explaining that beautiful theories in science obey principles of symmetry, Weinberg writes my favorite chapter in the book, Tales of Theory and Experiment. These include a threesome: general relativity, quantum electrodynamics and the electroweak theory.

Any elliptical orbit within our solar system precesses because of the influence of other planets. Mercury for instance changes its orientation by an angle of 575 seconds every century. But Newton’s theory predicts a change of only 532 seconds. Einstein’s theory, which is a reinterpretation of the existing mathematics of curved spaces in terms of gravity, together with a field equation that specifies the curvature produced by any amount of matter and energy, accounts for precisely that difference. It does so by showing that the energy of the gravitational field itself exerts another field. Aside for such discrepancies and for the deflection of light, Einstein’s and Newton’s theories give identical results for small densities and velocities. But Weinberg points out that general relativity is more beautiful for other reasons. That the force between masses falls off according to an inverse square relationship arises in Newton’s Law because the math fits the observation. In general relativity any other relationship would not be mathematically consistent with the rest of the theory.

Until the 1950’s, quantum mechanics struggled with the so-called problem of infinities. This arose because of the electron’s ability to release and recapture a photon. Because it was caught again, the photon could not be observed. The effects were only made evident by the change in the atom’s energy and magnetic field. Attempts to calculate this energy led to an infinite result because there were an infinite number of contributions involved including those from high energy photons. But in the 1950’s in an attempt to explain the Lamb shift, a tiny shift in the spectrum of hydrogen, people realized that the processes by which a positron, photon and electron appear out of nothing had been ignored in their calculations. These virtual particles soon annihilate each other, but during their short existence their electric fields cause the electron to jiggle a little, causing the spectral shift. When their contributions to an atom’s total energy were taken into account, the sum of an atom’s energy was no longer an infinite number. Richard Feynman and others simplified the calculations involved by introducing new methods. When these same methods were applied to predicting the change in magnetic field of an electron upon the emission and reabsorption of virtual photons, they yielded a factor of 1.0115965214 plus or minus 3 X 10-10. Later experiments revealed that the factor was 1.01159652188 , plus or minus 4 X 10-11, a sign that such efforts were far from being ventures in some fantasyland.

Greenhouse: The 200-Year Story of Global Warming,

Gale E. Christianson

Anything directly or remotely related to anthropogenic emissions of CO2 gets at least a paragraph, if not a chapter, in Christianson’s thourough history of global warming. Those interested in the history of the natural sciences will not complain or await anxiously for the author to get to the point. In an age of up-to-the moment stock quotes and other information that gratifies the mind instantly, in times when most books can be read in a daze, it is nice to see one with a theme that is developed fully and patiently.

The first link to carbon dioxide is the French mathematician Fourier of “Transform” fame. The same man who was obsessed with heat and who showed that complex periodic motion could be expressed as the sum of simpler trigonometric functions was the first to speculate on how to atmosphere prevents the total loss of heat from earth to space in what is known as the “bell jar theory. ”

We then get to venture into 19th century England when industrial soot stained the resting beds of moths and made it easier for predators to find and eat the contrasting white ones. As a result darker ones became the majority, and contrary to Darwin’s expectations, but consistent with his theory of natural selection, it was an example of how man’s technology can inadvertently affect species in the wild. Coal-burning was of course the culprit. Though a century earlier, Benjamin Franklin and others thought that coal would prevent the total destruction of Europe’s forests and that the future of civilization depended on it, the product of pressure over layers of repeatedly flooded peat swamps was adding more than just soot to the atmosphere. It was releasing the earth-warming gas carbon dioxide, what Christianson metaphorically represents as an evil from Pandora’s box, Zeus’ angry response to Prometheus’ theft of fire from the gods.

With the same devotion to detail, the author chronicles the history of steel and petroleum. The mass of production of steel paved the way for the locomotive which further fueled the spread of technology. That in itself is more relevant to global warming than the contribution of CO2 from calcium carbonate(CaCO3, the source of lime, whichs removes the impurities from iron). The reason is that, in the U.S., carbon dioxide emissions are largely caused by the combustion of coal, natural gas, and petroleum . A fraction (less than 2 percent) comes from other sources such as the one just mentioned. (see U.S. Dept. of Energy )
The combustion of petroleum, of course, also releases the same greenhouse gas because petroleum is a blend of hydrocarbons. For what had been an unused part of this mixture, a purpose was found by Lenoir and eventually Otto through their invention of the gasoline engine. This made Rockefeller America’s first billionnaire as he used the railroads to secure the distribution of oil from his network of refineries in the Cleveland area.

The Secret House

David Bodanis

Beginning with an alarm clock that awakens the occupants and concluding with the dripping faucet that delays the renewal of the sleep cycle, Bodanis pokes at the surface of the mundane and lets the sometimes disturbing but intriguing science ooze out. The account is easy to read and reliable; in addition to the standard library research, the author interviewed over 30 scientists from the realms of academia, government and industry.

The book was originally published in 1986, and soon after, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation read excerpts from the book on its program Ideas. For the next decade with a recording of that program, I shocked many students into abandoning toothpaste after they learned that it contains chalk, paint, formaldehyde and antifreeze. In fact, at least a couple of them switched to baking soda. For years I did the same until my wife kept filling the medicine cabinet with Colgate and Crest, and I went back to toothpaste. Call it lack of character, but in all sincerity I also questioned Bodanis’ claim that larger calcium carbonate particles in toothpaste can scratch teeth-at least not when they are suspended in a mixture of soap and water. But it turns out that Bodanis was right, according to a prominent dentist that I ran into recently in Texas. Besides,while my eating, brushing and flossing habits have remained constant, the number of cavities I’ve suffered has gone unchanged over the last 14 years, half of which have been lived without toothpaste. A single case does not constitute good science, so I invite you to repeat my experiment.

Speaking of research, I wonder how many scientists have, since the book’s publication, tested the antibiotic properties of actinomycetes found in garden holes and empty lots. And how many people still neglect to dry their counter tops after wiping them with bacteria-filled dish rags, or how many have lost sleep thinking of the dust mites living in the cores of their pillows and mattresses?

Without giving away all of the book’s jewels, I would hate to forget the following gems:

(1) Perspiration contains traces of glucose, vitamin C, potassium and over a dozen amino acids.

(2) When butter goes rancid, its fats break down into fatty acids that are identical to those that a female dog produces when she is in heat.

(3) Every toilet flush produces a fine aerosol spray that causes viruses and bacteria to spread through your home.

(4) Upward strokes of lightning create a temperature that is fives times higher than what is found on the surface of the sun. What Bodanis fails to point out is the difference between heat (which is mass-dependent) and temperature (which depends only on a gas constant and the average velocity of molecules, regardless of how few there may be, for instance in the small amount of air heated to lightning temperatures.)

(5) When lightning strikes sedimentary rock, elemental calcium is produced. The chemical details are not supplied to us, so I’ll fill in the gap. All calcium on earth is in the form of compounds containing the much more stable Ca+2, which has lost its two valence electrons. Lightning forces the ions to recapture the electrons, but soon after exposure to oxygen and moisture, the elemental calcium soon reacts to give us fresh compounds of calcium oxide.

Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History

Penny LeCouteur & Jay Burreson

This book’s title is what caught my attention: it reminded me of the story my chemistry professor had told us over twenty years ago, about how cold temperatures and the element tin’s Jekyll and Hyde personality combined to render Napoleon’s soldiers’ coat buttons useless in a cold Russian winter. The authors only refer to their title in their introduction; but their discussions of how molecules such as oleic acid, morphine, caffeine, and ascorbic acid made an impact on our political and social history are entertaining reading.

Few other books combine undiluted chemistry with time-traveling that is unrelated to science. One of my favorite chapters combines details about what parts of opiate molecules are responsible for their psychoactive effects with how tobacco use changed the way morphine was absorbed into the bloodstream. Suddenly millions of Chinese were addicted to a British supply of the drug, and when their government declared the drug illegal, it threatened the barter of one molecule for another(caffeine in tea).

The chapters, of course, can be read in any order–rare for a history book–so first experience how Cook’s understanding of scurvy’s cure (ascorbic acid) helped give British imperialism an edge over Portuguese expansion, and then discover the pros and cons of classical Greece’s dependance on oleic acid.

The only serious error I spotted was regarding trans fatty acids. Recent research indicates that, contrary to the authors’ claim, the products of partially hydrogenated fats are more likely to elevate LDL levels(so called “bad cholestrol”) than saturated fatty acids.

Galileo’s Finger

Peter Atkins

P.W.(Peter)Atkins is the author of the excellent textbook Physical ChemistryMolecules, a general overview of nature’s chemicals from the Scientific American Library, and the imaginative Periodic Kingdom. In his latest popularization, Galileo’s Finger, Atkins outlines what he considers are the ten central ideas of science. Without bias, he only chooses two from his area of expertise. The rest are from the realms of biology, physics and astronomy. Given that only two to three of the chapters are part of a high school curriculum, the book is essential reading for anyone who has not studied science past that point. His writing neither oversimplifies nor bores the reader, reminiscent of the way the late Stephen Jay Gould practised his craft. I love his definition of chemistry, ” It is the bridge between the perceived world of substances and the imagined world of atoms.”

The Naked Woman: A Study of the Female Body

Desmond Morris
Jonathan Cape
276 pages

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake wrote that “the nakedness of woman is the work of God”. In The Naked Woman, biologist Desmond Morris often argues that she is the work of evolution. In the light of a good understanding of evolution, a reader will realize that the latter interpretation is no less intriguing or poetic than Blake’s line, one that was composed in pre-Darwinian times. Morris devotes a chapter to each of the various parts of the female anatomy. Sometimes he delves too deeply into popular culture, but sticking to the strictly biological notions, here are some of the highlights.

It is unfair to think and inaccurate to think of toes as being sexually interesting only to deviants. In the absence of socks and shoes, they apparently emit unique smells capable of eliciting an erotic response. The same is true of aerated pubic hair, which is efficient in trapping and preserving such scents. Areolas also send scent-signals prior to copulation, which is an important reason why males invest time in their lover’s bosom.

Breasts in women of course are not generally round in order to facilitate weaning. Moreover, size in general does not correlate with their ability to produce milk. As our ancestor females assumed an upright position, men selected those that were more obviously different from other males and from prepubescent women. Since blood flow does increase to the breast and nipples during intercourse, larger breasts have always been associated with sex. Buttocks are another eye-catcher for men. The anatomy of a woman’s back and hips naturally causes the buttocks to be both more pronounced and moveable when a woman walks. Since buttocks, like breasts, are filled with fatty tissue, over the course of evolution a rounded posterior became a sign that the woman was not on the brink of starvation and capable of reproducing.

Morris mentions that legs in women are a symbol of sexual maturity because, compared to young girls, they make up a larger proportion of a woman’s height. This fact is not disputable; the average leg to height ratio is 0.5 in adult females and less than that in young girls. But the same applies to men and their young counterparts, and yet are women that sexually drawn to a man’s legs?

Britannica’s Science and the Future 1999

Edited by Charles Cegielski

It’s rare for someone to review a Science Year Book, but Britannica’s are A-1, and I fail to understand why public libraries dispose of them with such haste. The content of science annuals does not quickly become obsolete, and I have often found reported discoveries that have gone unnoticed by Scientific American and other publications. For instance, catalytic converters in cars are only efficient when they are warm, so researchers at Corning developed a “PUMA” device to remove early “cold” emissions.

Britannica’s Science and the Future 1999 not only features the latest developments in the major sciences but it has updates from its encyclopedia and essays on current topics of interest. In 1999, there was a beautifully illustrated article on “Sensory Reception”. My favorite essay was one written by a materials scientist from M.I.T. In the “Force Is With Us‘ James d. Livingston begins with a little historical background on the natural magnetic material lodestone (Fe3O4). “Lode” is rooted in a Middle English word meaning to guide, and that the Chinese were the first to use lodestone to magnetize iron needles, which they used for navigational purposes in as early as AD 900.

I learned that a particular magnet’s ability to resist demagnetizing is called coercivity. Lodestones have a higher coercivity than iron magnets, but the latter can reach a higher saturation level. A magnet’s energy product combines both properties, and the higher it is the smaller the magnet has to be to perform the task at hand. Although our Quebec school curriculum still has us teaching that there are three ferromagnetic materials, the best magnets today, neomagnets, not only use iron and boron(the latter helps lock magnetic domains in place) but the ferromagnetic neodymium. These small but powerful magnets have allowed for the existence of strong, lightweight motors, compact loudspeakers, small laptop dvd drives, and permanent-magnet-type MRI’s in medicine.

According to Livingston, there are over 30 permanent magnets in an automobile. More importantly, if it was not for our discovery of electromagnetism, no large scale generation of electricity would be possible. We owe an awful lot to that peculiar ability of some metals. They not only have unpaired electrons, but have “large scale interatomic cooperation” which means that the net spins of neighboring atoms do not work against each other.

Are We Alone? Philosophical Implications Of The Discovery Of Extraterrestrial Life

Paul Davies

Basic Books 1996

The author of this well-written book is Paul Davies, an Arizona State University physicist who is also the director of BEYOND. Through workshops and research programs, BEYOND tackles fundamental questions that still lack definitive answers: How did the universe come to exist? Is ours the only universe? Why are the laws of physics suited for life? Why is nature mathematical? How did life begin?

In this book, he addresses the popular question about whether life has relatives beyond the boundaries of our planet. He argues that finding extraterrestrial life would be at least as momentous as the 16th century realization that the earth is not at the universe’s centre.

There have been, however, three major arguments against the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe:

  1. The creation of life only occurs towards the end of a solar system’s evolution, making the window of opportunity very narrow.
  2. Fermi’s “Where are they?” argument about how the earth is much younger than the universe. This would have given alien intelligences ample time to spread and flourish elsewhere.
  3. The Neo-Darwininian contingency argument that intelligence is just one of a multitude of life’s adaptations and basically a fluke.

But for each viewpoint, Davies presents some strong counterarguments. Unfortunately, in spite of many efforts, no evidence of alien intelligence has surfaced yet.

Is there at least evidence for microbial life elsewhere in the universe? While my wife was attending the University of Hawaii in the fall of 1996, I attended a public lecture on the possibility of life on Mars. A meteorite of Martian originALH 84001 had been found in Antarctica in 1984, and in August of 1996 NASA held a press conference about the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and how it suggested that there was once microbial life on Mars. The U of Hawaii professor, like several other scientists, was sceptical because he felt that the microfossils in the stony meteorite were far too small to be living cells. As Paul Davies points out, since then, nanobacteria that are similar in size to the suspected fossils in the meteorite have been discovered. The debate is ongoing because there is still the possibility that the hydrocarbons could have been formed by inorganic processes. Although it may be farfetched I like Davies’ suggestion that life could have hitchhiked from Earth to Mars after a large meteor impact and then could have returned via a similar route.

Davies writing also exposes the reader to intriguing ideas about life’s origins such as those of Stuart Kauffman discussed in At Home in the Universe. He argues that before natural selection has a chance to act as an architect in shaping life, there are self-organizing principles at play. Self-catalyzing networks could be common preparatory stages for the origin of life, increasing its likelihood. Similarly, the other organizing principles may be responsible for life’s complexity.