“The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing” Edited by Richard Dawkins (Oxford University Press, 2008)

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Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, The Ancestor’s Tale, and The God Delusion, needs no introduction having established himself as a reputable voice when discussing science in its many forms.  His latest effort is The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, in a hefty tome, where Dawkins attempts to present a concise view of science to the world in many short passages from many different scientists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that tessellate together to form a beautiful volume of writing.

The book is divided into four parts, as Dawkins organizes the vast wealth of science writing available not in chronological order, but groups the extracts into the following categories: “What Scientists Study,” “Who Scientists Are,” “What Scientists Think,” “What Scientists Delight in.”  Organizing it this ways serves to make the book more entertaining in the variety of subjects that are presented when the book is read from cover to cover.  Should the reader want to use the book more as a reference tool or to look up some specific authors or terms, there is a thorough index at the end of the book.  With each extract, Dawkins offers up his own commentary and reason for choosing the specific piece.

All the great scientists make an appearance here: Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Francis Crick, Brian Greene, Jared Diamond, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Primo Levi, the list goes on and on.  But this list is not reserved for the greats of science, but many of the women and men who have worked hard in their lives to further the knowledge of science in areas such as genetics, evolution, string theory, relativity, and mathematics.  The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing is a weighty, comprehensive book with almost everything science has had to offer in the last hundred years or so, and while it may not be for the science novice, the ideas, theories, and hypotheses expressed in this book have reshaped science, and offered up hope and ideals for future answers and theories that will continue to change the world as we know it.

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Originally written on October 10th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever” Edited by Christopher Hitchens (Da Capo Press, 2008)

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Christopher Hitchens has made quite a name for himself with his National Book Award nominated book, God is Not Great, and before the paperback edition is even out, Hitchens returns with an edited collection of “essential readings for the nonbeliever.”  The Portable Atheist may not necessarily be that “portable,” as it is a thick and oversized paperback; but is nevertheless a unique collection of Atheist writings taken from the history of the written word.

The collection begins with a lengthy introduction from Hitchens as he waxes rhapsodic about the growth of Atheism as a belief, the futility of religion, and how it has caused more harm than good.  The first piece comes from Titus Lucretius Carus in his De Rerum Naturum (On the Nature of Things), a Roman philosopher who lived in the first century BCE.  Lucretius discusses the theory of atoms and how everything is composed of these minute building blocks; an everyday fact of life now, but something that was laughed at and mocked for much of history.  In the brief passage, Lucretius speaks of devastating storms and catastrophic events not attributable to the gods, but of something quite natural and ordinary; he even hints that there is no afterlife.  Mark Twain, a staunch evolutionist and ever a satirist of religious faith has this to say: “Unless evolution, which has been a truth ever since the globes, suns, and planets of the solar system were but wandering films of meteor dust, shall reach a limit and become a lie, there is but one fate in store for him.”

Emma Goldman, a Russian-born anarchist who became a champion of civil liberties and labor rights in the United States, who was deported to Bolshevik Russia in 1919, was a strong voice in the early Atheist movement: “Atheism in its negation of gods is at the same time the strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.”  H. L. Mencken who worked against religious fundamentalists trying to ban alcohol and the teaching of evolution, and was made famous for his accounts of the Scopes “monkey trial” in Tennessee in 1925, in this amusing piece asks: “Where is the graveyard of dead gods?”  For the numberless amount of gods throughout the history of humanity haven’t survived – some completely forgotten, others barely recollected – and his final almost solemn comment is: “All are dead.”  Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller fame offers an insightful piece about being certain in his Atheist beliefs and how it is important to use the time we have now and not to waste time on thinking about the afterlife: “Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O, and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.”

The renowned Atheist proponents are all featured in The Portable Atheist: Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel C. Dennett; as are authors like H. P. Lovecraft, George Orwell, George Eliot, Ian McEwan, and John Updike; so are poets such as Percy Blysshe Shelley and Philip Larkin; as well as scientists like Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Carl Sagan.  It is a fascinating and captivating collection of Atheist writings that one can simply pick up at any point, wherever one may be, and pick a reading of their choosing – whatever length or format they wish.

The final piece is from bestselling author of Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who “escaped” Islam and its oppressive faith; she offers up this sobering outlook: “The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is Atheism.  It is not a creed.  Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell.  Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love.  There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”

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Originally written on April 5th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster, 2007)

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Walter Isaacson, author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, takes biography writing to a whole new level with Einstein: His Life and Universe.  This isn’t just the story of Albert Einstein from birth until death; Isaacson escorts the reader on a unique journey through the mind of Einstein, as well as through the eyes of his friends and family; along the way one becomes so close and understanding of the man of the twentieth century it is as if he were still alive and conversing with you.  This book shows you the man and human being behind the genius of physics and astronomy, the creator of the theory of relativity.

Do not be fooled by the sheer girth of this 700-page book, Isaacson has a writing style that immediately makes the reader feel calm and at home, sitting in a comfortable chair doing what they love to do.  Coupled with this is the knowledge – since the book is so large – that you will experience every important moment in Einstein’s life and you will be able to put to rest the urban legends that have developed over the decades.  And no, Einstein did not flunk math.

Isaacson has done an incredible job in researching the math and physics so that the theories and ideas are presented in their entirety and laid out plainly so that if the reader wishes to truly understand Einstein’s ideas behind relativity, magnetic fields, quantum mechanics, and his never ending search for the unified field theory, they can.  But unlike most Einstein biographies, this is only part of the book; another part is the human being behind the incredible brain.  While being a very kind man throughout his life, Einstein also had a thing for the ladies, divorcing his first wife, Maric, of many years due to his infidelity with his second wife and cousin, Elsa, who he would outlive.  Nevertheless, throughout his life Einstein always loved and cared for his children, even his first daughter with Maric who was given up for adoption and remains an obscure detail to history.  There was a time when he held little respect for Hans Albert, his son, who pursued a career in engineering; Einstein’s love belonged to the world of theory and contemplation and despised the more manual sciences.  Later in life, Hans and Albert became close once again and his son was by his side when Einstein died.

While not in the table of contents, the book can be divided into two parts, two worlds essentially for Einstein’s life.  The first is his growing up in Germany and then moving to Switzerland, Prague and Berlin.  His genius was there from the beginning, as he mastered calculus at the age of 15, and while working at a patent office began his work on relativity.  It took some years before Einstein was granted a professorship in Berlin among his colleagues.  It is during this time that Einstein was at his height and achieved a celebrity status that was very uncommon for a scientist, and where Hitler began his steady rise to power.  While Einstein adamantly declared himself without religion, he never considered himself an atheist but a scientist; however he always considered himself a member of the Jewish culture and with the changes taking place in Germany, he became a prominent spokesmen for the Zionist movement.  Sadly it came to the point where it simply wasn’t safe for Einstein to live in Germany anymore, as well as being forced out of his professorship, he made the decision to immigrate to the United States.  He had visited the country a number of times during his tours around the world as a proponent of relativity and to meet other scientists at conferences, and was a big supporter of the rights and freedoms inherent in the country.

This is where the second part of the book begins, pursuing Einstein’s life in the United States.  It was during this time that he sought out citizenship and left for Bermuda so that he could properly immigrate and go through the citizenship procedure.  An adamant pacifist throughout his life, as the horrific events taking place in Germany began to surface, Einstein became more political and outspoken towards the country of his birth.  And it was at this time the theory of the chain reaction was discussed between him and a scientist friend and the concept for the atomic bomb was developed.  While it has been thought by many that Einstein was linked with the atom bomb from its conception to its detonation, he was only involved at the theoretical stage, kept out from the further proceedings due to his Jewish and German history.  Once the full potential of the bomb was realized, Einstein went out of his way to voice his opinions on the effects of the bomb to the President, Defense Secretary, and anyone else who would listen.

After the end of the war and devastation caused by the bombs, Einstein became introverted, focusing more on his theoretical work and pulling away from the limelight.  For the rest of his life, to his last days, he calculated, contemplated, and searched for  the linking solution between relativity and quantum mechanics: the unified field theory that would explain the universe once and for all.

Einstein: His Life and Universe does not simply tell you Einstein’s life story and the incredible achievements he made, but instills a fascination and excitement with science in the reader.  It brings back potent ideas of the past during the age of discovery, as well as laying a foundation in science for the ideas and inventions of the future when, perhaps, the unified field theory may finally be discovered and fully realized.

AUDIOBOOK VERSION: The reader for the audiobook version for Einstein: His Life and Universe is Edward Hermann who starred in The Aviator, received an Emmy Award for his work on The Practice and appeared regularly on Gilmore Girls.  Hermann’s voice is like that of an enjoyable professor at a lecture, or a grandfather telling you an old story: soft and calming, but also clear and understandable.  It is perhaps in the audiobook version that the book is a lot less daunting and the listener is able to enjoy the story wherever they are.

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Originally written on July 8th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.