In the past few months, I have occasionally contributed to Science News’ Book Reviews page. Here are the mini-reviews I’ve written so far.
The Archimedes Codex: How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist— Reviel Netz and William Noel
Some of the works of Archimedes—the Greek thinker and tinkerer who lived in 3rd-century B.C. Sicily and discovered the principle of buoyancy—survive only in a single 8th-century copy. As Netz and Noel recount, the manuscript was lost and found multiple times, erased and recycled into a prayer book by a 13th-century monk, and lived through fire, mold, and forgers who covered some of its pages with fake medieval paintings. In 1998, a collector bought the manuscript for $2 million and entrusted it to Noel, a curator at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Using pioneering technology, researchers have managed to read most of the book’s content, allowing historians—including Netz—new glimpses into Archimedes’ genius. Da Capo, 2007, 320 p., color photos and b&w illus., hardcover, $27.50. [Also see: The 'Jurassic Park' of Manuscripts.]
Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy— Jay Inslee and Bracken Hendricks
The authors present a manifesto for the Apollo Alliance, a clean-energy advocacy organization that Inslee, a [democratic] congressman from Washington state, helped found and where Hendricks is a senior fellow. Greening the U.S. economy is not only necessary to save the environment and wean us off Middle Eastern oil, the authors write. It will also create millions of “green-collar” jobs, which will be held by everyone from engineers developing better solar panels to the workers who will install them. The book evokes the national focus on reaching the moon in the 1960s to advocate a comprehensive array of policy and technological solutions. It also aims to allay fears of losing jobs to new regulations and to defuse tensions between trade unions and environmentalists, two traditionally Democratic constituencies. Island Press, 2007, 416 p., b&w photos, hardcover, $25.95.
Four Laws That Drive the Universe— Peter Atkins
Although it deals with seemingly familiar concepts such as temperature, thermodynamics ranks among the most conceptually treacherous branches of physics. Many students, for example, have puzzled over the definition of entropy, a measure of disorder. Atkins, a chemistry professor at the University of Oxford in England, guides the reader through the basics of thermodynamics in just over 120 pages by keeping a steady focus on the subject’s four fundamental laws. The book contains a modicum of formulas. And although it’s tersely written and titled like a popular-science book, Four Laws is a textbook both in essence and in structure. Atkins’ elegant exposition will appeal to the lay reader with a serious interest in physics. Oxford Univ. Press, 2007, 128 p., b&w illus., hardcover, $19.95.
Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment — Tom McCarthy
As crude oil approaches $100 per barrel, wallet pain, more than any fears of global warming, may eventually lead Americans to reconsider their thirst for ever-heavier and ever-faster cars and trucks. Since Henry Ford’s invention of the mass-produced car, consumers have chosen what to drive based less on the environmental consequences—which include not just tailpipe emissions but the full product cycle, from mining to disposal—than on the allure of the car as a status symbol, McCarthy argues. He tells the story of a nation’s affair with four wheels and of how the car’s role as cultural icon has influenced its evolution. When considering the car’s impact on the environment, it is simplistic to blame it all on Detroit’s “big three” or the inadequacy of government regulations. One case in point, McCarthy writes, is the astonishing rise of the SUV, which took even car manufacturers by surprise. Yale Univ. Press, 2007, 368 p., b&w illus. and photos, hardcover, $32.50.