The Sciences

Reviews: Book List

As you compile your reading list for 2007, consider these new and noteworthy books.


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Vaccine by Arthur Allen

(W. W. Norton, $27.95)

One quarter of U.S.parents are reluctant to get their children vaccinated, and thousand shave filed lawsuits alleging that vaccines caused autism in their kids.­ Allen, a journalist with a decade-long interest in this topic, shows that unlike other medical procedures, vaccination has inspired organized resistance movements throughout its history. In an admirable balancing act, he takes a critical look both at the antivaccine activists’ tendency to deal in half-truths and hysteria, and at a biomedical establishment that has repeatedly circled its wagons,denying or downplaying genuine dangers of vaccines. Richly detailed and masterfully written, this is a must-read. —Kyla Dunn

The Poincaré Conjecture by Donal O’Shea

(Walker & Company,$26.95)

After reclusive Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman conquered the Poincaré Conjecture—a hitherto unproved mathematical statement that had attracted and stymied scholars for more than a century—he made headlines last summer for refusing the Fields medal,math’s highest honor, as a reward. Experts lamented that the human drama got more attention than the remarkable mathematics involved. Now O’Shea, a mathematician, recounts the rich history of the famous problem and its solution, even managing to connect its abstract implications to the real world. A layman’s guide to this mathematical odyssey is long overdue, and this one will appeal to math whizzes and interested novices alike. —Stephen Ornes

Flower Confidential by Amy Stewart

(­Algonquin Books, $23.95)

Bred for ease of harvesting and suitability as airfreight, grown on conveyor belts, and tricked into blooming out of season, today’s cut flowers are a true industrial product. Growers even have plans to bag and vacuum-seal their tulips for hanging on grocery store racks like potato chips. In Flower Confidential garden writer Amy Stewart explores the oddities of this $40-billion global industry. We learn of scientists’ efforts to engineer the first blue rose, and why breeding for longer vase life has caused most modern cut flowers to lose their scent entirely. Stewart also lays out the difficult quest for a socially responsible flower,one that takes less of a toll on workers and the environment. —Kyla Dunn

Uncertainty; by David Lindley ­

(Doubleday, $26)

“Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it,” physicist Niels Bohr once said. This is particularly true of Werner Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle, which holds that an experimenter cannot simultaneously measure the velocity and position of a moving particle. Young Heisenberg and his mentor, Bohr, embraced it; Albert Einstein declared it nonsense. God, Einstein asserted, does not play dice. Science writer and former astrophysicist David Lindley recounts the birth of the principle amid a maelstrom of doubt, insecurity, and skepticism,layering keen human drama on top of mind-bending scientific advancement. —Stephen Ornes

Undermining Science by Seth Shulman

(University of California Press, $24.95)

In 2003 the White House instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to delete from its annual Report on the Environment any reference to a study showing that human activity contributes significantly to climate change, and also to delete temperature data showing a worsening warming trend. In the end, the EPA dropped the entire climate change section rather than publish something that so inaccurately reflected the science. Journalist Seth Shulman recounts this episode and dozens of other case studies to illustrate how often objective data have been sacrificed to ideology under the current Bush administration. Exhaustively sourced and researched, Shulman’s book leaves no doubt that the integrity of government research is under attack. It stands alongside Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science as a work of timely muckraking. —Stephen Ornes

The Elephant’s Secret Sense by Caitlin O’Connell

(Free Press, $24)

Airborne sounds aren’t the only signals pachyderms pick up: They also communicate with one another through the Earth, detecting seismic signals of warning or of greeting with their sensitive trunks and feet. These low-frequency rumblings were first uncovered by ecologist Caitlin O’Connell, who now describes her revolutionary work.Her memoir evocatively captures 14 years of fieldwork and scientific experiments that moved an unorthodox hunch about elephant communication into the scientific mainstream. —Jennifer Barone

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