This is this week’s group of books for the library. As often happens, re-reading passages brought back a lot of happy memories. I will miss the books, but saying goodbye is an enjoyable experience. I hope to pass the same enjoyment on to other people.
This Stuff: The narrative opens in the author’s laser lab. When he turns on the infrared laser, he says it “wakes his sense of wonder. That invisible light does not threaten life, but it still carries powerful magic.” Not that there’s any thing particular about infrared light. The book is a study of light and explores historical and scientific understandings. The inspiration is a series of paintings by the French artist, René Magritte (1898-1967), Empire of Light (L’Empire des lumières).
The magic of this book lies in Perkowitz’s writing. He easily communicates his sense of wonder for art and science and the connection—light. This was another great read. I hope it finds a happy home.
Bio: Sidney Perkowitz (b. 1939) is a scientist and science writer. He is the Charles Howard Candler Professor Emeritus of Physics at Emory University, where he began teaching in 1969. At Emory, he researched the properties of matter. He has produced more than 100 scientific papers and books, including textbooks. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His writings for general audiences include Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World (2007), a study of science fiction movies.
Title: Empire of Light: A History of Discovery in Science and Art
Author: Sidney Perkowitz (b. 1939)
First published: 1996
The Stuff: In his preface, the author writes that the purpose of this book is to make neuroscience more accessible to a broad audience. He sets outs to answer such questions as What causes a phantom limb? How do we construct a body image? Why do some people see musical notes as colored? Are there artistic universals? And the biggie, of course, what is consciousness?
The author does not promise to answer all these questions, but he does take the reader on extended case studies. These, sadly, are not always successful, but they often show promise. Ramachandran views his patients—and their families, who often have to care for disabled relatives with perplexing conditions—as suffering human beings
I can’t say I enjoyed this book, but it was an engaging and fascinating, if sad, read.
Bio: Vilayanur Subramanian Ramachandran (b. 1951) is an Indian-American neuroscientist and medical doctor. He is the Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Distinguished Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, and an Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute. He’s known for his work with phantom limbs. In addition to many technical and scientific papers, he’s written books like Phantoms in the Brain and The Tell-Tale Brain for general audiences.
Title: A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Imposter Poodles to Purple Numbers
Author: V. S. Ramachandran (b. 1951)
First published: 2003
The Stuff: Raymo views the world as divided between Skeptics and True Believers. Both positions have their shortcomings. The True Believer is a mindset and may not look to traditional religion for explanations of the world but also to things like UFOs and astrology. He notes that one can feel the same awe and wonder at the scientific world as one does regarding religion. “Science,” he writes, “cannot nor should not be a religion, but it can be a basis for a religious experience: astonishment, experiential union, adoration, praise.”
He didn’t sell me on this. Nevertheless, when he writes of a single instance of startling a great blue heron in a marsh, sending it flying, all his poetic skills come to bear in portraying his sense of awe—I am there. He sees the event not only in this one instance but also in understanding that the bird is descended from dinosaurs and related to other living species. The whole passage is lovely, and the book is full of these sorts of passages. This one alone is worth the price of admission.
I really liked this book. I’m going to miss it.
Bio: Chet Raymo: (b. 1936) is an American author, physicist, astronomer, naturalist, columnist, and educator. Professor Emeritus of Physics at Stonehill College, in Easton, Massachusetts. He wrote a science column for the Boston Globe for twenty years. This column is now a blog. He has also contributed to Scientific American and The Notre Dame Magazine.
Title: Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connections between Science and Religion
Author: Chet Raymo (b. 1936)
First published: 1998
The Stuff: The author has a great time discussing such a grim subject as corpses. Nevertheless, she does not belittle the humanity of people or their misfortunes. Among the topics are (of course) the burial industry, studies in decay to advance forensics knowledge, cadavers used in medical research, and (turning to times past) supposed medical cures involving (ICK) consuming corpses or parts of corpses.
While this may not be one for the faint of heart in some respects, Roach broaches the darker subjects with a light hand and is always informative. This was a great read.
Bio: Mary Roach (b. 1959) is an American author of popular science books. She has a degree in psychology. In addition to her books, her writing has appeared in National Geographic and the New York Times Magazine, among other publications. She was the editor of the 2011 edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing. Her latest book, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law (2021), deals with human attempts to handle wildlife. She lives in Oakland, California.
Title: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Author: Mary Roach (b. 1959)
First published: 2003
The Stuff: Roach sets out to find evidence of an afterlife through first reincarnation, a “soul” escaping at the moment of death, communication with the dead through mediums, and other approaches. As she notes in her introduction, the closer one looks at these sorts of things, the murkier they get. I may disagree with her conclusions, but I will admit that it was a fun ride with her humor.
Bio: see Stiff
Title: Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
Author: Mary Roach (b. 1959)
First published: 2005