The Best Science Books of 2016 â€“ Brain Pickings
Geege Schuman stashed this in Books
There are ample reasons to admire and appreciate microbes, well beyond the already impressive facts that they ruled â€śourâ€ť Earth for the vast majority of its 4.54-billion-year history and that we ourselves evolved from them. By pioneering photosynthesis, they became the first organisms capable of making their own food. They dictate the planetâ€™s carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus cycles. They can survive anywhere and populate just about corner of the Earth, from the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean to the loftiest clouds. They are so diverse thatÂ the microbes on your left hand are different from those on your right.Â
But perhaps most impressively â€” for we are, after all, the solipsistic species â€” they influence innumerable aspects of our biological and even psychological lives. Young offers a cross-section of this microbial dominion:
The microbiome is infinitely more versatile than any of our familiar body parts. Your cells carry between 20,000 and 25,000 genes, but it is estimated that the microbes inside you wield around 500 times more. This genetic wealth, combined with their rapid evolution, makes them virtuosos of biochemistry, able to adapt to any possible challenge. They help to digest our food, releasing otherwise inaccessible nutrients. They produce vitamins and minerals that are missing from our diet. They break down toxins and hazardous chemicals. They protect us from disease by crowding out more dangerous microbes or killing them directly with antimicrobial chemicals. They produce substances that affect the way we smell. They are such an inevitable presence that we have outsourced surprising aspects of our lives to them. They guide the construction of our bodies, releasing molecules and signals that steer the growth of our organs. They educate our immune system, teaching it to tell friend from foe. They affect the development of the nervous system, and perhaps even influence our behaviour. They contribute to our lives in profound and wide-ranging ways; no corner of our biology is untouched. If we ignore them, we are looking at our lives through a keyhole.
In August, I wrote about one particularly fascinating aspect of Yongâ€™s book â€” the relationship betweenÂ mental health, free will, and your microbiome.
Polar bear book sounds great, too.
Thatâ€™s what London-based illustrator and Sendak FellowÂ Jenni DesmondÂ explores inÂ The Polar BearÂ (public library) â€” the follow-up to Desmondâ€™s serenade to the science and life of Earthâ€™s largest-hearted creature,Â The Blue Whale, which was among theÂ best science booksÂ of 2015.
The story follows a little girl who, in a delightful meta-touch, pulls this very book off the bookshelf and begins learning about the strange and wonderful world of the polar bear, its life, and the science behind it â€” its love ofÂ solitude, the black skin that hides beneath its yellowish-white fur, the built-in sunglasses protecting its eyes from the harsh Arctic light, why it evolved to have an unusually long neck and slightly inward paws, how it maintains the same temperature as us despite living in such extreme cold, why it doesnâ€™t hibernate.
Beyond its sheer loveliness, the book is suddenly imbued with a new layer of urgency. At a time when we can no longer count on politicians to protect the planet and educate the next generations about preserving it, the task falls on solely on parents and educators. Desmondâ€™s wonderful project alleviates that task by offering a warm, empathic invitation to care about, which is the gateway to caring for, one of the creatures most vulnerable to our changing climate and most needful of our protection.
Look closerÂ here.
The Big Picture:
â€śWe are â€” as far as we know â€” the only part of the universe thatâ€™s self-conscious,â€ťÂ the poet Mark Strand marveled in his beautiful meditation onÂ the artistâ€™s task to bear witness to existence, adding:Â â€śWe could even be the universeâ€™s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itselfâ€¦ Itâ€™s such a lucky accident, having been born, that weâ€™re almost obliged to pay attention.â€ťÂ Scientists are rightfully reluctant to ascribe a purpose or meaning to the universe itself but, as physicist Lisa Randall has pointed out,Â â€śan unconcerned universe is not a bad thing â€” or a good one for that matter.â€ťÂ Where poets and scientists converge is the idea that while the universe itself isnâ€™t inherently imbued with meaning, it is in this self-conscious human act of paying attention that meaning arises.Â
PhysicistÂ Sean CarrollÂ terms this viewÂ poetic naturalismÂ and examines its rewards inÂ The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe ItselfÂ (public library) â€” a nuanced inquiry into â€śhow our desire to matter fits in with the nature of reality at its deepest levels,â€ť in which Carroll offers an assuring dose of what he calls â€śexistential therapyâ€ť reconciling the various and often seemingly contradictory dimensions of our experience.Â
With an eye to his lifeâ€™s work of studying the nature of the universe â€” an expanse of space and time against the incomprehensibly enormous backdrop of which the dramas of a single human life claim no more than a photon of the spotlight â€” Carroll offers a counterpoint to our intuitive cowering before such magnitudes of matter and mattering:Â
I like to think that our lives do matter, even if the universe would trundle along without us.
I want to argue that, though we are part of a universe that runs according to impersonal underlying laws, we nevertheless matter. This isnâ€™t a scientific question â€” there isnâ€™t data we can collect by doing experiments that could possibly measure the extent to which a life matters. Itâ€™s at heart a philosophical problem, one that demands that we discard the way that weâ€™ve been thinking about our lives and their meaning for thousands of years. By the old way of thinking, human life couldnâ€™t possibly be meaningful if we are â€śjustâ€ť collections of atoms moving around in accordance with the laws of physics. Thatâ€™s exactly what we are, but itâ€™s not the only way of thinking about what we are. We are collections of atoms, operating independently of any immaterial spirits or influences, and we are thinking and feeling people who bring meaning into existence by the way we live our lives.
Carrollâ€™s captivating termÂ poetic naturalismÂ builds on a worldview that has been around for centuries, dating back at least to the Scottish philosopherÂ David Hume. It fuses naturalism â€” the idea that the reality of the natural world is the only reality, that it operates according to consistent patterns, and that those patterns can be studied â€” with the poetic notion that there are multiple ways of talking about the world and of framing the questions that arise from natureâ€™s elemental laws.Â
I wrote about the book at lengthÂ here.