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Article in Category:Adult Nonfiction

Enjoy great reading while learning a little more about the natural world and mathematics.

  • You Are Here:Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lot in the Mall by Colin Ellard
For me the charm of this book is how unassumingly Ellard can share "mathematics-grade" abstractions ("taxis", "gradient fields"), combine them in an argument about the nature of human beings' perception of spatial relations, and then convincingly demonstrate how important this is to every one of us. It was easy to follow the argument, even though I do get lost in malls. His contention is that people base their spatial perception on visual chunks connected by narrative, associative, or procedural links that have no real "distance" property. Compared with animals, whose navigational schemes and the interesting experiments that have elucidated them comprise the first half of the books, humans have little real understanding of relations between two unseen landmarks. Surprisingly, such an apparent disability confers on us the ability to "create" our own environment in a way that is convincing, at least to ourselves. The book's second half describes many of the benefits of "made environments" in housing, workplaces, cities, and even "virtual worlds," as well as the environmental harm being caused by our inability or refusal to understand interconnectedness in our planet's limited space. The bibliography is wonderful, collecting similar, popular treatments of interesting topics in social science.
JMRL has this in audiobook form, which might not be the best for some of the intense physics discussed in some of the chapters. But the other essays talk about Feynman's work in an accessible way. In some sections, he talks about how his father helped cultivate a wonder with the world that allowed Feynman to ask questions scientifically. In others, there are discussions about Feynman's views on faith vs. science, his views for the future of science, and some great personal anecdotes - told in Feynman's own idiosyncratic verbiage if not in his own voice - about being the young gun on the Manhattan Project, winning the Nobel Prize, etc.
Less "hard" science, more nature and musing; this book was recommended as a good memoir/natural history read. The author decided to travel the 3,000-mile migration route of the snow goose, from Texas to Baffin Island, in the far north of Canada; he documents this journey in this contemplative, poetic narrative. Along the way, the reader is treated to theories of migration throughout history, details about the various environments through which the geese travel - especially the tundra - and, of course, lots about the snow geese themselves. The author was inspired by memories of reading Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose.
Entertaining for its anecdotes of eccentric scientists, odd creatures, and adventurous expeditions, the book also provides a solid picture of the importance of taxonomy in science, and how it is changing with new techniques. This is a grown-up version of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil Frankenweiler.
An entertaining look at the surprising insights theoretical physics offers about the nature of space (is it real or only an abstraction to express relations, is it continuous or discrete, how many dimensions does it have, is it dynamic?) and time (why do things happen in only one direction?) Greene's real strength is in elucidating the experimental and philosophical rationales for preferring particular theories over others.
A bohemian sculptor's adventures getting Canada geese to migrate using an ultralight aircraft. The book was made into a charming film called Fly Away Home starring a young Anna Paquin.
What it would be like living in an unusual space often serves authors well. Arthur Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama imagines existence in a huge cylinder where "up" is toward the center, and two of the cardinal directions run straight while two run in a curve. Ian Stewart builds on Edwin Abbot's classic Flatland, which, by analogy with a two-dimensional world, imagined what life might be like in more than three dimensions. Abbott also had social issues in mind. Stewart's book presents a series of worlds in much weirder, non-Euclidean geometries, and in which women's social status has been completely transformed. The book combines real geometric understanding, humor, and progressive social commentary.
  • Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt
Who doesn't wonder about the "phantom traffic jams" on I-64 east of Richmond, why people speed on some roads but not on others, and why are they putting in those roundabouts? Vanderbilt answers these questions and many more in what is arguably a review of traffic literature from many different disciplines -- psychology, engineering, mathematical modeling, and even physics. The answers are often counterintuitive, but always written in an engaging style with quotes like this, from a New Delhi taxi driver: "Good brakes, good horn, good luck."