Filed under dewey decimal project

Dewey Decimal Project: 621.3092 COO The Truth About Tesla: The Myth of the Lone Genius in the History of Innovation

ContinuingNewImage through technology, we reach engineering. Spotting a book about Tesla, everyone’s favorite wizard of science, I decided I’d see what Cooper has to say, especially given his provocative title.

Cooper is a lawyer and this reads in a lot of ways like a legal brief. Cooper writes the life of Tesla with an agenda, to argue that Tesla’s genius was not the singular thing that many claim it to be while also attacking the concept of the lone genius in general. To this end, Cooper takes a systematic approach to Tesla’s life and inventions, showing the precedents for many of his great creations, most notably the AC motor/generator which is at the heart of Tesla’s reputation (I discount the wireless electricity transmission claims as these are objectively spurious and only championed by the most deluded of Tesla partisans).

Cooper, like a good lawyer, lays out his case in a way to make his conclusion seem inevitable and this perhaps is my biggest complaint: His legalistic style tends to take much of the energy out of the story.


Dewey Decimal Project: 616.994 MUK The Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

The 610s are oneNewImage of those sections of the library where there are a huge number of books, which is understandable as this is the medicine section and I have to imagine that self-diagnosing illnesses and/or researching treatments for illnesses, real and imagined, is a big use for the library.

I’d heard good things about The Emperor of Maladies so it was not an unfamiliar title when I spotted it on the shelves. My sister-in-law, who’s a doctor, saw it when I was in the middle of it and added her own endorsement of the book.

Much of the history of cancer takes place in the twentieth century, although that’s partly because so much of the history of medicine in general takes place in the twentieth century with medicine as a science being a relatively young discipline. The four humors theory of the functioning of the body managed to last into the nineteenth century despite the fact that two of the four humors turned out to not exist at all.

It seems somewhat miraculous that any treatment for cancer exists at all, or any understanding of cancer, for that matter, given the backwardness of medical science for so much of human history and even during the twentieth century, there was a lot of driving into long dead ends. Mukerhjee manages to make all of this compelling without giving in to oversimplification or distortion of the underlying science. Overall a book worthy of its praise.


Dewey Decimal Project: 607.3474 CRE The electrifying fall of Rainbow City : Spectacle and assassination at the 1901 World’s Fair

The 600s are technology which managed to yield The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City courtesy of the Buffalo Pan American Exhibition’s exhibition of technology alongside the various cultural displays and sideshow acts.

This book isNewImage a sort of unofficial sequel to The Devil in the White City. As in that book, there is the intersection of a grand exhibition and a killer. In this case it’s Buffalo and the assassin of William McKinley, Leon Czolgosz. Where this falls short is that the Rainbow City was a somewhat less spectacular affair than Chicago’s White City and Czolgosz a less grotesque character than Dr Holmes. Even with that, there’s still plenty of interest between the electrification of Buffalo courtesy of generators at nearby Niagara Falls (along with an assortment of sideshow antics at the falls including the first person to go over the falls in a barrel). Creighton does a good enough job with the material that she has to work with.


Dewey Decimal Project: 599.884 WAA Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape

I first learned Bonobo book cover f bonobos about the time that this book was originally published. I remember reading an article about these not-chimpanzees in the Chicago Tribune. I found it fascinating that the two ape species closest in relation to humans have bifurcated into “R-rated” species with one specializing in violence (chimpanzees) and the other sex (bonobos). I remembered reading something about dolphin or porpoise species indicating that a similar bifurcation between sex and violence had occurred with those animals. It raises the question about whether a focus on sex and violence is inherent in intelligence (and on a theological-anthropological note sex and violence come upon the stage in close succession in the book of Genesis).

The book goes into a good deal of detail about what’s known about bonobos, much of which comes from observations of the animals in captivity since their native range and behaviors are such that observations in the wild are difficult and often involve activities such as leaving out food for them to forage which arguably shape their behavior in unnatural ways. Alongside the text are spectacular photos of bonobos, again mostly of the apes in captivity but including some in the wild, which add to the book’s appeal.

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Dewey Decimal Project: 583.22 MOO Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit

When I wasNewImage younger, my father took the family to Paw Paw Woods in the southwest suburbs of Chicago in search of pawpaws. We found a paw paw tree, but it had no fruit. I don’t know whether we had come at the wrong time of year or if the fruit had already been collected or if it was a year that the tree was not going to be bearing fruit.

It was with my father’s obsession in mind that, when I spotted this book on the shelves I decided it would be the next book in line for my reading through the Dewey Decimal system.

Moore provides an engaging account of the natural and cultivational history of the pawpaw, the only tropical fruit to be found natively in temperate North America. Unlike other formerly wild fruits, there has been little success in domesticating the pawpaw. A number of cultivars now exist, but commercial growing has yet to be successful at the scales necessary to make the pawpaw anything more than a niche farmer’s market fruit.

I happened recently to be passing through Ann Arbor and thought we might stop by Zingerman’s Deli to try the pawpaw ice cream that was mentioned in the book, but alas, it is not, as Moore claims, a year-round offering, but only available during pawpaw season so there was no pawpaw ice cream to be had. Instead, at the end of September or beginning of October, I’ll grab my dad and drag him to Paw Paw Woods in search of pawpaws.


Dewey Decimal Project: 573.3 SPE Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery

The 570s are general NewImagebiology which includes evolution which includes the Piltdown man hoax. Since it was mentioned in passing in <cite>The Last Human</cite> and I knew very little about it, when I spotted this book on the shelves, I decided it would be my next read.

It should be a great book: a fake skull was planted in a gravel pit in England, the cranium of a human with the jaw of an orangutan, a hoax that managed to go undetected for several decades despite the misgivings of some contemporary paleontologists. The mystery becomes who was the perpetrator, and unlike some mysteries examined by book authors, Spencer claims to have a definitive answer to the question.

This perhaps is the downfall of the book. To level a charge of who the forger could be, Spencer felt obligated to document his argument extensively and as a result, the book reads drily and ends up being dull. Spencer does do a good job of making his case, but sadly fails at creating a compelling reading experience.


569.9 SAR The last human : a guide to twenty-two species of extinct humans

The 560s areNewImage paleontology. I could have gone with the “sexy” choice and read a book about dinosaurs, but I remembered hearing about this book on Science Friday and decided it was worth taking a look at.

On the surface the concept is appealing: vignettes speculating on life of some now-extinct species of humans and pre-humans alongside illustrations of reconstructions of the likely appearance of these ancestral species.

In practice, the organization of the book made this promise unfulfilled. The vignettes are not preceded with the species identification which instead comes at head of the second and longest section on each species, a rather technical description of the fossil remains and what is known about the contemporary ecology for the species. I’ve never read any professional journals of paleontology, but I imagine this is what they would read like.

The illustration or illustrations generally come during this section or after it, which is a loss, since it would be nice to have it with the vignette to enable visualizing the text better.

Overall, a bit of a disappointment, but I’ve ended up knowing a lot about hominid paleontology that I hadn’t before.

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550 KRE The Basics of Earth Science

When I wasNewImage in high school, earth science was the class that was taken by the kids who didn’t really want to learn science., much like the stereotypical intro to geology in college which gets dubbed “Rocks for Jocks.” As someone who was a science nerd in his youth, I of course, didn’t take earth science (or geology) and so my knowledge of the subject didn’t expand beyond what I was taught in grade school science class.

It was with a sense of humility that I came to this book thinking that I’d learn something I didn’t know. The first problem came up when I realized that the typesetting of the book was faulty: The symbol ▯appeared in place of pretty much every special character, making nonsense of things like the descriptions of chemical reactions where ▯ appeared in place of ⇌ (somewhat miraculously, this lack of symbols resolved itself for the last few chapters).

The text itself largely consists of a dull recitation of facts. It’s as if Krebs got a hold of an outline of earth science study guide and just filled in the paragraphs. It’s enough to make the mind go dull, but then there was at least one dramatic error in the text (possibly more, but I have a grade-school understanding of earth science): at one point Krebs talks about sedimentary rocks metamorphosing into igneous rocks. I learned the correct answer as a dinosaur-obsessed first grader: Under high temperatures, sedimentary rocks do indeed metamorphose, but they metamorphose into metamorphic rocks (Krebs did manage to get this right in the section on the three kinds of rocks).

But the worst thing about this book is it turns out that Krebs is an anti-environmentalist climate change denier. Early in the book he discounts the need for things like post-consumer recycling and he repeatedly cites The Skeptical Environmentalist a much-criticized work that serves primarily to be used as propaganda by anti-environmentalist forces. When he gets to climate change, he repeats the same tired claims that have been peddled by the fossil fuel industry and their allies about how the change in the climate is probably not human caused and even if it was, it’s not worth doing anything about.

Overall, a garbage book, probably even worse than the Slovene language text that made me so angry a couple months ago.


Dewey Decimal Project: 540 NEW The New Chemistry

Continuing through the 500s and science, I get to chemistry. In high school, I was a chemistry wiz. I took tCover of The New Chemistrywo years of chemistry, acing both years, but somehow between the end of high school and the beginning of college, I managed to persuade myself that I wasn’t good at chemistry and I barely passed freshman chemistry when I was still enrolled at nerd school.

I picked this book out of all the options because I had imagined it might be a college-level chemistry textbook and I could right the wrongs I had committed against myself and finally and properly learn some chemistry.

This was not the book that I expected. Instead it’s a collection of articles that seem to assume at least a year of college chemistry knowledge to fully understand (and my year of college chemistry is three decades behind me and was pretty much forgotten on the spot, let alone available for use these many years later). Nevertheless, I gave it a try, starting with the creation of new elements and working my way through a variety of topics that culminated with chemistry and society. 

Reader, I understood less than half of what I read. I still would like to re-learn (or would that be just plain learn?) chemistry, but I’m not much closer to it now, although I have to admit that some side-reading in Wikipedia and elsewhere in trying to understand some of what was presented did bring me infinitesimally closer to understanding basic chemistry.


Dewey Decimal Project: 530 FEY The Character of Physical Law

When NewImageI was a college student, I read Feynman’s autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman. It was a breezy fun read (and I was young and dumb enough not to notice the misogyny and other problematic aspects of Feynman’s personal life). Feynman has a reputation for presenting challenging topics in an accessible way, so with that plus my experience of reading his autobiography, I thought I’d give this book a shot, despite its unpromising title.

As I expected, it was an accessible yet challenging read. The text is taken from a series of lectures Feynman gave at Cornell University and uses the idea of what constitutes a physical law as its organizing principle and gives a decent overview of physics starting with Newton’s law of gravitation and considering a number of topics including relativity and quantum mechanics. There have been a number of significant discoveries in physics since Feynman gave these lectures in the early 60s (notably the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson and the detection of gravitation waves), but Feynman’s lectures seem to anticipate these reasonably well given the state of what was known at the time.