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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Have you ever wondered whether a black cat crossing your path really brings you bad luck? How about what the funniest joke in the world is? Are you really connected to Sir Richard Branson by just six degrees? And how can you tell whether someone is actually lying? Richard Wiseman seems to spend his life cogitating over these kinds of questions, but unlike all the rest of us, he then decides he is going to find out what the answer is for once and for all.

Quirkology is a fabulous collection of Richard’s experiments, many of which produce some true surprises. His book successfully brings the fun into science and makes you think about those odd little aspects of life which we take for granted or believe without question. I just love his audacity in his search to find the truth. I have seen Richard speak and watched him perform his magic tricks (he is a magician as well as a scientist) and his book reads exactly like he speaks in person. It is entertaining, engaging and informative all at the same time. It’s a tough book to put down, and if you are ever looking for fascinating after dinner conversation or trivia, this is definitely the book to turn to.

If offered a jumper which had been rubbed in dog poo but not thoroughly laundered, or one which had been worn by a serial killer and thoroughly laundered, which would you prefer to put on? What do you think the majority of people said?

The one point I laughed out loud? Soon after he had been talking about Freud, the following line appeared

“Although Freud claimed to be a scientist, many of his ideas are completely untesticle”

Freudian slip perhaps? Or a deliberate ploy to see if you were paying attention. In either case, I absolutely loved this book and am looking forward to a sequel.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 978-0-230-70215-8
Publisher: Macmillan
Year: 2007
Date Finished: 3 May 2005
Pages: 298
Challenges: 4/8 of category 6: Science and Scepticism; W from the A-Z Challenge

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Quite often, the books I read will make me wish I could live more than one lifetime in order to pursue all of the different careers which spark my interest. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson was one of those book. The difference with this book is that rather than an alternative career path, this one found me wishing I could pursue 10 or 15 other career paths because they all sounded so interesting and all left me wanting to know more.

Bryson sets himself no small task with this book. His idea is to describe in as much depth as possible, the origins of the earth, life and science, traversing over astronomy, geology, astrophysics, physics, chemistry, genetics, evolution, biology, zoology, anthropology and a huge armload of other scientific fields which make this planet so utterly fascinating and amazing to be a part of. He writes in a very accessible style, so even as he is trying to describe Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or the still contentious string theory, the reader never feels alientated. Within less than 500 pages, you can begin to grasp the very basics of quantum theory, the theory of the Big Bang and evolutionary selection, all things which every living person on earth should know to give them a better understanding of the world around them.

I am always impressed by Bryson’s exhaustive research. Even though he hasn’t set out to write an academic text, he appears to have made every effort to verify his facts as well as give personality to the characters who have helped the human race build their scientific knowledge to now. Granted, I am sure there are many glaring gaps and many individuals who may have been missed in his narrative. Granted, there is undoubtedly poetic licence in Bryson’s anecdotal personalities. But the poetic licence is necessary to turn this book into an enjoyable read, whether you have a scientific background or not.

I took immense pleasure in being reminded of my high school chemistry in the chapters about the elements. But I think what surprised me and pleased me most of all about A Short History of Nearly Everything is the realisation of how little we know. Not just how little I know as an individual, but how little we know as a race. I think common perception is that we have mentally conquered much of the earth and universe. In fact, we have barely breathed on the surface. And that is what makes it all the more exciting. As a new, tiny piece of knowledge is achieved, one more mystery is resolved, and two more mysteries arise. What an amazing field to be involved in.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 0-385-40818-8
Publisher: Doubleday
Year: 2003
Date Finished: 11 April 2008
Pages: 423pp (not including bibliography and notes)
Challenges: 3/8 of Science and Skepticism category.

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Why People Believe Weird Things

During the Second World War, the Nazi’s orchestrated the systematic murder of millions of Jews in the gas chambers of concentration camps around Europe. This horror known as the Holocaust is remembered and studied by students and academics alike. But there are a few people out there who, for some reason, deny that it ever happened and try and suggest that the whole thing is a big conspiracy.

In the mid-nineteenth century, a brilliant scientist called Charles Darwin finally gave a name to the scientific theory explaining life and how it came to be here today in the form that it is. His Theory of Evolution precipitated a complete change in the understanding not just of science, but of the amazing world in which we live. But there are a few people out there who spend their entire lives trying to deny that it ever happened.

These two ‘weird things’ are just several of the many beliefs which Shermer discusses in Why People Believe Weird Things. Although I only read the first edition which is now 11 years old, it was a fascinating and still very relevant expose of some of the strange beliefs that humans hold dear and why they hold them so closely.

Shermer is a sceptic (or, to use the American spelling which is presented in the book – a skeptic) which, as he explains, offers a way of examining things, not a belief unto itself. To be sceptical, one must approach each claim with an open mind and base the truth or falsity of that claim on evidence in a scientific manner. He employs Hume’s motto

That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.

So essentially, if the alternative explanation (other than the miraculous one) is completely unbelievable, then one would default to the miraculous explanation. If it was more miraculous that someone could fall asleep and experience a waking dream than it was if that said person was abducted by aliens and used for alien experiments, then the falling asleep explanation would have to be discarded. However, as one can clearly see, this simple reasoning tends to assist in disproving most supernatural claims.

Shermer’s  book isn’t just a treatise on debunking claims such as alien abduction, Holocaust denial, cults, witch crazes, near death experiences and the ubiquitous creationism. It is also an examination into why people believe such things. In this he touches on psychology, human need for comfort, biology and history. Ultimately, it is human nature to look for causality and to try and find simple explanations. Because of this, all too often human allow themselves to be seduced by fallacies to the point of refusing to listen to anything else. This book causes you to take a step back and look at your own beliefs and try and test each one for its plausibility. Without realising it, we are all subjected to fallacious thinking and convincing myths and often accept them without question, despite our ability to critically think and assess evidence.

Shermer’s overarching reason, however, for why people believe weird things is that hope springs eternal. Even if there is solid proof to the contrary, hope that the pseudoscience or myth is true continues to dominate. Perhaps that is an inescapable aspect of the human condition? And really, the majority of people who do believe in ‘weird things’ aren’t doing it because of political, racial or religious prejudice, or because they lack the ability to think for themselves. The majority truly hold that hope. But Shermer demonstrates that exploration, examination and critical thinking can result in explanations which are so amazing that you feel privileged to be alive and living within it. The reality of the world in which we live is far better than hope, if people would just walk out of the door and see.

I will definitely try and get my hands on the more recent edition of this book and re-read it because there was a wealth of information and a deliciously long bibliography at the back. It was the thing I adored when I was doing my MA – when you had finished a chapter, book or article, you came away with another list of related chapters, books or articles from the bibliography that you could go and explore further. Seems my academic years will never truly leave me.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 0-7167-3387-0
Publisher: W.H. Freeman and Co.
Year: 1997
Date Finished: 30 March 2008
Pages: 278
Challenges: 1/8 of Category 6: Science and Scepticism

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