BOOK REVIEW: The Science of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Michael Hanlon

The Science of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThe Science of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Michael Hanlon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There are a lot of “The Science of…” books out there using science fiction as a means to explain science. It’s easy to see the appeal for both readers and writers. For one thing, it makes complex and technical subjects approachable and palatable. For another, it provides a series of examples with which most readers will already be familiar. Triggering memories of a beloved book can’t hurt sales.

This “Science of” book is a little different in that it uses a work of absurdist humor as its muse. [In the unlikely event that you’re unfamiliar with Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide” series, you can access a review here.]One may wonder whether the book delves into this absurdity by contemplating the efficiency of infinite improbability drives (faster than light engines that run on unlikelihood) or the value of melancholy robots. It does and it doesn’t. For the most part, it relates the wildest creations of Adam’s mind to the nearest core notion that has scientific merit. [Though it does have a chapter on babel fish (an ichthyologically-based universal translator), but that’s a technology that’s already in the works—just not in fish form, but rather a phone ap.]

For the most part, the book explores science and technologies that are popular themes in the pop science literature. These include: the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life, artificial intelligence, the end of the world, the beginning of the world, time travel, teleportation, cows that don’t mind being eaten (presumed to take the form of lab-grown meat, and not talking cows who crave flame-broiling), the simulation hypothesis (as related to Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex), parallel worlds, improbability (only tangentially related to the infinite impossibility drive, i.e. focused on understanding extremely unlikely events), and the answer to the ultimate question. There is also a chapter that I would argue is more in the realm of philosophy (or theology, depending upon your stance) than science, and that’s the question of the existence of a god or gods. (This isn’t to say that the question of whether god is necessary to explain the existence of the universe and our existence in it isn’t a question for science. It is. But Hanlon mostly critiques the numerous arguments for why there must be a god, and it’s easy to see why because they provide a lot of quality comic fodder.)

The book contains no graphics, but they aren’t missed. It has a brief “further reading” section of other popular science books, but it isn’t annotated in the manner of a scholarly work. It is well-researched and highly readable, not only because it hitches its wagon to Adams’ work but also because it’s filled with interesting tidbits of information and its own humor. The book was published in 2005, and so it’s a little old, but most of the technologies it explores are so advanced that the book has aged well. (But if you want the latest on a particular aspect of science fiction-cum-science, you may want to look at a more recent book.)

I’d recommend this book for fans of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and those interested in popular science generally. (Having read the five books of Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide” trilogy will make the book more entertaining—though it’s not essential to make sense of it.)

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BOOK REVIEWS: Gut by Giulia Enders

Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Underrated OrganGut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giulia Enders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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[I recently posted a review of Mary Roach’s GULP. I mention this because that book is likely to be the primary competitor if you’re looking for a tour of the alimentary canal in book form. While I’d recommend both books and point out that the two have different thrusts, if you’re set on reading just one book on poop and farts this year, the two reviews should help you determine which work is more up your alley.]

In this highly readable and humorous book, medical student Giulia Enders teaches us how to poop, what to do when we can’t, how our bodies extract resources from the stuff we shove in our pie holes, and what the bacteria that outnumber our body’s cells by an order of magnitude do for (and against) us. The book is in part a work of popular science, but it’s also a guidebook to the digestive tract. In other words, Enders not only tells readers about the wondrous job their digestive system does, but she also offers advice as to how to keep it running efficiently.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part lays out what the gut consists of and how it does its job. The second part introduces the reader to the enteric nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that governs the digestive tract and determines when we vomit, poop, and—to some degree–experience emotional turmoil. The final part addresses the body as an ecosystem. The human body consists of 10 trillion cells and another 100 trillion microbes—cells that could theoretically live independently of your body provided the right conditions.

The strength of this book lies in Enders’s ability to put the complex physiological actions of our body into simple, understandable, and whimsical terms. This may mean anthropomorphizing a colon, but so be it—you’ll still get the drift. A prime example is the “Salmonella in Hats” section that equates antibodies with big floppy sombreros that interfere with the germ’s mobility and virulence. The author’s enthusiasm for this “under-rated” organ is infectious.

The book employs amusing, off-beat line drawings to help convey relevant ideas and to support the stories that the author uses to clarify the complex actions of the gut. The art is well matched to the tone of the text, which makes sense given they were drawn by the author’s sister.

As I mentioned in my GULP review, GUT is a very different book despite all they have in common. Enders spends the bulk of her time in the middle of the alimentary canal, where Roach spends most of her time talking about what happens at the two ends. Enders’s book is about the typical Joe’s digestive system, where Roach specializes in extreme cases and narrow (but fascinating) questions. Enders’s book is more of a tour of the digestive system rather than a series of tales of interesting things that happen in and around it. While Roach’s book deals in bizarre cases, Enders’s book is actually more light-hearted and informal in tone. (Whimsical is a good descriptor for GUT.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about how their digestive system works and what they can do to keep it working at its best. It’s funny and packed with fun facts.

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BOOK REVIEW: What If? by Randall Munroe

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical QuestionsWhat If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you like the tv show Mythbusters and snarky and / or silly humor, you’ll love Randall Munroe’s What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Munroe gained internet fame (still not the same as real fame) drawing the popular webcomic xkcd. The book’s subtitle says it all. Munroe solicited questions from his web-legion (not the same as a real legion) of fans, selected a collection that he found intriguing, and answers them with a mix of science and humor. Munroe’s bona fides to answer questions of a technical nature include a degree in physics from Christopher Newport University and a brief career as a roboticist for NASA—though he’s fond of pointing out that he’s just a web-cartoonist whenever his answers might be wrong.

Each chapter presents a detailed answer to one of the absurd hypothetical questions. Most of the chapters are just a few pages long and feature the same variety of stick-figure cartoon that grace the xkcd website. He covers 60-ish questions in the book. Scattered throughout the book are sections called “Weird (and Worrying) Questions” which usually don’t receive answers but merely cartoons that mock the demented mind that came up with said question. (If that seems harsh, keep in mind that many of the questions he does answer are pretty warped (e.g. setting off a nuke in a hurricane or whether steady rising would result in death by freezing or suffocation).)

Like the Mythbusters, Munroe does an excellent job of selecting questions that have unexpected answers. For example, the author addresses the question of what would happen if one went swimming in a spent fuel pool (nuclear fuel rods are stored underwater for a long time after they come out of the reactor before they can go to dry storage.) The answer: Nothing if one swam near the surface, but if you swam down and touched the casks, you’d die in minutes. Munroe also takes liberty to find the more interesting unintended consequences embedded in some of the questions. For example, he dismissively answers the old question about whether every human on the planet standing as close together as possible and jumping so as to land simultaneously would have any effect on the planet. Instead, he takes on the questions of the logistics of getting everyone to one place, how much space humanity would take up, and how / whether people could get out of this state of shoulder-to-shoulder proximity alive.

Some of the questions are impossible to answer with certainty but Munroe takes them on when he can offer reasonable, scientifically-based speculation. For example, what will the area that is currently New York City look like in a million years? His answer is more or less: Who cares? Humans will be long gone and veins of plastic in past landfills will be the only evidence that we ever existed. Another such question is how much power can Yoda achieve through application of the Force?

Besides the many physics question (e.g. What’s the fastest speed at which one can hit a speed bump and live?), there are others that involve mathematics, chemistry, and biology. Mathematics questions include calculations of the likelihood that one would find his or her soulmate if each person really only had one soul mate. (My Indian friends might be pleased to know that we’d all be screwed if that were the case.) There are actually many questions that hinge on mathematical calculations.

One of my favorite chapters is in the domain of chemistry, and it answers what would happen if one tried to make a wall by collecting together blocks of all of the elements in the periodic table in the relative position in which they exist on the table? Answer: Nothing good. There are a few biologically centered questions as well. Munroe takes on the question of how much computing power human brains collectively have—and the more interesting unasked question of how human “computing” is different from that of machines.

I’d highly recommend this book for science lovers. In fact, even people who don’t care for science may find this book palatable because of its humor and the fascinating questions it addresses.

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6 Science Books That Martial Artists Should Read

When one has a passion for an activity,  it’s easy to get tunnel vision and miss out on the many avenues of information by which one might improve oneself.  I’ve done many posts on martial arts books, but I thought it might be useful to do one about books that aren’t about martial arts per se, but which have none-the-less contributed to my thinking as a martial artist.

 

1.) On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by LTC Dave Grossman

OnKillingWhat it’s about? Psychologically, it’s a lot harder to kill another human being than one might think. Even when one is a combatant in a just war, the reluctance to kill–even one’s sworn enemy–is intense. Grossman examines the roots of this reluctance, what methods have been employed to get soldiers over it, and what the cost of doing so is.

The book also goes into a topic one might find surprising: video games. Not to give too much away, but military researchers discovered that getting infantrymen to kill required conditioning them to shoot targets that look human. This resulted in moving from bulls-eye targets to silhouettes, pictures of humans, and even Firearms Training Simulators (i.e. FATS, systems that run shoot / no-shoot scenarios on a screen, like an interactive movie.) It turns out that shoot-em-up video games may contribute to a child’s conditioning to be willing to shoot another human being.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? Martial arts vary radically in realism and relevance to combative situations, but it’s easy for students of the martial arts–even martial arts that seem “hardcore” and self-defense oriented–to have unrealistic notions about the realities of combat. As François de La Rodefoucauld said, “One cannot answer for his courage when he has never been in danger.” By reading this book one might, perhaps, begin to rethink one’s assumptions, and change how one prepares to defend oneself and others.

Further reading on related topics:  I’ve heard good things about the works of Rory Miller–particularly Facing Violence and Meditations on Violence, but I haven’t gotten around to reading his books yet. If you have, please feel free to comment with your thoughts.

 

2.) The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler

RiseOfSupermanWhat it’s about? Kotler examines a state of mind that is widely call “flow,” and how extreme athletes are tapping into flow to achieve unprecedented advances in performance. There are a number of ways by which this state of mind can be defined, e.g. neurochemically (i.e. a neuro-cocktail of serotonin, anandamide, endorphins, dopamine, and norepinephrine), neuroanatomically (transient hypofrontality), neuroelectrically (high theta / low alpha wave–i.e. between meditation and resting wakefulness), or psychologically (intense concentration on a challenge that’s just beyond one’s present skill level.)

Kotler proposes that risk is an important trigger for entering a deep state of flow, and that this is why extreme athletes are proving so much better at achieving these states (and translating them into radically increased performance) than many other groups who seek to master flow.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? It should be noted that not only is flow not a newly discovered state of mind, but it sounds a lot like the state of mind that martial artists have sought for centuries in the practice of their arts–often in conjunction with disciplines such as Zen or Vajrayana Buddhism. What is new, which makes this book worth reading, is an understanding of the science behind flow states. By moving beyond the hazy mix of truth and falsehood embodied in systems of spirituality, one may be able to find a way to more reliably increase one’s performance.

Further reading on related topics:  Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances is a book that is co-authored by the granddaddy of flow research Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

 

3.) Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero by E. Paul Zehr

Becomingbatman

What it’s about? (Arguably, this is a martial arts book, but I’m including it because one wouldn’t get that from the title or blurb.) This book’s central question is whether a real life person could achieve the level of crime-fighting bad-assery that is the Batman, and–if so–what combination of genetics, training, and conditioning would be required. It also addresses what would be the cost in terms of wear and tear on one’s body and how long one could be expected to maintain said abilities. (Also, for the martial artists of feminine persuasion, how Batgirl or Catwoman might fair in combat against Batman.)

Why it’s a good read for martial artists?   There is tons of great information relevant to martial artists about the toll of extreme practice and regular fighting on one’s body (e.g. concussions, broken bones, etc.), what the limits of human performance are, by what means those limits are approached, and how realistic it is to have an unreciprocated policy prohibiting lethal weapons.

Further reading on related topics: Actually, if you know of any books on related topics, I’d love to hear about them. There are a number of such books, but they’re on textbook pricing (i.e. insanely expensive.)

 

4.) Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger by Jeff Wise

ExtremeFear

What it’s about? This book is about the mental and physical effects of mortal peril, and why some people’s performance excels under dire threats while other people just let themselves die while cowering in a fetal ball. The book asks what we can all learn from those people who manage to keep their heads about them when death seems certain.

In the interest of full-disclosure, as of this writing I’ve not completed this book. I just started it and am only in the second chapter. However, so far it’s been both informative and interesting.

 

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? Much like On Killing, I think this book may be valuable because there are many martial artists with daydream-induced misconceptions about how they will perform in dangerous situations. This book may help one evaluate one’s true state of preparedness, and discover how to go about making changes to improve one’s level of preparedness for a worst-case scenario.

Further reading on related topics:  If you want a scholar’s account, the book Anxious by Joseph E. Ledoux may be more your style. (Wise is a popular science writer.) I see that Ledoux is cited a lot in books I’ve been reading as of late, but I can’t say I’ve read any of his books yet. However,  I know he’s widely regarded as one of the foremost experts on fear. It looks like his book isn’t so much on mortal peril as Wise’s book, and covers all kinds of anxiety and fear.

 

5.) Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes–and What We Can Learn from Them by Mark McClusky

FasterHigherStrongerWhat it’s about? The super-long subtitle says it all. It’s about how athletic performance is being improved by bringing scientific methods to the study of sports, and–as the second half of the freakish subtitle suggests–it explains how amateurs can put this information to good use. There are some methods used by elite athletes that aren’t at all suitable to the run-of-the-mill martial artists (e.g. don’t consume mass quantities of baking soda.) However, there are other approaches to nutrition and training that are readily translated to amateurs without much downside.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists? You may or may not think of yourself as an athlete. I can hear some martial artists saying, “I don’t practice a sport, I’m a martial artist. I deal in lethal combat, not games. yada, yada, yada…” Maybe so, but fitness, nutrition, and conditioning matter. If you want to be able to hold your own against more skilled opponents, you need to improve your capabilities and capacities. Fitness matters. If you think technical proficiency will get you through any situation, you haven’t run up against someone who is both technically skilled and highly fit–and when you come up against said person, your disillusionment will be swift.

Further reading on related topics:  As with the Becoming Batman book, most of the books on this subject are textbooks and are outrageously priced. If you know of other books in this vein, I’d love to hear about them.

 

6.) Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson et. al.

BuddhaBrainWhat it’s about? This book turns the lens of modern science on the serene, immovable state of mind that martial artists have historically sought out through Buddhist and yogic systems. It discusses how Buddhist practices help people to be more cognitively effective and less prone to emotional manipulation or disturbance.

Why it’s a good read for martial artists?  If one reads the works of warriors–ancient and modern, one will discover that the greatest warriors place a premium on the importance of the mind.

Consider the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi was exceedingly successful in defeating his enemies by making them angry. He would show up late and behave disrespectfully, and he would make his own mind imperturbable. This allowed him to easily defeat warriors who were considered at least his equal in terms of technique.

Further reading on related topics: There are many books that look at similar questions.  Zen and the Brain is probably a better book in terms of the amount of information / insight provided, but it’s a much more daunting read. I wouldn’t put the latter in the category of “pop science” as much as just “science.”  (Zen and the Brain is also a much older book.)

 

These are my recommendations, I’d love to hear about yours in the comments section.