Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Growing up with science books

This is a part 2 of a set of posts where I talk about how my attitude towards reading in science and technology has changed over the years.  My first post was on periodicals, and this one will instead focus on books.

Unlike for magazines, my enthusiasm for different books and authors of science fiction or nonfiction has risen or fallen unpredictably.  Instead of going through every instance, most of the changes in my tastes can be summed up by a few examples.

Richard P. Feynman

Some of my earliest memories of books involving science were the works of Richard P. Feynman (yes, just like every other budding scientist of that age).  When I was in the sixth or seventh grade, my dad gave me a copy of Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feyman, a book which I have since reread many times.  I still remember a passage on reviewing science textbooks for young people: 
... For example, there was a book that started out with four pictures: first there was a wind-up toy; then there was an automobile; then there was a boy riding a bicycle; then there was something else. And underneath each picture, it said "What makes it go?"

I thought, I know what it is: They're going to talk about mechanics, how the springs work inside the toy; about chemistry, how the engine of an automobile works; and biology, about how the muscles work. It was the kind of thing my father would have talked about: "What makes it go? Everything goes because the sun is shining."
And then we would have fun discussing it: "No, the toy goes becaues the spring is wound up, I would say.
"How did the spring get would up" he would ask.
"I wound it up" "And how did you get moving?"
"From eating"
"And food grows only because the sun is shining. So it's because the sun is shining that all these things are moving"
That would get the concept across that motion is simply the transformation of the sun's power. I turned the page.

The answer was, for the wind-up toy, "Energy makes it go." And for the boy on the bicycle, "Energy makes it go." For everything "Energy makes it go."

Now that doesn't mean anything. Suppose it's "Wakalixes." That's the general principle: "Wakalixes makes it go." There is no knowledge coming in. The child doesn't learn anything; it's just a word.

What the should have done is to look at the wind-up toy, see that there are springs inside, learn about springs, learn about wheels, and never mind "energy".

Later on, when the children know something about how the toy actually works, they can discuss the more general principles of energy. It is also not even true that "energy makes it go", because if it stops, you could say, "energy makes it stop" just as well.

What they're talking about is concentrated energy being transformed into more dilute forms, which is a very subtle aspect of energy. Energy is neither increased nor decreased in these examples; it's just changed from one form to another. And when the things stop, the energy is changed into heat, into general chaos.
When I first read this, I was completely confused.  This is because at age 10, when I had gotten great grades in my science classes, everything I had read up until then including all of my basic science books, had used exactly the same mumbo-jumbo Feynman criticized.  It wasn't until my junior year of high school, upon remembering this section of the book, understanding dawned: I finally fully understood what he'd been talking about and hadn't before, simply because I had been taught and taught wrong.  The books and technical writing by Feynman have only grown in my opinion over the years.  This guy was smart.

Truthfully there are many science and sciency books that I read that have grown in my esteem after so much time, among them titles by Carl Sagan, James Gleick, Vernor Vinge, Neal Stephenson (with one glaring exception, see below), and Phillip K. Dick.  The key theme in them, I think, is that as I've grown older and wiser my understanding of them has increased and that I've found more subtlety and layers of meaning. 

Neal Stephenson - Zodiac
Few books that have really gone down in my opinion as much as Zodiac.  While I am a great admirer of Stephenson's other work, Zodiac was one book that went straight down the drain by the first summer after my freshman year at college.  I remember first reading it when I was around 15 and thinking it was simultaneously the most hilarious eco-thriller in existence and a scary what-if about chemistry and biology.  Some years later I re-read it and found myself spitting water out my nose (and onto the pages) in laughter, not at the intended humor but at the science.

There is nothing quite so amusing and so frustrating as seeing an author have magical faith in the abilities of a gas chromatograph to not only complete runs while in a moving vehicle for organochlorine molecules in under an hour, and to identify molecules flawlessly without the use of standards or mass spectrometers (yes, CSI does this too).  The summer of my freshman year, I worked a gas chromatograph for months trying to develop a protocol for measuring the concentration of a solution of methanol, a blindingly simple problem that nontheless frustrated myself and two other guys before we concluded that the required concentration measurements couldn't be done to the degree of accuracy we wanted.  The machine, like all gas chromatographs, was such a finicky little bastard that if you walked near it while it was completing a run, it would screw up the results by 10%.

Another laugh-out-loud moment came when Stephenson's character expansively claimed that the entire chemical industry was based on the chlor-alkali process (it isn't, not by a long shot), obtusely referring to the obsolete (and now banned) mercury-cell process and unspecified other pollution creating "toxic Disneyland."  I mean, seriously?  For reference, chlor-alkali is such a low-end, low volume and low profitability sector of the chemical industry that my company takes a look at it maybe once a decade out of literally hundreds of reports.

The final straw came when the main character speculated on how a strain of organochlorine-producing genetically engineered bacteria could have survived in the open sea.  I can't find the original quote, but at the casual insistence that since some bacteria breaking down organochlorines into chlorine salts would "take energy," vacuuming up chlorine salts in the ocean and turning it into organochlorines would "create energy."  The premise is ostentatiously wrong (in all likelihood digesting organochlorines would result in some sort of net energy benefit) and the conclusion doesn't even remotely follow from the premise (even if organochlorine breakdown had a negative energy balance, taking a covalently bonded chlorine atom and releasing it as an ion is strongly energetically favorable; reversing that takes energy).  I had to stop reading.

There are few works that have dropped in my esteem like this because they became, simply, wrong.  The most prominent among them have been, tragically, the work of Michael Crichton, whose novels I had enjoyed ever since I first picked up Jurassic Park at age 8 or 9.  Re-reading his books in a spree of childhood nostalgia, I discovered that where the ethical and thematic elements of his writing conflicted with science and scientific practice, he altered the latter in order to suit the former, or used whizz-bang science as a cover for his own message on science ethics.  In retrospect was for that reason that I simply stopped reading him around the time I was 16.  His message was an important one then and now, but I was shocked to learn a few months ago this viewpoint on scientific ethics had tragically descended into a deep anti-establishmentarianism and conspiratorial mindset that resulted in obstinate, uninformed contrarianism on a variety of topics.  It saddened me to learn that one of my childhood heroes had allowed his strong priors to overwhelm rational thought (and then use his books as venues to have arguments with himself, which he always won), but in light of his later writing I suppose I should have seen it. 

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