All posts filed under: Science

On Space

I am often asked to define my political program, Foundationalism. In essence, this is a request to state its core principles. The ultimate, first-level principle of Foundationalism, is that it is a politics of future past. It is to be a new thing, informed by the wisdom of the old, constructed around what is past, what is passing, and what is to come. Given that, what are the second-level principles of Foundationalism? I am just as interested in the answer as are my questioners. Some of Foundationalism’s principles are, if you read my writing, fairly obvious, at least in outline. But one surprises many: Space, or more precisely, the conquest of Space by mankind.

Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past (David Reich)

We have all heard of the fad for DNA ancestry testing. Being a paranoid, I haven’t joined the crowd, because all testing companies are happy to hand over the results to the police, and what if I need to keep quiet some heinous crime I commit where I leave my DNA behind? Not to mention, what those tests claim to reveal about you is limited, in many cases, by inadequate comparison data, which the companies fill in with lies. But that lack of comparison data is swiftly being remedied, both in the present, and in the past, which is the topic of this book.

Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives (Mark Miodownik)

Liquid Rules, like most good books in its genre, explains in an interesting way why certain things are the way they are. This is popularized science, and such books tend to fall into one of two categories, straight science or politicized science. I could have, if I had wanted to read the latter on vacation, picked instead The Uninhabitable Earth, a recent screed on global warming by David Wallace-Wells. Fortunately, however, I chose wisely, and therefore learned a few things while enjoying myself, instead of choking on the dry and boring leftovers of global warming alarmism.

Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline (Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson)

Anybody who has been paying attention has long grasped the truth: underpopulation, not overpopulation, is our problem. This will soon be true on a global scale, it is already true in most of the developed world. Empty Planet explains why this is undeniably so. Unfortunately, the explanation is shrouded in confusion and ideological distortion, so the authors are never able to provide a clear message. Instead, they offer rambling, contradictory bromides combined with dumb “solutions” until the reader throws his hands up in despair, as I did. But then I got a stiff drink, finished the book, and now am ready to tell you about it.

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World (Laura Spinney)

Since I am an apocalypse monger, but a practical one, I do not worry about alien invasions or the reversal of Earth’s magnetic field, but I do worry about pandemics.  This book, Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider, is a recent offering in the pandemic literature that has become popular in the past twenty years.  It focuses on the only known pathogen likely to create a future pandemic, the influenza virus, through its greatest past outbreak, the Spanish Flu of 1918.  I read books like these partially for history knowledge and partially to understand what to do in a similar future situation, and Pale Rider is useful for both.

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us. . . . (Michael Pollan)

I have led a boring life, at least as measured by the topics covered by this book, Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind.  Not only have I never taken any psychedelic drug of any type, I have never taken any illegal drug at all.  Similarly, I have never had any type of mystical experience whatsoever, though I am certainly open to such a thing and have total confidence that many other people have.  Just not me.  But here, as in many matters, others go where I have not tread.  Pollan, famous mostly for books on food, decided to explore drug-induced alterations of consciousness, and this book is the measured result of his spelunking in the caverns of the mind.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (John Carreyrou)

While pretty much everyone in this book who is rich and powerful comes off looking bad, it is less a tale of typical fraud, like a Ponzi scheme, and more a tale of human foibles.  These were expertly played on by Elizabeth Holmes, a very young woman of little productive talent and no particular evident intelligence, but with a natural gift for sales and embodying the icy manipulative abilities of the sociopath.  Fascinating stuff, all of it, and worth reading just to make sure that you don’t fall into a similar trap in your life.  And, more broadly, the arc of Theranos has much to say about supposedly imminent advances in technology, from artificial intelligence to flying autonomous cars.

Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond (William Dalrymple and Anita Anand)

Koh-i-Noor is not about the diamond, to my disappointment.  Oh, sure, it makes an appearance here and there in this book.  But very little is actually said here about the diamond itself, probably because the Queen of England hasn’t made it available for analysis and study, and prior generations didn’t record much about its specifics.  Rather, this is a book of cultural history revolving around people who have owned the diamond.  That’s interesting, in its own way, but not what I was promised.

Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power (Meghan O’Sullivan)

A few weeks ago, I watched a bad movie on Netflix—The Cloverfield Effect.  This near-future science fiction film (distantly related to the original Cloverfield, an updated Godzilla-type movie) revolved around a disastrous attempt to generate unlimited energy in space, needed because the entire world was “two years from running out of all energy.”  Yes, that’s really as stupid as it sounds.  But Meghan O’Sullivan is here to tell us that just as stupid is the idea that we’re running out of fossil fuels, within any time frame that matters.  And she is further here to tell us what that means, for our economy, our global position, and for the future stability of the world, both geopolitically and environmentally.

The Idea Factory (Jon Gertner)

Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory is a mild corrective to the commonly found anguished certainty that America’s days of innovative scientific greatness are behind us.  In its exploration of the might and works of Bell Labs, this book reminds us that genius requires the right cultural environment to flourish, and it addresses whether collective or individual genius is the mainspring of scientific advancement.  Ultimately, Gertner’s account gives the obvious answer—scientific advancement stands on a three-legged stool, dependent on all of the broader culture, muscular group effort, and heroic individuals.   Ayn Rand would not agree, but then, what did she ever actually accomplish? Today’s AT&T is the successor to the business created by Alexander Graham Bell in 1882.  Before its breakup in the 1970s, the entire web of companies under the AT&T umbrella was called the “Bell System.”  It included various regional telephone companies, later called the “Baby Bells”; Western Electric, which manufactured telephone related equipment; and, crucially for this book and for AT&T, Bell Telephone Laboratories, officially created in 1925.  Being a monopoly always offered …