Science/Mathematics

Book Review: How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems

How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems
Author: 
Munroe, Randall
Rating: 
4 stars = Really Good
Review: 

I’ve been a fan of Randall Munroe’s work for quite some time. This artist
of the xkcd webcomic certainly has a sense of humor that I appreciate, so I
looked forward to his latest book, How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for
Common Real-World Problems. While his previous book, What if? covered
hypothetical scenarios asked by the users of the internet, How To takes a
somewhat opposite approach by using extreme science to do the most basic
things imaginable. If you’re looking for simple answers, this isn’t the
book for you.

While it’s fun to think of the most complicated way to (for example) be on
time, often the joke goes on a little too long as the exact science behind
the absurdity is explained. There were times I felt I was reading a textbook
instead of a humorous treatise on how to cross a river. Even though I do
enjoy some extreme aspects of science, there is a limit to this enjoyment.
And perhaps this was because most of the science explained in this book felt
fairly rudimentary. Back of the envelope calculations can work for these
hypothetical situations, so it’s not like we needed the exact distance
George Washington could fling a silver dollar.

Despite its occasionally dry scientific explanations, the writing and
illustrations often had me laughing out loud. Many of the footnotes were
particularly hilarious. So while the content often felt like it was being
taken quite seriously, the slight tinge of humor always reminded me that the
whole exercise was to be as tongue-in-cheek as possible. If anything, this
book should give any reader a good sense of how we shouldn’t take the
simple solution for granted. After all, it’s probably much less
radioactive.

Some dry science covered in healthy layers of humor, I give How To 4.0 stars
out of 5.

Reviewer's Name: 
Benjamin W.

Book Review: Pandora's Lab

Pandora's Lab book jacket
Author: 
Offit, Paul A.
Rating: 
4 stars = Really Good
Review: 

Science is an interesting realm. The public would sure like to think that all scientists are dedicated to finding the purest form of some scientific concept and modifying it to benefit society. However, some things become readily clear: not all societies are the same, and science can be abused. If anything, some of the worst scientific discoveries of the last few centuries were made with the best intentions. Unfortunately, more often than not, the full science wasn’t brought to the table, and plenty of people suffered because of it. Enter Pandora’s Lab, a selection of a few of the worst scientific discoveries and the stories behind what made them go awry.

Each of the scientific discoveries covered in this book had slightly different negative impacts on the world, but the reason why they became so notorious is almost ubiquitous. Science is no place for emotion, so finding quick fixes for something by using science can create worse problems than the ones that were initially there. Scientific rigor is also of utmost importance. Even if many of these horrific discoveries received Nobel prizes, hindsight showed skewed results from the start. Every new and fantastic technology created from scientific research should be scrutinized with a heaping of salt to ensure it can’t be abused.

On the flip side, ignoring sound scientific facts or not considering the full, worldwide implications of a discovery is just as dangerous. Ignorance is bliss, as long as the consequences don’t directly impact you. While we do have the benefit of hindsight, it’s essential to use the lessons presented in this book. We need to examine the science and technology being developed today and do our due diligence to make sure that they don’t inspire genocide or doom all of humanity to an unsustainable new way of life.

A grave lesson about the consequences of bad science, I give Pandora’s Lab 4.0 stars out of 5.

Reviewer's Name: 
Benjamin M. W.

Book Review: Bomb

Bomb book jacket
Author: 
Shienken, Steve
Rating: 
4 stars = Really Good
Review: 

This book is perfect for young history enthusiasts, around the age of middle school. It's all about how the world's deadliest weapon was created, researched, spied on, and used. Explaining the race and allies of America to win the Cold War and beat Russia and Japan in creating the very first atomic bomb, this real-life story includes many famous scientists and new scientific discoveries. If you love action, science, and history, then I promise you'll love this book. It is super unpredictable and has a pretty sad ending when one of the countries wins. But who wins? Guess you're going to have to read to find out. Reviewer Grade: 8

Reviewer's Name: 
Jaime P

Book Review: Weapons of Math Destruction

Weapons of Math Destruction image
Author: 
O'Neil, Cathy
Rating: 
4 stars = Really Good
Review: 

I love data. I love what it can show us as individuals and what it can show as society changes from year to year. Being able to trend my spending is just as useful to me as knowing how many people are participating in my National Novel Writing Month region. Because I’m always interested in seeing what pure numbers can show me about the world, I was intrigued to find this book, Weapons of Math Destruction. While I had already heard many of this book’s conclusions, it was interesting to read about the algorithms that work silently behind the scenes of our society and how nobody can really control or change them.

I’ll agree that it’s terrifying to have decision-making boiled down to a number popped out of an algorithm that decision-makers just blindly trust without understanding the rules of causality or correlation. People are messy, so I understand how finding a single aggregating number to represent an individual is a simple solution. However, I agree with the author’s outrage that these numbers are putting the disenfranchised into a toxic and harmful feedback loop. It’s difficult enough to survive out there without an arbitrary number determining your fate and you having little to no ability to change it. Of course, this point is pounded home about one or two times too many in this book.

From personal experience, I have received a brief glimpse behind the curtain into how these algorithms work. When I got married, I moved from one zip code to another in the same town. At that point, my car insurance premiums suddenly went up. Why? Because I was in a zip code filled with people who were “bad drivers.” Despite nothing about me or my car changing, now I was suddenly a bad driver. I do think there are some substantial reforms needed in these algorithmic systems. Still, I don’t necessarily think the solutions provided by the author are the right answer (they seem mostly based on the author’s personal opinions and biases).

A repetitive look into the dangers of blindly trusting algorithms, I give Weapons of Math Destruction 3.5 stars out of 5.

Reviewer's Name: 
Benjamin W.

Book Review: Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool

Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool
Author: 
Oster, Emily
Rating: 
4 stars = Really Good
Review: 

As a new parent and an engineer, I am skeptical when so much advice about raising a baby comes from hearsay or anecdotal evidence. So many controversial topics abound in the early years of a child’s life that I wanted to make sure I was basing my decisions off the scientific data instead of mere wives' tales. Fortunately, Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool exists. Unfortunately, it has merely proven to me that there haven’t been enough rigorous studies to show any causal relationships to make my parenting decisions any easier.

Similar in the tactics of Zero to Five (whose author was a science journalist), Cribsheet takes the experience of an economist and pits it against the studies that have been performed to determine which of them are legitimate enough to be trusted. In most cases, it seems that plenty of research into the benefits and detriments for children (and parents) merely comes down to broad Gaussian distributions. That is, there are no correlations between two drastically different approaches on the outcome of the child’s health or future behavior. This is undoubtedly a relief to know, if for no other reason than to give me free rein to parent as I see fit (with my wife's input, of course).

One mantra that Cribsheet seems to reiterate is that—even if data supports a beneficial outcome—if the parents’ mental health issues and/or anxiety increase because their lifestyle cannot support it is not worth the small percentage points of benefit to the child. Basically, the studies that do support something like breastfeeding show that these desired outcomes are in the short term and won’t harm the child if this particular parenting method isn’t chosen. While the data absolutely supports one or two items of interest, everything else is so loosely researched as to prove nothing in one way or another.

A great book about statistical rigor in childhood studies, I give Cribsheet 4.0 stars out of 5.

Reviewer's Name: 
Benjamin W.

Book Review: I'm Trying to Love Math

I'm Trying to Love Math
Author: 
Barton, Bethany
Rating: 
4 stars = Really Good
Review: 

Using abundant humor, Bethany Barton makes this book about math interesting to all. Her facts and explanations show how math is used in our everyday lives and why it’s important. Math is used all around the world and even in space. We used math when we bake cookies, make music, and explore. It’s part of many of the patterns we see in nature. Since math is part of so many of the things you already love, you may just already love math.

Reviewer's Name: 
Carol

Book Review: Mysterious Experiments

Mysterious Experiments
Author: 
Claybourne, Anna
Rating: 
3 stars = Pretty Good
Review: 

There’s nothing magical about these experiments – just everyday science. Experiment with raisins, sugar cubes, eggs, and more. You can just use simple materials that you already have around the house to test things out and learn something too.

Reviewer's Name: 
Carol

Book Review: Rethinking Positive Thinking

Rethinking Positive Thinking
Author: 
Oettingen, Gabriele
Rating: 
3 stars = Pretty Good
Review: 

In her book, Ms Oettingen teaches readers how to use the science of positive thinking to their advantage. After years of research, she has found that mere "positive thought" does not produce optimal results for people's lives. Instead, a specifically targeted approach to positive thought and positive action is best. This is what she teaches readers. I would recommend this book to people seeking to improve their lives through targeted approaches of thought and action. Readers 16 and up are appropriate.

Reviewer's Name: 
Rebecca D

Book Review: Ten Women Who Changed Science and the World

Ten Women who changed Science and the World
Author: 
Whitlock, Catherine Evans, Rhodri
Rating: 
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review: 

In her book, "10 Women Who Changed Science and the World", Catherine Whitlock authors the biography of ten women who were deeply influential in science. For each woman, she writes a biography of their life and what significant contribution they made to their field. This book is well-written and informative, and neither too long nor too short for each woman's biography. I would recommend this book for readers of ages 13 and up. This book should interest those interested in women's contributions to science.

Reviewer's Name: 
Rebecca D

Book Review: Shark

Shark
Author: 
MacQuitty, Miranda
Rating: 
4 stars = Really Good
Review: 

In her book about sharks, Ms Macquitty teachers readers all about the fascinating salt-water creatures. The book is well done for young ages, with plenty of interesting facts. There are also many pictures to illustrate her points. Well researched and informative, this book is sure to engage young readers.
I would recommend this book to any young readers from 5 through Elementary school. Any children fascinated with sharks and wishing to learn more will be pleased by this read.

Reviewer's Name: 
Rebecca D

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