astronomy

Book review – Contingency and Convergence: Toward a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind

6-minute read

This is the final of three reviews of MIT Press books in The Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology dealing with convergent evolution, something I consider to be one of evolutionary biology’s most exciting topics. Are evolutionary changes happy accidents, i.e. contingencies? Or is there a law-like repeatability underneath, explaining why some traits evolve time and again, i.e. convergence? Is it even a matter of either-or? And what lessons does this hold for life elsewhere in the universe? Philosopher Russell Powell wrestles with these questions in a manner that is as rigorous as it is intellectually rewarding. Evolutionary biologists will want to give this excellent book a very close read.

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Book review – Convergent Evolution on Earth: Lessons for the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

6-minute read

Planet Earth might just as well be called Planet Water. Not only is our planet mostly ocean, life also started out here. Following his 2011 book Convergent Evolution, palaeobiologist George R. McGhee returns to MIT Press and The Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology to expand his examination to oceanic lifeforms, with the tantalising promise of applying the insights gained to astrobiology. I was particularly stoked for this second of a three-part dive into what I consider one of evolutionary biology’s most exciting topics.

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Book review – Finding our Place in the Universe: How We Discovered Laniakea – the Milky Way’s Home

6-minute read

The images that astronomers produce can shape whole generations. Based on the Pale Blue Dot photo taken by the Voyager 1 space probe, Carl Sagan’s moving speech in Cosmos highlighted how small and insignificant we appear in the vastness of the universe. But we are not alone, being part of the solar system which is part of the Milky way galaxy. And ours is but one of billions, possibly trillions, of galaxies in the universe that, interestingly, are not scattered at random in space. In this compact and engagingly written book, French cosmographer Hélène Courtois shows you the next level up: superclusters. When it was published in 2014, the image of the supercluster to which our galaxy belongs for me was another one of those generation-defining images. It was of such stunning beauty that it stopped me in my tracks. Welcome to Laniakea, our home amidst the stars.

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Book review – Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings

7-minute read

To figure out how old a tree is, all you have to do is count its rings, and some truly ancient trees grace the pages of this book. But, as tree-ring researcher Valerie Trouet shows, that is the least fascinating thing you can derive from wood. Revealing the inner workings of the academic field formally known as dendrochronology, Tree Story is an immersive jaunt through archaeology, palaeoclimatology, and environmental history. A beautifully written and designed book, it highlights the importance and usefulness of tree rings in reconstructing past climate and linking it to human history.

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Book review – Universe in Creation: A New Understanding of the Big Bang and the Emergence of Life

7-minute read

Did life arise merely by accident? Many scientists feel uncomfortable with talk of goal-directedness and greater plans, as it reeks more of religion and theology than rational explanation. And with creationists lurking, the risk of “smuggling God in through the back door” under scientific pretences (as Richard Dawkins put it) is something to be wary of. Without descending into this territory, Universe in Creation might skirt dangerously close to it for some. In turns lyrical, unsettling, and, yes, speculative, this book argues that life may be written into the most basic laws of nature.

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

5-minute read

This book is dangerous. While reading it I missed metro stops, phone calls, and sleep. I also laughed. A lot. Webcomic creator and former NASA engineer Randall Munroe returns to book form for another instalment of zany humour and absurd ideas, this time providing absurd solutions to achieving everyday tasks and solving real-world problems. From fording a river by boiling it dry using a field of 300 million electric kettles, to using a swarm of butterflies to send large data files: the solutions are purposefully ludicrous. Nevertheless, this book falls back on logical principles, giving readers both a good laugh and a gentle introduction to science, engineering, and technology.

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Book review – Fire in the Sky: Cosmic Collisions, Killer Asteroids, and the Race to Defend Earth

6-minute read

Can you have too many books on the same topic? Not four months after the publication of Cosmic Impact in February 2019, which I reviewed earlier this year, Scribner books published Fire in the Sky in June. The former book was written by astrophysicist Andrew May, while Gordon L. Dillow is a newspaper reporter and war correspondent, coming at the subject from a different angle. Despite touching on many of the same events and topics, he provides a wealth of new information in what is a thoroughly researched work of popular science. But first, let’s go to Arizona and turn back our clocks some 50,000 years.

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Book review – Outposts on the Frontier: A Fifty-Year History of Space Stations

The recent 50th anniversary of the first moon landing was a reminder of how far we have come, but also how far we still have to go. Since humanity’s last visit in 1972, there have been plenty of ambitious plans to return one day or to even land people on Mars. For now, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, they are places that we can visit, yes. But settle? Not yet. How about closer to home though? With Outposts on the Frontier, freelance space historian Jay Chladek takes the reader on a factual fifty-year history of space stations.

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Book review – Gravity’s Century: From Einstein’s Eclipse to Images of Black Holes

When the movie Interstellar was released in 2014, I thought its depiction of a black hole was one of the most hauntingly beautiful scenes. And with input from prominent astrophysicist Kip Thorne, there was plenty of science to this piece of science fiction (see The Science of Interstellar). Amazingly, we only had to wait five more years for an actual image of a black hole – or really its event horizon – to be published. But these astounding images have been a long time coming. With Gravity’s Century, science writer Ron Cowen traces the story back to Albert Einstein and provides an accessible and compact overview of the century-long quest in physics to better understand gravity.

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Book review – Symphony in C: Carbon and the Evolution of (Almost) Everything

Many works of popular science claim to be histories of almost everything or everyone, but earth scientist Robert M. Hazen might actually be in the position to stake that claim. Whether you are talking stellar evolution, the origin of life, organic chemistry, synthetic materials, or hydrocarbon fuels – the multifaceted atom carbon is ubiquitous and pervasive. Symphony in C is a whirlwind tour through geology, biochemistry, and evolutionary biology that is an incredibly absorbing read, although in places it almost comes apart at the seams under the intensity of its enthusiasm.

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