Are we alone in the universe? For the moment, this question remains unanswered, though there are many ways to tackle it. Just how many was something I did not appreciate until I sunk my teeth into Harvard University Press’s new flagship astronomy title Life in the Cosmos. Written by astrobiologist Manasvi Lingam and theoretical physicist Abraham “Avi” Loeb, this is a book of truly colossal proportions, clocking in at over 1000 pages. It boldly goes where few academic books have gone before by seriously and open-mindedly considering the possibility of extraterrestrial technological intelligence on par with, or far beyond humans. I found myself gravitating towards this book on account of more than just its size.
The Genesis Quest is one of those books that quickly makes a good case for its own existence. It takes the reader through the century-long research endeavour on the origin of life, providing a big-picture overview of who’s who and how their ideas have waxed and waned. Such an overview requires an outsider’s perspective on the whole show, which is exactly what science writer Michael Marshall achieves in my opinion. A superb starting point if you want to read more on this subject, this is the book I wish I had read earlier.
To outsiders, the idea that scientists would forge results might seem counterintuitive. After all, is science not supposed to be about inching ever closer, through endless iterations, to a truer picture of our world? Having worked in academia for ten years I know that the truth is a bit more nuanced. Even so, Fraud in the Lab, written by French investigative journalist Nicolas Chevassus-au-Louis, was a shocking, damning and eye-opening exposé.
“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”. This oft-misattributed quote highlights a persistent problem in our world. Why do false ideas spread so easily? Sure, blame people’s ignorance or stupidity, but philosophers Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall write that the problem is far more insidious. Through a combination of case studies and modelling work, they convincingly argue that the same social dynamics by which truth spreads are inherently vulnerable to exploitation. But first, some vegetable lamb.
I ended a recent essay on surviving the misinformation age by mentioning articles that have drawn attention to the problem that a lot of published research cannot be replicated. The popular press has been quick to tarnish the reputation of science amidst claims of misconduct and fraud. Obviously, science stands or falls by its credibility, so, is there a crisis? This book brings together a cross-disciplinary team of authors to examine replication and recommend best practices. And yes, it shows there are many issues, mostly because doing research well is hard, and can be done poorly in many ways, even inadvertently, but systemic fraud and misconduct are not prevalent.