archive: SETI Some new books recommended by SciAm Editors

SETI Some new books recommended by SciAm Editors

Larry Klaes ( )
Wed, 16 Sep 1998 13:38:16 -0400


Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics
John Archibald Wheeler with Kenneth Ford
W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 1998 ($27.95)
Wheeler, an eminent Princeton physicist, is the originator of the first and third terms in this book's title and the man who gave the second its push into the language. They reflect the breadth of his interests and accomplishments in physics. "Geon" incorporates g for "gravity," e for "electromagnetism" and -on as the word root for "particle" and identifies a "hypothetical entity, a gravitating body made entirely of electromagnetic fields." A voice from the audience at a talk Wheeler gave in 1967 suggested "black hole" as a name for what he had discontentedly called a "gravitationally completely collapsed object." He immediately recognized the term's felicity and adopted it. At another time, pondering gravitation and general relativity, he found himself "forced to invent the idea of 'quantum foam,' made up not merely of particles popping into and out of existence without limit, but of space-time itself churned into a lather of distorted geometry." Wheeler describes these and m!
any other concepts in physics with characteristic clarity and salts his tale with many fine anecdotes about his encounters with other famous physicists, Lyndon Johnson and American railroads.

Looking for Earths: The Race to Find New Solar Systems
Alan Boss
John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1998 ($27.95)
It is a riveting question: Are there other Earths, bearing life in some form? Earlier the question was, Are there other planets outside the solar system? A flurry of discoveries over the past three years has provided the answer to that one: yes. Boss traces the story chronologically, telling it from the viewpoint of an astrophysicist and incidentally providing a rewarding account of how astronomers and astrophysicists do their work. Now, he says, we are in a new era, "in which we will discover many planetary systems circling stars in our neighborhood of the galaxy, systems containing Earth-like planets capable of supporting life."

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story Of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth
Paul Hoffman
Hyperion, New York, 1998 ($22.95)
The peripatetic Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos (19131996) was renowned for his almost total concentration on his work. Hoffman describes him as "a mathematical monk" who renounced physical pleasure and material possessions for an ascetic, contemplative life, a life devoted to uncovering mathematical truth. This he did in 1,475 papers that he wrote or co-authored with 485 collaborators--more than any other mathematician has produced and a landmark that has given rise to the cherished "Erdos number." An Erdos co-author's number is 1; a mathematician who has published with someone who was an Erdos co-author is a 2, and so on in widening circles to infinity for everyone who has never written a mathematical paper. Hoffman is among those at infinity, but he describes Erdos's life and eccentricities engagingly and deals comprehensively with the great man's mathematical work.

Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth
Richard Fortey
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997 ($30)
"The narrative of life requires a scale of thousands to millions of years, acting over a drama of more than 3,000 million years." It is a grand narrative, told grandly by Fortey, a senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London. Drawing on a great breadth of knowledge, he flavors the narrative with illuminating and often surprising analogies and quotations from the likes of Pope, Swift and Yeats. His story takes life from the first single-celled organisms to prehistoric humans--over "the vast tract of time after the Sun blazed into heat...and before humans started making pots, building ceremonial centres, and recording the details of their daily transactions on pottery slabs."

The Camel's Nose: Memoirs of a Curious Scientist
Knut Schmidt-Nielsen
Island Press/Shearwater Books, Washington, D.C., 1998 ($24.95)
"It has been said," Schmidt-Nielsen writes, "that the primary function of schools is to impart enough facts to make children stop asking questions. Some, with whom the schools do not succeed, become scientists." Schmidt-Nielsen did and has had a prominent career in animal physiology. "The questions I have tried to answer have been very straightforward, perhaps even simple: Do marine birds drink sea water? How do camels in hot deserts manage for days without drinking?... How can snails find water and food in the most barren deserts? Can crab-eating frogs really survive in sea water?" Even that summary does not fully indicate the liveliness of his curiosity. In his travels to almost everywhere, he made a point of eating the local delicacies, and he reports that scorpion meat "had no pronounced flavor," that sampling boiled locusts "was like eating tasteless shrimp without peeling them" and that durian, a foul-smelling tropical fruit that he tried in Bangkok, was "wonderful" for !
him but merely "tolerated" by his traveling companion. Discussing the avalanche of papers and books faced by today's workers in science, he says: "I maintain that word of mouth is the most important aspect of scientific communication today, and in this sense we have returned to medieval conditions."

Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites
Edited by Dwayne A. Day, John M. Logsdon and Brian Latell
Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1998 ($29.95)
The cold war propelled the U.S. and the Soviet Union to stunning technological heights--both figuratively and literally. Among the most impressive--and most deeply concealed--of those achievements is satellite reconnaissance, on which the U.S. continues to spend billions of dollars every year. This book chronicles in satisfying detail the origins of U.S. satellite reconnaissance by focusing on the pioneering Corona program, under which some 800,000 satellite images were made between 1960 and 1972.