Tag Archives: Science

My Review of The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology

The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology by Simon Winchester

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Back when I was teaching, one of the courses I taught several times was History of Science, and it is still an interest for me. And so I really liked this book. It tells the story of William Smith, born in England in the late 18th century, and how in his work as a mine surveyor and canal surveyor he started to notice patterns in the arrangement of rocks as holes were dug. Many of these rocks also had fossils, and when the rocks were the same the fossils were the same. And Smith started to see what this meant. His life’s work was drawing the geologic map of England. But he had a hard time of it for a period, in part because he was a commoner, and at the time science was considered only suitable for upper class dilettantes. His work was copied by some of these and passed off as their own, and at one point he was tossed into debtor’s prison. But in the end he got the recognition he deserved and was the first recipient of the Wollaston Medal, the highest award of the Geological Society of London.

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My Review of In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat

In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality by John Gribbin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Quantum Physics is very bizarre. As Richard Feynman said “[Quantum mechanics] describes nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And yet it fully agrees with experiment. So I hope you can accept nature as She is – absurd.” And Feynman maintained to the end of his life that no one really understands Quantum Physics. But this book is a pretty good place to get as much of an understanding as you can for a layperson. Gribbin takes us through the key discoveries the led to Quantum Physics, and introduces many of the key people who developed it. Einstein was one of the key people in the development, but could never bring himself to accept the implications of his own work. Neils Bohr led the group that made the Copenhagen interpretation, but even now we have mathematics that works to predict the outcome of experiments without actually any understanding.

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My Review of The Pinball Effect: Journeys through Knowledge

The Pinball Effect: Journeys through Knowledge by James Burke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

James Burke is someone I regard as one of the treasures of the human race. I first fell in love with him with his series Connections, and then used his series The Day The Universe Changed when I taught a course on the History of Science. If you have any interest at all in science and technology you need to check him out. The pinball effect is what Burke calls the way seemingly unrelated bits of science, engineering, and technology become related. For instance, there is a relationship between Renaissance water gardens and the carburetor, which he explains. Of course, this is very much the theme of Connections, but that is just fine with me.

I listened to the audio book version of this.

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YouTube Video Subscriptions

I recently had a conversation with Ken Fallon of Hacker Public Radio that resulted in me offering to discuss my YouTube video subscriptions. And since that is a good topic for Palain.com, I thought I would start here.

Although my wife and I have a Cable TV subscription, I have maintained I could give it up easily because so much of what I am interested in is online anyway. For many people that might mean Netflix or Hulu, but for me it means YouTube. This is the golden age of narrow-casting, as opposed to broadcasting, because YouTube gives so many creators the opportunity to find their own audience for things that don’t appeal to the masses. A television show needs to reach millions of people to be economically viable to advertisers who pay all of the production costs, but with the rise of services like Patreon a video series can be viable with just a few thousand viewers as long as they are willing to pay a small amount (often as little as $1 per month or per video) to support the creators. For less money than the salary of one Hollywood star, you can have an entire ecosystem of interesting videos. The ones I like might not appeal to you, of course, but that is the point. A thousand flowers can bloom in this environment.


Patreon ( https://www.patreon.com/ ) is a subscription site that lets you pledge to support creators of content. You give them a credit card they can charge, and then make your pledges. You can pledge in a variety of ways, but for these videos I typically pledge either per month or per video. At the end of the month my credit card is charged, and Patreon sends me an itemized statement of what I have paid for. Now, none of these is behind a pay wall, so you could free ride, but I’m sure no one I know would do that. If I subscribe to a series I am willing to pay for it if they ask (some of them are advertising supported).

YouTube Subscriptions

When a video series is on YouTube you will see a button under the video that says “Subscribe”. Right now that does not do a whole lot other than build the stats for the creator, but for advertising-supported series that is a good thing. But one thing it does let you do is sign up to get an e-mail when a new episode is released. To activate this feature, log in to YouTube with your Google account, and on the left side go all the way down to the bottom and you will see a button to Manage Subscriptions. Click on that, and you will see that you can put a check-mark to get e-mail updates for any subscription. I like to do that, and put the e-mails in a folder in my Gmail. I can then delete the e-mail when I have watched the video.

Vlog Brothers

The brothers Hank and John Green have created a pretty good collection of videos. They started, as far as I can tell, by sending videos back and forth to each other (Vlog Brothers), and that continues. But then they got serious and created a convention called Vidcon (http://vidcon.com/) that showcases many of the video series creators and their work. YouTube then got the idea to promote an expansion of videos and provided money to support new work from folks like them. This lead to a group of videos under the heading Crash Course (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crash_Course_%28YouTube%29), which is not one series but a collection of them. The first ones were World History and Biology, and then they added American history, Literature, Ecology, Chemistry, Psychology, and so on. They also have a series of science-related videos under the general heading of SciShow (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SciShow). When the YouTube seed money ended, they switched to a crowd-funding model, and are currently on Patreon. They also partner with PBS Online for some of their series.

My favorite show from this group is Healthcare Triage. A doctor gives straight analysis based on actual studies, and explains which studies are more reliable and why. I guess I am a bit of a data geek, but that appeals to me. Plus, I have worked for a few hospitals in my career, and previously taught a little about healthcare economics.

Brady Haran

Brady Haran is a video producer originally from Australia who went to the UK, worked for the BBC for a period, and then decided to become independent. He has a fascinating group of video series that a lot of geeks would like:

  • Computerphile – about the history and underlying technology of computers. If you ever wanted to know about flip-flops, nand gates, and Acorn computers, this show has covered all of them.
  • Deep Sky Videos – All about astronomy, including a detailed look at the telescopes at the European Southern Observatory in Paranal, Chile.
  • Numberphile – All about mathematics, and the unusual numbers that pop up. What is the largest number described? They covered it.
  • Objectivity – A look at objects from the history of science, and in particular the collection of the Royal Society in England.
  • Periodic Videos – An award-winning series on Chemistry, demonstrating some fun experiments. Sir Martyn Poliakoff is the host.
  • Sixty Symbols – The world of advanced physics, this covers everything from Quantum Mechanics to Relativity to String Theory


In addition to the two big producers I looked at above, there are a lot of YouTube series that I love from the smaller producers. Here are some of them:

  • Alton Brown – First made famous as host and creator of Good Eats on the Food Network, Alton is known for scientific approach to cooking and food.
  • BBC Earth Unplugged – Science videos from the BBC
  • BrainCraft – The science of the brain, produced by PBS Digital
  • BrainStuff – How Stuff Works – How Stuff Works is another place that produces a number of video series, this one is science-related.
  • Candyrat Records – This label specializes in guitar music, and a number of my favorite people record for them. They very sensibly publish videos on YouTube to promote their artists, and I have purchased a number of CDs as a result.
  • Dan Carlin – Host of Hardcore History and Common Sense, two of the audio podcasts I subscribe to. On this channel is the occasional video.
  • FW Thinking – Mostly about the future and how it will be different.
  • How Stuff Works – More of a general knowledge show.
  • It’s OK To Be Smart – Another science show from PBS Digital.
  • Kurz Gezagt – One video a month on a science-related topic.
  • Mental Floss – Trivia!
  • Minute Earth and Minute Physics – Short science videos.
  • NASAeClips – Videos from NASA.
  • nature video – Science videos from nature magazine.
  • Physics Girl – Exploring physics with interesting experiments.
  • Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD Comics) – Science videos.
  • Science News – Science videos from Science News magazine
  • SpaceFrontierOrg – Occasional videos on space-related topics.
  • Takei’s Take – Yes, George Takei has a video channel. What’s not to love?
  • TheFrugalComputerGuy – How-to videos that are very good.
  • Veritasium – Another science-related series.
  • Vsauce – A quirky look at a number of odd topics. Hard to describe really.
  • Welcome to Night Vale – A video channel to go along with the audio podcast that everyone in the world should be listening to.

So it is obvious that I subscribe to a lot of science-related channels, but that is what I enjoy. With all of my subscriptions, I probably average 6-7 new videos per day that show up in my mailbox. But with so much content now available on YouTube the chances are that you will find lots of things you like, so give it a try.

Listen to the audio version of this post on Hacker Public Radio!

Review of The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind

The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind by Michio Kaku
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book, but then I like Michio Kaku in general so I was not surprised. He takes a look at the research on how the brain functions, and at the medical studies involved in tapping into the brain to do things like mentally control machines. The implications for assistance technology are pretty mind-blowing. From there he goes into whether it may be possible to upload a complete neuronal map into a computer, and what that might entail. Then he looks at beaming such a map via lasers to another star system as a form of interstellar travel. It is all very “science fiction”, but grounded in solid science. The BRAIN initiative from the Obama administration could make all of this come true sooner than you expect. I recommend highly.

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Review of Physics Of The Impossible

Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel by Michio Kaku
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fun book. I won’t claim that it is cosmically significant, but sometimes I enjoy relaxing with a book that is fun to read, and this book was that for me. Michio Kaku is one of those people that is always fun to follow. You may have seen him on TV where he has a show that is similar to this book.

The ideas is that he takes a number of ideas familiar from Science Fiction, and asks if they are possible, or truly impossible. Some things we can’t do now, but maybe there is way we can do it in the future without violating the laws of physics as we know them. Other things would require a new understanding that the laws of physics are not quite what we think. That has happened before, and there is no a priori reason to think it can’t happen again.

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Review of The Clockwork Universe

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a slightly tricky book to rate. I gave it four stars out of five on the merit of the book itself, though I would recommend it mostly to people who are interested in the history of science but not heavily read in that area already. This book is not one that sets a standard for scholarship, but is a well-written introduction to a worthy topic.

Isaac Newton is the primary focus of this book, though his rival Leibniz also comes in for some discussion. And Newton is valuable because he represents a transition to the modern world. Because of his invention of calculus and his laws of motion, he is regarded as one of the first modern scientists, and deservedly so. But he was equally one of the lats great medieval thinkers, drenched in religiosity, and a devoted investigator in alchemy. So he was born into a medieval world, where the great fire of London and the Plague were seen as God’s judgement on a sinful people. But when he died it was a modern world, and he did a lot to make it so. so the sub-title is really quite accurate.

One of the things that should get you thinking as you read between the lines, particularly in the first part of the book, is how people reacted to the Plague. With no understanding of disease, and an assumption that such things were the just visitations of a wrathful God, they had no alternative but to die in huge numbers. Now we have science and medicine that can protest us, but those very accomplishments that define the modern world are under attack right now by religious fundamentalists who would drag us back to those days. We need to be constantly vigilant to stop them.

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