Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

Category: Science (Page 2 of 3)

A Farewell to Arctic Ice by Peter Wadhams

Only a few people in the world know ice better than Peter Wadhams. A professor of Ocean Physics at Cambridge, Peter Wadhams is a world authority on sea ice. His  book ‘A Farewell to Ice’ is a report from the Arctic, and the consequences of the loss of the summer sea ice. It is also a personal history of a scientist and his extraordinary work in the polar regions in the past 35+ years.

Peter Wadhams believes the Arctic has reached a tipping point, that is a  point at which a certain system that has been stressed beyond a certain level does not return to its original state when that stress is removed. He predicts that  Arctic will be be ice free in the next few years and that would have a series of disastrous consequences for the whole planet.

The retreat of the summer sea ice in the Arctic is important because the loss of sea ice is changing the global albedo (the reflected sunlight). A vast area will change from white (ice) to blue (sea), therefore less energy will be reflected back into space. It means that the global warming will increase.

The darker ocean will absorb more energy which warms the water which melts more ice, which further warms the ocean, which melts more ice, in a spiraling feedback loop.

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The Gene: An Intimate History

The science of genetics was born in mid-19th century with the discovery of the basic mechanisms of heredity in the pea garden of an Austrian monk. Although, humans have acted as agents of genetic selection, for thousands of years, by breeding offspring with desired traits, it was Mendel’s discovery of the existence of dominant and recessive traits in pea plants, that set into motion the modern field of genetics.

 Siddhartha Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher has written a comprehensive, engaging and insightful history of the gene as well as  an analysis of the ethical dilemmas, the challenges and the medical benefits of the genomic science in the 21st century.

The Gene is also a personal history. Entwined with the Gene’s history is Mukherjee’s own Bengali family history of mental illness, which erupts from shared genetic inheritances and define the lives of past, present and future family members.

The book covers 150 years of history, from Gregor Mendel, the monk who discovered the basic principles of heredity, working in his pea garden in Brno, through to Darwin and to his half- cousin, Francis Galton, one of the first proponents of the ‘eugenics movement’ to Oswald Avery’s pinpointing of DNA as the carrier of genetic information, to James Watson and Francis Crick and to the recent years where the sheer ingenuity of the scientists demystified the genome.

The Gene is a book of scientific progress, the benefits of direct genetic modification can be enormous, “to carve out a life of happiness and achievement without undue suffering”, but the possibilities of a  serious, irreversible mistake are also immense. Genetic modification has the potential to alter the course of human evolution to something completely unexpected, even harmful. Are we really ready to take this step?

The Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure

Mathematics is like life, you can’t expect to go forward if you’re not prepare to expose yourself to chance, risk, even danger. It is an idea that appeals to Cédric Villani, mathematician and author of “The Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure”.

Mathematics is also a work of reasoning and evolution of thinking, of logical deduction and perhaps a bit of sleuthing. In Villani’s words “Appreciating a theorem in mathematics is like watching an episode of Columbo, the line of reasoning by which the detective solves the mystery is more important than the identity of the murderer.”

Villani was awarded the Field medal for his work on Landau Damping, a spontaneous phenomenon of stabilization in plasmas, that is a return to equilibrium without any increase in entropy. This is in contrast to the mechanism described by Ludwig Boltzmann which expressed the statistical motion of entropy. With his famous now, equation, Boltzmann proved that moving from an initial arbitrarily fixed state, over reasonable time spans in the future,  entropy can only increase.

Birth of a Theorem is not just a popular maths book. It is a personal and exhausting journey, an obsession, of a brilliant, passionate and eccentric mathematician.  

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

The beauty of simplicity. Call it, elegance.

It is these two attributes, elegance and simplicity, that make Carlo Rovelli’s small book – just 83 pages long – “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” so irresistible. It is a beautiful book.

In a series of six short essays/lessons on physics and one on “ourselves”, Rovelli explains the major concepts of modern physics, from general relativity to quantum mechanics, loop quantum gravity, and thermodynamics.

The book is far from comprehensive. It is more a coherent, and poetic introduction to physics, to the world around us. Also to the world inside us. The last lesson on neuroscience is perhaps the most enthusiastic and the most poetic part of the book. The human brain, the most complex structure in the universe, that beautiful and mysterious landscape filled with so many “unknown unknowns”.

 

 

Storms of my Grandchildren by James Hansen & the Story of a Bet

“My role is that of a witness, not a preacher”, says Dr James Hansen, one the world’s leading scientist on climate issues. A witness, as defined by the writer Robert Pool, is “someone who believes he has information so important that he cannot keep silent.”

In his book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, James Hansen, often called the father of global warming, talks about the science and the mechanisms that drive global warming in a way that makes it relatively easy for readers to understand.

“Politicians are happy if scientists provide information and then go away and shut up”, he writes. But science and policy cannot be divorced. ” Policy decisions on climate change are “being deliberated every day by those without full of the science, and often with intentional misinformation spawned by special interests.” “This book” says Hansen, “was written to help rectify this situation. Citizens with a special interest – in their loved ones – need to become familiar with the science, exercise their democratic rights, and pay attention to politicians’ decisions Otherwise, it seems, short-term special interests will hold sway in capitals around the world – and we are running out of time.”

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The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World

More than 190 world leaders and representatives gathered this week in Paris to address the issue of climate change and to re-affirm their commitment to tackle climate change. The United Nations 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), the last, best chance to curb greenhouse gas emissions for many, aims to agree on a global legally binding climate treaty to cut out carbon emissions, halt deforestation and keep fossil fuel in the ground.

The surface of the Earth is warming with unpredictable consequences. Scientists, NGOs, and some of the biggest humanitarian organisations warn about the dire effects of climate change. IMF has warmed that human “fortunes will melt with the ice, evaporate like water under a relentless sun, and wither away like sand in a desert storm. And the planet’s poorest and most vulnerable people will be the first to feel the pain.”

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