Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

Category: Science (Page 2 of 2)

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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Spillover and the Next Human Pandemic

I’ ve read some very good books lately. One of them was the “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemicby David Quammen, one of the best science writers today and one of my favourite writers.

David Quammen has written this fascinated book about zoonoses, the animal infections transmissible to humans, and has made epidemiology look like a super-exciting field. I almost regretted for not taking biology more seriously during my University years.

His vivid style and his ability to explain complex subjects clearly makes the book gripping and lively and the material accessible to everyone. Quammen examines the most important viruses HIV/AIDS, Malaria, Ebola, Hendra, Nippah (I admit, I have never heard of Hendra and Nippah before), SARS and Marburg, including the story of their outbreaks, the importance of their reservoir hosts and the environmental factors that altered the host’s ecology and facilitated the movement of viruses beyond their natural ecological niches. The chapter on HIV/AIDS  is quite fascinated, it reads like a detective story.

Another interesting part of the book is the description of the places that Quammen visited while researching for the book. It makes the story more dynamic and animated, especially if you – like me – love to travel and learn about different cultures. It is also explains why isolating countries won’t keep viruses away. Travel advices or restrictions will not stop people to be curious and adventurous or simply to want to trade with each other.

Death from the Skies

Philip Plait is an astronomer, more specific he is the Bad Astronomer. His website is a vast source of information, written in a plain, high intellectually and funny way. Seriously, even if you and astronomy don’t get along very well, Phil can make you love it. Death From the Skies: These Are the Ways the World Will End is a fascinating , full of strange astronomical things and events that will spell the doom of Earth.

Asteroids, black holes, solar activity, the Sun becoming a red giant, supernovae and gamma-ray bursts, Alien Attack, Galactic collisions. Well that’s it…. the end of world.

There is a huge amount of science in this book. Everything you need to know, to be prepared for the end of the planet and probably the end of cosmos. Which, by the way, is not going to affect you, unless you are planning to be around the next …..1000000 years. Then, you may discover how the dinosaurs felt when the asteroid hit the Earth.

Did I say that the book is also funny? Well, it is. It is a great joy to read. Every chapter stars with a small story. Some of them are excellent science fiction stories of their own. I really loved the Attack of the Aliens; I think it could make a fantastic disaster movie.

Even if you know nothing about astronomy, you will find this book very readable and interesting. Phil, explains everything very well and clearly, and he uses the correct analogies to describe scientific concepts that some may find difficult to understand. Nevertheless, as Phil writes, “Be prepared to stretch your mind a bit”.

Talking about stretching, I particularly liked the description of the spaghettification process, when you are falling into a black hole. Maybe it is not the best way to be killed, but as Phil says “the journey there is half the fun”.

Actually, the chapter about black holes is my favourite. All these details about the how black holes could destroy Earth, are so …. Wow!  You will be dead by then, of course, unless we manage to build that powerful rocket to produce a thrust for us to escape the gravity of the black hole. Fascinating?

It is beautiful, enjoyable and very informative. You are not going to avoid the doom, but that is something you don’t need to worry about it right now.


The Callendar Effect by James Rodger Flemming

Guy Callendar was an English engineer, who in the 1930s estimated that man had added about 150,000 million tonnes of CO2 during the past century and the planet had undergone warming on the order of one degree Fahrenheit (0.5 degrees Celsius).

CallendarIn his first published paper, in February 1938, titled “The artificial Production of Carbon Dioxide and its Influence on Temperature”, Callendar showed that there is “a quantitative relation between the natural movement of this gas and the amounts produced by the combustion of fossil fuel”, and argued “that the activities of man could have any influence upon phenomena of so vast a scale… that is not only possible, but is actually occurring at the present time.”

He also referred to the oceans as a “giant regulator of carbon dioxide” which had exceeded the limits of the natural carbon cycle and would not be able to absorb all or most of its excess. But as Arrhenius before him, Callendar appealed the idea of atmospheric warming. Concluding his article he speculated that the combustion of fossil fuels “is likely to prove beneficial to mankind in several ways, besides the provision of heat and power…..  Small increases of mean temperature would be important at the northern margin of cultivation, and the growth of favourably situated plants is directly proportional to the carbon dioxide pressure. In any case the return of the deadly glaciers should be delayed indefinitely.”

Callendar published his discoveries in a series of papers, but they did not raise any interest from the scientific community. Only, later, in 1957, just before the beginning of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) – the first global scale experiment that recognised the potential of satellite technology in studying the Earth -, Hans Seuss and Roger Revelle, although they believed “that it was absolutely impossible to have had a sufficient increase in the CO2 amount in this century”, they referred to the “Callendar effect,” defining it as “climatic change brought about by anthropogenic increases in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, primarily through the processes of combustion.” Suggestive of Callendar’s brilliance was the fact that years later, scientists forecasted that some countries (Russia, Canada, New Zealand) will gain form climate change through an improved capacity for growing food, and used his prognosis that to promote and gain political support for their research projects to study climate change.

James Rodger Fleming is a professor at Colby College and a leading historian of atmospheric sciences and weather prediction. He has written a really fascinated book.


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