Reading on the Radar

Books have been bubbling up from the comments cauldron. Jim Harrison has asked what I think of Simon Conway Morris’s Life’s Solution. Web Webster says Cosmos was his first favorite science book and asks for suggestions. Humboldt and Feyerband make an appearance too. It’s ironic that two forms of reading that are competing furiously these days for my free time–books and blogs–meet at this crossroads.

Let me just say that I have four books on my desk, that I am trying to dig into. They’re either just out or about to come out. For the most part, I can’t tell you that they’re great or lousy, because I haven’t really started them yet, but I am intensely curious about them. Take the following as partially-informed recommendations.

1. Life’s Solution. This book is by Simon Conway Morris, a great paleontologist. Conway Morris thinks that Stephen Jay Gould’s emphasis on contingency in evolution does an injustice to repeated trends in the history of life–towards certain ways of flying, for example. In a sense, then, we may be an inevitable product of evolution (i.e., intelligent, self-aware life). He also explores the potential religious implications of his scientific argument. Conway Morris has an incisive mind and has done spectacular work on the origin of complex animals (like the first vertebrates). On the other hand, what I’ve read and heard of his ideas about convergence in the past have left me a bit skeptical. Convergence is fascinating, but I don’t know if you can hang the sort of significance Conway Morris wants to on it. Another downside is that his writing is not always crystal clear, shall we say. And being a great scientist may not necessarily make him a good philosopher (or theologian). But I am certainly curious.

2. Sea of Glory, by Nathaniel Philbrick. Philbrick wrote the NBA winning In the Heart of the Sea, about the voyage that Moby Dick was based on. Now he’s writing about the first great scientific expedition in US history which stretched from 1838 to 1842. Six ships full of scientists wandered the Pacific for four years and did spectacular work. I anticipate a ripping maritime yarn that also delivers good information on early American science, a fascinating topic in my opinion.

3. The Genome War, by James Shreeve. Shreeve’s a great science writer, and this is his first book since The Neanderthal Enigma. He tells the story of the Human Genome Project. “Again?” you yawn. Stay with me–I’ve started this one, and I can say that Shreeve has written the first book I know of that actually tells the story right–a story of big egos, big science, and big stakes. (Plus excellent descriptions of genetics.) Craig Venter, James Watson, and all the other players are coming alive on the page. I suspect this one will get finished first.

4. Radiant Cool, by Dan Lloyd. I first came across Lloyd’s work in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. He had written a paper on consciousness, and at first I too yawned, “Again?” But then I started reading it, and it was really fascinating. He was exploring a new way to use neuroimaging to find a signature of consciousness–not as a blob on a scan indicating some “consciousness organ” but a running comparison of activity all over the brain. It was sketchy but intriguing. Now he’s written a book to explain his ideas on consciousness, in the form of a detective novel. That’s a first.