The nation’s librarians have kindly made a list of delicious and demanding reads from the science division. Which of these books have you read and loved? I found Moonwalking with Einstein fascinating and fun, and I reread The Double Helix every couple of years. #books
One of the best gifts I received this year was a flat of tomato seedlings from Arthur Allen, author of RIPE: The Search for the Perfect Tomato.
After several years of tomato blight in our urban DC garden, my husband and I were excited to receive the plants in April from Art, who, let’s face it, knows from tomatoes. No way would these be the “little red cannonballs” you get in supermarkets. These were Tasti-Lees, a hybrid that he discovered in the course of writing his fascinating book, which traces the rise of the agri-industrial complex through a single crop. These babies, he assured us, are hard to kill and yet taste divine. Talk about the gift that keeps on giving; we harvested the first batch of sweet, juicy red fruit in June and picked the last valiant one in early November. I think of them every time I walk into a grocery store and see the flavorless ethylene-gassed tomatoes on display. Sigh.
Fact: The book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, in which Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543 laid out his blueprint for the “marvelous symmetry of the universe,” was not banned outright by the Catholic Church, but rather listed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1616 as “suspended until corrected” – and remained there for more than 200 years.
This was one of many fascinating tidbits that Dava Sobel discussed last night at Politics & Prose here in Washington, where she gave an inspiring reading of her new book A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos. Although nobody brought it up directly, the parallels between Inquisition-era censorship of science and today’s politicized anti-scientific rhetoric are impossible to ignore. I wonder how long An Inconvenient Truth would linger on the Index.
Sobel’s book began as a play, an exercise the theater-history-major-turned-journalist found to be “one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever done – all this making things up!” Her publisher suggested that she add on a nonfiction narrative to provide context and all the delicious background nuggets that can bog down the action on stage. The result is a play within a book, an unusual construct that could so easily fall flat but instead holds its own and allows the reader to get inside the head of the great man in a way that his skimpy trove of personal correspondence – only 17 letters survive — does not.
When asked by an audience member what she would ask Copernicus is she could meet him, Sobel had a ready answer: “What made you do it?” Meaning, while it’s easy to see why he kept his theory a secret for 30 years (fear of being burned at the stake), nobody really knows what led him to take that leap and posit that the Sun, rather than the Earth, is the hub of the cosmos. Was it that he was bugged by having to fudge calculations to account for the accumulating inaccuracy of the Julian calendar? Or did he happen to notice that if you lined up the order of the planets, the fastest ones were closer to the sun?
We can never truly know, and the closest Sobel came was when she went to Poland and was permitted a brief, thrilling glimpse of the original manuscript of the Revolutions. A gloved curator removed the priceless magnum opus from a vault and turned the pages. Suddenly, Sobel saw something that made Copernicus come alive for her. There, in the center of the actual diagram where the master himself had planted his compass and spun it to draw his heliocentric universe, was … a small hole.
I heard Sonia Shah give a thought-provoking talk last night at Politics & Prose here in DC about her fascinating new book, “The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years”. As she shows, the tendency of policy makers (and even scientists) to dither and overlook biological facts has aided the persistence of malaria over the years. The way she connects the DDT blitz of the 1940s to anticommunist fervor would be funny if it weren’t so sad.