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February 14, 2011

Valentine’s day 2011

Filed under: fun,science — Nick @ 7:50 pm
mouse mesenteric arteriole
Mouse mesenteric arteriole
H & E stained

This is a photomicrograph I had taken about eight or ten years ago when I was examining some sections of mouse arterioles. As it so happens, it was Valentine’s day when I took this, so I saved the image just because of the resemblance. Naturally, real blood vessels are round(ish) in cross-section, so the shape is obviously an artefact of fixing or sectioning. Nevertheless, I thought the coincidence was noteworthy.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

January 11, 2010

Book review: Beauty in Experimentation

Filed under: books,science — Nick @ 2:50 pm

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, by George Johnson (Alfred A. Knopf)

In the lab it is sometimes necessary to do an experiment or other procedure in which cleverness of thinking or dexterity in procedure is not required, but rather mindless application of time, effort, or even money. We used to call this the “brute force method” of doing science. Other times a researcher may do an experiment that yields a clear answer not through raw application of effort, but rather through clever tricks in which it seems that nature herself is doing the experiment for you; the latter kind of experiments are sometimes labeled as “elegant.” Although the brute force approach is sometimes necessary, elegance in experiments (like pornography to Justice Potter Stewart) is a quality that is hard to define although is apparent when seen, and is always greatly appreciated as being part of the art of science when an experiment is called “beautiful.”

George Johnson, a science writer, columnist, and sometimes TV personality, gives readers a flavor of this type of beauty in science in his latest book, The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments. This rather slim volume has a form factor that is somewhat reminiscent of the many inspirational volumes that fill the tables of booksellers, but it is both readable and informational as well as being inspiring to those who love or do science. One may quibble over which experiments deserve to be called the “most beautiful (and even Johnson acknowledges that the book might just have well been called simply Ten Beautiful Experiments);” he seems to choose experiments that represent the span of experimental science in various ages and scientific fields, from Galileo’s experiments of falling bodies (not, as a reader might assume, Galileo’s observation of heavenly bodies, which are discoveries rather than experiments) to Millikan’s experiments on charged oil drops that determined the charge of a single electron. In the latter case, Johnson even goes so far as to scrounge up enough surplussed equipment to repeat the famous oil drop experiment himself; the description of his efforts gives us vivid feel of what Millikan must gave seen and felt when doing the experiments himself.

In some cases Johnson gives some historical or biographical background to the scientists he writes about; in others (particularly if they are well known such as Galileo) he lets the experiments speak for themselves. In any case, enough detail about the experiments is presented such that the reader has a good appreciation for what has been accomplished without so much detail as to intimidate the non-scientific reader. The result is a book that is easy, entertaining, and informative.

October 28, 2009

Book reviews: End of the Universe

Filed under: books,science — Nick @ 11:46 pm

Death from the Skies!: The Science Behind the End of the World, by Philip Plait (Penguin Books, 2008)
Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries, by Neil deGrasse Tyson (W. W. Norton & Co, 2007)

A couple of weeks ago I had a 15%-off coupon from Barnes & Noble that was about to expire; with that and a gift card I had laying around an emergency trip to the bookstore was clearly in order. I was browsing the science section and noticed a book I had been intending to read: Death From The Skies, by astronomer (actually “Bad Astronomer”) and blogger Phil Plait. Since I frequent his blog, as well as the forum associated with it, I was aware the book had been out for some time. As a bonus, I also noticed a book by astrophysicist, Hayden Planetarium director, and TV personality Neil deGrasse Tyson with a very similar title, Death By Black Hole, nearby on the shelf. Oddly, even though Tyson’s book came out the year before Plait’s, I had somehow missed hearing any mention of it. Naturally, I bought them both.

As I mentioned, I was looking forward to reading Death From The Skies for some time. The paperback version seems to have three subtitles associated with it. The cover’s subtitle is “The Science Behind the End of the World,” whereas the title page states the subtitle is “The ways the World Will End…” Finally, a note states that the hardcover’s subtitle is “These Are the Ways the World Will End.” Regardless, the three subtitles will give one a general idea of the purpose of the book. Plait discusses the various ways the universe might cause the end of world, which run the gamut from fairly local phenomena (at least by astronomical standards) such as by impact with a large asteroid, through universe-wide catastrophe. Plait gives good explanations on the various odds and timescales by which these events may (or will) happen without sounding sensationalistic.

Readers who have only a modest background in science or mathematics will find find the book easy to understand. Plait keeps the mathematics and unexplained technical jargon to a minimum. I must confess that before I started reading it I had some fear I would dislike the book. Plait’s blog is written in a very informal style that is peppered with pop-culture references and neologisms that I find off-putting when overdone. However, the book is free from these, whether by author’s design, or by editorial handling. In either case, the book remains informal and breezy without becoming overly twee.

Death By Black Hole, by Neil deGrasse Tyson, has the single subtitle “and Other Cosmic Quandaries.” Despite the rather similar-sounding name, Tyson’s book is very different than Plait’s. Death By Black Hole is actually a collection of essays that were written for Natural History magazine, and were then collected and edited for updates and continuity. The essays are grouped in sections by subject material and range from a variety of topics such as the ways we understand science or how science interacts with culture, in addition to essays that might be thought of as pure science. Only one section, titled “When the Universe Turns Bad (which contains the eponymous essay),” deals with end of the end-of-world (or universe) scenarios that are similar to the subject matter of Plait’s book.

The style of this book reminded me very much of a series of books by Stephen Jay Gould that were also collections of essays written for Natural History (although in his case the subject matter was largely biological), except that Tyson has less of a tendency to wander than Gould, and tends to get right to the subject matter of each essay without too much diversion. If one enjoyed reading Gould’s books (as I did) then the reader will also probably like this one.

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