Monday, September 30, 2013

Highlights from the New Books List: September

Copies of this title available UW-Madison
Livio, Mario. (2013). Brilliant blunders: Colossal mistakes by great scientists that changed out understanding of life and the universe. New York: Simon & Schuster.

"At last we have a book specifically devoted to scientific mistakes: Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein—Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe. Its author, astrophysicist Mario Livio, chooses only five from the many available classic “blunders”: mistakes made by Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein.

Livio’s title and subtitle are worth pondering. Are the mistakes he writes about truly “brilliant”? Isn’t “colossal” a bit over the top? Are they even “blunders,” or are they justifiable and well-motivated ideas that just happened to turn out wrong? Concentrating on five examples gives Livio the opportunity to explore them and their scientific importance in detail. His extensive, 21-page bibliography is evidence of his thorough research. [...] One strength of Livio’s book is its argument that, despite the title, scientific mistakes are seldom blunders at all. They are complex manifestations of human psychology in the context of the prevailing scientific knowledge of the time. Livio concludes each essay with speculations about the mistakes from the perspective of our present knowledge of how the brain works. Some readers may consider those ruminations pop psychology. In any case, skipping them won’t diminish the value of the rest of the book. [...] For someone who wants the whole story, Livio’s book is a page turner."  -- Donald Simanek, Emeritus professor of physics, Lock Haven University, Pennsylvania. (Excerpts from review in Physics Today, 66.8 (2013): p. 48.)

Copies of this title available at UW-Madison
Gerry, Christopher and Kimberly Bruno. (2013). The quantum divide: why Schrödinger's cat is either dead or alive. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

"The burgeoning fields of quantum computing, information processing and simulation develop rapidly as a consequence of theoretical insight and technological developments. The latter have enabled us to take single atoms or ions and count single photons, and many of the thought experiments discussed in earlier treatments of quantum physics have now been conducted in laboratories. This lucid account by Gerry and Bruno presents a mature discussion of the link between the microscopic quantum and the macroscopic classical worlds and will be useful for professional physicists, students and the educated layman." -- Ifan Hughes, Department of Physics, Durham University (from dust jacket)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Throwback Thursday

Copies of this title available at UW-Madison
From our February 2006 new books list: 

Farrell, John. (2005). The day without yesterday:
Lemaître, Einstein, and the birth of modern cosmology. New York: Thunder's Mouth.
The development of the big bang theory of the universe owes much to the young Belgian Catholic priest Georges Lemâitre, who was the first person to realize that Einstein's theory of general relativity predicted an expanding universe. Lemâitre was among the first to apply observed astronomical data to the cosmological solutions of general relativity, and he pioneered the notion that the universe as a whole was a coherent entity whose evolution lent itself to scientific study. Farrell offers a very readable account of the history of theories of the universe in the 20th century, intertwined with an intellectual biography of Lemâitre. Farrell does an excellent job of explaining in lay terms the content and underpinnings of the debate among Einstein, Eddington, Hubble, Hoyle, Lemâitre, and others regarding the implications of general relativity for our understanding of the universe. This debate is all the more interesting because it began at a time when scientists were just beginning to recognize the structure and extent of the observed universe. -- A. Spero (CHOICE Reviews, May 2006)

Friday, September 20, 2013

Book Review: The Girls of the Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

Kiernan, D. (2013). The girls of Atomic City: The untold story of the
women who helped win World War II. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. 
Using extensive interviews and a variety of other primary sources, Denise Kiernan reveals the history of the government-created town of Oak Ridge, TN, where uranium was enriched to create the world’s first nuclear weapon.  At its peak, the town had more than 75,000 workers living there, most of them young women, and in order to protect the secrecy of the project, nearly all of them had absolutely no knowledge of the project.  The government merely explained that they were working on something that would help end the war, and indeed they did.  

It’s a fascinating read: Denise Kiernan is able to balance the minutiae of life in Oak Ridge with the broader social and political issues at hand, and she also explains the science involved in a way that accessible and absorbing.  The book is really at its finest when it discusses the complicated emotions of guilt, fear, and pride that the women (as unknowing participants) felt after learning about the true purpose of the project and its consequences.

Submitted by Katie Kiekhaefer

Listen to an interview with the author on

Copies of this book at UW-Madison Libraries 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Reading makes you nicer -- and smarter!

Like to read fiction and literature?  I do.  Lots of people look askance at recreational reading, especially fiction.  Not so fast!  A recent article at reports the following:
"Gregory Currie, a professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, recently argued in the New York Times that we ought not to claim that literature improves us as people, because there is no “compelling evidence that suggests that people are morally or socially better for reading Tolstoy” or other great books.
image of UW graduateActually, there is such evidence. Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, reported in studies published in 2006 and 2009 that individuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective. This link persisted even after the researchers factored in the possibility that more empathetic individuals might choose to read more novels. A 2010 study by Mar found a similar result in young children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their “theory of mind,” or mental model of other people’s intentions.
“Deep reading” — as opposed to the often superficial reading we do on the Web — is an endangered practice, one we ought to take steps to preserve as we would a historic building or a significant work of art. Its disappearance would imperil the intellectual and emotional development of generations growing up online, as well as the perpetuation of a critical part of our culture: the novels, poems and other kinds of literature that can be appreciated only by readers whose brains, quite literally, have been trained to apprehend them."
Read the rest of the article at

And, in a related note, read this editorial from a student in the Daily Cardinal, "I Dare You to Read This Entire Thing," where she talks about her generation's inability to read at any depth.

Photo image courtesy of UW Archives.  "(UW) Graduate with stack of books, ca.1951"  (UW.uwar00889.bib)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Go Big Read 2013: A Tale for the Time Being

The book selected to be the Go Big Read Book for 2013, has been shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker prize.

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, is now available at the Physics Library and other campus libraries near you.  Find it now in a campus library.  

From the publisher's website:
“A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”

In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine.

Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.

Full of Ozeki’s signature humor and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home