When Nature’s Books and Arts editor Barbara Kiser’stop five for 2018 came out, #s 1 and 2 were
Lost in Math is a firecracker of a book—a shot across the bows of theoretical physics. Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist working on quantum gravity (and author of the blog Backreaction) confronts failures in her field head-on. The foundations of physics have not improved, she reminds us, for more than three decades.
Extracting and sequencing ribosomal RNA was a herculean task in the 1970s—beyond clunky. Thousands of pieces of film had to be studied. Lab conditions were ridiculously risky, with scant regard for safety around, say, the radioactive phosphorus used in bacterial culture. But Woese, his postdoc George Fox and the rest of his team eventuall punched through. After years of precise, laborious work, Woese identified Archaea, the single-celled microorganisms that constitute the ‘third branch’ (bacteria and eukaryotes are the other two). The series of papers published by Woese, Fox and others in 1977 are seen by some as the most significant in the history of microbiology. Perhaps inevitably, doubt and dismissal followed.
There are more aspects to this many-pronged narrative: endosymbiosis, horizontal gene transfer. There are subtleties and complexities (not least in Woese himself.) Caspar Henderson, “The Best Science Books of 2018 recommended by Barbara Kiser” at Five Books
Okay, Ready, Aim, … STOCKINGS!!
Her three other picks (which simply didn’t much cross our desks):
3. Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto by Alan Stern & David Grinspoon
4. The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are by Alan Jasanoff
5. A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War by Patricia Fara
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See also: Theoretical physicist: Contrary to hype, a larger collider will probably not answer the Big Questions (Sabine Hossenfelder) Some may wince at Hossenfelder referring to the PR as “full of lies.” but the fact is, many of these science marketers are probably desperate. Terms like “crisis,” “stagnation,” and “post-empirical” have become commonplace in describing the current state of theoretical physics. One response is to just keep the hype going.
Jerry Coyne continues to be unhappy over David Quammen’s book on Carl Woese