Winter Books 2017: The Science and Tech Shelf

We’re all taught in school about the scientific method—an idealized version of how researchers think up hypotheses, conduct experiments, study the evidence, and confirm or disconfirm their original hypotheses. In Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions, longtime NPR science reporter Richard Harris shows just how far that idealized version is from reality. There are systemic problems in U.S. biomedical science, and they go far beyond the “reproducibility crisis” that has been hotly debated in recent years: Harris’s eye-opening book discusses shoddily designed experiments, “HARKing” (hypothesizing after the results are known), poor assumptions, and incentives that warp both careers and research results.

David N. Schwartz’s The Last Man Who Knew Everything is the second biography of Enrico Fermi in as many years, following Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin’s The Pope of Physics. This burst of interest is long overdue—Fermi built the first nuclear reactor, contributed mightily to the Manhattan Project, and did important work in quantum theory, but he has rarely been biographized. This is perhaps less because of the difficulty of explaining his work than because so much of his life was devoted to physics that there is little juicy personal material for a biographer to draw out. These two Fermi biographies make a valiant attempt to give us not only Fermi the scientist but also the husband, father, and friend.

Thinking about today’s vast, secretive, and high-tech National Security Agency, it’s hard to imagine how small, confused, and haphazard were its origins. Journalist Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes is not just a vindication of the career of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, the gifted cryptanalyst whose work breaking codes during both world wars has been underappreciated, it’s also a riveting historical account of politics, espionage, and the creation from scratch of U.S. signals intelligence capabilities. And it’s a love story: Elizebeth and her extraordinary husband William Friedman collaborated for decades, in a true marriage of hearts and minds.

In a 1927 Life magazine cartoon, a businessman shows off his company’s “latest achievement—a typewriter for the Chinese trade.” Behind him stands a machine two stories tall, with 1,000 keys. The practical problem behind this joke—the challenge of inventing devices that can render a language that isn’t alphabetic or syllabic—is the subject of The Chinese Typewriter: A History. This fascinating microhistory is the first of two volumes from Stanford historian Thomas S. Mullaney; the sequel will examine Chinese computing.

If you’re curious about what artificial intelligence might mean for the human future but you are too busy to read (or have the good sense to be wary of) the books by Ray Kurzweil, Nick Bostrom, Robin Hanson, and the other overlapping transhumanists, MIT physicist Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence offers a readable, albeit scattered and credulous, overview of the subject. Its subtitle, though, is a bit off the mark: Tegmark’s book, like most others in this area, suffers from its author not having tried very hard to understand what “being human” really means.

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