Notes on Sunday reading

21 05 2007

I finished Carl Sagan’s Billions and Billions last night and it was one of the most enjoyable books that I ever read. It was rather eerie to read Sagan’s thoughts on CFC’s, global warming, and nuclear weapons when a decade later we are still plagued by the same problems. While it may not be Sagan’s most important or oft-cited book, I still found it to be some of the best popular science writing I have ever encountered, and would recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it yet.

After that I picked up Gould’s The Lying Stones of Marrakech and read his essay on Buffon, which was enlightening and added more books to my amazon.com wishlist. It was interesting to compare Gould’s style with that of Sagan’s, both books representing the writers near the end of their lives, and as informative and interesting as Gould can be I have to say that at times his prose is a little difficult to read for an extended period. It’s not a matter of not understanding or not learning from Gould’s writings, but part of the reason that I put down The Structure of Evolutionary Theory last year was because it was so overloaded with information that it was difficult to properly digest if I read too much at a time. I do not mean to discourage anyone from reading Gould’s later work, but for one reason or another (at least for me) it lacks the appeal that Bully for Brontosaurus, Dinosaur in a Haystack, and The Flamingo’s Smile held for me.

Hence I decided that I would only read one or two of Gould’s essays in a day, thus comfortably completing the book by next Wednesday when it would have to go back. This doesn’t mean, however, that I wouldn’t attempt to plow through the other books I brought home, and I promptly picked up Richard Leakey’s The Origin of Humankind. Being that it’s from 1994 I expect it to be a bit dated (and I don’t particularly like Leakey’s rhetorical method of calling all bipedal primates human, not from hubris, but from a standpoint of accuracy and description), but it is an easy-enough read and I figured I should at least read a book by one of the big names in paleoanthroplogy. Indeed, it might seem that I waste a lot of time reading out-of-date books by the likes of G.G. Simpson, A.S. Romer, and others, but the evolution of paleontology and evolutionary science as a whole is just as fascinating to me as new discoveries. As I’ve discussed in previous posts as well, sometimes I come across a certain intellectual gem that helps illuminate a current argument or hypothesis as well, and if I did not go back to understand the history of science I don’t know if I would be as interested in it now.

In any event, I have a few books coming on dinosaurs in popular media, and such reflects a minor theme among my recent reading material. Why are we so interested in these extinct animals (especially children), and how does the media help influence science (or at least our perception of it)? Being that I’ve taken a fair number of sociology/psychology courses during my college education (even obtaining my associates degree in 4-12 education), I have been wondering just why dinosaurs are so attractive to us, especially because fossil mammals do not seem to get the same attention unless they are somehow like dinosaurs (i.e. mammoths in their size and Dimetrodon because it is often confused as a dinosaur). Perhaps if I come up with any ideas I’ll blog about it when I finish the books, but I am indeed just as interested in the popular incarnations of dinosaurs as in the scientific realities about their existence.


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2 responses

21 05 2007
Anne-Marie

I am a big fan of Stephen Jay Gould, I’ve got an entire shelf full of his essay collections, but I was unable to get very far in to ‘The Structure of Evolutionary Theory’ either, after a couple of chapters it was clear that the amount of information I was getting was not worth the effort to extract it …I think that was a common problem, just recently they’ve taken out one of the key chapters and published it as a stand-alone book, “Punctuated Equilibrium”
http://www.amazon.com/Punctuated-Equilibrium-Stephen-Jay-Gould/dp/0674024443/ref=pd_bbs_sr_8/002-2307828-7334463?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1179763311&sr=8-8

21 05 2007
laelaps

Thanks Anne-Marie; I don’t know if you saw it in previous posts, but I’m hoping to read TSoET from cover-to-cover this summer. I absolutely love Gould’s writings too (maybe it’s because some of the ideas I came up with before getting into evolution I found out had already been discovered/explained by him), and I hope that there will be some scientists concerned enough with public understanding that will help fill his shoes (Neil deGrasse Tyson from the AMNH may eventually step up to the plate in a larger capacity).

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