November 23, 2011


The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics: A Math-Free Exploration of the Science That Made Our World. By James Kakalios. Gotham Books. $17.

The Physics of Superheroes, 2nd Edition. By James Kakalios. Gotham Books. $16.

V Is for Vengeance. By Sue Grafton. Marian Wood Books/Putnam. $27.95.

Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them. By Joe Graedon, M.S., and Teresa Graedon, Ph.D. Crown Archetype. $26.

The Great Global Puzzle Challenge with Google Earth. By Clive Gifford. Illustrated by William Ings. Kingfisher. $15.99.

     Now that we are in the throes of gift-giving season, it is time to consider what sort of presents we may wish to bestow – keeping in mind that they reflect upon the giver in addition to (hopefully) being much appreciated by the receiver. What sort of message do you want to send to people both about yourself and about your perception of them and their interests? If, for example, you send either of James Kakalios’ two excellent books using pop culture to interpret modern physics, you are asserting that you have a keen interest in science and, like Kakalios himself, are not above discussing and learning about it through some very unlikely sources of information, such as comic books. But you had better read Kakalios before you send either or both of his books to anyone, because despite their frequently breezy tone, numerous comic-book illustrations and pop-culture covers, they are not quite as innocuous as you might think. In particular, the “math-free” subtitle of The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics is more than a little misleading, since there is plenty of math in the book – just not math that the reader is required to solve. Furthermore, the pop-culture examples used by Kakalios (director of undergraduate studies at the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota) must be familiar to the reader for Kakalios’ lessons from them to make sense. Thus, anyone who has not read Theodore Sturgeon’s The Cosmic Rape (1958) cannot fully appreciate Kakalios’ explanation of what happens to the alien spore that invades Earth in the novel: “The spore sets upon a plan to…force all humans to think and work together in unison. …The ‘hive mind’ of humanity quickly devices an effective counterattack, destroying the alien spore. In this way Sturgeon has described the cooperative behavior of a Bose-Einstein condensate.” Illustrations from publications ranging from Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom to the famous old Buck Rogers comic strip offer excellent introductory material, and some of Kakalios’ narrative drawn from these items is fascinating, as when he explains how Frederick Soddy, who worked with Ernest Rutherford on radioactivity, wrote popular-science books that inspired H.G. Wells to develop the notion of atomic weapons in The World Set Free.

     But Kakalios’ primary purpose in both The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics and The Physics of Superheroes is to teach. In Quantum, for example, readers ensnared by the popular elements must be prepared for the educational ones, of which the following is one of the simpler examples: “Suppose the temperature of liquid helium is lowered all the way to absolute zero. We would expect that the helium would eventually become a solid, but it in fact remains a liquid, thanks to the uncertainty principle. At low temperatures, when the wave functions overlap, the uncertainty in the position of each atom is low. There is thus a large uncertainty in the momentum of each atom, which contributes to the ground-state energy of the helium atoms (called the ‘zero-point energy’). The lower the mass of the atom, the larger this zero-point energy, and for helium this contribution turns out to be just big enough to prevent the atoms from forming a crystalline solid, even at absolute zero.” In Superheroes, after showing the controversial death of Peter Parker’s then-girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, from Amazing Spider-Man #121, Kakalios explains what must have happened when Gwen fell from a bridge and Spider-Man tied to rescue her by stopping her fall: “For a given change in momentum, the shorter the time, the greater the necessary force. For Gwen, her change in speed is 95 mph – 0 mph = 95 mph, and assuming she weighs 110 pounds, her mass in the metric system is 50 kilograms. If the webbing brings her to rest in about one half of a second, then the force applied by the webbing to break her fall is 970 pounds. Hence, the webbing applies a force nearly nine times larger than Gwen’s weight of 110 pounds. Recalling that an object’s weight is simply W = mg, where g is the acceleration due to gravity, we can say that the webbing applies a force equivalent to 9 g’s in a time span of 0.5 seconds. …[And] when the webbing brings Gwen to a halt, a simple sound effect drawn near her neck (the ‘SNAP!’ heard round the comic-book world) indicates the probable outcome of such a large force applied in such a short period of time.” Neither of Kakalios’ books is anything close to easy reading – consider that when thinking about giving them as gifts. But they are extremely inventive approaches to discussions of modern physics, are very well written within the necessary structures of explaining physical and quantum phenomena, and are probably the only place you will find physics education presented through a consideration of the abilities of, among others, Aquaman, Ant-Man, Bizarro and the X-Men.

     Much easier reading, but with complexities of its own, Sue Grafton’s 22nd novel about private investigator Kinsey Millhone, V Is for Vengeance, will be a great treat for mystery fans, Grafton fans and fans of well-plotted and well-paced novels of any sort. Grafton’s books have been getting better over time, the last few having more intricacy of plot and greater depth of characterization than those that came before. Indeed, Grafton has largely moved beyond the traditional manipulativeness of mystery novels – in which the author carefully structures events as the plot requires them and in such a way as to lead readers down the wrong path, preferably repeatedly, until everything is eventually tied together neatly. Grafton’s plotting is also getting more complicated, not that she was ever a slouch in that department. She is an expert at a cascade-of-events approach, where something apparently simple leads to something more complicated, which leads to even greater complexity, and so on, as if each plot point is a domino that, as it falls, knocks down the next (and larger) one. The simple start of V Is for Vengeance, the smallest domino, is department-store shoplifting, which Kinsey steps in to stop. Since, in this series, no good deed goes unpunished, Kinsey is soon entangled in a vast web of crime and interwoven relationships. The shoplifter commits suicide – or is murdered, as her fiancĂ© believes (he actually asks Kinsey to investigate). Shoplifting, a minor crime, turns out to be a gateway to much bigger things, and as Kinsey’s investigation proceeds, she soon finds out that she is being blocked at every turn by a corrupt cop who is too powerful to be stopped. So Kinsey is in the unenviable position of withholding information from the police. She has another police issue, too, in the person of former lover Cheney Phillips. The typical “types” of murder mysteries are all here, from the bad guy trying to make a better life to the sneaky, over-aggressive reporter. But Grafton breathes new life into these stereotypical people; she is rarely satisfied with cardboard characters – which makes the ones who are one-dimensional, such as a vicious and not-too-bright gangster given to throwing people from great heights, stick out like sore and unattractive thumbs. Grafton sets her books in the 1980s – this one takes place, except for a “Before” chapter, in April and May 1988, climaxing on Kinsey’s 38th birthday, May 5. Once in a while, Grafton seems to forget the dates: here, one character comments that another has “put over three hundred thousand miles on her 1987 Honda,” which scarcely seems possible. In general, though, the time frame provides just enough distancing so readers can consider the importance of the human element both in committing crimes and in solving them. The same element exists today, of course, but in mysteries set in our more technological society, it can be harder to ferret out. Kinsey relies primarily on herself, and shows in V Is for Vengeance that she remains a mighty good person to have in anyone’s corner, including her own.

     If gifting a supercharged fictional thriller isn’t your style, how about something really scary? That would be Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them, Joe and Teresa Graedon’s overly lurid but nevertheless scathing indictment of doctors, pharmacists and the healthcare field in general, which they claim kills half a million people in the U.S. every year – more than any other cause except heart disease and cancer. The Graedons are at their best when discussing the pharmaceutical business – this is their primary area of expertise – and their Drug Safety Questionnaire for doctors and pharmacists is a genuine service to patients. Their horror stories are many – but, being drawn largely from readers of their books and newspaper columns, are somewhat suspect in terms of the motivation of those presenting them. The Graedons are a little too eager to believe the worst of everyone involved in modern medicine – and who benefits from a climate of fear of doctors, exactly? It is not easy, and may be impossible, for someone who is ill to balance (as the Graedons try to do) the importance of radiation-based diagnostic testing against the potential overexposure to radiation that may result if the tests turn up nothing or prove to have been unnecessary. Still, their argumentativeness aside, the Graedons are on to something here, and since everyone is going to be someone’s patient at some point, their book is very much worth reading. They point out, for example, that among the errors doctors make is not telling patients about complications of treatment, not addressing side effects, and overtreating – and they emphasize that patients make significant errors, too, the most serious of which is passivity. The same error applies to patients’ relationships with pharmacists. To their credit, the Graedons offer patients advice on what, specifically, they can do to improve their chances of receiving the best possible medical care. Their suggestions on how to make one’s limited time with a doctor more useful and on how to create your own medical records and make use of them are genuinely helpful. And some of their arguments are sufficiently surprising to make any reader sit up and take notice – the problems inherent in generic drugs, for example, even though generics dominate the medication market and are pushed at every possible level of the healthcare system except that of the manufacturers of the original brand-name medicines. The Graedons overstate their case some of the time and rely overmuch on anecdote and possibly biased reports – theirs is a “cause” book, with all the pluses and minuses such books usually have. But this particular cause is one that affects everybody, and even if Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them sometimes goes overboard, it is an important book because of its focus not only on medical and pharmaceutical errors (which everyone acknowledges and wants to reduce) but also on what healthcare providers and patients themselves can do to make those errors less frequent and less potentially deadly.

     And now, how about a great gift choice for one of the younger people on your list? There are plenty of delightful books out there, but in an age when children have an increasingly technological rather than print-media orientation, it can be hard to find ones that will appeal to young readers without seeming too slow-paced and, rightly or wrongly, boring. One solution: a book that is integrated with technology and that, in fact, requires kids to use it. That is The Great Global Puzzle Challenge with Google Earth, a sort of Google-dependent Where’s Waldo? Intended for kids as young as age eight, Clive Gifford’s book is highly inventive and attractive, with illustrations by William Ings that nicely complement the text. It starts with the basics about Google Earth – which kids who already know the program can skip, although few will likely know all the features discussed here – and then presents a series of puzzles to be solved using the Google Earth program. The idea is to become a virtual visitor to a variety of parts of the world, picking up a souvenir at each place and finding a specific flag or emblem at every location. Kids are also supposed to find geographical misfits (things that don’t belong where they are shown) and historical misfits (things that don’t belong when they are shown). This is a lot of fun, not only for young readers but also for adults. The book includes travel to Tanzania and Tokyo, Australia and ancient Rome, New York and New Delhi, and more. And one of the best things about The Great Global Puzzle Challenge with Google Earth is that the end is not the end: the book shows how to explore off Earth with Google Earth features, sending readers on an out-of-this-world journey that can take them, if not quite to infinity and beyond, at least to some of the farther reaches of the solar system and beyond. Even kids who use Web search all the time may not have used it this way, and The Great Global Puzzle Challenge with Google Earth opens up both guided exploration and a chance to take unguided tours of anything that strikes a child’s (or parent’s) fancy. Curiosity and a way to satisfy it: that’s a wonderful gift in this or any season.

No comments:

Post a Comment