Science

Recommended Reads: 03.15.16

Redskins: Insult and Brand
C. Richard King

RedskinsUnder Roger Goodell’s watch, the NFL has done all it can to insult and offend its fans. As much as I love football, it’s getting harder to support the NFL and Goodell’s funhouse-mirror morality. One of the most egregious offenses is the league’s continued use of the “Redskins” team name.

In Redskins: Insult and Brand, C. Richard King explores the term and its unfortunate intersection with professional football. King expands his study beyond the current debate to reflect on the complicated views white Americans have of minorities and the role economics and brand value play in the inexplicable defense of a racial slur.

 

Why Quark Rhymes with Pork and Other Scientific Diversions
N. David MerminWhy Quark Rhymes with Pork

Yet another example of a book that, had I read this in high school, would have steered me toward the sciences. Mermin is a heavyweight theoretical physicist, and in this volume collects 43 essays, some not previously published and many of them culled from his columns in Physics Today.

Technical, yet light-hearted and accessible, Why Quark Rhymes with Pork will be enjoyed by a wide variety of readers, not just the science-minded. Fans of Sam Kean and Mary Roach should get a kick out of Mermin’s essays.

Recommended Reads: Historical Summer

What a wild month it’s been. Between politics, crime, World Cup football and my attempt to document the literary stops on my Paris trip, it’s been difficult to keep up with new releases. Here is a sampling of books you may have missed as spring turned to summer.

 

Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding

Steven K. Green

Oxford University Press

As America approaches its 25th decade, it’s only natural to look back and re-evaluate who we are and what we’ve done with our time in power. Inventing a Christian AmericaPerhaps it’s the mid-life crisis of empire, or just the build-up toward a presidential election, but coming out this summer is an arsenal of books regarding our nation’s founding.

I’m reading as many of them as I can, because it’s a fascinating study, and Steven K. Green’s Inventing a Christian America is an important contribution.

His attempt is to demystify the colonial and revolutionary periods to get at the truth of the religious origins of the country. He starts by addressing two of the most common narratives of the founding: the first being that of a country chartered by religious exiles in search of freedom to practice as they pleased, the other of Founding Fathers who established the separation of church and state.

Both of which he describes as myths, in the literal sense. “In providing explanations of events not personally remembered, myths legitimize the past while they provide a unifying narrative for a distinct people.”

The truth is that colonial life was more diverse than either narrative suggests. Sure, there were religious exiles, but there were people of many beliefs, not just protestantism. And there were many folks that were there for business, adventure or a new start in life.

But when it came time to unify the disparate colonies, a common tale was in order.

Green writes: “The idea of America’s religious origins is essentially a myth created and retold for the purpose of anointing the founding, and the nation, with a higher, transcendent meaning.”

Through his historical digging, Green reveals a pluralistic society that’s difficult to pigeonhole in retrospect. What they did record in founding documents, however, was both a respect for religious practice and the separation of church and state.

Green’s work is thorough and authoritative, and is certainly a book I enjoyed and would recommend. But whereas some academic books have crossover appeal, this is not a book that will translate well to a general audience.

Which is unfortunate, because most Americans would benefit from learning more about the founding and the role of religion in early America. Especially now.

Inventing a Christian America is a great place to start.

 

The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate that Changed Our Understanding of Time

Jimena Canales

Princeton University PressThe Physicist and the Philosopher

This wonderful revisitation of the relativity debate was released on June 17. Or was it? Time is relative, of course, as Einstein taught us a century ago. While relativity is the rule these days, it wasn’t a slam-dunk sell in the early 20th century, and philosopher Henri Bergson appeared to have the upper hand in the debate. The notion that time can move differently for two people not in uniform motion (or that events can occur simultaneously — or not — depending on relative motion) had to sound a little like voodoo to a populace born in the 19th century.

Of course, we know that Einstein won out, and our notion of time has never been the same. Canales takes us back to when it all changed, not in the typically triumphant language that we often get from biographies of Einstein, but from the perspective of a skeptical inteligencia not yet acquainted with nuclear energy and quantum mechanics. An interesting and important read.

Recommended Reads: Rich People’s Movements

Isaac William Martin

Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent

Though originally published in 2013, tax season is the perfect time to reissue this compelling look at the anti-tax movement in America, as documented by rich peoples movementsa sociologist specializing in public policy and social protest. Rich People’s Movements begins with the Tea Party protests of 2010 and traces the history of anti-tax sentiment back to the Sixteenth Amendment. More than mere history, this book examines the ways the affluent borrowed the tactics of the poor and powerless, who, without the ability to confront power with money and influence, took to the streets to make their voices heard.

Why would those with power and influence rely on a protest movement? Martin answers this question and many more, such as why the working poor will sometimes rally to the defense of the 1 percent and their economic policies.

Also available is Martin’s new book, Foreclosed America, co-authored with Christopher Niedt. This is a collection of portraits of Americans who have lost their homes to foreclosure since 2007 — and a look at the housing crisis that still affects our economy and way of life.

Review: Words Onscreen

Words Onscreen

Naomi S. Baron

On Feb. 6, I waited in the cold for 7.5 hours to meet author Neil Gaiman at Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins, Colo. An estimated 2,000 fans bravedWords Onscreen the elements to have the author of The Sandman graphic novels, Coraline and American Gods autograph his new hardcover collection, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances.

Despite the wait (and the fact that I was terribly under-dressed), everyone was jovial, and it felt more like a bibliophile block party than a reception line. Any weariness I may have felt was quickly (and repeatedly) dismissed with an idealistic sentiment voiced by many in attendance, “Isn’t it great to see this many people waiting in line for a book?”

Indeed, it was this very love of books that compelled me to read Naomi S. Baron’s Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, an impressive work of scholarship and social commentary by this professor of linguistics at American University.

One of Baron’s professed interests is “electronically mediated communication,” and Words Onscreen combines research, anecdote and history to explore the differences between the printed and digitized word. This isn’t a trend piece, but a wide-reaching study on reading, beginning with the inquiry that “if eReading is less well suited for many longer works or even for short ones requiring serious thought, what happens to reading if we shift from print to screens?”

Baron takes us to some expected places (studies on digital vs. print reading habits; the effect technology has on our brains; the digital democratization of information; emerging social norms for electronic devices) and some unexpected ones (the history of anthologies and abridged editions; the slow reading movement; the impact of the scroll bar on reading habits).

Scrolling and reading, if you’re curious, leads to “worse comprehension” of content.

Though Baron’s scope is wide, she never loses sight of her target. She successfully threads each narrative sojourn into the conversation of how we engage with text. One of her deeper philosophical meanderings concerns the definition of reading itself. Is the act of reading simply scanning our eyes across the page? What about those passages whose complexity or sheer beauty cause the reader to set down the book and meditate on those words? What about re-reading? Studies show that pausing while reading and re-reading leads to better comprehension of the material (not surprisingly).

Research is important, as it informs best practices for teaching and learning, but Baron admits the difficulties with measuring reading comprehension. Mere content recall provides only plot summary, and deep understanding takes both time and contemplation. Take, for instance, Gogol’s classic novel, Dead Souls.

“Some of the benefits of literature come from discussions with others or personal reflection at quiet moments. Payoffs may not surface until years later when, having lived and experienced more, we discover the relevance of Gogol’s world to ours. Try measuring that.”

Indeed.

Like many academic books (as opposed to general nonfiction), Baron tends to over-support some of her conclusions, citing studies with overlapping information, but that’s to be expected. The author has many insightful things to say throughout the book, but there’s not much in the conclusion that would be news to an academic audience.

For this, I don’t blame the author, but reality. There’s no closing the barn door on the Kindle or Nook (on which I read my digital galley of Words Onscreen), and it’s hard to predict the direction of accelerated technology. Also, there are many positives to digital reading to weigh against the negative, from minor conveniences (not having to carry five books on an international flight) to those of great importance (the facilitation of increased global literacy).

Baron instead advises instructors and avid readers on how to navigate the digital-print hybrid. Her criticisms of e-reading are fair and supported by research, and her tone is never melancholic or luddite. The ultimate takeaway from Words Onscreen is that the content matters more than the container, although Baron also makes a compelling argument for the container as totem.

For the roughly 2,000 bibliophiles in line with me at the Neil Gaiman signing, the container was still something of value: a beautifully printed and16277386370_74c41c8a45_o bound edition with a personalized signature in permanent ink.

As Baron points out, it’s not just the text on the pages that matter. We fall in love with the smell of books, the crispness of the paper, unique typefaces that digital readers can’t reproduce. We can underline, highlight, write in the margins. Some keep their books in pristine condition, while others dog-ear, fold and break-in a book like they would a new baseball glove. Their utility extends beyond the reading. Bookshelves provide memories for the reader, a conversation spark for guests and ready access to favorite works.

There is something lost in the translation from print to digital.

For me, it calls to mind Harlow’s monkeys. If all they needed was food, then the monkeys wouldn’t object to curling up with a wire mother. Except, they needed the nurturing touch of the cloth mother. For the same reason, meal replacement shakes or futuristic food pills will never take the place of an actual dinner, because eating is not just about the absorption of nutrients.

With technology advancing at a bullet’s pace, who knows what will come of books in the future. It’s clear from Baron’s research that the format of what we read affects how we read, but it’s hard to predict where that will take us.

Wherever we end up, Words Onscreen should serve as an important guidebook. It’s a wonderful and important book, no matter how you read it.

Review: Being Mortal

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Atul Gawande

I believe strongly that doctors are women and men who work in a health-care facility of some kind, including Being Mortalhospitals, clinics, shelters, combat support hospitals, etc. Doctors, ahem, do not host talk shows. Medicine is a challenging, ever-evolving field of study and practice. One cannot be both a practicing doctor and a television personality.

That is, unless you are Atul Gawande.

On Feb. 10, PBS will break this rule when the Frontline documentary crew shadows the surgeon, author and New Yorker writer. The show is a tie-in with Gawande’s new book, Being Mortal, which chronicles the history and current state of end-of-life care, an issue that’s come to the fore through the proposing and passing of “death with dignity” initiatives in many states. Gawande takes us inside the nursing home, assisted living communities, to learn what these institutions are getting right and getting wrong, and to offer a view of the alternatives, such as hospice.

I have enjoyed most of Gawande’s writing, but I believe he’s surpassed his previous successes with Being Mortal. While his other books have been intimate and instructive, there is greater depth here that opens the author to his audience as never before. As the book progresses, it becomes a memoir, of sorts, of his father’s final years, a touching, factual documentation that delivers a bold-stroke illustration of his argument without overshadowing the narrative.

The focus of the book, however, is not on Gawande or his family. It is on the thousands of families struggling with end-of-life issues everyday. An indirect consequence of medical progress, Gawande argues, is that extending life has overshadowed sustaining quality of life, and in modern times, we have the luxury of distancing ourselves from our mortality.

“Technological society has forgotten what scholars call the ‘dying role’ and its importance to people as life approaches its end,” Gawande writes.

Being Mortal begins with a scholarly frame: the author calls up one of my favorite books, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, drawing attention to the relationship between the titular character and his butler, Gerasim. Without falling down the rabbit hole of Tolstoy’s existential treatise, the takeaway for Gawande is at what point do we stop pursuing cures (which agonized Ilyich) and provide comfort instead (as offered by Gerasim).

As Gawande puts it: “…it is clear that there are times when the cost of pushing exceeds its value.”

Defining when it’s that time is an uncomfortable topic, and as the author explains, it leads to many difficult conversations, but is important for the benefit of the dying as well as their caretakers.

The Frontline episode should be fantastic, as the show usually is, and will hopefully wean Americans off the junk food of television doctors Oz, Phil, et al. and snake-oil salesmen like Eben Alexander.

Instead of junk food, Gawande gives us science, history and heart in a page-turning treatise on the way we die now, and how we could do it better.

Review: Is There Life After Football?

Is There Life After Football?: Surviving the NFL

James A. Holstein, Richard S. Jones and George E. Koonce, Jr.Is There Life After Football

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but in one night I met two athletes who would become prominent figures in the modern NFL concussion narrative: Mike Webster and Jack Tatum. At the time, Tatum was recently retired, but Webbie was still playing for my hometown Steelers, and of the seven or so players I met at this banquet, these are the only two I remember.

Because I bleed black and gold, I was happy to meet Webster. I remember him being incredibly friendly, shaking hands with both my father and me and penning a thoughtful autograph. But as cool as that was, I was really excited to meet the notorious Tatum, the icon of NFL villainy for permanently paralyzing wide receiver Darryl Stingley.

This had earned Tatum one of the coolest sports nicknames of all time, and he was at this banquet promoting the first of his three autobiographies, They Call Me Assassin.

Tatum didn’t just look mean–the air around him chilled, the energy darkened. Something repulsive oozed off of him and kept the crowd at a distance. He didn’t crack a smile, had none of Webster’s warmth. When I handed him my autograph sheet he literally just signed his name. No message, no greeting. Just “Jack Tatum.” He was terrifying, and I came away from that encounter star-struck.

Of course, my opinions of both men are much different now.

Nevertheless, both men symbolize the celebrity and consequence of football’s golden age: Tatum the intimidating aggressor whose ferocity and win-at-all-costs mentality are prized attributes and Webster the tough-as-nails scrapper who attained on-field glory at the cost of his mind, body and dignity off of it.

In the past decade, we’ve learned about the long-term health risks of playing professional football. With every early death, suicide and descent into darkness and bankruptcy, it becomes more difficult to enjoy a Sunday slugfest with a clear conscience. In another two decades, we may not recognize professional football, because we’re just now recognizing the toll it takes on its players.

An important new book on the subject, Is There Life After Football?, considers not only the physical and neurological toll of the sport, but also the psychological impact of job-mandated violence, short careers, and the wild financial swings common among players.

Penned by two sociologists and an unexpected scholar (former Green Bay Packers star George Koonce–that is, Dr. George Koonce), Is There Life After Football? provides a sobering and insightful view of this transition through the personal anecdotes of Koonce and the research of Holstein and Jones. Most jarring is Koonce’s admission of a reckless act at the end of his career. It wasn’t exactly a suicide attempt, but he did drive his car off the road just to see what would happen.

This anecdote is all the more poignant when considering the recent driving death of Rob Bironas.

Though not as accessible as the prose styles of Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis, the authors do a great job of distilling difficult material into a digestible form. It’s also a treat to read for anyone who enjoyed watching those plucky Packers of the 1990s. Juxtaposing those dynamic teams with Koonce’s experiences gives the book a Behind the Music vibe.

The takeaway is the same. Just as those we see on stage and screen are real people, so too are the men behind the facemasks.

Perhaps in a box, somewhere, at my parents’ house is a slip of paper with Webster and Tatum’s autographs. If I ever find it, I’ll frame it, perhaps donate it to a museum, where it can memorialize a different time, alongside bare-knuckle boxing and Crack the Whip as American pastimes whose time has passed.

Review: The Upside of Your Dark Side

The Upside of Your Dark Side

Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener

So, I’m not exactly the target audience for this book, as I long ago embraced my Upside of Your Dark Sidedark side, but I’m glad that Kashdan and Biswas-Diener, a pair of psychologists and professors at George Mason and Portland State Universities respectively, are promoting widespread awareness.

And no, this isn’t a Darth Vader-style enticement to evil, but rather a commitment to intellectual and emotional honesty. Embracing the dark side is being an anti-Pollyanna, acknowledging negative states of consciousness rather than suppressing them. Realizing that feeling bad is inevitable and natural.

Or, to let the scientists speak for themselves, “…we, the authors, reject the notion that positivity is the only place to search for answers. We reject the belief that being healthy is marked by a life with as little pain as possible.”

Perhaps it’s my love of Eastern philosophy, but I’ve always subscribed to an elastic emotional outlook: the greater the highs, the greater the lows. Inoculating oneself from pain only serves to numb one’s experience of joy.

It’s a conundrum that dates at least as far back as the dueling philosophies of the Cynics and the Stoics, but has become especially germane in the decades of post-WWII prosperity. At some point in the past 50 years, the fantasy that you could enjoy the thrills without enduring the chills became an accepted philosophy.

To seek comfort and happiness is natural, but now, the authors argue, it has become an addiction.

The self-help and pharmaceutical industries, along with positive psychology (to a lesser extent), have cultivated a bubble-wrapped culture where discomfort is treated as an abnormal condition. Not only is this unrealistic, it’s not healthy. There’s nothing wrong with feeling down sometimes, feeling angry sometimes.

“People who are whole, those of us who are willing and able to shift to the upside or the downside to get the best possible outcomes in a given situation, are the healthiest, most successful, best learners, and enjoy the deepest well-being.”

I’m reminded of my own experiences in therapy. I was the difficult patient who used my session time to challenge my therapist with my grim view of humanity. I would rattle off atrocities and injustice and point out that our culture rewards the worst kind of people and punishes the good. No, not just our culture—our species. Then I would grin triumphantly as the counselor struggled to argue against that.

I knew I’d finally found the right therapist when, during our first session, I gave her my misanthropy spiel. Her response: “Yeah, you’re right. So what?” Sometimes things are shitty.

This was the jolt I needed to crack my defiant shell and get to work on getting better.

Kashdan and Biswas-Diener hope to provide the same jolt to readers acclimated to a self-help mantra of “I’m OK, You’re OK,” and hopefully they are successful in this task.

They should be, as this is a very interesting read. What I like about The Upside of Your Dark Side is how the authors incorporate scientific research, positive psychology theory and personal anecdote to construct a cogent warts-and-all perspective of the human experience. Even though it features plenty of scientific research, the narrative is very accessible to lay-readers.

The shortcoming of the book, for me, is that the authors can be overly expository—they do a good job of illustrating a point, but then summarize said point as though they don’t trust the reader to draw the correct conclusion. But I wouldn’t mark down a letter grade for that. That’s the inherent risk with science writing. The authors have to take arcane material and present it to an audience that, for the most part, doesn’t share the authors’ background or familiarity with the topic.

Kashdan and Biswas-Diener by and large hit the sweet spot between academic and accessible. This is a book to be enjoyed by all—and to some a revelation.