Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang
by Paul J. Steinhardt and Neil Turok. Doubleday, 2007
The big bang theory holds that space and time sprang into existence 14 billion years ago from a hot, dense fireball. Paul J. Steinhardt and Neil Turok (well-known physicists at Princeton University and the University of Cambridge, respectively) contend that the evolution of the universe is cyclic; big bangs occur once every trillion or so years, producing new galaxies, stars, planets and, presumably, life. They say they were motivated to form a new theory as the big bang came to require more and more exotic elements—inflation, dark matter, dark energy—to make it fit observations. Their concept is still in its infancy, but, they say, writing an account now makes it possible to capture science as it is happening, through the eyes of scientists directly involved.
The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature
by Steven Pinker. Viking, 2007
Steven Pinker, who is a professor of psychology at Harvard University, probes the mystery of human nature by examining how we use words, from the expected, such as swearing and innuendo, to the surprising. Prepositions and tenses, he says, for example, tap into our concepts of space and time. Pinker’s own use of language continues to gather praise (he has twice been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize). His reputation was cinched when Stephen Colbert, on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, asked Pinker to explain how the brain works in exactly five words, and he replied, “Brain cells fire in patterns.” This book delivers his customary mix of interesting ideas and good writing, though not quite so succinctly.
The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
by Christine Kenneally. Viking, 2007
Christine Kenneally, a linguist who writes about language, science and culture for the general public, sets into a much broader context the work of Pinker—with his collaborator, Paul Bloom—and that of three other leading language researchers (Noam Chomsky, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Philip Lieberman). Her broader palette is the evolution of language. Is language a uniquely human phenomenon, she asks, or is it the product of a genetic framework, some of which we share with other communicating creatures such as apes and the African grey parrot? In an elegant exposition, Kenneally takes us through the work of these experts and toward an answer.
The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor
by William Langewiesche. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
Investigative journalist William Langewiesche tracks the proliferation of nuclear weapons, focusing his story on Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan, who stole plans and equipment from the West and peddled the technology to countries hostile to Western interests:
“That same afternoon a small group of Pakistanis associated with the weapons program, including, of course, A. Q. Khan, gathered in a concrete bunker in Chagai, facing the chosen mountain seven miles away. Pakistan later reported that five nuclear bombs had been placed inside the test tunnel where it hooked sharply, eight hundred feet beneath the mountain’s peak. The bombs were fission devices ... containing highly enriched uranium.... The tunnel was sealed with heavy concrete plugs. At 3:15 p.m. a PAEC technician ... pushed the button, saying, ‘Allah-o-Akbar’—God is great. After a delay of thirty-five seconds (during which, it is said, some observers prayed) the mountain heaved, shrouding itself in dust. The command post rocked. When the dust settled, the mountain’s color had turned to white. In announcing the news Pakistan claimed a total yield that roughly equaled India’s, of course. Independent analysts downgraded the actual yield by a factor of three—but so what? As far away as Cairo, Muslims danced in the streets.”