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See Inside September 2010

Recommended: The 50 Most Extreme Places in Our Solar System

Books and recommendations from Scientific American

The 50 Most Extreme Places in Our Solar System
by David Baker and Todd Ratcliff.
Harvard University Press, 2010

From icy volcanoes on Neptune to Eiffel Tower–size lightning bolts on Saturn, the wildest sights in our corner of the universe.

EXCERPT
Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception
by Charles Seife. Viking, 2010

Math can be dangerous in the wrong hands, argues journalist Charles Seife. The art of using bad math to prove bogus arguments is what he terms “proofiness,” and it is a common tactic of politicians, lawyers, advertisers and scientists. Otherwise intelligent people fall victim to proofiness for many reasons. One is that we humans excel at pattern recognition and tend to want to link effects to causes—even when links do not exist—which is why we struggle to accept random events, as Seife explains below.

“Our minds revolt at the idea of randomness. Even when a set of data or an image is entirely chaotic, even when there’s no underlying order to be found, we still try to construct a framework, a pattern, through which we understand our observations. We see the haphazard speckling of stars in the sky and group them together into constellations. We see the image of the Virgin Mary in a tortilla or the visage of Mother Teresa in a cinnamon bun. Our minds, trying to make order out of chaos, play tricks on us.

“Casinos make so much money because they exploit this failure of our brains. It’s what keeps us gambling. If you watch a busy roulette table or a game of craps, you’ll almost invariably see someone who’s on a ‘lucky streak’—someone who has won several rolls in a row. Because he’s winning, his brain sees a pattern and thinks that the winning streak will continue, so he keeps gambling. You’ll also probably see someone who keeps gambling because he’s been losing. The loser’s brain presents a different pattern—that he’s due for a winning streak. The poor sap keeps gambling for fear of missing out. Our minds seize on any brief run of good or bad luck and give it significance by thinking that it heralds a pattern to be exploited. Unfortunately, the randomness of the dice and of the slot machine ensure that there’s no reality to these patterns at all. Each roll of the die, each pull of the lever gives a result that is totally unrelated to the events that came before it. That’s the definition of random: there’s no relationship, no pattern there to be discovered. Yet our brains simply refuse to accept this fact. This is randumbness: insisting that there is order where there is only chaos—creating a pattern where there is none to see.”

ALSO NOTABLE
The $1,000 Genome: The Revolution in DNA Sequencing and the New Era of Personalized Medicines
by Kevin Davies. Free Press, 2010

Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future
by Matthew E. Kahn. Basic Books, 2010

Eavesdropping: An Intimate History
by John L. Locke. Oxford University Press, 2010

Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed
by Judy Pasternak. Free Press, 2010

On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits
by Wray Herbert. Crown, 2010

Designer Genes: A New Era in the Evolution of Man
by Steven Potter. Random House, 2010

The Shape of Inner Space: String Theory and the Geometry of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions
by Shing-Tung Yau and Steve Nadis. Basic Books, 2010

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