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Reviews

Oil vs. Autos -- Science Imitates Art

ZOOM: THE GLOBAL RACE TO FUEL THE CAR OF THE FUTURE
by Iain Carson and Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran. Twelve, 2007

The authors, both correspondents for the Economist, argue that to protect the environment and lessen our dependence on oil, we must rethink the automobile. Oil is the problem, they say; cars are the solution. They are hugely optimistic about the time frame for the new generation of cars, contending that the revolution is already under way—in Japan, Silicon Valley, India and China—as entrepreneurs work on cars powered by hydrogen, electricity and biofuels. Toyota gets credit for creating a stepping-stone to the future car in the Prius. The book reads as if it had been written in haste (far too many playing fields need leveling, and there is a plethora of gurus), but it contains some provocative insights.

OBJECTIVITY
by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison. Zone Books, 2007

This book examines the remarkable appearance of scientific objectivity in the 19th century. Daston of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and Galison of Harvard University unfold this history by exploring scientific atlases (as a result the book has more than 150 intriguing images). The authors uncover three guiding principles in objectivity’s trajectory: “truth to nature,” an idealized mode of observation (think of early botanical drawings); “mechanical objectivity,” which reveals objects without the taint of subjectivity (think of photographs and micrographs); and “trained judgment,” in which subjective interpretation gradually returns to scientific representation (think of images of the earth’s magnetic field). Not a light read but fascinating.

PROUST WAS A NEUROSCIENTIST
by Jonah Lehrer. Houghton Mifflin, 2007

Excerpt: While he was working as a technician in a neuroscience lab, trying to figure out how the brain stores memories, Lehrer was also reading Proust. He began to notice a surprising convergence.

“The novelist had predicted my experiments,” he writes. This led him to consider other artists who had anticipated modern scientific findings, among them Cézanne, Stravinsky and Virginia Woolf.

“One of Proust’s deep insights was that our senses of smell and taste bear a unique burden of memory....

“Neuroscience now knows that Proust was right. Rachel Herz, a psychologist at Brown, has shown ... that our senses of smell and taste are uniquely sentimental. This is because smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus, the center of the brain’s long-term memory. Their mark is indelible. All our other senses (sight, touch, and hearing) are first processed by the thalamus, the source of language and the front door to consciousness. As a result, these senses are much less efficient at summoning up our past.

“Proust intuited this anatomy.... Just looking at the scalloped cookie brought back nothing. Proust even goes so far as to blame his sense of sight for obscuring his childhood memories in the first place. ‘Perhaps because I had so often seen such madeleines without tasting them,’ Proust writes, ‘their image had disassociated itself from those Combray days.’”

This article was originally published with the title "Oil vs. Autos Science Imitates Art."

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