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See Inside February 2009

Scientific American Reviews: In Search of Time

Also: books on extraterrestrial life and Charles Darwin

IN SEARCH OF TIME: THE SCIENCE OF A CURIOUS DIMENSION
by Dan Falk. St. Martin’s Press, 2008
First it was tools, then language. Now it is time that sets humans apart in the animal kingdom—the capacity to comprehend time, that is. Science journalist Dan Falk tackles the subject from several directions, starting with time’s natural cycles (the heavens, the seasons) and moving on to the calendar; hours, minutes and seconds; memory; spacetime; time travel; illusion and reality. He hooks us from the outset, as he explores the prehistoric “passage tomb” at Newgrange in Ireland, more ancient than Stonehenge and much less known. There “a sliver of sunlight” briefly creeps into the dark chamber on the morning of the winter solstice, allowing us
“to glimpse, however dimly, into the minds of those who first considered the matter of time.” From that point forward, Falk selects, organizes and interprets a mass of lore for our enlightenment and pleasure. We owe him.

THE CROWDED UNIVERSE: THE SEARCH FOR LIVING PLANETS
by Alan Boss. Basic Books, 2009
In early March, NASA is scheduled to launch the Kepler Mission, the first space telescope specifically designed to detect habitable worlds orbiting stars similar to our sun. In point of fact, the Europeans were there first; in late 2006 they sent into orbit CoRoT, a space telescope designed to study stars but capable of detecting Earth-like planets. Both missions have work ahead. The frequency of “habitable worlds,” a rocky planet with liquid water near the surface where organisms can originate and evolve, is the most important factor in any estimate of the extent to which life has proliferated in the universe. Astronomer Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution of Washington predicts that CoRoT and Kepler will discover abundant Earths. These telescopes are poised to prove him right or wrong, and his book provides essential and fascinating background as the drama unfolds.

Exceprt:
DARWIN’S SACRED CAUSE: HOW A HATRED OF SLAVERY SHAPED DARWIN’S VIEWS OF HUMAN EVOLUTION

by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009
In this controversial reinterpretation of Charles Darwin’s life and work, the authors of a highly regarded 1991 biography argue that the driving force behind Darwin’s theory of evolution was his fierce abolitionism, which had deep family roots and was reinforced by his voyage on the Beagle and by events in America:

“... the barbarity of slavery brought his barely visible abolitionism into sudden sharp relief. It demanded a new commitment, the sort he had been unable to give till now.

“His encounters with Fuegians in cravats, and ‘Hottentots’ in white gloves, had proved human cultural adaptability as no anti-slavery tract could. Nothing could have better pointed up the pliancy of race. It justified the abolitionist faith in blacks being able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The impeccably mannered ‘Hottentot’ was living proof of the evil of considering ‘wild’ humans grovelling beasts. These racial encounters sharpened Darwin’s sense of injustice—the tortured slaves, genocide of the Pampas Indians, the dragnet round-ups of the Tasmanians, the stuffing of ‘Hottentot’ skins. The result was an astonishing outpouring early in his notebooks which reveals the anguish behind his evolutionary venture.”

Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. All rights reserved.

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