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See Inside April 2009

Scientific American reviews: Lucy's Legacy

Also: Naming Infinity, and Simulation and Its Discontents

LUCY’S LEGACY: THE QUEST FOR HUMAN ORIGINS
by Donald C. Johanson and Kate Wong. Harmony, 2009

In 1974 paleontologist Donald C. Johanson found a female skeleton 3.2 million years old that exhibited both ape and human characteristics. Johanson and Kate Wong (who is an editor at this magazine) recount the stunning discovery of Lucy, and then they venture far beyond that to bring readers up-to-date on what has been unearthed since and the implications of these new finds for what it means to be human. Right up to such current issues as speculation about mating between Neandertals and Homo sapiens: “Indeed, I believe that Neandertals and moderns were so distinct from one another in their physical appearance, hunting behavior, language, dress, customs, and so on that they would not have interbred.” And about whether we are still evolving: “Although the levels of change are relatively small and do not signal impending speciation in Homo, they do call into question the oft-cited view that human evolution should have slowed down as culture increasingly buffered humans against natural selection.” Conver­sational, knowledgeable, flowing logically from one topic to the next, the book is packed with information of the kind that will be especially intriguing to general readers.

NAMING INFINITY: A TRUE STORY OF RELIGIOUS MYSTICISM AND MATHEMATICAL CREATIVITY
by Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor. Harvard University Press, 2009
Granted, the history of set theory does not sound like the most promising material for a good read. Oh, but it is. In the early 20th century several leading Russian mathematicians were members of a heretical sect called Name Worshipping. In this practice, repetition of the name of God induced a mystical state that, according to the authors (an American historian of science and a French mathematician), helped these scholars to achieve a breakthrough in the development of set theory and the related question of the nature of infinity. It is a tale of persecution (first by the tsar and then by the communists), political intrigue and psychological crises.

Excerpt:
SIMULATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS

by Sherry Turkle. MIT Press, 2009
Turkle, founder of the Initiative on Technology and Self at M.I.T., examines the role computer simulation has played in science over the past 25 years. She looks at both what it offers and what it closes off as a younger generation “scrambles to capture their mentors’ tacit knowledge of buildings, bodies, and bombs”: 

“When nuclear testing moved underground, it became easier for weapons designers to distance themselves from the potential consequences of their art. Hidden, the bomb became more abstract. But even underground testing left craters and seismic convulsions. It scarred the landscape. Now, with explosions taking place on hard drives and in virtual reality chambers, how much harder will it be for weapons scientists to confront the destructive power of their work and its ethical implications? One weapons designer at Livermore laments that he has only once experienced ‘physical verification’ after a nuclear test. He had ‘paced off the crater’ produced by the blast. It changed him forever. His younger colleagues will not have that.”

This article was originally published with the title "Human Mysteries Mathematical Mysticism Resistance of the Real."

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