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See Inside June 2007

Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, And The Struggle For The Soul Of Science

Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, And The Struggle For The Soul Of Science
by David Lindley
Doubleday, 2007

Lindley, an astrophysicist-turned-writer, charts the course of Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. The culmination of Heisenberg's equally perplexing quantum theory, the uncertainty principle posited that in many physical measurements, one can extract one bit of information only at the price of losing another. Heisenberg's mentor Niels Bohr agreed with the basic premises of his startling insights but saw the need to "make sense of the new quantum physics without throwing overboard the hard-won successes of the previous era." The third voice in this argument was Albert Einstein, to whom Heisenberg's ideas were a "monstrous misrepresentation ... the very idea of a true fact seemed to crumble into an assortment of irreconcilable points of view." Eventually, and reluctantly, Einstein conceded the technical correctness of the system that Heisenberg and Bohr had laid out, but he never fully accepted it. This story has been told before but seldom with such clarity and elegance.

Dirt: The Erosion Of Civilizations
by David R. Montgomery
University of California Press, 2007

Montgomery, a geomorphologist at the University of Washington, argues that good old dirt has always been necessary to sustain civilizations, from ancient times right on through today's digital society. This natural resource is being exhausted at a faster rate than it is being replenished, however. In the past century the effects of long-term soil erosion were masked by bringing new land under cultivation and developing fertilizers, pesticides and crop varieties. But as the population continues to grow and the arable land base continues to shrink, Montgomery believes that society must rethink its relationship with the land. Governments and farmers must rely not only on technological sophistication to protect the soil but on intergenerational land stewardship and conservation. "Civilization's survival depends on treating soil as an investment," he says, "as a valuable inheritance rather than a commodity--as something other than dirt."

Flower Confidential: The Good, The Bad, And The Beautiful
by Amy Stewart
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007

Rose breeders can spend seven years developing a new variety; one team of scientists has been working for 10 years on a blue rose, using a pigment gene from petunias. Making flowers flawless is a $40-billion industry. Per capita spending on cut flowers in the U.S. is about $25 a year; the Swiss have the highest consumption, at $100 per person annually.

The facts are surprising and intriguing. But it is the way nature writer Stewart packages them that makes Flower Confidential the rare nonfiction book that keeps you turning pages. Her own passion for flowers, along with her adventures in the fields, greenhouses, auction houses and laboratories, gives the facts life. An almost perfect book--its only blemish being the off-putting title that seems to promise more muck than this intelligent, evenhanded account rakes.

The Invisible Sex: Uncovering The True Roles Of Women In Prehistory
by J. M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer and Jake Page
Smithsonian Books, 2007

Funny how no one has to think twice about which sex is invisible. Anthropologists Adovasio and Soffer and science writer Page take the field of archaeology to task for its traditional focus on hard artifacts such as stone tools and weapons, pointing out that archaeologists are not even trained to look for evidence of women's use of more perishable artifacts such as string and netting. They argue for the central importance of the "fiber revolution," which began some 26,000 years ago in Eurasia. In dry caves and other rare places where artifacts do not deteriorate, fiber and wood objects can account for 95 percent of all artifacts recovered. The influence of fiber and its use in nets, baskets and clothing had "profound effects on human destiny--probably more profound than any advance in the technique of making spear points, knives, scrapers and other tools of stone."

This article was originally published with the title "The Editors Recommend."

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