A Nepali Adventure with Kings and Elephant Drivers, Billionaires and Bureaucrats, Shamans and Scientists, and the Indian Rhinoceros
by Hemanta Mishra. Lyons Press, 2008

The subtitle may sound like hype, but it is a rare case of truth in labeling. Against the backdrop of political violence in Nepal—beginning with the massacre of the king’s family in 2001 by the eldest son and ending with the Maoist insurgency this crisis spawned—Mishra tells the story of trying to save the greater one-horned Asian rhino from extinction. Kings did indeed play a pivotal role in the creature’s conservation, and the murder of the recent king led to its now uncertain future. The exotic Tarpan ceremony, in which the Nepalese king must hunt and kill a male rhino and offer the beast’s blood in a prayer for peace and prosperity, takes center stage. Mishra, a Nepalese wildlife biologist trained in the West, is not a professional writer, but his intelligence and wit make this a mesmerizing account that intertwines politics, conservation and tensions between the traditions of East and West.

by Donald A. Norman. Basic Books, 2007

A computer scientist who is the author of The Design of Everyday Things and many other articles and books on design and technology, Norman asserts that the intelligence of so-called smart systems is fundamentally limited: a machine cannot begin to know all the factors that go into human decision making. In fact, machines have become too smug, he says. From cars to refrigerators to scales, they misread our intentions. But of course, he argues, this doesn’t mean we should reject their help. Instead we need to figure out a way to “socialize” them, to see that they recognize their limitations and improve their interactions with humans. Much of what he has to say will be familiar to those who have read his previous work, but if you are new to Norman, the book provides an enjoyable antidote to a lot of current hyperbole.

by C. V. Vishveshwara. Springer, 2006

The author blends fiction, fantasy, physics and philosophy to tell the story of gravitation theory, focusing on Einstein’s general relativity and the astrophysics of black holes. He not only succeeds at doing this; he entertains readers with delightful digressions and illustrates key concepts with wonderful cartoons, some purportedly scribbled on paper napkins. A theoretical physicist, Vishveshwara received his doctorate and taught in the U.S. before returning to his native India, where he has been a professor at the Raman Research Institute and the Indian Institute of Astrophysics.