Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human
by Tom Boellstorff. Princeton University Press, 2008

Boellstorff, an anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine, applies the methods and theories of his field to a virtual world accessible only through a computer screen. This world, called Second Life, is owned by Linden Lab, a company that charges roughly $15 a month to “live” there and to buy virtual land. Boellstorff spent two years participating in Second Life and reports back as the trained observer that he is. We read about a fascinating, and to many of us mystifying, world. How do people make actual money in this virtual society? (They do.) How do they make friends with other avatars? The reader unfamiliar with such sites learns a lot—not least, all sorts of cool jargon: people in Second Life, for example, say objects are  “rezzing” into existence, a verb that traces its origin to the 1982 movie Tron. The jargon of the author’s own field is another matter: the reader wearies of specialized terminology and hairsplitting definitions. The title recalls Marg­a­ret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa. One wishes this anthropologist had a little more of Mead’s flair, but the book is worth the hurdles its scholarly bent sometimes imposes.

American Nerd: The Story of My People
by Benjamin Nugent. Scribner, 2008

What a surprise to learn that the first appearance of the word “nerd” in print was probably in Dr. Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo. And there are many other surprises in this delightfully written dissection of nerd image and culture that explores online gaming, science-fiction clubs, attire, ethnic implications, and much more. Nugent, a journalist at Time magazine, also delves into the correspondence between nerdiness and people with Asperger’s syndrome (a form of autism characterized by difficulties in social interaction and by restricted interests and activities). His dissection charms and enlightens. Nerds—and everyone else—will love it.

Excerpt: Final Theory
by Mark Alpert. Touchstone/Fireside, 2008

Physics plays a crucial role in this fast-paced thriller. And not only is the science credible (disclosure: Alpert is an editor at this magazine), so are the characters, who have several more dimensions than those in most thrillers. A young professor runs for his life after he accidentally learns of an unpublished Einstein theory that could destroy the world. A beautiful string theorist joins him in the harrowing scramble to prevent destruction:

“A long dress made from yellow-and-red Kente cloth draped her shoulders, and several gold bracelets hung from each of her brown arms. In the drabness of Jadwin Hall she blazed like a particle shower.

“Women physicists were uncommon enough ... but a black female string theorist was a rare phenomenon indeed. The scientists in the auditorium regarded her as they would any other rare phenomenon, with a mixture of awe and skepticism. As soon as she began her presentation, though, they accepted her as one of their own, because she spoke their language, the abstruse tongue of mathematics. Moving to the blackboard, she scribbled a long sequence of equations, each crowded with the symbols representing the fundamental parameters of the universe: the speed of light, the gravitational constant, the mass of the electron, the strength of the nuclear force. Then, with an ease that David could only envy, she manipulated and transformed the dense thickets of symbols until they condensed into a single, elegant equation that described the shape of space around a vibrating string.”

Note: This story was originally printed with the title, "Reviews".