Category Archives: Science

Practical Science for Gardeners – Mary Pratt

What a Galapagos Island finch has to do with a dandelion may not be immediately apparent. But, in Mary Pratt’s excellent gardening/science book, they are both examples that validate the importance of the Linnean binomial system.  Practical Science for Gardeners is a marvel of scholarship and science trivia that treats the war between the Ladybirds and the aphids as a perfect example of the balance of nature. Parasites and predators–create lacewing hotels for your wintering insect police. Order nematodes from the organic gardening catalog to take care of the slugs. Tomato fertilizer will cause plants to flower. Too much self-pollination will cause a plant to develop “inbreeding depression.”

It’s autumn, the season when we lament the lack of a garden that means we have to buy a pumpkin at the grocer’s, not wait for the perfect moment to pick it from our homegrown patch.  And if we had a sunflower house, we would soon need to shake the dried seeds from the pod into a paper bag, lay them out between layers of paper to dream away the winter, and prepare to plant the whole seedful paper in some nicely composted soil in spring. Perhaps during the waxing or full moon. Although the moon thing is scientifically unproven. Pratt does offer some practical reasons for the folklore that have to do with tides and soaking the soil for newly germinating seeds. But, as she astutely observes, “the life sciences are a bit fuzzy round the edges.”

At this point you are saying, “Ha! Another one of those mad English gardeners!” And I reply, “Yes! Thank heavens for them.” The English know how to really get inside a garden. Pratt isn’t some dotty dowager puttering around a National Trust estate, though. She is an Oxford-trained zoologist with a master’s degree in biology who worked for the Wildlife Trusts. And now she gardens in Devon. Lucky her. She recommends small bibles for frustrated pest-killers like The Little Slug Book and, thankfully, isn’t as hard as she might have been on rabbits.   There are sections on choosing trees, composting, mixing green and flowering plants, biodiversity, soil maintenance and more. Really, mindful gardening is science and the more science you know the better prepared you are to keep those nasty slugs out of your pepper plants. Or whatever they love to eat best.

Practical Science for Gardeners is a book to tuck next to the seed catalogs to peruse on long, dark winter nights.  And then you should ask for a pair of genuine Wellies for Christmas. Order some ladybugs. Check the lacewing hotel for December guests. And know how to mix your own compost tea in the spring so you can let it sit and weaken before it’s needed. Watch where you use it, though. Natural or premixed chemicals, nitrogen fertilizer will kill a wildflower meadow.

Practical Science for Gardeners   Mary Pratt | Timber Press   2005

Imagine – Jonah Lehrer

NOTE: Cover art for this alleged nonfiction book apparently yanked by Amazon. Book was a fraud and Amazon is Big Brother. Literature is many things but never dull. (It was, despite the perfidy of the delusional author, a very attractive cover.)

Original post–pre-disclosure of certain fictional elements in the book:

Jonah Lehrer has assembled a fascinating study of how creativity works–where it lives in the brain, what in a culture acts as a petri dish. Imagine is fun to read, hopeful, filled with examples of genius at work–from Steve Jobs to Shakespeare–studded with genesis stories of brilliant new products–from Scotch tape to Swiffers–and awash in statistics and study results that make sense. Lehrer has a gift for translating nerd to common language.

Bob Dylan burnt out on tour and gave up music, heading for a house in Woodstock where he was inspired to scribble down a wonky poem that became “Like a Rolling Stone.” He invented a new kind of music that changed his work and the music world profoundly. Milton Glaser couldn’t stop fiddling with the art for a New York ad campaign, even after it had been approved. The result was a do-over that became the famous “I [heart] NY graphic. Jack Kerouac lived on Benzadrine while he wrote “On the Road” in near-continuous sessions at the typewriter for three weeks straight. Shakespeare ripped off Marlowe and everything else he could find to create his masterpieces.  

So, what’s up with all of that? (And where are the women in this epic tale of genius?  — but that’s another story, isn’t it?) Turns out the brain lights up in interesting ways when creative juices start flowing. A good idea might sneak up on you while you are doing something else. A chance encounter with a stranger in a crowded city or a co-worker in a coffee bar could trigger the Next Big Thing. Scientists can measure bits of that process now and they have mapped the various parts of the brain that get in gear, connect with other brain areas, or relax their guards and allow uninhibited ideas and behaviors to flow.  

But it’s not all neurons and anterior superior temporal gyruses. It’s also just noticing something from a different perspective–like the guy who invented Post-it notes did. It’s about encouraging alpha waves so your nice, relaxed mind coughs up an insight. It can also be about caffeine, amphetamines and alcohol–not too much, though, or you slide right past creative into incoherent.  And studies conclude that cities are hotbeds of genius (sometimes, and some cities), the urban experience is more conducive to a rich foment of ideas than the suburbs. Widely available education that encourages making things and de-emphasizes filling in bubbles with a #2 pencil  is a societal predictor of innovation. Critique sessions, but not creative brainstorming in which all ideas are supported, lead to breakthroughs and new inventions. Pixar gets some ink in this book and the story of how its culture developed is as much fun as any of its movies.

I’d highly recommend wandering through Imagine for insight about how your own strokes of creative genius come about–or how you might encourage some. The anecdotes that prove the points are terrific and the focus down on what makes creativity happen is instructive. I doubt anyone will ever be able to define creativity and imagination with the pure application of science but Lehrer makes a noble effort and his ideas are good ones. Now someone needs to write a book about why there aren’t more female names in the roster of Western genius–and how we might encourage that.

Imagine: How Creativity Works  Jonah Lehrer | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt   2012

Coda: It seems this post was miscategorized as nonfiction. Galleycat reported today (July 30) that Jonah Lehrer has resigned from The New Yorker after it was revealed that he manufactured Bob Dylan’s quotes for Imagine. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is “halting shipment of all physical copies of the book,” according to Galleycat reporter Jason Boog. The subtitle of Imagine is How Creativity Works–or doesn’t.  And so it goes… 

Great Flicks – Dean Keith Simonton

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Great Flicks hinted at secrets of storytelling that splashed large across the silver screen so I read it as a break from the stories themselves. I don’t know that I learned as much about telling stories as I did about some of the odd, quirky, fascinating and disturbing relationships of the various parts of the cinema art to each other. Dean Keith Simonton has written a popular dissertation on the science of cinema and I am immensely grateful that he explains every step of his research and every stat in language my tired brain can comprehend.

This might be a how-to-put-together a blockbuster for a producer, or an award-winner for a director. Many elements of film are quantified, compared and analysed with surprising results. I thought the material held the seeds of any number of stories that might make a good book–the relative importance of the best actor and best actress awards at the box office, for instance. An Oscar for best female performance as a leading character has the same box office impact as a nomination for best actor. This makes me think of Ginger Rogers doing the exact same dance as Fred Astaire, only in heels and backwards. The entire section on stars and their career trajectories, awards and associations with critically-acclaimed films, mega-moneymakers, and certain film genres is an infuriating mirror of our unevolved, mysogynist society. Pause. Breathe. OK–rant over.

The chapter on music, mood and money examines Mozart’s enduring soundtrack popularity and the dissonance between best song and best score–and concludes that music is an expense in the film budget that doesn’t always justify itself. It’s not surprising that the dramatic and visual elements of a film are predictors of critical acclaim, awards and popularity. The actors, directors and story, as well as the cinematography and editing and all the art that goes into each shot, are what movies are about. Story does make a difference in golden statues snagged and tickets sold. The kind of story is the first criteria most people use for deciding whether to see a film–if you hide under the seat at horror you might opt for the romantic comedy. If you love to watch animated things blowing each other up you will pass on the art house examination of the poet’s life with those fine British actors. And here’s one for all you novelists who dream of your very own Oscar now that the movie option has been picked up. According to Simonton’s analysis, “No matter what the specific nature of the source–play, novel, or whatever–its creator tends to interfere with the process of producing a marketable script…films based on such author adaptations tend to open on fewer screens and to bring in a smaller first weekend gross.”  IOW, stick to fiction, baby.

Great Flicks is an instructive look at the science of cinema but it’s number crunching with insight. Useful, occasionally eye-opening, an enjoyable and exhaustive collection of film business facts and conclusions. But no prescription for how to wrap the magic of cinema around your black-and-white, pre-talkie, prose work-in-progress. For that, you’ll just have to go see a lot more movies to spark your imagination. Or read Story by Robert McKee for a deconstruction of some classic films.  Simonton will explain to you the Meryl Streep Effect and when to release your major award contender to increase your odds of marching down the red carpet. But you’ll have to come up with the dialog and the word-pictures for your page-by-page bestseller the old-fashioned way.

Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics   Dean Keith Simonton | Oxford University Press 2011

Verdi – Janell Cannon

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Verdi is a gentle primer on herpetology, growing up and remaining true to yourself. It’s the work of the author of Stella Luna, the wonderful story about a bat who thinks she’s a bird. Janell Cannon has an affinity for exotic creatures and the talent to invent lives for them and illustrate them in tremendously engaging picture books. The bright yellow baby python who is the hero of this tale is vivid, impulsive, reckless and dead set against turning fat, slow and green like the adult members of his tribe.

As the banana-colored snake scoots around the jungle full of nervous energy, he is desperate to retain his sunny, gorgeous skin. His exuberance sends him slithering up trees, sprinting across the rain forest floor, scrubbing off his encroaching green in the river, barely escaping the mouth of a large, hungry fish, and pitching himself from the top of the canopy. He forms swirls and figure eights and spirals in mid-air–he can almost fly. But he is, after all, a python, and his aerobatics end in a crumpled heap on a branch after a painful crash through the trees.

The fat, old, green snakes rescue Verdi and bind him to a tree with vines so his bruised body can heal.  He listens to them tell the stories of their own flights of fancy in the days when they gleamed as bright and unmissably golden as impetuous Verdi. Once he is well he becomes very still while he tries to process his greener and larger and slightly wiser self. Green is a camouflage so Verdi can drape over a branch and contemplate life nearly unnoticed. When a couple of new yellow pythons spot him and fidget around with disdain for the fat, green, motionless figure on the branch, Verdi reveals his true colors–time has changed the hue of his skin but not his adventurous heart.

Verdi is a beautiful book, easy to read aloud to a small child and challenging enough to fully engage a young reader. The art is marvelous–amazing colors. And there is even a brief introduction to herpetology at the end so, in every way, the story of Verdi is an education. 

Verdi   Janell Cannon | Harcourt Brace & Compnay  1997

Boundless Potential – Mark S. Walton

Boundless Potential was the perfect book for me to read eight months into this crazy challenge to read a book a day and blog about it. I really had no idea what I would accomplish, aside from dodging unpleasant reality for several hours a day, catching up on my sadly-neglected reading and doing something I have always loved to do. I suppose I hoped reading so much would make me a better writer or expose me to brilliant prose stylists or introduce me to literary wonders I might otherwise have missed. All true–and not true–I’ve consumed a fair amount of mediocrity with the brilliance, forfeited a serious amount of time, and the jury is out about my own writing. But one thing I can claim is regular collisions with invigorating wisdom.  Mark S. Walton has put into words what I knew in my gut and sometimes in my multitasking brain as well.

Reinvention is the word-of-choice in this nonfiction look at people who have created new opportunities for themselves later in life. Walton believes, and sets out to prove, that our old idea of career and retirement is ridiculous. We live longer, for one thing. There isn’t enough accumulated wealth to bankroll multi-decade retirements, for another. Our economy no longer offers sufficient for-pay work for everyone and the older unemployed are unlikely to find jobs.  Americans harbor a distinct prejudice against older workers and don’t hire them or even accept their talents for free.

But neuroscience and evolution expose the fallacy in that kind of thinking. Workers at fifty, sixty, seventy and well beyond are turning out some of our most important art, scientific breakthroughs, social and health innovations, and significant work in every measurable area. Nonagenarians are just as vital as their twenty-year-old great grandchildren. And remaining vital by pursuing employment in a valuable activity (not just chipping divots on a golf course) and engaging in work that contributes to the world. Real work is a prescription for a longer, healthier and more satisfying life.

Boundless Potential isn’t just a reassuring book–it’s an important book. It chronicles the mindshift we foot-drag toward and shows how reinventing yourself for the last half, third or quarter of your life is the only smart strategy. I can attest that skill, experience, talent and a track record of prestigious positions and awards count for squat in the age game. But I loved reading about people with solid resumes tossing them overboard to create new realities–and succeeding beyond anything they imagined. 

Reading this book will give you new respect for granny and the groundbreaking company she is about to start. It will guide your strategizing, at any age, about your own longterm career goals–certainly a different game board than the one we all used to play on. It will introduce you to some spectacular people who reinvented themselves and produced spectacular results. And the research will have your back as you are starting your own new venture–pretty much your only choice in an age-phobic and shortsighted society which may end up benefitting hugely from the efforts of its elders, despite itself.

Boundless Potential: Transform Your Brain, Unleash Your Talents, Reinvent Your Work in Midlife and Beyond   Mark S. Walton | McGraw-Hill   2012

The Divine Matrix – Gregg Braden

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Gregg Braden’s The Divine Matrix: Bridging Time, Space, Miracles and Belief is several parts encouraging and several degrees of confusing. Braden takes physics as a starting point for an exploration of how reality is constructed from imagination. Quantum theory includes an energy field, referred to by some scientists as a matrix, and Braden borrows from scientific theory, mystic poetry, philosophy, anecdote and spiritual teachings to make his case.

His premise encompasses instantaneous healing, “seeing” across time and space, the nonverbal, non-contiguous communication between hearts, the demonstrable effect of the viewer upon the object or procedure viewed, the holographic nature of the universe, and how to rewrite the “code” of reality through imagination, emotion and intention. It’s pretty heady stuff and meant to be very empowering.

The “DNA phantom effect” is a phenomenon in which strands of DNA are shown to have an ongoing effect on the arrangement of photons, even when the DNA is removed from proximity. In other words, matter can affect matter through relationship, even at a distance. And a DNA sample, removed from a volunteer who was then isolated in another room and exposed to emotional stimuli, responded with electrical charges at the same instant that the emotions registered in the subject. Scientists were able to measure this response at several hundred feet but it still happened at several hundred miles. The experiment points to an energy field that exists to host an immediate and continual connection in living tissues. Or it might prove, as Braden surmises, that everything already exists in everything else—no separation.       

What this means for you is that your thoughts and emotions are not in the least ephemeral. They bring things and events into being. If that is correct, then you design and generate your own life. Your emotions have an effect on all around you and influence objects farther away than you realize. By controlling your mind and feelings, theoretically, you could create or change your world. That is an absolutely riveting possibility. It mirrors the “Law of Attraction” concepts popularized in numerous books and in films like The Secret and What the Bleep Do We Know? And it may well be that mystics like Rumi and nuclear physicists running the Hadron Collider have more in common than we perceive.   

The science, as promised, is presented in clear, easy-to-grasp language. Unfortunately, although there are annotations throughout the text for quoted scriptures and published studies, you have to be well-acquainted with the science or take it on faith that Braden’s interpretation of scientific discovery to back up his own theories is sound. While I’m not much in the mood for scientific papers and PhD dissertations these days, I am never quite comfortable taking science on faith. And I am only an armchair physicist and neophyte theologist, if that.

So I read with interest, agreed with many of the assumptions in the book, and closed it still considering the material to be assumptions, as far as I am capable of determining. Maybe some empirical experimentation is in order to test cause and effect before embracing the ideas about manifestation and matrices. I do think there’s something to The Divine Matrix—it makes intuitive sense–but I’ll have to read more physics and reflect on the spiritual teachings Braden cites to create my own synthesis.

The Divine Matrix: Bridging Time, Space, Miracles, and Belief   Gregg Braden | Hay House   2007

A Universe from Nothing – Lawrence M. Krauss

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Astrophysics is a scary, scary science. Forget the ticker-tape-parade-inducing thrill of moon landings and the popular resonance of string theory. Lawrence Krauss turns his cosmologist’s gaze heavenward and sees…nothing, a future that has returned to nothing. A Universe from Nothing isn’t an apocalyptic escape into science fiction. It is science, cutting edge cosmology if Krauss states his case accurately. And the odds for our uninterrupted existence, in his estimation, are not good.

Krauss is a much published and highly regarded cosmologist with advanced degrees from MIT and Harvard and a lifetime spent teaching theoretical physics at top level universities. He carries around an undecipherable (to the average citizen—he can explain it readily) card with a graph that proves the validity of the Big Bang, and launches into a mini-lecture to convert the unbeliever at any possible opportunity. He concedes that this doesn’t often result in any new insights for those who place religion over science but he is undaunted. And he is awash in mathematical proofs—his and others’—to demonstrate the inevitability of Einstein’s theories, and Newton’s and Bohr’s and Hawking’s and Feynman’s and others who have pushed the frontiers of astrophysics to the farthest reaches of space. Beyond, actually.

We are living in an astonishingly unusual time, according to Krauss and his fellow researchers and theorists. There is still evidence all around us of the Big Bang. We can see billions of stars and multiple galaxies with our own eyes and our super-sophisticated telescopes. We can calculate the speed at which the universe is expanding—we can even prove mathematically that it is expanding—but that very knowledge holds within it the kernel of doom. Because one day, maybe three trillennia from now, the expansion will mean we—or another intelligent life form–cannot see the light from distant stars, measure it, and know something of our place in this universe, and in the multiverse that most probably exists outside our limited view. Remnants of the Big Bang will be gone.  All will be empty space. Our own sun will, of course, long have burned out and earth will be uninhabitable, if it still spins around a dark star. There will be no trace of this moment—maybe there will be nothing at all.

Nothing is what Krauss theorizes the something we know comes from. He presents the mathematical arguments for his ideas—many are by now undisputed proofs. Some are still works-in-progress with as many open questions as solutions. He is fascinated by conjectures about dark energy and the beauty of the science he explores. Krauss is equally certain that the concepts of God, embraced by the faithful of every religion that exists now or ever existed, are willful dealings in fantasy. God makes no empirical sense in the face of the scientific proof about the way things work in this tangible and unseen world we inhabit. “God” cannot explain, logically or metaphorically, the whole of creation, the proven age of the planet, the way biology unfolds and evolves, the revolutionary discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope or the Large Hadron Collider.

But there is much science cannot explain either. What does it mean that an exploding supernova briefly shines with the brilliance of 10 billion stars? And what is our own degree of luminosity, being made entirely of the dust of those exploded stars? How does all of this–a boulder, a butterfly, an ocean, Mars, moonlight–arise from nothing? These are questions for poets to answer, for storytellers to paste up against the night sky, for curious children to ponder past bedtime and for scientists to puzzle through, calculate, weigh against the evidence and imagine answers to. A Universe from Nothing is a book that grapples with magic and mystery. Not an easy read, and for me not always a comprehensible one, but food for an infinite amount of thought.

A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing   Lawrence M. Krauss | Free Press 2012