Last month, in an effort to make this blog more upbeat, I started a monthly column called “Cool Sh*t I’ve Read Lately.” My stated intention was to draw attention to “well-written articles about compelling topics.” In this second installment, I’m breaking that rule by mentioning not only articles but also books, including a novel. It’s my blog and I’ll do what I want.
Dan Fagin, who directs NYU’s graduate program in science journalism, talked at my school last week about his book Toms River, which just won a Pulitzer Prize. I harangue my students to explore complex issues by shuttling from the specific to the general. Engage readers by telling the stories of individuals, then pull back for the overview. Fagin does that brilliantly in Toms River. On one level, the book is a heart-rending story about people in a small town dominated by a big chemical company, which supplies desperately needed jobs but also spews out toxic waste. More broadly, Fagin reveals what happens when science collides with power, politics, capitalism and the passion for justice.
The Circle, by Dave Eggers.
In general, “cool sh*t” refers to nonfiction, but I’m making an exception for Eggers’ novel. It’s a wickedly funny satire of Silicon Valley narcissism (which cuts closer to the bone than HBO’s goofy new series Silicon Valley); a deadly-serious warning about techno-utopianism and the obsession with digital connectedness; and a sexy, suspenseful thriller. Can’t wait to see who plays the (anti-)heroine in the movie.
“Why We’re in the New Gilded Age,” by Paul Krugman, New York Review of Books.
A 685-page, data-dense critique of capitalism–written by a formerly obscure French economist and published by an academic press–has become a pop-culture sensation, raising questions about whether modern capitalism is sustainable in its current form. Capital in the Twenty First Century, by Thomas Piketty, explains why the gap is growing between haves and have-nots in the U.S. and elsewhere and argues for reforms that will reduce inequality. One of these days I may get around to reading Piketty’s blockbuster, but for now I’ll settle for this detailed review by economist and liberal firebrand Paul Krugman, who criticizes details of Piketty’s work but nonetheless calls his book “awesome.” Will Piketty help revive the Occupy Wall Street movement?
“The Mental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others,” by Oliver Sacks, New York Review of Books.
When seen through the eyes—or words, I suppose I should say—of neurologist Oliver Sacks, the world becomes strange, mysterious, enchanted, even though Sachs is rigorously empirical. In this meditation on nine books—by authors as diverse as Darwin, Konrad Lorenz and Eric Kandel—Sacks dwells on the astonishing behavioral complexity of even the lowliest organisms. This article complements Michael Pollan’s wonderful New Yorker essay “The Intelligent Plant,” which I cited last month.
The next time I teach “History of Science and Technology” at Stevens, I’m going to make my students read these two articles, one about the Parthenon and the other about Stonehenge. Both authors make the postmodern point that, in our attempts to understand the origins of these iconic, ancient structures, we persist in projecting our modern obsessions on the past. I just wish these pieces weren’t stuck behind pay walls.
“How Politics Makes Us Stupid,” by Ezra Klein, Vox.com.
Speaking of good readings for students, this article by political journalist Ezra Klein would make great fodder for my science communication courses. Writing in Vox, the online publication that he helped found, Klein profiles Yale law professor Dan Kahan, whose research suggests that more information and education don’t necessarily persuade people to abandon irrational attitudes toward climate chance, vaccines and other science-related issues. Quite the contrary. Some find Kahan’s work disturbing, but it helps me cope with the fact that so few people find my arguments persuasive. It’s their fault, not mine.