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  • Writer's pictureTamanna Mohapatra

Have you had a ‘Scientific Conversation’ lately?

The title can be misleading because what I refer to here is a series of interviews on science published in the New York Times (NYT) newspaper spanning the last two decades. The interviews include many famous names but more importantly many esoteric subjects and names that are equally important but not very common.

I had this book as a recommended reading by one of my professor’s Claudia Driefus, who incidentally is the NYT journalist responsible for interviewing all these great scientists.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book as well as learnt a little bit both about the science and the scientist behind the science. The book is divided into five sections based on the area of science covered. These are

  • Skyriders (about astronomy, NASA, future of rockets and such)

  • Earth people (subjects geologic in nature)

  • Darwin’sProgeny (evolution, understanding genetics, apes etc.)

  • Cyberneticists (future of robotics, computers and the like)

  • Communicators (that’s self explanatory)

  • Math Whizzes (as is this)

  • Healers (this section I found most interesting as it’s about science that affects our lives directly; such as research on Alzheimer.)

  • Policy Makers/Changers- this section focuses on the people who are responsible for proper policy and adequate funding related to science.

My reasons for covering this book here are many and I feel sharing them will benefit whoever decides to read this piece or the book.

First of all, I wanted to list down all the great people I read about so that I wouldn’t forget their name or their work and could share the same with others. Secondly, as someone who just got back from visiting nieces and nephews at the stage of deciding a career, I was saddened to see them not exposed to any other careers in science besides engineering or medicine. There’s a vast world of scientific research and the wonderful thing is one can become an expert in any subject they want as long as they know what that subject is.  Lastly, it was fascinating to read about all the small and large themes that comprise our universe. It’s good to know that anytime we want we can escape our sometimes mundane world of work, pay checks, groceries etc., and slip into this other realm to remind ourselves the importance of having passion, the magic of the physical world we live in and the importance of the people who dedicate their lives to this world.

Below are the names and one line description of each scientist I read about (some of the one liners are direct adaptions from the book):

Sir Martin Rees: The world’s leading theorist on cosmic evolution.

Sir Arthur C Clarke:  The author of more than a hundred books on science including science fiction, co-writer of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1945 he considered the idea of a communication satellite, much before its time.

F Story Musgrave– He’s a physician, poet, skydiver, and former astronaut. He went to space in 1993 to fix the Hubble Space Telescope.

Freeman J. Dyson– British-born theoretical physicist, astrophysicist, and author of books on science including a recent one named, The Sun, the Genome and the Internet. He has been associated with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ for more than 47 years.

Robert Zubrin- Founder of the Mars Society, a group advocating travel there. His book Entering Space elaborates on the concept of getting to Mars.

Tanya Atwater- A professor of geology, she showed how the western United States developed through her writings and papers on the origins and growth of the San Andreas Fault (a geophysical phenomena in North America)

John McPhee– has written a 696-page book on the geological history of North America called Annals of the Former World.

Michael J. Balick- He’s an ethnobotanist (how quaint!) who looks at the relation between science and natural healers.

Martin Wells– grandson of H. G. Wells, he is an expert on cephalopods (squids, octopuses etc.). Before they were well established and famous, he and his wife spent days surviving on a diet of their subject.

Luis F. Baptista– He studies bird sounds and knows all the soap opera details of the lives of Golden Gate Park’s birds.  He’s the leading expert on bird songs, dialect, and language. This was a very inspiring piece.

Stephen Jay Gould– paleontologist best known for his view on evolution and natural selection being responsible for the origin and diversity of species.

Francisco J. Ayala– A former priest, present day wine-grape businessman, art collector, and most importantly author of 12 books and 650 articles on genetics. To me, this piece was also very inspiring and impressive.

Birute Galdikas– Together with Dr. Jane Goodall, and one other scientist, she was a student of Dr. Leakey’s. She studied the lives of orangutans, at times with great personal sacrifice involved.

Emily Sue Savage- Rumbaugh– She studies communication among primates and trains animals and humans to communicate with each other.

Anne Fausto-Sterling- A professor of biology, she studies gender roles and the science behind what makes us male or female and many categories that can’t be classified into one of these buckets but are still equally valid and natural.

Marvin L. Minsky: world’s leading theorist of artificial intelligence.

Anne Foerst: A 34-year-old researcher at MIT who works with robots and is contributing to studies that are building robots with social skills.

Michael L. Dertouzous– An engineer and inventor who forecast in 1970 that one-third of all American homes would have personal computers.

John Maeda- A 32-year-old MIT engineer who uses the computer as a tool to create art that can only be produced digitally.

Shawn Carlson- An amazing story of a writer who created a Society for Amateur Scientists to encourage all ‘backyard tinkerers and garage experimenter’.

John Horgan: A scientist who argues against scientist. His 281 page essay argues that scientific inquiry has gone as far as it can go.

Ira Flatow- He’s NPR’s host of Science Friday-which talks about the joys of science.

Sir Roger Penrose: Mathematician, physicist, author, teacher and greatest living disciple of Albert Einstein.

Leon M. Lederman– Is the author of The God Particle and winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics. He’s also known as the ‘Mel Brooks of Physics’ and the founder of the ‘muon neutrino’-an essential sub-atomic particle.

Charles Brenner- A mathematician that applies statistics to analyze DNAs and then provides genetic evidence in paternity cases all around the world.

Nancy Padian: One of the world’s experts on the heterosexual transmission of AIDS.

Nawal M. Nour: A crusader against female circumcision.

John Bancroft: sexologist, sex therapist, psychiatrist, who leads the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction.

Susie Orbach: therapist who treated Diana, Princess of Wales; author of Fat is a Feminist Issue.

Rudolph E. Tanzi: This was one of my favorite interviews. He is a neurogeneticist who knows most of what there is to know about Alzheimer’s disease and of the scientific battle to locate the dementia’s cause and cure.

Polly Matzinger: A jazz musician, Playboy bunny who later found her love and calling in scientific research. Her contribution to science was the Danger Theory of Immunology.

Benjamin S. Carson– A neurosurgeon who separated conjoined twins. Together with his wife, they started the Carson Scholarship for students with a knack for science and related subjects.

Rita Colwell: First women and first biological scientist to head the federal agency, National Science Foundation.

Jeff Getty- An AIDS survivor who tried getting an experimental bone marrow transplant from a baboon.

Stephen Strauss: A scientist who studies various forms of alternative medicines.

Rush Holt: One of the few scientists who made it into mainstream politics and is trying to combined the two fields.

Eleanor Baum: First women to head an engineering college anywhere.

Geroge E. Brown Jr.: The congressman who loved science.

#bookreviews, #science conversations, #women scientists, #claudiadreifus

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