Books to Get You Thinking

This month’s selection of books explores man’s unending quest for knowledge, stretching the boundaries in search for the unknown. Science as we know it today, in fields ranging from astronomy to medicine, is the result of thousands of years of research and exploration. This month’s picks focus on different facets of science as well as the inventors behind some landmark discoveries. Each of these compelling reads is available for you at the Mercer County Library.

In the Kingdom of Ice
In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeanette by Hampton Sides

A riveting, fascinating journey back in time to 1879, when a team of thirty-three officers led by veteran Arctic explorer George Washington DeLong ventured forth to sail into the distant icy waters of the North Pole in a quest to discover what lay on the northern tip of the universe. In the nineteenth century, the North Pole was an area that remained shrouded in mystery and the theory of the Open Polar Sea was prevalent – it was believed that shallow warm waters covered the domes of the earth and could be reached by breaking through a surrounding girdle of ice. Sifting through an enormous amount of primary data as well as personal diaries and notes, Sides, a veteran historian and author, takes readers through the grueling days and months of this historic voyage. The ill-fated USS Jeanette stood little chance against the solid ice packs of the Arctic and eventually sank leaving the crew marooned with three small boats and heavy supplies that they had to haul thousands of miles before they could reach the closest land mass of Siberia. Ultimately it was just thirteen crew members who survived this brutal and tortuous expedition. The book is brilliantly captures the days and times of the 1800s, portraying the society and life in an era when men were eager to set out to explore and discover unknown, uncharted land.

Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age
Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by Bernard Carlson

Bernard Carlson, a Professor at the University of Virginia specializing in the history of technology, presents this brilliant narrative of the twentieth century engineer and inventor, Nikola Tesla, and the many amazing inventions and discoveries he made in his lifetime (earning him in all a total of three hundred patents). Tesla is best known for his invention of the alternating current motor and polyphase power that transformed the entire electrical industry by making the efficient transfer of power possible over long distances and paved the way for the radio and television. Another major technological breakthrough came when Tesla started researching the applications of high voltage and high frequency in 1891, culminating in the invention of the oscillating transformer that has been named the Tesla coil after him. Carlson provides fascinating details about how the entire process of invention progressed in Tesla’s mind, from the conception of an idea to the final blueprint of a product, and the phenomenon of illusion that Tesla liked to use to demonstrate the power of his discoveries. The social and economic implications of Tesla’s discoveries form part of Carlson’s engaging narrative about the genius of the enigmatic Nikola Tesla.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

Presenting a collection of engaging case studies, Charles Duhigg, a New York Times reporter, investigates the psychology and neurology of habit formation for individuals, successful organizations and the community. Based on several scientific papers and interviews with their authors, the key premise of the book is that habits, more than reason and memory, play a critical role in determining behavior. Once the underlying dynamics of habit formation are understood it becomes possible to change them. Researchers at MIT discovered that at the root of a habit is a neurological loop with three parts - a cue, a routine and a reward. Routine is the behavior following from the cue and it results in pleasure that the individual finds gratifying. Once the habit is deeply ingrained, an individual also finds pleasure from anticipating the reward, and this is defined as a craving. One of the main tenets of the book is that by pinpointing and replacing old behavior patterns ingrained in the routine with new ones that eventually result in the same reward, it is possible to break a bad habit. In turn, changing a keystone habit may have a domino effect triggering interrelated changes in behavior that reinforces the newly initiated habit.

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg

Jordon Ellenberg, a mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin, has written this engaging book about the beauty and power of mathematics and the fundamental role its tools play in enhancing logic, reasoning and sound decision-making in every field ranging from defense, trade, marketing and medicine. The author uses interesting examples to demonstrate the power of mathematics to decipher complexity and underlying patterns. In one such example, Ellenberg explored the implications of statistical significance tests widely employed in the approval of new drugs. He also reviews methods to evaluate the impact of taxation levels on economic growth and income distribution. Another interesting example is the structure of dim stars in one corner of the constellation Taurus that have been the subject of great fascination since the eighteenth century - the Navajos called this cluster Dilyee (the sparking figure), the Maori people called it Matariki (the eyes of God), and in Japan it’s referred to as Subaru. Ellenberg provides mathematical insights to this celestial observation and concludes that the appearance of clusters in random data is not confined to astronomy but also applies to other fields such as the behavior of prime numbers The book, full of historical references as well as engaging and provocative narratives (such as "does lung cancer make you smoke cigarettes” and “there is no such thing as public opinion") will force readers to approach complex problems in a completely new way.

Nita Mathur


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