Books to Get You Thinking

Through the ages, new scientific discoveries and technological innovations have been key to driving economic growth and progress, and over time have had a defining impact on the way we live, work and communicate. Discoveries in medicine have led to new treatments for combating disease; research initiatives in agriculture have led to multifold increases in crop yields; new technology in communications has resulted in accelerated speeds; while advances in space technology now provide a window to far away galaxies, stars and planets. Several proficient science writers have authored books that explore different facets of scientific inquiry and evolving technology in a language that makes them equally engaging to all readers. Here is a selection of titles from the Mercer County Library System highlighting scientific and technological marvels that are sure to provide many hours of compelling reading.

Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik
Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik
Mark Miodownik , a scientist and professor of materials and society at University College, London provides a fascinating look into the amazing and unique physical properties of different modern materials that we encounter in everyday life (including stone, iron, plastics, glass, steel, concrete, and paper); how these are made; and the effects the materials have had on society and civilizations. Interspersed with the intricate science of the materials are fascinating stories drawn from history that explain the origins and use of different materials during different periods. From the earliest of times, humans have tried to change the forms of specific materials and fashion them into tools or artifacts that are useful in everyday life. Although materials may seem solid in outward appearance, the molecular structures inside could be very different - e.g. metals consist of liquid crystals that can bend giving each metal its individual properties. The author also discusses cutting edge research in material science today. Concrete made from volcanic sands was first used by the Romans but today technology enables concrete to be reinforced with steel and other materials to make it far stronger, self-cleaning and self-repairing. Miodownik’s book will undoubtedly change the way readers will perceive the many materials visible in urban cities and modern life.

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson
How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson
The process of innovation is shown by Johnson to be the result of a complex set of phenomenon involving important individual discoveries and collaboration between many different scientists and engineers extending over long periods of time. In this engaging book, Johnson traces the history of technological innovation by examining the evolution of six different innovations. In separate chapters entitled Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time, and Light, Johnson traces the layers of innovations and applications that have been developed over time following a single invention, while drawing on the historical, and social context of the advancements and exploring the deep interconnections between them. A particularly fascinating narrative is the story of glass, first discovered ten thousand years ago and used initially to fashion decorative pieces. Monks poring over religious manuscripts in the dim candlelight of the monastery rooms noticed that the use of curved pieces of glass made it simpler to read, thus leading to the invention of eyeglasses. Further developments on lenses spanning more than two hundred years led to the discovery of the microscope that eventually enabled huge leaps in the field of medicine; this was followed twenty years later by the discovery of the telescope that transformed the way people viewed the world and the universe. The discovery of glass fibers in the nineteenth century ushered in the use of fiber optics in computers and network switches that has essentially reshaped every facet of our communications, business and personal lives.

The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel
The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control by Walter Mischel
The book is based on the famous marshmallow test first conducted at a nursery school in Stanford University. In the late 1960s, a group of preschoolers were offered a treat of marshmallows – they could either pick up one marshmallow right away or, if they chose to exercise self-control and wait alone in a room for up to twenty minutes, they could get two. Forty years later the study returned to the now grown-up members of the same group and discovered that the ones who had exercised self-control in the original experiment had, in general, done better in life - both academically and in terms of good health. The central premise of the book is that while other factors definitely come into play, self-control is a trait that is directly correlated with positive achievements in life. It is also an attribute that can be consciously and deliberately developed over time. Different areas of the brain have evolved to respond to different stimuli and environment changes. Hot responses to immediate threats or rewards arise from the limbic system, while the executive function and cool responses stimulated by thoughts of long term rewards and consequences for the future are controlled by the pre-frontal cortex. With enough motivation, the executive function can successfully control and inhibit impulsive thoughts by focusing on goals, by tracking the progress towards achieving goals, and by keeping away from allurements that are in the way of the professed goal.

The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
In this fascinating book, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee - both scientists from MIT - discuss the transformative changes that the digital era has brought with it. The First Machine Age was the Industrial Age of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sparked by the invention of the steam engine that led to the growth of large factories, mass production, and big changes in the way people lived. Over the past few decades, digital technologies and innovations encompassing computer hardware, software and communication networks, have been expanding rapidly and evolving continuously, ushering in the Second Machine Age. The past few years have seen a complete transformation and reinvention of the workplace, the economy, and our personal lives. The exponential growth in the speed of computing power and the growth of artificial intelligence, juxtaposed with the widespread use of big data and sensors, have enabled incredible advances in automation such as the self-driving Google car. However, as machines take over many of the jobs that previously needed the expertise and skills of humans, there are negative ramifications on both employment and equality levels. The authors feel it is important to take steps to counter such trends through fiscal restructuring that would make labor less expensive to hire, through ensuring every person a minimum income, and through changes in education that encourage entrepreneurship, creativity and the ability of humans to “race with the machines”.

Nita Mathur

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