Books to Get You Thinking

The year 2017 has seen dozens of books published in the many diverse areas of science, technology and engineering that range from climate to the frontiers of medicine to advances in computer science and digital transformations. This month we highlight just a few of the many books owned by the Mercer County Library System that are sure to pique the interest of readers who are interested in popular science books.

Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us by Sam Kean
Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us by Sam Kean
Sam Kean presents a compelling, absorbing narrative about the atmosphere. Kean discusses the composition of the atmosphere, its effects on humans as well as how humans affect the atmosphere. The air in the atmosphere forms a ten mile high shell around the earth and is made up of gases blended together with trillions of discrete molecules whirling randomly around Earth at speeds close to hundreds of miles an hour. Gases have played an important role in molding the history of the earth. Kean goes back 4.5 billion years when the earth was created mainly from interstellar gases. The author is able to vividly explain complex chemistry concepts about the nature and quality of air, without the use of mathematical formulas and complex equations. Readers learn some amazing facts - for example, over a twenty four hour period, an individual breathes in and exhales air molecules numbering in septillions while chemical processes in the body change the composition of the breathed air. Kean shares with readers an interesting experiment conducted by Joseph Black, the physician from Scotland who first discovered carbon dioxide. Black put lime water solution in the air duct of a church crowded with more than 1,500 parishioners and, after ten hours, discovered a deposit of calcium carbonate formed by the reaction of the limewater with the carbon dioxide exhaled by the crowds in the church. It is the wealth of fascinating historical anecdotes juxtaposed with the science behind atmosphere that makes Kean’s book such an absorbing read.

A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg
A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg
The book centers on the scientific breakthroughs made in recent years in the study of the bacterial immune system and genome that led up to the discovery of CRISPR, a novel genetic engineering tool that enables the systematic reverse engineering of causal genetic variations by allowing selective manipulation of individual genetic elements. The author, Jennifer Doudna, professor at the University of California at Berkeley is a leading expert on RNA-protein biochemistry and genome engineering and was instrumental in shaping the breakthrough in CRISPR biology. The book, coauthored with her former student Samuel Sternberg, provides a unique view into Jennifer Doudna’s personal journey as a scientist and her experiences as a researcher. A lucid account of the history of gene editing technology is included - the earliest research in this area was largely motivated by efforts to find likely cures for genetic diseases. Gene editing methods facilitated by CRISPR contain immense potential for breakthroughs in treatments of single gene diseases such as sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy. We are at the edge of a genetic revolution that has also raised a storm of controversy over grave safety and ethical concerns about altering genetic makeup. Genes play multiple roles in the human system and altering any one of them may have unforeseen long term repercussions that are irreparable and irreversible. At the same time, the appearance of this novel technology has spurred a legal battle for patents among the different scientists involved in research in this breakthrough technology.

The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet by Henry Fountain
Henry Fountain, a science journalist and editor at the New York Times, pens this brilliant, informative narrative centered around the powerful epic earthquake that rocked Alaska for a full five minutes on March 27, 1964. The earthquake measured 9.2 on the Richter scale, the most deadly quake ever recorded in North America. It generated gigantic tidal waves, altered the landscape and left a trail of destruction in its aftermath. The book also highlights the investigative work of George Pflafker, a field geologist from the National Geological Survey who made his way to Alaska in the wake of the earthquake to undertake extensive research on why the earthquake happened and study firsthand the areas affected by the quake. Readers take a step back in time to witness the devastation that the quake brought to the lives of the people, especially in the coastal villages that were the hardest hit - Chenega, Valdez and Anchorage. These were small communities who depended mainly on fishing, hunting and unloading cargo from ships. During his investigations of the Alaskan earthquake, Pflafker studied the Prince William Sound region known for its mountainous terrain, glaciers and volcanoes to unravel the mysterious forces under the earth’s surface that led to this earthquake. The studies conducted by Pflafker helped improve our understanding of the structural forces behind earthquakes while clearly reinforcing the validity of the theory of plate tectonics.

—Nita Mathur, West Windsor Branch


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