ALTAFF’s “Geek Alert! Your Brain on Science and Technology”: ALA Annual 2012

Joseph, Lawrence E. Solar Cataclysm: How the Sun Shaped the Past and What We Can Do To Save Our Future. HarperOne: HarperCollins. Sept. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9780062061928. $25.99.
We all expect the sun to rise tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, but as Lawrence Joseph suggests, we really take the sun too much for granted, casting it in a passive role of big, glowy orange energy source in the sky and talking, for instance, about how the earth warmed up after the Ice Age as if the sun weren’t doing the warming. But solar activity in the form of sunspots, flares, radio waves, and plasma blasts is ever turbulent and ever changing, and shortly into Solar Cataclysm you begin to see just how much solar activity has influenced the earth’s history and, ultimately, human civilization.

A big leap in solar activity at the end of the last Ice Age melted the Hudson River, frozen for millennia, creating enough flooding to carve the link between New York Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean; a fall in solar activity during the Little Ice Age pushed the Vikings out of Newfoundland, suddenly too cold for cultivation; the sun’s routine billion-ton plasma blasts sometimes hit earth, and the next hit could be coming within the decade, knocking out the electrical grid for months or years‚ that’s a prediction by the National Academy of Sciences. So, is the 4.57 billion-year-old love affair between Sol and Gaia, sun and earth, as Mr. Joseph styles it, soon to be over? At least his final chapter is called Three Looming Threats and One Happy Ending.

Kean, Sam. The Violinist’s Thumb: and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code. Little, Brown. Jul. 2012. 416p. ISBN 9780316182317. $25.99.
The DNA molecule forms a double helix, a corkscrewed ladder with the supports made of alternating phosphates and sugars and the rungs each made of two nucleic bases paired in specific ways. As Kean (The Disappearing Spoon) says, if the gene is a like a story communicating crucial information, then DNA is the language in which the story is written. And benign as that may sound, DNA scares us. We feel locked in by language that seems to say we’ll die young of some hereditary disease, anxious about being reduced merely to our DNA, and equally anxious about tinkering with it, intentionally or unintentionally. Then there’s the real fear of the scientifically challenged that they won’t even get the concepts involved.

The Violinist’s Thumb is a perfect antidote to all those fears. An arresting sentence in the introduction says, As some scientists recognize, the story of DNA has effectively replaced the old college Western civ class as the grand narrative of human existence, and Mr. Kean’s own grand narrative tells us how DNA was discovered, and how it works, addressing such interesting questions as What’s our most ancient and important DNA? And how much human DNA is actually human? The book proceeds not just by questions but by stories, because fascinating stories are packed into DNA. In fact, our whole history is packed into DNA, back to the proverbial soup; think of it as a really long bedtime story, and then be sure to put The Violinist’s Thumb by your bed.

Mlodinow, Leonard. Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. Pantheon. 2012. 260p. ISBN 9780307378217. $25.95.
Mlodinow’s book has been in my apartment for weeks, but it was not until the morning of the panel that I noticed that in certain light you can see the following words on the cover: Psst‚ĶHey There. Yes: You, Sexy. Buy This Book Now. You Know You Want It. That’s a basic graphic summation of the book’s subject. The unconscious mind is rich and relentlessly busy, picking up signals and possessing knowledge of which the conscious mind is ignorant. Subliminal means below threshold in Latin, and our subliminal brain, operating below the threshold of consciousness, influences what we think of ourselves, how we size up others, and the everyday decisions we make as we survey the world around us, so it’s ultimately very much a part of our evolutionary survival mechanism.

Now, I know you are sitting there thinking, the unconscious, yeah, yeah, we know our Freud. But in fact Freud really didn’t have the tools to assess the unconscious, and many of his assumptions have been shown to be wrong. But today we do have the tools, and the contemporary study of the unconscious, often called the new unconscious to make it clear that we’re not back in Vienna, is Mlodinow’s very clearly and very delightfully delivered topic.

Moreno, Jonathan D. Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century. Bellevue Literary Pr. 2012. ISBN 9781934137437. pap. $16.95.
Timothy Leary may be famous for saying turn on, tune in, drop out, but did you know that much of the research on LSD was supported by America’s early Cold War defense establishment? That fact is important background to Mr. Moreno’s book. Currently an ethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Moreno has served on three presidential advisory committees, one of which led to his discovering CIA and Pentagon interest in LSD through the late Sixties. Eventually, that led him to the following assumption: If national security agencies had so much interest in how the relatively primitive brain science of the 1950s and 1960s could help find ways to gain a national security edge, surely they must be at least as interested today, when neuroscience is perhaps the fastest growing scientific field, both in terms of numbers of scientists and knowledge being gained.

Yes, indeed they are, but for many reasons, our author met with some resistance when he tried to research this assumption. But research he did, and he published the first edition of this book in 2006. Think of what has happened in neuroscience then. A final comment: this is not a book about scary mind-control experiments perpetrated on unwitting citizens but rather a fascinating and lucid account of the kind of research being conducted, particularly by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the ethical considerations involved.

Zak, Paul J. The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity. Dutton, 2012. 234p. ISBN 9780525952817. $26.95.
Oxytocin is a small molecule, or peptide, that serves as both a neurotransmitter sending messages to brain and a hormone carrying messages to the bloodstream. It’s perhaps best known for controlling contractions during labor and lactation afterward. In 2001, Paul Zak, an economist who had heretofore focused on what made countries prosper, began experiments to demonstrate that a raised level of oxytocin leads to more generous and caring behavior and, further, that a person’s oxytocin level can be raised by showing him or her trust, thus engendering a virtuous cycle that has positive consequences both for personal relationships and for society at large. When he mentioned his research to a friend who was an obstetrician/gynecologist, his friend said, That’s the stupidest idea in the world.

Since then, Mr. Zak has accumulated persuasive evidence that it’s not a stupid idea at all and that in fact oxytocin is a key to our moral behavior. What’s great about reading this book is not just that you feel yourself relieved at shedding the notion that our behavior is pur-ely self-interested and not just that you get a clear idea of how this clearly important molecule works but that you’re entertainingly taken through Mr. Zak’s experiments, thus getting a terrific view of the scientific process.


Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.