I thoroughly enjoy reading non-fiction books. This is especially true with science books. Absorbing knowledge that as applicable to the present has given me so many “aha” moments in life, that mental rush when something clicks (the light bulb that goes on above your head).
However, when I enter a book store and head directly to the science section, this is generally what I see.
This region in bookstores is sometimes broken down into separate Nature and Science (an astronomy section in disguise) sections. I can see why these topics create so much hype; they sell us an “answer” to the questions of Who We Are and Why We Are Here. However, both really have strong caveats that disturb me in two different, yet related, ways.
If you study biology, you learn that the human body is made up of cells (trillions). Each of these cells act as a biological machine with literally millions (possibly billions) of molecular reactions including particle detection/absorption at the cell membranes, protein translation and modification within the cytoplasm, and DNA evaluation/alterations/replication/translation in the nucleus. As an example, look up the “simple” process that your body takes to break down Glucose into ATP (a molecule designed to release instant energy when needed). And each cell is different with its unique build, chemical activities, and environmental reactions.
Even before we apply quantum physics to the model, we can not simulate or model the human body as a whole.
Note: If you thought that converting someone’s DNA sequence to understand a person’s psychology and physique/health, try reading about “epigenetics” sometime….
Unfortunately, the next best thing is statistics.
Gather a lot of people, study the differences between the individuals, crunch the numbers, and say something like “there is a 90% confidence interval that >50% of test subjects will experience a 10-20% increase in weight with >70g of sugar intake.” But to make it more understandable to the public, it’s simplified to “Sugar makes you fat.” Make the connection? [If you answered “kind of,” that sounds about right.]
And this is utilized constantly, especially in many hot topics. Health and diseases, cancer especially, and understanding its causes and treatments. Food and diets (genetically modified foods anyone?) along with their consequences. Environmental factors and projections (this wouldn’t be complete without stating global warming), if it is issue, and what can we do about it.
Biological studies are far from perfect. You can’t control people’s “genes,” and people are people (they make mistakes, subjects and scientists alike). And psychology can be worse, where studies are done utilizing questions like, “On a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, how would money would you share with your friends if you won the lottery?” [Like that answer is going to stay constant for the rest of your life.]
It isn’t all bad, though. Correlation did help show that smoking can result in lung deterioration and possibly death.
Just remember that there’s a few steps that are simplified to simplify things when the data goes from PhD to journal to book to audience. It could be missing a significant factor, it could be biased, it could just be a spike in noise.
For example, I’m reading “Salt Sugar Fat” by Moss, and it’s really interesting to read about various multi-million dollar advertising campaigns that “gained” a company a +0.5% increase in sales? I’ll let you think of some alternatives that could have happened.
Astronomy and they physics of the universe!
Do you remember the time when you saw an “image” of the solar system and thought “Wow, that is where we live, and our planet is orbiting a small speckle of light located in one of its spiral arms?” It wasn’t until early college that I realized, “Wait, if it took a probe 35 years to get outside the solar system, how did we get sometime outside the galaxy to take that picture?”
Thanks to the Hubble Telescope and related satellites, we have some amazing photos of the universe. And they are beautiful, with my favorite being NASA’s images of the Small Magellanic Cloud. And then there are lots of illustrations, typically labeled”artist conceptions/renditions.” And this habit doesn’t stop at just images.
To study the universe without leaving the gravitational pull of Earth. We take A LOT of measurements and do A LOT MORE noise sifting.
For example, we can predict if a distant star has a planet by measuring a dip in its light when the planet orbits in front of the star. When Venus eclipsed the sun (shown below, thanks to MTU), there was a slight decrease in how much light hit the Earth. Not easy, bu detectable. Now do that to a star light-years away.
Scientists try to simplify things as much as possible, such as utilizing satellites to remove twinkling effects of the stars thanks to our atmosphere. They factor in Doppler shifts (if the universe is expanding), calculate in the effects of relativity, and isolate equipment irregularities (like Shot Noise). Even after all this effort, data plots can still look questionable with lots of overlapping Gaussian tails.
Our ability to really understand the universe is limited our expectations. We make theories based off of other theories, with String Theory being a very popular example.
What if there’s something out there that interacts with these optical signals travelling light-years, possibly millions of them, before we can measure. Maybe the star was pulsing after all (it’s been seen before). Maybe dark matter in the galaxy has a similar effect to Doppler broadening. Physicists say they can’t make out the majority of the universe [Dark Matter = 25% and Dark Energy = 70%] So what exactly does it do?
Removing the bottom block of a Jenga stack can cause everything else above it to become unstable. And the same can be said about the stacked theories we use to give us a rendered view of our universe.
Studying the universe when we only have so little access to it can be quite stretching. We can’t warp to stars and nebulae, measure their relative velocity, take physical samples, or feel their gravitational/EM fields directly. We can only do that with the our sun and its satellites (including Earth) which could be biased .
It’s kind of like assuming that all adult men are straight, because your father is.
And my more important question – “What’s the point?”
Who really cares if we “know”about the Big Bang, up till the first one-trillionth of a second. How do we benefit about what’s beneath the ice on Titan? And the idea of asteroid mining is a economic joke.
Figure out how to create a space elevator first, and then we’ll talk.
And do we really need to send people to Mars? There’s nothing to gain except pride and possibly death (sound familiar?). Instead of spending billions of dollars, polluting our planet with rocket manufacturing and fumes, and traveling >500 days in space (the radiation exposure alone is an issue) , just drive to Death Valley. And don’t forget to NOT breathe!
None-the-less, I’m still planning on purchasing an Astronomy coffee table book in the near future.
And after reading this, you can say “Well yeah, but this can apply to anything.” And you are exactly right.
After-note: I was going to go a quick statistical count of book types on Amazon in the non-fiction section, but I changed my mind after realizing that Harry Potter was in the top ten most popular Engineering books….