Annal: 2003 Aventis Prize for General Science Book

Results of the Aventis Prize in the year 2003.

Book:Right Hand, Left Hand

Right Hand, Left Hand: The Origins of Asymmetry in Brains, Bodies, Atoms, and Cultures

Chris McManus

A labor of love and enthusiasm as well as deep scientific knowledge, Right Hand, Left Hand takes the reader on a trip through history, around the world, and into the cosmos, to explore the place of handedness in nature and culture. Chris McManus considers evidence from anthropology, particle physics, the history of medicine, and the notebooks of Leonardo to answer questions like: Why are most people right-handed? Are left-handed people cognitively different from right-handers? Why is the heart almost always on the left side of the body? Why does European writing go from left to right, while Arabic and Hebrew go from right to left? Why do tornadoes spin counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere? And how do we know that Jack the Ripper was left-handed?

McManus reminds readers that distinctions between right and left have been profoundly meaningful—imbued with moral and…[more]

Book:The Blank Slate

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Steven Pinker

Our conceptions of human nature affect everything aspect of our lives, from child-rearing to politics to morality to the arts. Yet many fear that scientific discoveries about innate patterns of thinking and feeling may be used to justify inequality, to subvert social change, and to dissolve personal responsibility.

In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker explores the idea of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colorings. He shows how many intellectuals have denied the existence of human nature and instead have embraced three dogmas: The Blank Slate (the mind has no innate traits), The Noble Savage (people are born good and corrupted by society), and The Ghost in the Machine (each of us has a soul that makes choices free from biology). Each dogma carries a moral burden, so their defenders have engaged in desperate tactics to discredit the scientists who are now challenging them. …[more]

Book:Calculated Risks

Calculated Risks: How to Know When Numbers Deceive You

Gerd Gigerenzer

At the beginning of the twentieth century, H. G. Wells predicted that statistical thinking would be as necessary for citizenship in a technological world as the ability to read and write. But in the twenty-first century, we are often overwhelmed by a baffling array of percentages and probabilities as we try to navigate in a world dominated by statistics.

Cognitive scientist Gerd Gigerenzer says that because we haven’t learned statistical thinking, we don’t understand risk and uncertainty. In order to assess risk—everything from the risk of an automobile accident to the certainty or uncertainty of some common medical screening tests—we need a basic understanding of statistics.

Astonishingly, doctors and lawyers don’t understand risk any better than anyone else. Gigerenzer reports a study in which doctors were told the results of breast cancer screenings and then were asked to explain the risks of contracting breast cancer…[more]

Book:The Extravagant Universe

The Extravagant Universe: Exploding Stars, Dark Energy, and the Accelerating Cosmos

Robert P. Kirshner

One of the world’s leading astronomers, Robert Kirshner, takes readers inside a lively research team on the quest that led them to an extraordinary cosmological discovery: the expansion of the universe is accelerating under the influence of a dark energy that makes space itself expand. In addition to sharing the story of this exciting discovery, Kirshner also brings the science up-to-date in a new epilogue. He explains how the idea of an accelerating universe—once a daring interpretation of sketchy data—is now the standard assumption in cosmology today.

This measurement of dark energy—a quality of space itself that causes cosmic acceleration—points to a gaping hole in our understanding of fundamental physics. In 1917, Einstein proposed the “cosmological constant” to explain a static universe. When observations proved that the universe was expanding, he cast this early form of dark energy aside. But recent observations…[more]

Book:If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens…Where Is Everybody?

If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens…Where Is Everybody?

Stephen Webb

During a lunchtime conversation at Los Alamos more than 50 years ago, four world-class scientists agreed, given the size and age of the Universe, that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations had to exist. The sheer numbers demanded it. But one of the four, the renowned physicist and back-of-the-envelope calculator Enrico Fermi, asked the telling questions: If the extraterrestrial life proposition is true, he wondered, “Where is everybody?”

In this book, Stephen Webb presents a detailed discussion of the 50 most cogent and intriguing answers to Fermi’s famous question, divided into three distinct groups: aliens are already here among us. Here are answers ranging from Leo Szilard’s, that they are already here and we know about them as Hungarians, to those who claim that aliens built Stonehenge and the Easter Island statues; aliens exist, but have not yet communicated. The theories in this camp range widely, from those who believe we simply…[more]

Book:Small World: Uncovering Nature's Hidden Networks

Small World: Uncovering Nature's Hidden Networks

Mark Buchanan

Most of us have had the experience of running into a friend of a friend far away from home—and feeling that the world is somehow smaller than it should be. We usually write off such unlikely encounters as coincidence, even though they seem to happen with uncanny frequency. According to some physicists, it turns out that this ‘small-world’ phenomenon is no coincidence at all. Rather, it is a manifestation of a hidden and powerful design that binds the world together. The Internet, the brain, power-grids and the global economy are all networks that seem to have evolved a ‘small-world’ geometry—with properties independent of the nature of the things themselves.

Small World argues that this underlying pattern may be one of nature’s greatest design tricks, and the book shows us how scientists are putting this new insight to work.

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