Falling Behind: Boom, Bust & the Global Race for Scientific Talent (Princeton) explicates the strange forces that have driven U.S. science funding since World War II. Michael S. Teitelbaum, a Harvard Law School senior researcher, describes the repeated cycles of alarm (national security, competitiveness and other triggers) leading to Congressional largesse, followed by indifference and stagnation, which itself can fuel the next alarm. Teitelbaum gracefully navigates the often-bogus data that have been retreaded to foment fear and steer resources and favors toward research and training in the STEM disciplines, often to the advantage of particular fields for arbitrary reasons. One of his most cogent critiques targets various interest groups’ bizarre habit of dumping elementary, high school and higher ed math and science into one rhetorical stewpot. Despite some arguably necessary repetition, Falling Behind should be a touchstone for anyone wishing to understand how U.S. science funding really works.
21 October 2015
The simple message of The Secret Lives of Bats (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): Humankind should praise these seed-spreading, pollinating, insect-pest-munching flying mammals rather than kill them. Unfortunately, we have been more successful at the latter, and in alarming numbers worldwide, as author Merlin Tuttle tells the tale, subtitled My Adventures with the World’s Most Misunderstood Mammals. Tuttle, a bat researcher since boyhood who founded Bat Conservation International, has spent the past 50 years in the field (and the cave) setting the record straight. Spinning engaging stories that star moonshiners, farmers and other bat-curious, Tuttle is a personable and plainspoken guide through a world inaccessible to most.
21 September 2015
Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century isn’t just a good writing guide. It’s one of the best books published in the past year. Wise, funny, practical and, as of this writing, ranked in the top 20 of three Amazon writing-guide categories, it will find an even wider audience after its Penguin-paperback debut this week. Pinker isn’t a scold who ascribes bad writing to laziness or ill will. He explains why otherwise well-intended writers fail. For example, are scientists and other jargon-drenched writers trying to shut the rest of us out? No, he says. In the subtitle of a chapter called “The Curse of Knowledge,” Pinker nails it: “The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something that you know.” He’s also strategic, preparing readers before laying a serious but fascinating grammar lesson on them unlike anything you’ll find in The Elements of Style, in print for 56 years. May Pinker’s words on writing enjoy a similar run.