Book Reviews

29 julho, 2006

82) Cinco melhores livros de ciencia...

Da coluna semana do The Wall Street Journal sobre os cinco melhores livros.
29 Julho 2006

FIVE BEST
Quest for Knowledge
You don't have to work in a lab to love these science books.
BY RUSSELL SEITZ
Saturday, July 29, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

1. "De Re Metallica" by Georgius Agricola (1556).

In 1898, embedded reporter Winston Churchill, confronting Islamic terror in the Sudan, wrote: "Were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science--the science against which it had vainly struggled--the civilization of modern Europe might fall as did that of Rome." Thank God for Churchill's stout grasp of the importance of military technology. But it is to Herbert Hoover, the mining engineer and future president, that we owe the 1912 translation of "De Re Metallica." This Elizabethan classic is technology's first do-it-yourself manual, teaching (among much else) how to make iron from scratch, how to coin silver, and how to connect a waterwheel in a valley to a mine pump halfway up a mountain. The book reveals, along the way, that art and science are intertwined, in everything from Benvenuto Cellini's golden masterpieces to the cannons of the Thirty Years War. The Industrial Revolution starts here.

2. "Promethean Ambitions" by William R. Newman (University of Chicago, 2005).

As William R. Newman reminds us in "Promethean Ambitions," his fascinating history of alchemy, the failure to distinguish good science from bad has been a recipe for policy disaster for centuries. Newman shows that alchemists were more than dreamers trying to convert lead into gold. From 1200 to 1700, they followed trends in metaphysical fashion by trying to create tiny humans, called homunculi. One hears echoes of today's cloning debates in the 16th-century wrangling over the moral status of these imaginary creatures.

3. "Bedrock" edited by Lauret E. Savoy, Eldridge M. Moores and Judith E. Moores (Trinity University, 2006).

How can you comprehend the immensity of the Earth's past? Pick up this inch-thick book. In sections covering everything from "Faults, Earthquakes and Tsunamis" to "The Work of Ice," its six-dozen narratives of action and endurance, stasis and change, convey the wonders of deep time. Some of the geology writing is great, all of it absorbing, taken from the works of a marvelous array of writers. It fast-forwards two millennia from Pliny the Younger's description of his uncle's death in the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79 to Ursula K. Le Guin's front-porch view of Mount St. Helens blowing sky high in 1980. No less riveting is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's account of landing his plane on a sandy Saharan plateau so remote that his are the first footprints there and the only rocks are fallen stars.

4. "Longitude" by Dava Sobel (Walker, 1995).

It's hard to know where you are in a universe where all is change. Once Newton's laws connected the heavens to the Earth, and mariners mastered the art of finding latitude, getting to the New World and back was transformed from an astrolabe-directed dice game into a comparatively routine enterprise. But ocean travel was still by no means simple or safe; determining one's east-west position remained a mystery. Dava Sobel recounts the human drama of a provincial British tinkerer named John Harrison racing for an 18th-century government prize. His invention of the chronometer touched off a second industrial revolution, in precision instruments, that propelled the world from the use of sextants to electronics and the satellite-driven navigation we know today.

5. "Cosmos" by Alexander von Humboldt (1845).

Exploration used to be a very sporty business. Consider Alexander von Humboldt, the polymath born in Berlin in 1769, who became the first scientific superstar and arguably the godfather of ecology. His daunting grand tour of the tropics in the early 1800s inspired Darwin's voyage on the Beagle a few decades later. Von Humboldt's tour de force included a 20,000-foot climb in the Andes--mountaineering's first encounter with the thin air of the so-called Death Zone. He had already discovered that the Amazon and Orinoco rivers were connected, something that had eluded the Spanish despite their 300 years in the region. Heading north, von Humboldt dropped by Monticello in time to help Jefferson plot Lewis and Clark's trip to the West in 1804. At once the first scientist and the last Romantic, von Humboldt late in life wrote "Cosmos," a magisterial, five-volume overview of the universe. It briefly outsold the Bible.

Mr. Seitz is a physicist in Cambridge, Mass.

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