Saturday, February 4, 2012

Critical Curious Thinking - Mary Roach

by Bill Doughty
To misquote Forrest Gump, a book of essays is like a box of chocolates.  New York Times bestselling author Mary Roach’s The Best American Science and Nature Writing (2011) (BASNW) is a collection of curious, sweet/tart morsels for critical thinkers.
Like her own works -- Stiff, Bonk, Spook, and Packing for Mars -- Roach has fun removing the lid to reveal essays about space, time, species, mind and the universe.  As a special treat, she offers recommendations for Navy Reads readers in this blogpost, but more about that in a moment.  First, from BASNW 2011:
With help from Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, we get a goldfish view of the world and reality.  Other essays deal with chemistry, robotics, fracking and fertility.  Essays can be read in any order and some can be skipped, but I confess to enjoying each one...some more than others.
Jill Sisson Quinn takes us into the forest for an existential look at the 8-inch Ichneumon wasps that lay their eggs, Aliens-like, into the bodies of wood wasps, even into and through tree bark.
We learn about alcohol poisoning (and poisoning of alcohol), invasive species like giant Asian carp and New York City coyotes, and the mating habits of Layson albatrosses at Kaena Point, Oahu, Hawaii.
The book features works from such luminary writers as Malcolm Gladwell, Jonathan Franzen and Oliver Sacks, writing for New Yorker.  Works come from Discover, Outside, Orion, Wired, Scientific American, Atlantic and other magazines.
Editor of the overall The Best American Series, Tim Folger, introduces Roach’s selections with a lament about the lack of attention given to science in today’s culture, a view shared by critical thinkers who visit a book store and see the dwindling size of the science section.  (But, I was happy to find there were four copies of BASNW at the neighborhood Barnes & Noble.)
Folger discusses the cultural reaction to a historic discovery a year ago, Feb. 3, 2011, by the Kepler telescope.  Kepler revealed 1,235 planets orbiting other stars, doubling the number of known planets in our galaxy. [Planet Candidates (2,326 as of 2011 Dec 5)]
That discovery increased the odds of intelligent life existing in the cosmos, but because it was made a few days before the Superbowl (and perhaps for other reasons), it got very little attention.
Reading about discoveries by scientists and thinking about their insights can be as satisfying as watching football and eating chocolates.  By the way, scientists have found that chocolates can be good for you.
Mary Roach.  (Photo by David Paul Morris)
According to Mary Roach, “Make no mistake, good science writing is medicine.  It is a cure for ignorance and fallacy.  Good science writing peels away the blindness, generates wonder, brings the open palm to the forehead: ‘Oh! Now I get it!’”
A goal of the Navy Professional Reading Program is to foster critical thinking. Ancient philosophers, Enlightenment giants, military historians and popular science writers, like Roach, offer “aha” opportunities to think critically, analyze logically and act wisely.
Ms. Roach sent me her suggested reading list for better critical thinking.  Her recommendations to Navy Reads:
“If TV were a book,” Roach told me, “I'd put Mythbusters on the list.”
From Roach’s Spook: “In my experience, the most staunchly held views are based on ignorance or accepted dogma, not carefully considered accumulations of facts." 

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