Monday, August 4, 2008

For Your Consideration: Media recommendations

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow. Mlodinow is a Caltech physicist and author of several popular science books, notably, Feynman's Rainbow and (with Steven Hawking) A Briefer History of Time. This new book explores probability in everyday life, emphasizing how humans misunderstand randomness. We (read: primates) are especially evolved to form patterns and associations, to build heuristics that confer us some ability to predict future events. In other words, we seek out non-randomness in the world, a quality that was helpful in a simpler time, before modern civilization, but one that can lead to bad probability judgments when applied to modern scenarios. I've only gotten a few chapters into this, but so far it's highly entertaining and informative.

Pastoralia by George Saunders, is a collections of short stories and a novella. As the book jacket notes, Saunders is an author in the tradition of Mark Twain, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut, sharply satirical and smart. The title story, "Pastoralia" is a swift and punchy, but utterly disturbing riff on the absurdity of modern America. After reading this, I'm going back to get all of his other work.

SEED Magazine has been around for a couple years, along with its blog network Scienceblogs (Something else I would recommend as a great place to read about science/politics/culture/etc). I've been a subscriber and reader online for a good chunk of that time. Their motto, "Science is Culture," reflects the focus on the confluence of science and society, what really interests me about the magazine. Great art design too.

The Naked Scientists is a podcast by several young Cambridge, England researchers, distributed by the BBC. It covers a wide swath of popular science stories, from public health to space exploration. Each episode includes a review of the week's science news, Q&A with listener email, interviews with prominent researchers, and a "kitchen science" experiment reminiscent of Mr. Wizard. Add in a bit of cheeky Brit humor, and you've got a great show. What makes it really entertaining, in my opinion, is the hosts' enthusiasm for the subject matter and interest in promoting public scientific literacy. The science is presented in an accessible way, but it's never dumbed down.

Philosophy Bites is a great little podcast by two British authors. Each week they interview a philosopher on a specific topic - such as, for example, evil, forgiveness, infinity, and human rights. This week's episode discusses the paradox of tragedy - that is, how we seemingly take pleasure from tragic literature and film, even though such things are filled with pain and suffering. Most of these discussions are 10-30 minute segments, so it's easy to stay engaged.

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