Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week's best science picks.
Few concepts are as slippery as time, but science writer Alan Burdick takes on that wrestling match with verve. On his journey through the concept's science and psychology, he interfuses multiple storylines, from the intricate synchronization of Coordinated Universal Time to the stretch and snap of time as felt by infants and the elderly. He does a free fall for neuroscientist David Eagleman's research, delves into geologist Michel Siffre's underground studies on circadian rhythms and explores freshwater biology in the perpetual daylight of an Arctic summer. Wonderfully rich and utterly beguiling.
Seasoned space writer Rod Pyle returns to orbit with this cavalcade of oddball missions, many only recently declassified. We learn how the Nazis planned to reduce Manhattan to radioactive rubble with Silbervogel — a huge rocket bomber that never materialized, yet spawned key spaceflight technologies. And in 1952, rocket scientist Wernher von Braun devised an inflatable solar-powered space station. There is plenty more, from analyses of near-failures such as NASA's Apollo 8 mission to a capsule history of a late, lamented 'thrill ride': the US X-15 hypersonic rocketplane, which last flew in 1968.
How did Scottish physician Arthur Conan Doyle conceive of Sherlock Holmes — hyper-logician, forensic genius, maverick? Michael Sims reveals a complicated birth. Holmes's real-life model was Doyle's professor, hawk-eyed diagnostician Joseph Bell; writers from Émile Gaboriau to Edgar Allen Poe offered fictional prototypes. Holmes's mastery of chemistry and occasional impetuosity stem from Doyle's own training and personality. Sims even ferrets out the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson (who also knew Bell) in Doyle's A Study in Scarlet. A delightful piece of detective work.
So ubiquitous are Airbnb and Uber in the world of online services that many forget how outlandish they seemed a few years ago. Technology writer Brad Stone chronicles their swift rise to the corporate stratosphere, juxtaposing visionary zeal with the often deep impacts they've left in their wakes. As he shows, “regulatory rancor” has dogged the companies in some cities, leaving Uber drivers at odds with traditional taxi services and Airbnb's hosts up against hoteliers. The book is a timely reminder that pushing the digital realm into the physical can disrupt communities as well as the competition.
Science journalist Caroline Williams does the rounds of top neuroscience laboratories for this immersive investigation of neuroplasticity — changes in the brain induced by training. Eager to work on issues such as attention span, Williams turns guinea pig, submitting to magnetic brain stimulation to achieve better focus, geeing up creativity by means of electrodes over her prefrontal cortex, and more. The human brain, she concludes, is “an amazing thing to play with” that can do more than you might imagine.