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A deep-dive into ignorance, the man behind the Rubik’s Cube, and a controversial theory of life: Books in brief

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Failure to Disrupt

Justin Reich Harvard Univ. Press (2020)

In 1913, Thomas Edison said books would soon become obsolete in schools, as teaching embraced the motion picture. Similar claims for MOOCs (massive open online courses) in the early 2010s already seem dated. Yet as educational researcher Justin Reich observes, video now dominates informal learning, and Wikipedia enchants many educators. His account of digital technology, neither utopian nor dystopian, offers “a tinkerer’s guide to learning at scale”, to fit — not disrupt — the complex system of school and university education.

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A Passion for Ignorance

Renata Salecl Princeton Univ. Press (2020)

Philosopher and sociologist Renata Salecl begins her study of ignorance with US President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. In early 2020, he misunderstood the danger to his country. Yet as it became obvious, he claimed: “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” This attitude, shared by many leaders, revealed both “not knowing (ignorance)” and “not acknowledging (ignoring)” — the intimately related subjects of this compellingly topical book, which ranges from genetics to fake news.

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Ernő Rubik Flatiron (2020)

Rubik’s Cube needs no introduction, unlike Ernő Rubik. An architect and son of an aircraft designer, born in Second World War Budapest, he had a childhood passion for puzzles. But in his rewarding, idiosyncratic autobiography — his first book; he “hates to write” — he calls himself a lifelong amateur, lacking professional experience of toys or industrial design when he created the cube in 1974. Perhaps his inner feeling explains why both children and adults still contemplate the toy with “a rare moment of peaceful coexistence between order and chaos”.

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The Riddle of the Rosetta

Jed Z. Buchwald & Diane Greco Josefowicz Princeton Univ. Press (2020)

The Rosetta Stone and the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs continue to fascinate. This valuable analysis by historian of science Jed Buchwald and writer Diane Josefowicz combines exhaustive excavation of archives with eclectic biographical elements on the decoders, English polymath Thomas Young and French polyglot Jean-François Champollion. They clarify in unique detail, as far as evidence allows, how much credit should go to Young, to whom the “intemperate” Champollion undoubtedly showed “lack of generosity”.

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Every Life is on Fire

Jeremy England Basic (2020)

Jeremy England trained as a biochemist, gained a physics PhD, is ordained as a rabbi and has been a university physicist and a director in artificial intelligence at drug firm GlaxoSmithKline. These interests feed his book about life’s origins, which explores his unproven thermodynamic hypothesis of “dissipative adaptation”: that random groups of molecules can self-organize to absorb and dissipate heat from the environment more efficiently. Original, intriguing and theological, the book will probably be scientifically controversial.

Nature 587, 33 (2020)



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