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This Will Make You Smarter edited by John Brockman

01/06/2012. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy This Will Make You Smarter edited in the USA - or Buy This Will Make You Smarter edited in the UK

author pic

pub: Doubleday/Transworld Books. 415 page indexed hardback. Price: GBP14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-857-52111-8.

check out websites: www.rbooks.co.uk and www.edge.org

There is a think tank called ‘ The Edge’, formerly The Reality Club’, renamed when they went on-line in 1997, containing about one hundred and fifty members, who are essentially scientists and thinks. Despite the inner cover, it wasn’t editor John Brockman but scientist Stephen Pinker who posed the annual question for 2011: ‘ What scientific concepts would improve everyone’s cognitive toolkit?’ and ninety-seven gave replies which are used here. Makes me wonder what happened to the other fifty-three? The result is this book, ‘ This Will Make You Smarter’, sub-titled ‘ New Scientific Concepts To Improve Your Thinking’.

There is some semblance of order with the subject matter so it shouldn’t throw your head too much reading from one essay to the next. There are a few names you might recognise from the front cover like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker and Lawrence Kraus. Reading the list on the inside, it just felt easier to knuckle in and just read the articles first than worry about who wrote them if anything struck a chord. I have to confess that I only started paying real attention to who wrote what a quarter of the way in, so I hope those involved might want to be later in the book in the next volume.

Picking out highlights is also very subjective, so they and you will have to forgive me if I gloss over anything. With so many scientific luminaries involved, it’s inevitable that many would be pragmatic with good rationales against unreasoned bias against anything that isn’t supported by fact. I’d love to know what Richard Dawkins makes of the placebo effect in that respect. Physicist Mark Tegmark points out that Haitians burnt twelve witches in 2010 and how lack of knowledge, especially world-wide, especially in the USA, shows supernatural belief is alive and kicking in this century.

There is some debate as to the dismissal of early scientific theories as new ones replace them but as journalist Kathryn Schulz points out, new knowledge also means new thinking as reality reveals itself. Writer Clifford Pickover makes a point that we think there was only one scientist responsible for each significant discovery and gives examples for all that this isn’t so and often, it’s the one who gets the paper in print first that is regarded as successful. In many respects, this has practically turned into product placement to the star name, who in this case is the discoverer and got in print first. It does make me wonder if any scientist was favoured over another to ensure such an association.

Author Kevin Kelly points out that we learn far more from failure than success, despite it not being seen as a virtue by education authorities. In that I agree because if you fail at something, then at least for me, you want to find out why and do better and try again. Oh and according to author Jonah Lehrer, if your kids can resist eating a sweet for a while in order to have two instead later, then they are also likely to do better at SAT tests.

Author Jason Zweig does something I’ve done all my life in learning a subject away from his normal interests on a regular basis because it develops new associations in your head. If you folk reading this review have been picking up and reading half the non-fiction books I’ve been reviewing these past years, then you should also be as well informed to know this works. From my perspective, an enquiring mind works best when it has more knowledge to draw from.

Author Douglas T. Kenrick points out that it is easier to remember something if you can associate it with something else but then again, that’s how neural links are made so I’m not surprised by that. Neuroscientist Terrance Sejnowski points out that so much of our lives are base on factors of ten and it’s all a matter of scale. Author Stephen M. Kosslyn points out something we people in Science Fiction have known for a long time in that you develop better stories by working within constraints than without. In a similar vein, psychologist Sue Blackmore points out how looking for new answers for anything needs to take some risk with the answers you come up with. In this PC world, this is always something you should do first and worry about the answers after. Playwright Richard Foreman might be mistaken in thinking he’d have the shortest article, because several are shorter, but he is quite right in that we learn more from our mistakes and failure. Business strategist Don Tapscott points out that the new generation is better than us older generations by developing multi-tasking skills from using computers and mobile phones and that it can be applied to all your skills.

Researcher Gregory Paul points out the disturbing advances of creationism as a global advances and its denial of evolution as being very worrying when scientists ignoring its growth. It’s hardly something I’ve ignored in SFCrowsnest but it does need more people, especially in the scientific community, to promote the uses of sciences in everyday life and how much it shapes our world. It’s far more worrying that his reaction isn’t carried on by others here in this book but hopefully might inspire more reaction for next time.

A lot of the people in this book are coining new words to define things they’d like to see developed. If you want to know the meanings of gedanexperiment, umwelt, findex, bricoleur, kakonomics, aether, einstellung effect, veeck effect and anthropophilia then buy the book. I’m not entirely sure if these are really in the scope of the book. I mean, if you have to define a new term and meaning to Joe and Joan Public, all they’re going to do is scream science is confusing them, especially if they can’t get their tongues around the pronunciation.

Lastly, technology forecaster Paul Saffo reminds us of Elliott Jaques, who perceived different levels of the time horizon in how far ahead we think depending on the job we do and often people, as seen although he doesn’t mention the Peter Principle where people are elevated to different jobs beyond their ability because they are useless at the job they are currently doing, are inadequately placed. I think Saffo underestimates the fact that it is inadequate people who often give these job rises to people like themselves than risk having people better than themselves who would ultimately put them out to grass. Look at our current government in the UK as an example of that.

Although I think some of the people here haven’t thought through their ideas far enough into implications, there is also no indication as to where they just wrote a reply between all the other activities they do just to contribute to the need to reply to the group. Whichever, there should be enough in this book to make you pause, reflect and contemplate doing something about a need to promote interest in all things scientific.

GF Willmetts

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