August 2006

Sullivan, Robert. Rats. New York: Bloomsbury, [2004] 2005. ISBN 1-58234-477-9.
Here we have one of the rarest phenomena in publishing: a thoroughly delightful best-seller about a totally disgusting topic: rats. (Before legions of rat fanciers write to berate me for bad-mouthing their pets, let me state at the outset that this book is about wild rats, not pet and laboratory rats which have been bred for docility for a century and a half. The new afterword to this paperback edition relates the story of a Brooklyn couple who caught a juvenile Bedford-Stuyvesant street rat to fill the empty cage of their recently deceased pet and, as it it matured, came to regard it with such fear that they were afraid even to release it in a park lest it turn and attack them when the cage was opened—the author suggested they might consider the strategy of “open the cage and run like hell” [p. 225–226]. One of the pioneers in the use of rats in medical research in the early years of the 20th century tried to use wild rats and concluded “they proved too savage to maintain in the laboratory” [p. 231].)

In these pages are more than enough gritty rat facts to get yourself ejected from any polite company should you introduce them into a conversation. Many misconceptions about rats are debunked, including the oft-cited estimate that the rat and human population is about the same, which would lead to an estimate of about eight million rats in New York City—in fact, the most authoritative estimate (p. 20) puts the number at about 250,000 which is still a lot of rats, especially once you begin to appreciate what a single rat can do. (But rat exaggeration gets folks' attention: here is a politician claiming there are fifty-six million rats in New York!) “Rat stories are war stories” (p. 34), and this book teems with them, including The Rat that Came Up the Toilet, which is not an urban legend but a well-documented urban nightmare. (I'd be willing to bet that the incidence of people keeping the toilet lid closed with a brick on the top is significantly greater among readers of this book.)

It's common for naturalists who study an animal to develop sympathy for it and defend it against popular aversion: snakes and spiders, for example, have many apologists. But not rats: the author sums up by stating that he finds them “disgusting”, and he isn't alone. The great naturalist and wildlife artist John James Audubon, one of the rare painters ever to depict rats, amused himself during the last years of his life in New York City by prowling the waterfront hunting rats, having received permission from the mayor “to shoot Rats in the Battery” (p. 4).

If you want to really get to know an animal species, you have to immerse yourself in its natural habitat, and for the Brooklyn-based author, this involved no more than a subway ride to Edens Alley in downtown Manhattan, just a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, which was destroyed during the year he spent observing rats there. Along with rat stories and observations, he sketches the history of New York City from a ratty perspective, with tales of the arrival of the brown rat (possibly on ships carrying Hessian mercenaries to fight for the British during the War of American Independence), the rise and fall of rat fighting as popular entertainment in the city, the great garbage strike of 1968 which transformed the city into something close to heaven if you happened to be a rat, and the 1964 Harlem rent strike in which rats were presented to politicians by the strikers to acquaint them with the living conditions in their tenements.

People involved with rats tend to be outliers on the scale of human oddness, and the reader meets a variety of memorable characters, present-day and historical: rat fight impresarios, celebrity exterminators, Queen Victoria's rat-catcher, and many more. Among numerous fascinating items in this rat fact packed narrative is just how recent the arrival of the mis-named brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, is. (The species was named in England in 1769, having been believed to have stowed away on ships carrying lumber from Norway. In fact, it appears to have arrived in Britain before it reached Norway.) There were no brown rats in Europe at all until the 18th century (the rats which caused the Black Death were Rattus rattus, the black rat, which followed Crusaders returning from the Holy Land). First arriving in America around the time of the Revolution, the brown rat took until 1926 to spread to every state in the United States, displacing the black rat except for some remaining in the South and West. The Canadian province of Alberta remains essentially rat-free to this day, thanks to a vigorous and vigilant rat control programme.

The number of rats in an area depends almost entirely upon the food supply available to them. A single breeding pair of rats, with an unlimited food supply and no predation or other causes of mortality, can produce on the order of fifteen thousand descendants in a single year. That makes it pretty clear that a rat population will grow until all available food is being consumed by rats (and that natural selection will favour the most aggressive individuals in a food-constrained environment). Poison or trapping can knock down the rat population in the case of a severe infestation, but without limiting the availability of food, will produce only a temporary reduction in their numbers (while driving evolution to select for rats which are immune to the poison and/or more wary of the bait stations and traps).

Given this fact, which is completely noncontroversial among pest control professionals, it is startling that in New York City, which frets over and regulates public health threats like second-hand tobacco smoke while its denizens suffer more than 150 rat bites a year, many to children, smoke-free restaurants dump their offal into rat-infested alleys in thin plastic garbage bags, which are instantly penetrated by rats. How much could it cost to mandate, or even provide, rat-proof steel containers for organic waste, compared to the budget for rodent control and the damages and health hazards of a large rat population? Rats will always be around—in 1936, the president of the professional society for exterminators persuaded the organisation to change the name of the occupation from “exterminator” to “pest control operator”, not because the word “exterminator” was distasteful, but because he felt it over-promised what could actually be achieved for the client (p. 98). But why not take some simple, obvious steps to constrain the rat population?

The book contains more than twenty pages of notes in narrative form, which contain a great deal of additional information you don't want to miss, including the origin of giant inflatable rats for labour rallies, and even a poem by exterminator guru Bobby Corrigan. There is no index.

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Staley, Kent W. The Evidence for the Top Quark. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-521-82710-8.
A great deal of nonsense and intellectual nihilism has been committed in the name of “science studies”. Here, however, is an exemplary volume which shows not only how the process of scientific investigation should be studied, but also why. The work is based on the author's dissertation in philosophy, which explored the process leading to the September 1994 publication of the “Evidence for top quark production in pp collisions at √s = 1.8 TeV” paper in Physical Review D. This paper is a quintessential example of Big Science: more than four hundred authors, sixty pages of intricate argumentation from data produced by a detector weighing more than two thousand tons, and automated examination of millions and millions of collisions between protons and antiprotons accelerated to almost the speed of light by the Tevatron, all to search, over a period of months, for an elementary particle which cannot be observed in isolation, and finally reporting “evidence” for its existence (but not “discovery” or “observation”) based on a total of just twelve events “tagged” by three different algorithms, when a total of about 5.7 events would have been expected due to other causes (“background”) purely by chance alone.

Through extensive scrutiny of contemporary documents and interviews with participants in the collaboration which performed the experiment, the author provides a superb insight into how science on this scale is done, and the process by which the various kinds of expertise distributed throughout a large collaboration come together to arrive at the consensus they have found something worthy of publication. He explores the controversies about the paper both within the collaboration and subsequent to its publication, and evaluates claims that choices made by the experimenters may have a produced a bias in the results, and/or that choosing experimental “cuts” after having seen data from the detector might constitute “tuning on the signal”: physicist-speak for choosing the criteria for experimental success after having seen the results from the experiment, a violation of the “predesignation” principle usually assumed in statistical tests.

In the final two, more philosophical, chapters, the author introduces the concept of “Error-Statistical Evidence”, and evaluates the analysis in the “Evidence” paper in those terms, concluding that despite all the doubt and controversy, the decision making process was, in the end, ultimately objective. (And, of course, subsequent experimentation has shown the information reported in the Evidence paper to be have been essentially correct.)

Popular accounts of high energy physics sometimes gloss over the fantastically complicated and messy observations which go into a reported result to such an extent you might think experimenters are just waiting around looking at a screen waiting for a little ball to pop out with a “t” or whatever stencilled on the side. This book reveals the subtlety of the actual data from these experiments, and the intricate chain of reasoning from the multitudinous electronic signals issuing from a particle detector to the claim of having discovered a new particle. This is not, however, remotely a work of popularisation. While attempting to make the physics accessible to philosophers of science and the philosophy comprehensible to physicists, each will find the portions outside their own speciality tough going. A reader without a basic understanding of the standard model of particle physics and the principles of statistical hypothesis testing will probably end up bewildered and may not make it to the end, but those who do will be rewarded with a detailed understanding of high energy particle physics experiments and the operation of large collaborations of researchers which is difficult to obtain anywhere else.

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Wilczek, Frank. Fantastic Realities. Singapore: World Scientific, 2006. ISBN 981-256-655-4.
The author won the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of “asymptotic freedom” in the strong interaction of quarks and gluons, which laid the foundation of the modern theory of Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD) and the Standard Model of particle physics. This book is an anthology of his writing for general and non-specialist scientific audiences over the last fifteen years, including eighteen of his “Reference Frame” columns from Physics Today and his Nobel prize autobiography and lecture.

I had eagerly anticipated reading this book. Frank Wilczek and his wife Betsy Devine are co-authors of the 1988 volume Longing for the Harmonies, which I consider to be one of the best works of science popularisation ever written, and whose “theme and variation” structure I adopted for my contemporary paper “The New Technological Corporation”. Wilczek is not only a brilliant theoretician, he has a tremendous talent for explaining the arcana of quantum mechanics and particle physics in lucid prose accessible to the intelligent layman, and his command of the English language transcends pedestrian science writing and sometimes verges on the poetic, occasionally crossing the line: this book contains six original poems!

The collection includes five book reviews, in a section titled “Inspired, Irritated, Inspired”, the author's reaction to the craft of reviewing books, which he describes as “like going on a blind date to play Russian roulette” (p. 305). After finishing this 500 page book, I must sadly report that my own experience can be summed up as “Inspired, Irritated, Exasperated”. There is inspiration aplenty and genius on display here, but you're left with the impression that this is a quickie book assembled by throwing together all the popular writing of a Nobel laureate and rushed out the door to exploit his newfound celebrity. This is not something you would expect of World Scientific, but the content of the book argues otherwise.

Frank Wilczek writes frequently for a variety of audiences on topics central to his work: the running of the couplings in the Standard Model, low energy supersymmetry and the unification of forces, a possible SO(10) grand unification of fundamental particles, and lattice QCD simulation of the mass spectrum of mesons and hadrons. These are all fascinating topics, and Wilczek does them justice here. The problem is that with all of these various articles collected in one book, he does them justice again, again, and again. Four illustrations: the lattice QCD mass spectrum, the experimentally measured running of the strong interaction coupling, the SO(10) particle unification chart, and the unification of forces with and without supersymmetry, appear and are discussed three separate times (the latter four times) in the text; this gets tedious.

There is sufficient wonderful stuff in this book to justify reading it, but don't feel duty-bound to slog through the nth repetition of the same material; a diligent editor could easily cut at least a third of the book, and probably close to half without losing any content. The final 70 pages are excerpts from Betsy Devine's Web log recounting the adventures which began with that early morning call from Sweden. The narrative is marred by the occasional snarky political comment which, while appropriate in a faculty wife's blog, is out of place in an anthology of the work of a Nobel laureate who scrupulously avoids mixing science and politics, but still provides an excellent inside view of just what it's like to win and receive a Nobel prize.

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Scalzi, John. The Ghost Brigades. New York: Tor, 2006. ISBN 0-765-31502-5.
After his stunning fiction debut in Old Man's War (April 2005), readers hoping for the arrival on the scene of a new writer of Golden Age stature held their breath to see whether the author would be a one book wonder or be able to repeat. You can start breathing again—in this, his second novel, he hits another one out of the ballpark.

This story is set in the conflict-ridden Colonial Union universe of Old Man's War, some time after the events of that book. Although in the acknowledgements he refers to this as a sequel, you'd miss little or nothing by reading it first, as everything introduced in the first novel is explained as it appears here. Still, if you have the choice, it's best to read them in order. The Colonial Special Forces, which are a shadowy peripheral presence in Old Man's War, take centre stage here. Special Forces are biologically engineered and enhanced super-soldiers, bred from the DNA of volunteers who enlisted in the regular Colonial Defense Forces but died before they reached the age of 75 to begin their new life as warriors. Unlike regular CDF troops, who retain their memories and personalities after exchanging their aged frame for a youthful and super-human body, Special Forces start out as a tabula rasa with adult bodies and empty brains ready to be programmed by their “BrainPal” appliance, which also gives them telepathic powers.

The protagonist, Jared Dirac, is a very special member of the Special Forces, as he was bred from the DNA of a traitor to the Colonial Union, and imprinted with that person's consciousness in an attempt to figure out his motivations and plans. Things didn't go as expected, and Jared ends up with two people in his skull, leading to exploration of the meaning of human identity and how our memories (or those of others) make us who we are, along the lines of Robert Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil. The latter was not one of Heinlein's better outings, but Scalzi takes the nugget of the idea and runs with it here, spinning a yarn that reads like Heinlein's better work. In the last fifty pages, the Colonial Union universe becomes a lot more ambiguous and interesting, and the ground is laid for a rich future history series set there. This book has less rock-em sock-em combat and more character development and ideas, which is just fine for this non-member of the video game generation.

Since almost anything more I said would constitute a spoiler, I'll leave it at that; I loved this book, and if you enjoy the best of Heinlein, you probably will as well. (One quibble, which I'll try to phrase to avoid being a spoiler: for the life of me, I can't figure out how Sagan expects to open the capture pod at the start of chapter 14 (p. 281), when on p. 240 she couldn't open it, and since then nothing has happened to change the situation.) For more background on the book and the author's plans for this universe, check out the Instapundit podcast interview with the author.

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