A Few Science Books That Will Change How You Think

As the year 2014 is winding down, now is an excellent time to start picking up some new books!  Maybe it was your New Year’s Resolution to read more and you’ve procrastinated until now, or maybe you just feel like reading some more now.  Either way, I want to dispel the myth that scientific nonfiction books are not a fun use of your time.  There are some books out there that are fast-paced, exciting, and informative – you just have to know how to find them.  Here are a few science books that fit this description:

The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail – but Some Don’t by Nate Silver

You may know Nate Silver by his blog FiveThirtyEight, which has received a lot of praise for its political predictions.  However, as a statistician, he knows a lot more than just politics – and he shares it all in this book.  The book describes how people make predictions – about everything from politics to the weather – and what went wrong when these predictions fail.  The great thing about this book is that it has something for everyone; in each chapter he explores a different area of study that requires predictions and explains the successes and failures in that field.  He does a few chapters on economics, one on baseball, one on earthquakes, another on hurricanes, and one on weather and the climate.  And each chapter is engaging and informative, and we learn one major lesson: we really shouldn’t complain about weather forecasts so much.

Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan

The Earth has been around for four billion years (a bit more, actually) and a lot of its history has been dominated by microorganisms: single celled life that provided the basis for all other life on Earth.  In this book for those interested in biology, geology, and paleontology, Margulis and Sagan explore the vast reaches of the microbial world, beginning with when the Earth formed.  They describe how microorganisms created an atmosphere safe for other life to form, how they colonized the entire world through communication and connections with other bacteria, and gave rise to other life.  This book really makes you think differently about single-celled life and our importance in the world.

Proofiness: How You’re Being Fooled by the Numbers by Charles Seife

I’ve mentioned this book many times in previous posts, but I am going to make one more reference because this book definitely changed how I think about the world.  Seife makes one main argument in this book: that a lot of people in the world use mathematics to deceive or manipulate the public, and it is important to develop certain skills to recognize and combat this.  However, the genius of this book is the numerous examples he gives – everything from advertising companies to the United States Supreme Court – to back up his claims.  The next time you are fed a number, you will stop to think where that number came from.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

If you are someone who just wants to know everything, this is the perfect book.  Bill Bryson describes the basics of chemistry and physics (how large the universe is, the concept of an atom, etc.) as well as going into the history of life through geological and biological discoveries.  He also discusses problems facing us today, including the climate and the possibility of large space bodies coming into contact with the Earth.  He mixes the scientific knowledge with descriptions of the scientists and experiments behind these discoveries, making for a book that is informative and easy to read.

If you have read any science-related books that you think others would like to read and are willing to write up a little blurb about it, I’m happy to post it on the blog or the Facebook page!  Just email me at foodforscientificthought@gmail.com!


What Happened At Chernobyl?

File:Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 2006.jpg

Photo taken by Justin Stahlman, Found at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chernobyl_Nuclear_Power_Plant_in_2006.jpg

Chernobyl is known as one of the biggest mistakes and explosions at a nuclear power plant…but what really happened?  And could it happen again?

For more information on how nuclear power plants work before reading this, check out the other post on how nuclear power works: https://foodforscientificthought.wordpress.com/2014/07/27/how-does-nuclear-power-work/

The Chernobyl reactor was an RBMK reactor, a rare type of reactor that is unique because it is cooled by coolant water and also moderated by graphite – a combination that isn’t found in any other reactors.

On the day of the explosion, the reactor was set to be shut off just for maintenance.  Some electrical engineers decided to run a test to see if power was cut to the reactor, the turbine could keep running long enough to continue pumping coolant water until a generator kicked in.  The test required the power to be dropped to about 700 megawatts.  However, due to miscommunication and demand for electricity, the power was not dropped as fast as scheduled, so by the time that the reactor was running on enough power to run the test, it was already late.  The engineers tried to drop the power too low too quickly, causing xenon poisoning of the reaction, which made them unable to raise the power to the required 700 megawatts.  To speed up the power increase, they withdrew the control rods (that help control the reaction by absorbing neutrons) to less than the minimum amount.  They raised the power to 200 megawatts and carried out the test at that power level.  Unfortunately, due to the test, the emergency core-cooling system had been shut off.

So, they began the test by shutting off the water pumps that deliver coolant to the reactor.  This caused the water at the core to boil, turning into steam.  The water is supposed to be there to absorb neutrons, stabilizing the reaction.  However, when it turns into steam, it does not absorb neutrons as well, meaning the reaction could runaway much easier.  This caused the power to rise above 500 megawatts very quickly.

The engineers at this time realized something was wrong and immediately lowered all 200 or so control rods into the reaction at once.  These control rods, however, were made with graphite at the tip, which, when inserted into the reactor, caused the reaction to increase out of control.  At this point, the reactor exploded, most likely due to steam buildup.  It’s important to note that this was not a nuclear explosion; it was caused by pressure of gases.

This was a tragedy created by many problems, including design flaws in the reactor itself and miscommunication and misinformation during the test and shutdown of the reactor.  Could it happen again?  It’s very unlikely, given that reactors are much more carefully designed now all over the world to avoid this particular type of problem.

Works Cited