Science books address string theory, advanced computing, history of the universe

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By James Trefil
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 13, 2010


DNA, Quantum Bits, and the Future of Smart Machines

By Dennis Shasha and Cathy Lazere

Norton. 288 pp.


Science isn't static: It grows and breathes and changes like a living thing. In fact, the best way to describe the state of science at any given time is to compare it to a tree. At the core of the tree is the unchanging heartwood, while at its periphery are the areas of growth and change.

Science is like that: At its core are ideas that have been tested over and over again, ideas that really aren't going to change much in the future. Out at the periphery, though, things are different. There we have a constant state of flux: ideas being tested, sometimes succeeding, sometimes being abandoned, sometimes being rethought in a bewildering, shifting kaleidoscope.

This difference is reflected in books about science. The core ideas -- reliable, time-tested, dull -- are generally relegated to textbooks, while the frontier -- changing, exciting, sexy -- becomes the focus of books intended for the general reader. Each of three new books tries to explain a little of what's happening out there at the edge, where new knowledge is being created.

"Natural Computing" is the easiest read of the three, consisting of short biographical sketches of 14 people who have made important advances in computing. They range from MIT scientist Rodney Brooks, whose 1990 paper "Elephants Don't Play Chess" changed the way computer scientists think about artificial intelligence, to Jake Loveless, a college dropout who went on to make a fortune using computers in the stock market.

The biographies, by Dennis Shasha and Cathy Lazere, are bite-size -- no more than six pages or so -- and the technical material is segregated in sidebars so that the reader doesn't get bogged down unless he or she wants to. In the end, though, as entertaining as the biographies were, when I finished reading them I felt that I was just up in the air. The important advances presented are scattered all over the field of computing, with no obvious connections. I would have liked a little more coherence.

"The Edge of Physics" is completely different.

Anil Ananthaswamy, a London-based science writer, traveled to the ends of the Earth to learn about cutting-edge research conducted in the most improbable places.

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