If you are fascinated by science . . .

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Is a mushroom cloud a thing of beauty or terror? Or both? And are scientists to be praised or blamed for their relentless inquiries over the centuries that have delivered us to our current -- and alarming -- knowledge of the world? No matter how you come down on these issues, you'll find plenty to contemplate with a carefully planned afternoon at the National Book Festival.

If you believe scientists can't solve all our problems -- or create all our messes -- on their own, stop by to hear Henry Petroski (Contemporary Life at 3:15 p.m.), an engineering professor and literary stylist who writes on the wonders of his profession -- a whole book, for instance, on how the pencil came to be, and another on the evolution of everyday things such as the paper clip. His new book, "The Essential Engineer," explores the underappreciated role of the engineer in human progress and argues that scientists and engineers must work together to confront the challenges that lie ahead.

On your beauty-terror tour, you'll have to choose between hearing about the beauty and the terror or just the terror. Richard Holmes (History & Biography at 3:50 p.m.), a leading biographer of Romantic Age literary giants, dips into the intersection between science and the arts in his latest book, "The Age of Wonder." Holmes describes how 18th-century musician-turned-stargazer William Herschel inspired fear by widening the universe. A gifted builder of telescopes, Herschel expanded our farthest horizons by seeing that other galaxies lie beyond our own.

Fear intensifies into horror as science creates the mushroom cloud, a subject that Richard Rhodes (Contemporary Life at 3:50 p.m.) thoroughly explored in his Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Making of the Atomic Bomb." Rhodes discusses his latest book, "The Twilight of the Bombs," in which he follows disarmament trends of recent years and leaves us hoping for a future without these weapons of mass destruction.

Harold Varmus (Contemporary Life at 4:25 p.m.) is a calming voice for the terrors that rip through the politics of science. Few scientists are as distinguished as this Nobel laureate in medicine who also has served as the head of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and is now director of the National Cancer Institute. Read about how he wrote his memoir, "The Art and Politics of Science," on page 11. Here in Varmus's life is a story of the beauty of science, helping us slay the monsters that terrorize us.

-- Steven Levingston

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