Revenge of the nerds
“Free Radicals,” Overlook

Not all scientists are nerds. In “Free Radicals,” physicist Michael Brooks tries to dispel the notion that scientists are stuffy, pen-protector-polishing bookworms.

According to Brooks, the inspiration for some of the major breakthroughs of our time came not via graduate school study sessions but from psychedelic drugs, mystical visions and other risky behaviors. Take Kary Mullis, who won the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for discovering the mechanisms behind the reproduction of DNA strains. He credits his eureka moment to taking acid. “I wasn’t stoned on LSD, but my mind by then had learned how to get down there. I could sit on a DNA molecule and watch the polymerase go by,” he explains during a BBC documentary that Brooks cites. Einstein wrote in his autobiography that the inspiration for the special theory of relativity came from a vision he had experienced as a teenager, where he saw himself running next to a beam of light.

Brooks sees these antics as a way to think outside the box and, really, outside the norm for innovation. Scientists, he argues, were long regarded as extreme personalities, at least until after World War II and the development of the atom bomb, when they were given an image makeover.

Computer Science
Scooped by a robot?
“Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story than a Human Reporter?” Wired, May

As if journalists didn’t have enough to worry about, now there’s Narrative Science, a company that’s developing computer algorithms to crank out news stories. So far, the cyber-journalists’ articles are pretty simple. There’s no flowery language or storytelling panache, just rote summarizations of sports games and stock market data.

But the robots are sharpening their quills. Programmers have found ways to tweak the program to mimic human sensitivity — training it to praise a preferred team’s strong performance, for example — and to pick up on trends and details that flesh-and-blood scribes might miss, such as pitching speeds and angles in baseball.

Book cover “Free Radicals,” by Michael Brooks.

The program’s ability to mine online data will become more relevant as facets of our lives are increasingly converted into bits and bytes. Today it’s sports and stocks. Tomorrow, the front page.

Aaron Leitko