LA Times Festival of Books: Science Book Blogging

Larry Mantle was the moderator for the 2pm session on science themed books.

The panelists were:

Charles Wohlforth who won an LA Times Book Prize for The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change,

Alan Tennant, author of On the Wing: To the Edge of the Earth with the Peregrine Falcon,

George Johnson talked about his books, A Shortcut Through Time: The Path to the Quantum Computer and his soon to be released Miss Leavitt's Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe

Brian Fagan described his just finished book Chaco Canyon.

Mantle allowed each author a few minutes to plug their respective books.

Fagan: Am an anthropology professor at UCSB and have written a lot about archeology. Chaco Canyon is in New Mexico and has been studied for over 100 years by scientists. The book is an overview of the work done there. It is a study of how a group of people had to abandon a locale due to climate change.

Johnson: My book "Shortcut through time" is about quantum computing. I've spent my life as a science journalist looking at different topics. My next book is about Leavitt who was a woman astronomer at Harvard about 70 years ago. It was her work and ideas that addressed the question: is the Milky Way the whole universe or not?

Tennet: My book is an adventure story of following the peregrine falcon on its migration. They travel from the Gulf of Mexico/South America to the Arctic. The narrative allows me to discuss the environmental issues and problems we saw along the route of the migration.

Wohlforth: Have lived in Anchorage and been interested in the natives of Alaska who have survived for 1000+ years. How have things changed for them? Has global warming affected their lives? Spent lots of time getting to know the whale hunters of Barrow and how they face the dangers of polar bears and ice islands.

Mantle: What do you think of global warming? Is it cyclical or man-made?

Wohlforth: Probably both. The percent contribution by natural cycles versus human activity is a difficult scientific question. However, there is also the policy question of what should be done regardless of the origin of global warming.

Fagan: I've studied medieval era fishing and the oscillations of herring population in the North Sea. Those people had to make decisions about what to do based on their "gut" reaction to what they were seeing. We are faced with a similar situation regarding global warming.

Mantle: So how do civilizations make choices in these situations?

Fagan: In studying hunting and subsistence agricultural societies we find they make intuitive judgments.

Tennet: I agree with what has been said. Man's role is variable in impact but the bottom line is we have to respond.

Mantle: George Johnson, what is there to fear about technology?

Johnson: In the case of quantum computing, it may allow problems to be solved that are impossible today. There would be concerns about data security and code cracking. But one thing you have to understand about technology is that what is theoretically possible is often not the same as what reality turns out to be.

Mantle: How do politics and science mix?

Wohlforth: I didn't want to write an "warning book" which is a common environmental book genre. I want to be truthful and accurate and allow the reader to decide. In my book, I describe that the native Alaskans do think global warming is occurring and that they want to open up ANWAR. I've been criticized for not being pro-environment enough in my book.

Tennet: I was criticized for using all sorts of gasoline fueled transportation to follow the falcons! I put an epilogue in my book where I'm more explicit about environmental issues. The book is an adventure book.

Fagan: Political realities drove decision in ancient cultures just like today.

Johnson: There is also the whole realm of politics within science in terms of personalities. I did a biography of Dr. Gellman and Dr. Feymann. In science there are huge personal jealousies. In high energy physics these people are really smart and they fight over do quarks really exist?

Mantle then open it up for audience questions.

AQ: Do you see humans as part of nature?

Wohlforth: That's an interesting perspective. The native Alaskans don't see humans as separate from nature. We think of going to the wilderness but they think of the wilderness as their home.

AQ: What do the panelists think of Michael Crichton and his views on global warming and environmental issues?

Wohlforth: My own view is that ANWAR might not be as sensitive as some think. Let's be honest and say that climate change modeling is a highly variable and inexact thing. It really can't predict but maybe provide a range of possible outcomes.

AQ: What do you think of the intelligent design and evolution controversy?

Johnson: Whenever I write on that subject I get lots of email from both sides!

AQ: How do you write about something as difficult as quantum computing?

Johnson: I definitely try to keep it simple. I look at some of the key papers and the references they cite. I call and email the scientists I identify. They are almost always happy to talk about their work to me. I write up my book chapters and . I find 3 or 4 scientists who I got to know from my research for the book and ask them to look it over.

Mantle: How do you decide on the level of detail?

Fagan: You gain experience as you write more and more. Also, you begin to identify which scientists make sense when they explain things and you follow their lead.

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