Two books worth reading.

Regrettably, you usually see the word “reading” tied to the word “remedial” in these LOTRW posts. All too often I find myself belatedly giving attention to books I wish I’d come across years earlier, when they were first published. Could have saved myself time, been more productive and insightful in my work, and more.

You may share this problem. The reality we face has two causes. First, seven billion people are writing a lot of books while our backs are turned. We can’t keep up. And second, today most of us are doing our reading in short bursts, doing Google searches for quanta of information we need as a just-in-time next step for some task at hand. (Indeed, a case could be made that the future belongs to those who best master this new 21st-century skill.) This approach to knowledge work and problem solving means that when we’re reading something voluminous we find it hard to concentrate; we keep wondering about the opportunity cost associated with spending a large block of time on a single person’s perspective. Chances are good that there’s another book out there that might be a better use of our time – more germane to our work, perhaps, or slightly more insightful or well-researched or deep. Thought processes like this might lead to a sort of AADD. We don’t have a congenital attention-deficit disorder so much as we have acquired attention deficit disorder. As a result we don’t read books beginning-to-end so much any more.

So it’s a pleasure to suggest you buck this trend, and to commend to your reading two books that weren’t written years ago; instead, they’re actually current:


1. Roger Pielke, Jr.’s The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change, just published by The Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes in November of 2014. This small (114-page) volume is wholly compatible with today’s brief attention span; it can easily be read in a single sitting, though it merits fuller, more thoughtful reflection. Mr. Pielke crisply reviews Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) conclusions on the links between natural extremes, disasters, and climate change. He compares those conclusions and the assertions of others with the findings of his own research, accomplished in collaboration with a number of distinguished colleagues over past decades[1]. He is careful to acknowledge that climate change almost certainly is impacting human experience with disasters and will do so more strongly in the future. However, he argues persuasively (as he’s done in the peer-reviewed literature) that the strongest signal in the disaster-loss trends over the past century or so arises from the population growth and increased value of property and business activity worldwide over that same period. Losses are rising largely because more people and activity are in harm’s way – in hazardous coastal areas, riverine floodplains, seismically-active regions, and the like. The book reflects the author’s signature traits: reliance on comprehensively reviewed material such as the IPCC products to provide a solid context; extensive referencing of the peer-reviewed literature, and meticulous attention to the definition of terms (in this case: extreme events, climate change, risk, etc.). Happily, the book also bears Mr. Pielke’s stamp in another respect. It contains a number of his personal anecdotes and vignettes from recent years. Institutions, groups, and individuals worldwide seek his perspective and his active participation in variety of public and debates and collaborations, so he can draw from many examples, featuring more than a little controversy. Their inclusion gives the narrative a breezy, inside-baseball feel. The book closes with a brief discussion of the bearing of all this on climate policy and vice versa, and reemphasizes some of the key points from one of his earlier works, from 2010: The Climate Fix. However, given the book’s compelling conclusion that trends to date in disaster losses are the result of population growth and economic exposure, it would have been interesting to hear more of Mr. Pielke’s thoughts on policies that might target that challenge. Perhaps he was remaining true to the spirit of yet another of his books, 2007’s The Honest Broker.

AMS Book Cover-Final

2. William B. Gail’s Climate Conundrums: What the Climate Debate Reveals About Us, just published by The American Meteorological Society, in November, 2014. At 235 pages, this refreshing book will require more of your time, but is well worth the read. Mr. Gail centers his book on ten related questions, grouped into three categories:

Part I. Humans and Nature.

Are humans distinct from nature?

Can we make nature better?

Is nature sustainable?

Part II. Humans and society

Should society’s future matter to us?

Will civilization advance indefinitely?

Can we engineer everything?

Is knowledge always beneficial?

Could science and religion reconcile?

Part III. Humans and destiny

Do we live in a special time?

What will become of us?

He’s careful at the outset and throughout his book to warn that these questions don’t have “answers” in the literal sense; instead, they’re more of a Rohrschach test (as the book’s subtitle suggests). He’s not summarizing research in the mode of Mr. Pielke, but instead writing essays, in the tradition of, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Every reader of Mr. Gail’s essays will find much to like, but also one or more particular inferences that the reader feels could stand improvement (and of course, this’ll vary for each of us). In that sense, Mr. Gail’s done an admirable job of fulfilling the role described by Charles Darwin in the quote on LOTRW’s home page: “False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness.[2] Mr. Gail has done us all a service by taking the bold step of providing preliminary answers to some big questions. He invites us to reflect and add to the conversation on each. Regardless of our role in life, we would probably all do well to take a breather from our Google searches and piecemeal work to consider these larger issues… or frame alternative questions. Much more such conversation wouldn’t just provide insight into our worldwide future; they would brighten it.

The invitation? Lay hold of these books, start reading, and offer feedback. If you’re going to the upcoming 2015 AMS Annual Meeting in Phoenix, an added opportunity: Mr. Gail’s book will be for sale at the AMS Resources Center, and he will be signing autographed copies off and on. Consult your program… or hope to get lucky and catch him in the hallway.

Not planning to buy the books? The one excuse the authors might accept: that you’re too busy writing your own, better material.


[1]In fact, the IPCC inferences are drawn in part from the work of Pielke et al. over the period, so these two bodies of work are not independent.

[2]Charles Darwin The Origins of Man, Chapter 6


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One Response to Two books worth reading.

  1. James Henderson says:

    If I might be so bold to suggest a third book not necessarily on climate change but on being a scientist under severe political constraint. “Serving the Reich; The struggle for the soul of Physics under Hitler” by Philip Ball the university of Chicago Press Chicago. It’s Ball story of Peter Debye, Werner Heisenberg, and Max Plank during the Nazi regime. It includes a lot of the giants in physics and chemistry including Einstein, that we all came to know quite well during our academic careers. published in October of 2014 and is IMHO a fascinating read.

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