Each month in “The Six-Point Inspection,” Future Tense and Zócalo Public Square take a quick look at new science and technology books that are changing the way we see our world.
The nutshell: Mary Sherman Morgan’s playwright son, George D. Morgan, knew that his mother had invented hydyne, the rocket propellant that put America’s first satellite in orbit, while working at North American Aviation during the Cold War. But much of her story was mostly shrouded in mystery until he decided to write first a play and then a biography about her life.
Literary lovechild of: Ève Curie’s Madame Curie and David A. Clary’s Rocket Man: Robert H. Goddard and the Birth of the Space Age.
You’ll find it on your bookshelf if: As a child, you launched the family dog into the mesosphere and brought her safely back to Earth.
Cocktail party fodder: Mary Sherman Morgan tried to name hydyne “bagel” in order to complement the other rocket fuel ingredient—LOX, liquid oxygen.
For optimal benefit: Read before trying to write your mom’s biography. She could be hiding serious secrets (the older sister you never knew you had, that time she invented rocket fuel). Or not.
Snap judgment: Even if his dramaturgy-influenced narratives don’t always ring true, George D. Morgan is a clear-eyed, compassionate biographer of his mother and brings the science and military-industrial complex of the space-race era to life.
People, Parasites, and Plowshares: Learning From Our Body’s Most Terrifying Invaders by Dickson D. Despommier
The nutshell: Despommier, a Columbia University parasitologist, chronicles the discovery—and destructive treachery—of parasites as well as the promise they offer modern medicine in curing a number of diseases.
Literary lovechild of: Robert S. Desowitz’s New Guinea Tapeworms and Jewish Grandmothers: Tales of Parasites and People and Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures.
You’ll find it on your bookshelf if: You were not squeamish about curing your dog of tapeworm. In fact, you were impressed by the parasite’s hardiness.
Cocktail party fodder: The actor Yul Brynner sued Trader Vic’s at the Plaza Hotel after contracting trichinosis there in 1973. He won a settlement of $125,000—and it’s possible the parasite slowed down the growth of the lung cancer that killed him 12 years later.
For optimal benefit: Enjoy with Thomas Hurt’s Alien chest-plosion scene.
Snap judgment: Parasites are pretty disgusting to read about, even if you acknowledge their scientific potential, but Despommier makes them easy to understand.
Future Bright: A Transforming Vision of Human Intelligence by Michael E. Martinez
The nutshell: Martinez, who was an education scholar at UC-Irvine (Future Bright was published posthumously), argues that we need a smarter society in order to prosper in our information economy—and that human intelligence can be increased greatly through learning.
You’ll find it on your bookshelf if: Your Mensa gathering is the highlight of your year. And you studied your way in.
Cocktail party fodder: Studies show that giving vitamin supplements to school-age children increase their IQ by four to nine points.
For optimal benefit: Take an IQ test. Pop a vitamin pill. Take another IQ test. Any improvement?
Snap judgment: Martinez’s case is provocative, but it’s his history of the study of intelligence and how our understanding of it has changed that is the most fascinating part of this book.
Previous Six-Point Inspections:
June 2013: Viral Hate, The Attacking Ocean, and Me Medicine vs. We Medicine.
May 2013: Spam, The Anatomy of Violence, and Arming Mother Nature.
April 2013: The Art of Failure, Lost Cat, and Fatal Flaws.
March 2013: Robot Futures, Math on Trial, and Can’t Buy Me Like.
February 2013: Pukka’s Promise, Entering the Shift Age, and Data: A Love Story.
January 2013: Contagion, Mankind Beyond Earth, and Raw Data Is an Oxymoron.
December 2012: Saving Babies, Near-Earth Objects, and Learning To Change the World.
November 2012: Netflixed, Discord, and Million Death Quake.
October 2012: The Launch Paid, Regenesis, and The Digital Rights Movement.
September: 2012 Unfit for the Future, Automate This, and This Machine Kills Secrets.
August 2012: Resilience, Interop, and Green Illusions.