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.
Edison: And the Rise of Innovation by Leonard DeGraaf (Foreword by Bill Gates)
The nutshell: This heavily illustrated biography of Thomas Edison from DeGraaf, the archivist at Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, N.J, creates a portrait not of a mad genius but of a brilliant, ambitious, and collaborative inventor and businessman with a knack for knowing what the public wanted.
Literary lovechild of: Randall E. Stross’ The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World and Henry Ford’s My Life and Work.
You’ll find it on your bookshelf if: You’ve been to the Edison historical sites and memorials in Milan, Ohio; Port Huron, Mich.; Louisville, Ky.; Dearborn, Mich.; Fort Myers, Fla.; and West Orange, N.J. Hey, people like bulbs.
Cocktail party fodder: When New York state changed its method of capital punishment from hanging to execution by electricity in 1888, Edison and his lab assisted in experimenting with how many volts it would take. A new word was needed to describe the method; Edison suggested “ampermort,” “dynamort,” “electromort”; his lawyer suggested “Westinghoused,” after George Westinghouse—whose alternating current (AC) electric power system was in competition with Edison’s direct current (DC) system.
For optimal benefit: Read by candlelight so you’ll stop being an ingrate.
Snap judgment: The illustrations are rich, and the breadth of Edison’s inventing makes Steve Jobs seem like a slacker. But this biography-cum-coffee-table-book doesn’t offer much else that feels revelatory.
A Case for Climate Engineering by David Keith
The nutshell: Keith, a Harvard University public policy analyst and physicist, argues that pumping sulfates into the atmosphere—solar geoengineering—combined with the gradual eradication of greenhouse gas emissions could slow or even stop global warming.
Literary lovechild of: Bjørn Lomborg’s Smart Solutions to Climate Change: Comparing Costs and Benefits and Clive Hamilton’s Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering.
You’ll find it on your bookshelf if: You wrote a book arguing we can—and should—convert at least one of the major oceans (probably the Indian) to a freshwater body.
Cocktail party fodder: The average American is responsible for about 20 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year—the weight of about 10 cars, and four times the global average.
For optimal benefit: Give a copy to the pesky member of your household who’s been urging you to install solar panels (now for sale at IKEA!).
Snap judgment: Keith’s proposal is audacious at first, but in the course of this brief book he makes a convincing case—both for not being a kook and for the possibilities of climate engineering.
Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia by Anthony M. Townsend
The nutshell: Townsend, a researcher at New York University and adviser at the Institute for the Future, explores how new technology has changed cities—and vice versa. Technology, he argues, can make our cities better places to live for all—but only if people and communities use tools like grassroots social media to take control of them back from engineers and big business interests.
Literary lovechild of: Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.
You’ll find it on your bookshelf if: You have already picked out the site, in your city, of what you think will be the next big social movement à la Occupy.
Cocktail party fodder: A World Bank study found that for every 10 percentage point increase in mobile phone penetration, a country’s GDP rises by 0.8 percent.
For optimal benefit: Read in your cramped apartment in an ancient tenement and remember your predecessors had it much, much worse: no Twitter.
Snap judgment: Townsend has collected fascinating stories of urban renewal and innovation from around the globe and packaged them into lessons that are neat and digestible. (Albeit sometimes too neat and digestible.)
Previous Six-Point Inspections:
August 2013: War Play, Countdown, and The Out Limits of Reason.
July 2013: Rocket Girl, Future Bright, and People, Parasites, and Plowshares.
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.