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Weird Science

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Here’s a small sampling of nonfiction science books that are sufficiently strange that even readers who usually shy away from such titles may enjoy, and that readers who usually enjoy such titles may have missed. While none of them will bring back Pluto’s official status as a planet, they all have something interesting to say about medicine, science or technology.

Wendy Moore’s The Knife Man (Broadway Books, 2005) tells the story of John Hunter (1728-1793), a Scottish physician in Georgian London who, through his experimental and unorthodox methods, including body snatching and infecting himself with venereal disease in an attempt to self-inoculate, managed to bring to light many modern-day surgical insights into skin grafting, evolution, not infecting patients with dirty tools, and the harm of bleeding and purging patients, which had been common practice in his day.

G. Wayne Miller’s The Xeno Chronicles (Perseus Publishing, 2005) reflects on xenotransplantation, or the practice of transplanting organs from one species to another, in this case from animals to humans. This book focuses on Dr. David H. Sachs of the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital and his hopes for one cloned pig named Goldie. Miller examines this practice from several different angles: its potential to become a multi-billion-dollar business, to the ethical concerns that animal rights groups have about this kind of experimentation, to the hope it can inspire in a patient who has had no luck on the human organ donor list.

Charles Seife’s Decoding the Universe (Viking, 2006); Seife, the author of Zero and Alpha & Omega tries to explain everything from DNA to black holes using information theory. Though the concepts are complex, Seife has a knack for making things more accessible, partly through the use of helpful illustrations.

David Levy’s Love and Sex with Robots (HarperCollins, 2007) is a nonfiction account of the foray of robotics and artificial intelligence into the world of human perception – creating robots that have life-like characteristics of voice response, touch, appearance and scent.

Michael Chorost’s Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) is a warm and interesting memoir of his life as a deaf computer nerd and how his cochlear implant has changed his life and his perceptions of reality. He considers himself a cyborg in the sense that he uses technology to augment his body’s natural abilities.

John D. Barrow’s The Infinite Book (Pantheon, 2005) explores infinities in mathematics, physics, philosophy and religion.

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