Currently reading: Outliers

Malbook cover, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwellcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is a book that makes me think. Using statistics from demographics, education, sport, and individual biographies, he shows that a minor advantage caused by happenstance can translate into an insurmountable advantage years later. The happenstance is often being just a bit older when training or education starts. That accrues extra help and practice time and the snowball is rolling. At the end of the process, a sport or vocation is missing half its potential because half the population was filtered out at the start by happenstance.

Gladwell also maintains that expertise comes from practice and a lot of the difference in outcomes is derived from differential opportunity to amass the 10,000 hours of practising needed. He cites musicians in general, the Beatles, and Steve Jobs. He points out that most American self-made millionaires were born in a span of only nine years, 1831 – 1840, and that today’s most successful computer startup firms had founders with an even narrower range, 1953 – 1956. If you were older, you were settled into a different career and if you were younger, it was too late.

Another point he made was that there’s some level that’s good enough, after which more intelligence makes no difference to professional outcomes.

I’m only half-way through the book. Perhaps he’s cherry-picking his examples but it is thought-provoking.

  • Book review on Google
  • Discussion on Gladwell’s website. “In the case of Outliers, the book grew out a frustration I found myself having with the way we explain the careers of really successful people. You know how you hear someone say of Bill Gates or some rock star or some other outlier—”they’re really smart,” or “they’re really ambitious?’ Well, I know lots of people who are really smart and really ambitious, and they aren’t worth 60 billion dollars. It struck me that our understanding of success was really crude—and there was an opportunity to dig down and come up with a better set of explanations.”
  • Review on Goodreads
  • Wikipedia article
  • Book on

Books about science

These are the books shortlisted for this year’s Royal Society Prize for Science Books 2010:

The winner is Life Ascending, which is about the innovations of evolution. Here’s the Guardian’s review.

Lane… brings his readers up to speed on the latest scientific insights into 10 great evolutionary “inventions”, among them the origin of life itself, DNA, photosynthesis, complex cells and sight…. The [last] 30-odd years… have seen astonishing advances in our understanding of the machinery of life, not only through the sequencing of the genomes of organisms, from bacteria to worms to people, but also by comparing and contrasting their biochemical workings. These studies have revealed the deep, unambiguous relatedness of all life on Earth, and are tracing our life line much further back than the fossil record ever could – right back to the start.

Book: Animal Behavior by John Alcock

For an introduction to modern ethology, a good start is Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach. by John Alcock. According to the publisher, “[He] He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University under the direction of Ernst Mayr. Alcock has also written six other books on animal behavior and natural history for general audiences. One of these, In a Desert Garden, received the Burroughs’ Award for natural history writing in 1998.”

Book: Stephen Hawking’s Universe

"Stephen Hawking's Universe" by John Boslough

As a youngster, I had no interest in baseball or hockey statistics: my spectator sport was particle physics, starting with Inside the Nucleus and some supplementary books from secondary school science, then Scientific American:

There’s a new one! It’s elementary. No, it isn’t. What’s a quark? How can something have 2/3 spin?

But real life distracted me from the popular accounts of nuclear physics. Now, I’m starting to catch up. I’ve finally read this introduction to the concepts that Stephen Hawking has pioneered and introduced to theoretical physics. It goes only up to about 1985, but that’s about when I stopped following the game.

This book explains the basic concepts of quarks, black holes, and singularities. It dips nto the history of theoretical physics. It ties together Einstein’s theories of relativity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and stellar evolution. It went far enough back that I wasn’t lost and reminded me of pioneers such as Dirac. Then it went forward through black holes and their temperature, the composition of subnuclear particles, quantum chromodynamics, and the rather shaky anthropic principle. It was an interesting and welcome refresher.

Ring species and a recommended book

I thought that ring species could include more than two species, but the canonical ring species is an unusual geographic distribution that demonstrates a snapshot speciation. A ring species occurs when two populations of a species separate to go around a barrier, are lucky enough to find habitat all the way around the obstacle, and move slowly enough that by the time they meet on the other side they are no longer interested in mating. You end up with what we would call two species if they were isolated, but they are joined by a string of populations with transitional features and a gradient of characteristics and genetics between the two. Except at the isolated ends, it’s impossible to draw a line between the two.

This one gets a good word from Action Bioscience:

To learn more about speciation, a fascinating, very understandable, and very enjoyable read is Frogs, Flies, and Dandelions. Speciation — The Evolution of New Species by Menno Schilthuizen. This book gives an excellent introduction to the major theories regarding speciation and summarizes many recent findings

Book: “Best American Science Writing 2007”

This book was a most welcome freebie in the Science Blogging conference goody bag. It is not just interesting—every essay in it is an exciting and satisfying story about science.

Science is a team sport

I’m shamelessly re-purposing this from a blog comment I made elsewhere.

Speaking of making it all up oneself, how many people worked on Dembski’s or Behe’s books? I was looking at Richard Dawkins’ “The Ancestor’s Tale” this morning, reflecting that I’ve only blogged about 2 of our 45 ancestors, and noticed that he did not pull it all out from under his hat.

He credits two researchers, Yan Wong and Sam Turvey; critical readers Mark Ridley and Peter Holland; his editor, Latha Menon; Michael Yudkin, Mark Griffith, Steve Simpson, Angela Douglas, George McGavin, Jack Pettigrew, George Barlow, Colin Blakemore, John Mollon, Henry Bennet-Clark, Robin Elisabeth Cornwell, Lindell Bromham, Mark Sutton, Bethia Thomas, Eliza Howlett, Tom Kemp, Malgosia Nowak-Kemp, Richard Fortey, Derek Siveter, Alex Freeman, Nicky Warren, A. V. Grimstone, Allen Cooper, and Christine DeBlase-Ballstadt in his Acknowledgments. Others are acknowledged in the notes at the back of the book. He has an 18-page list of cited papers and reference books. The meat of the book is over 600 pages long. He didn’t just sit down and make up some rhetorical smart remarks. The book is packed with facts, new learning, charts, illustrations, and solid biological concepts along with evidence and discussion. It’s truly a tour de force.

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