Reading Room: Books on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

Fall 2019

By Richard Barbieri

The 17th-century poet Basho was once challenged to include Japan’s famous “Eight Views” in one 17-syllable haiku. He skillfully replied:
All eight views, ah well
Mist hid seven when I heard
Mi’i-dera’s bell.
Covering the STEAM subjects in 1,200 words, which I will attempt to do here, seems equally daunting, especially when each book should take a social/human perspective and raise questions important to us and our students today—or soon. Here goes.
Nathan H. Lents’ Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes combines engineering and evolutionary biology: The errors aren’t those we make but ones that made us, ancient design flaws that give us many challenges—throats that can choke us, spines not designed for upright movement, eyes with blind spots. But there’s more bad news: We get sinus infections because, unlike our primate cousins, our largest sinuses drain upward. “The human neck is just a glaring vulnerability,” as innumerable paralyses and deaths show. Or take the wrist, which “has eight fully formed and distinct bones tucked in there like a pile of rocks—which is about how useful they are to anyone.” To the Bible’s “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” Lents would add awkwardly and dangerously. 
But he believes “every problem that science has created, science can solve,” whether by biomedical means, genetic engineering, or other unspecified discoveries.
Technology and media expert Douglas Rushkoff disagrees. In Team Human, he argues that our technologies, primarily our means of communication, are endangering our humanity. Beginning with the present, he takes a long view: “Digital networks are just the latest media to go from promoting social bonds to destroying them—from fostering humanity to supplanting it.” From writing (which gave elites information and therefore power over the masses) to the printing press (which brought economic inequality and political censorship) to radio (which began as a personal medium and, like television, soon became a means not of marketing the advertisers’ products but of selling them neatly packaged “eyeballs,” now “clicks”). Sitting at our screens, “we think of the key, each in his prison / Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison,” T.S. Eliot wrote almost 100 years ago in The Waste Land.
This isolation is harmful because “being human is a team sport. We cannot be fully human alone. Anything that brings us together fosters our humanity. Likewise, anything that separates us makes us less human.” Rushkoff provides detailed evidence that the social isolation created by technology, in which “our culture is composed more of mediated experiences than of directly lived ones,” is psychologically damaging, especially to young people.
Further, the advance of certain technologies leads many to believe that “all of our abilities can be improved upon and all of our parts are replaceable. Upgradable. The quirks that make us human are interpreted, instead, as faults that impede our productivity and progress. ... Nature and biology are not mysteries to embrace but limits to transcend.” Rushkoff ends with this key advice: “Find the others”—reverse isolation to make effective action possible.

The State of Science 

For much of the 20th century, science fiction described a future world in which humanity had rejected science, returning to a medieval or earlier state, after near-extinction caused by scientific hubris and its creations—from viruses to nuclear arms.
Shawn Lawrence Otto’s The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It suggests our century may be reversing cause and effect, as anti-scientism exposes us to precisely the disasters—from measles to climate change—that scientists have fought to prevent. Otto begins by showing how deeply anti-scientism has penetrated English-speaking countries, from North America to Australia, within the span of a few decades.
He reminds us that until recently science was more respected by Republicans, including the environmentalist Theodore Roosevelt and the university founders Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, than by Democrats, who began the fight against teaching evolution. He asks what would have happened if the West had followed Germany and Russia in subordinating science to ideology from the 1920s on, as George W. Bush’s White House appeared to do when it said his administration “reviews the best available science based on what’s right for the American people.” 
Like Michiko Kakutani’s The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, Otto sees three forces at work: the postmodernism espoused by academics, activists, and journalists on the secular left; the ideological fight led by religious fundamentalists, who debate science as if it was an opinion; and the industrial/economic actors that obfuscate data that might harm the bottom line. This is indeed a battle for hearts and minds, and Otto offers 14 “Battle Plans,” from the blunt and universal “Do Something” to proposals for grantors, journalists, diplomats, scientists themselves, voters, and teachers. He advises educators to connect science and civics, hold science debates, teach science literacy, and reach out to parents. While many of these are being done in some circles, more action by more people could only help.

The Path to Math

As I suspected from my high school memories, mathematics proved to be the greatest challenge for me, until I found an intriguing title: The Best Writing on Mathematics 2018. (Not “best mathematical writing,” but “best writing on mathematics.”) Although some essays, such as “Quadrivium: The Structure of Mathematics as Described in Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies,” failed to engage me, quite a few were tantalizing—“The Bingo Paradox,” for example, on the anomaly that winners appear far more often in horizontal than vertical rows—and several seemed relevant to all teachers. 
Ancient history teachers might like to share “Written in Stone: The World’s First Trigonometry Revealed in an Ancient Babylonian Tablet,” while biologists could introduce nature’s math with Margaret Wertheim’s “How To Play Mathematics,” which reveals that a sea slug, in which “nothing like a brain exists … can organize itself into a mathematical surface disallowed by Euclid’s axiom about parallel lines.” This leads her to coin a phrase, “the performance of mathematics,” which suggests that “mathematics can be conceived of as something more like music or dancing; an activity that takes place not so much in the writing down as in the playing out.” And writing teachers can take a lesson from Caroline Yoon’s “The Writing Mathematician,” which shows that writing and math share three crucial properties: modeling, problem-solving, and proving.
Best of all is the opening paper, “Mathematics Is for Human Flourishing.” Francis Su quotes philosopher and mystic Simone Weil: “Every being cries out silently to be read differently.” Su proceeds to challenge his colleagues to welcome every student into their field. Basing his argument on Aristotle’s idea of the good life, he argues that Beauty, Truth, Play, Community, and even Justice can be found in the study of math. And along the way he speaks out against bias in his field: “I ask, with great humility, are we a just community?” 
Reading both Rushkoff and Su, I thought of the East-West online dialogue I recently facilitated among university students through the international nonprofit Soliya. Discussing “change,” the group first noted how technology promotes progress but soon began lamenting all that was being lost in connections and traditions. Finally, one Middle Eastern student said, “I’ve changed my mind. I thought that technology would solve many of our problems, but now I realize that what we need is not more technology, but more community.”
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Richard Barbieri

Richard Barbieri spent 40 years as teacher and administrator in independent schools. He is currently the editor of AC Resolution, the quarterly publication of the Association for Conflict Resolution. He also facilitates East-West dialogue among college students from North America, Europe, and the Islamic world through the Soliya program. He can be reached at