Friday, December 21, 2012

STEM Books

I’ve reviewed 39 STEM-related books (and counting).  STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  As you may have seen in the news, there is a push to improve STEM education, interest students in STEM fields, and grow the number of workers in these fields.  The idea is that these will be the skills needed by workers of the future.  If you’re a STEM educator or a student considering a career in STEM fields, you might like to take a look at some of these books.

I’ll confess that I’m not an educator, but I think most of these books will be accessible to high school and college students, and a few to middle school students.  The list is also a reflection of my career and interests in engineering, public health, policy, and history.  Even with these biases, I think it is a good list for someone looking for STEM-related books.

I was fascinated by robots as a kid.  I enjoyed reading Isaac Asimov’s robot stories.  I longed for the Omnibot 2000 in the Sears Wishbook.

Robots have come a long way.  In How to Build an Android, David F. Dufty describes the short strange life of a very complex robot made to look and talk like science fiction author Philip K. Dick.  The robot had a very sophisticated and lifelike head and complex artificial intelligence.  As with most complex things, it was the work of many people who had to solve a lot of problems.

If you’re interested in robotics, this is an interesting nontechnical book.  In addition, you’ll get introduced to some freaky sci-fi.  You may even get as (somewhat) legitimate reason to use the word “Dickhead” (capitalized, it refers to a fan of PKD, so don’t go using it on anyone).

The Interstate highway system in the United States is one of the most enormous structures built.  Some of the prospective STEM students who read this may actually be younger than the Intestate system, though in some sense it is never complete because it needs constant repair and maintenance.  The Interstates were completed in the 1990s, but the Federal-Aid Highways go back to 1916.

Earl Swift wrote an accessible history of the Interstates in The Big Roads.  If you interested in automobiles or transportation, it’s a good read.

Deborah Cadbury describes seven wonders of engineering in Dreams of Iron and Steel.  It covers almost a century of history, but many of the events are concentrated in the Victorian Era.  That was a time of great technological innovation.

Though the book is history, many of the structures still stand.  Railways, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Suez and Panama Canals, and Hoover Dam stand testament to an age of big engineering.

Though the memory of Professor Wragg’s sneer prompts me to not make this confession, part of my interest in science and technology came from comic booksIron Man was cool.  Spider-Man’s web shooters were very cool.  Superhero comics are full of fantasy, admittedly, but the strange, unrealistic science and technology they depict have inspired many to study STEM in reality.

Physicist John Kakalios uses examples from comic books to explore real physics in The Physics of Supeheroes.  Sometimes comics get there science right.  Even when they get it wrong, it can be instructive.  If you know what people are talking about when they refer to the “New 52,” you may find this book to be a great introduction to physics.

Here is another confession: I’m not especially interested in math.  I endured a lot of math classes to study engineering.  Reading David Acheson’s 1089 and All That did not require such endurance.  For one reason, it is a short book.  For another, Acheson doesn’t expect his readers to be mathematicians; it is enough to follow the outline of the math he discusses.

I recommend this book because so many people have a fear of math.  1089 can be followed by many high school students and older folks with math phobias.  Just take a deep breath, relax, and follow along as well as you can.  You’ll see that math can be interesting, useful, and even beautiful in a way.

Judith St. George’s The Brooklyn Bridge is a short history of and iconic bridge.  Written for the bridge’s 100th anniversary, it is also the story of the engineers who sacrificed life and health to see it completed: John Roebling and his son Washington.  John Roebling was a German immigrant who built many suspension bridges and owed a wire-making business.  He gave his son and extraordinary education in bridge engineering for the time, and before beginning work on the Brooklyn Bridge he served as an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Why should a cutting-edge STEM student read about a bridge that is almost 130 years old?  It’s because we still use and rely on very successful, centuries old technologies.  Improving and rebuilding our infrastructure will be an important part of our economy.  As recently as 2010, New York City and the federal government committed $500 million to repair and repaint the Brooklyn Bridge.

STEM lumps together science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  Is there a difference between science and engineering?  Is it important?

Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering and history and author of The Essential Engineer, believes there is an important difference.  At heart, science is about increasing knowledge.  Engineering is about invention.  Of course, new knowledge makes new invention possible.  Just as often, though, engineering runs ahead of science.  Sometimes science didn’t advance until someone invented the instruments to conduct new observations and experiments.  The invention of the microscope made possible the science of microbiologySteam engines were built and greatly improved before we had a modern scientific understanding of thermodynamics.  In fact, thermodynamics was to a large extent born out of desire to understand steam engines. In this sense, it is an engineering science (study of manmade things) as much as a natural science (study of natural things) or branch of physics.

Petroski’s focus in the book is the importance of engineering to policymaking, where it is often overshadowed by science.  Policy, science, and engineering play off of each other a lot.  Most of my career as an engineer has been related to government, policy, and regulatory compliance.

The Ghost Map by science writer Steven Johnson is the story of the birth of epidemiology.  Epidemiology is a medical science that uses statistics to help us understand how diseases operate in a population.  Using various statistical and geographic tools, long before we had computers and GIS, physician John Snow demonstrated that cholera, once a recurring plague that wiped out hundreds of thousands of people in some outbreaks, was a waterborne disease.  This understanding, initially met with much skepticism, allowed officials to intervene to prevent the spread of the disease.  For those who say of their math classes, “I’ll never us this,” here is a case where math (and science and policy) were used to make a great difference.

It is not much publicized today that the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804 to 1806 had a partly scientific mission.  Captains Lewis and Clark were charges with bringing back samples of the flora, fauna, and culture of the western territories.  It was also hoped that they would find a water passage to the Pacific Ocean.  In Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose writes about the scientific mission as well as the policy, diplomacy, and commercial hopes the expedition carried.

Of course, what attracts most people to the Lewis and Clark expedition is that it was a great adventure.  There is a place in STEM fields for thoughtful adventurers and explorers. 

A list like this deserves something strange, creepy, and more fun than you care to admit.  Right now, thousands of very young future STEM workers are catching bugs and snakes, breaking their toys to see what is inside, or staring into space with a weird expression of vacancy and concentration.

Jan Bondeson’s Buried Alive is not a morbid book.  It is sometimes humorous, especially in consideration of topic.  From a STEM point of view, Bondeson shows how knowledge accumulates over time.  The fears and activities of our forefathers may seem strange to us, but they sometimes made sense in light of what they knew.  Buried Alive doesn’t simply play off our fascination with the grotesque and death, though the book might not have been written if we lacked that fascination, I think it reminds us to approach our ancestors with a touch of grace and humility.  Maybe our progeny will show us the same courtesy.

If you’re looking for something for a younger student, check out this post→ from Joanne Loves Science or these recommendations→ from STEM Friday.  By the way, I also write about engineering, infrastructure and the environment at Infrastructure Watch.