Conversations on Climate: How geoengineering has been used in the past

PlanetIn The Planet Remade, Oliver Morton argues that geoengineering, the process by which Earth’s systems are manipulated, can be used in a positive way to address the problems caused by man-made climate change. Geoengineering is nothing new. Chapter 7 of The Planet Remade describes how it was used in the twentieth century to feed a growing population. A summary:

At the end of the nineteenth century it became apparent that the yield of wheat would soon fall short of the demand. Sir William Crookes, one of the leading chemists of the time, gave a speech in 1898 on the subject. The number of people who wanted to eat wheat was increasing, but by that point there was no more land on which to grow it. The solution? Increasing the amount of nitrogen in the soil to increase the amount of wheat that a given parcel of land could yield. If this wasn’t done, Crookes warned, the world would face starvation.

Nitrogen was fixed on as the key to a solution because it is a necessary component of photosynthesis. It exists in the air we breathe in the inert form of two identical atoms attached to one another. In order to aid in sustaining life, it must be detached and fixed to some other element. This happens when bacteria in plants twist nitrogen molecules and insert hydrogen molecules into the resulting spaces, turning the nitrogen into ammonia. Later, the nitrogen is returned to its inert form. The process by which nitrogen is fixed and then unfixed makes up the nitrogen cycle. As this process has proceeded uninterrupted by humans for billions of years, it has been one component in supporting increasingly more complex life forms on Earth.

Crookes was hopeful that the problem could be solved. He called on scientists to figure out a way to fix nitrogen industrially. Fritz Haber, a professor at the University of Freiburg, rose to the challenge. He and his laboratory technicians created a process by which fixed nitrogen was created by passing a continuous stream of nitrogen and hydrogen over a hot catalyst at very high pressure. His colleague Carl Bosch scaled the process up so that it could be used on an industrial scale. The process was quickly adopted globally to produce more food. By the end of the 1960s, the amount of nitrogen fixed by the Haber-Bosch process exceeded that fixed by all the microbes in the world’s soil. Both men won the Nobel Prize for their efforts. Their discoveries have had profound implications beyond the world of agriculture.

The problem identified by Crookes had been solved, but at a cost. One cost can be seen in the Gulf of Mexico every summer. Between the 1960s and 1990s, the flow of nitrogen out of America’s heartland, through the Mississippi and into the Gulf has doubled. This abundant supply of nitrogen makes ideal food for photosynthetic algae to flourish, resulting in colossal algal blooms. As they decompose, they consume all the oxygen in the water, leaving none to support other life forms. As a result, large swaths of the Gulf of Mexico become dead zones every summer.

Does this episode in history prove that humans can’t be trusted with geoengineering? Or can it be used more responsibly in the future to address the challenge of climate change? To answer that question, check out The Planet Remade here.

The Final Days of Albert Einstein


Albert Einstein’s time on earth ended on April 18, 1955, at the Princeton Hospital.

In April of 1955, shortly after Einstein’s death, a pathologist removed his brain without the permission of his family, and stored it in formaldehyde until around 2007, shortly before dying himself. In that time, the brain of the man who has been credited with the some of the most beautiful and imaginative ideas in all of science was photographed, fragmented —small sections parceled to various researchers. His eyes were given to his ophthalmologist.

These indignities in the name of science netted several so-called findings—that the inferior parietal lobe, the part said to be responsible for mathematical reasoning was wider, that the unique makeup of the Sulvian fissure could have allowed more neurons to make connections. And yet, there remains the sense that no differences can truly account for the cognitive abilities that made his genius so striking.

Along with an exhaustive amount of information on  the personal, scientific, and public spheres of Einstein’s life, An Einstein Encyclopedia includes this well-known if macabre “brain in a jar” story. But there is a quieter one that is far more revealing of the man himself: The story in which Helen Dukas, Einstein’s longtime secretary and companion, recounts his last days. Dukas, the encyclopedia notes, was “well known for being intelligent, modest, shy, and passionately loyal to Einstein.” Her account is at once unsensational and unadorned.

One might expect a story of encroaching death, however restrained, to chronicle confusion and fear. Medically supported death was a regular occurrence by the middle of the 20th century, and Einstein died in his local hospital. But what is immediately striking from the account is the simplicity and calmness with which Einstein met his own passing, which he regarded as a natural event. The telling of this chapter is matter of fact, from his collapse at home, to his diagnosis with a hemorrhage, to his reluctant trip to the hospital and refusal of a famous heart surgeon. Dukas writes that he endured the pain from an internal hemorrhage (“the worst pain one can have”) with a smile, occasionally taking morphine. On his final day, during a respite from pain, he read the paper and talked about politics and scientific matters.

“You’re really hysterical—I have to pass on sometime, and it doesn’t really matter when.” he tells Dukas, when she rises in the night to check on him.

As Mary Talbot  writes in Aeon, “Apprehending the truth that all things arise and pass away might be the ultimate groundwork for dying.” And certainly, it would be difficult to dispute Einstein’s wholehearted dedication to the truth throughout his life and work. His manifesto, referenced here by Hanoch Gutfreund on the occasion of the opening of the Hebrew University, asserts, “Science and investigation recognize as their aim the truth only.” From passionate debates on the nature of reality with Bohr, to his historic clash on the nature of time with Bergson, Einstein’s quest for the truth was a constant in his life.  It would seem that it was equally so at the time of his death. What, then, did he believe at the end? We can’t know, but An Einstein Encyclopedia opens with his own words,

Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose….To ponder interminably over the reason for one’s own existence or the meaning of life in general seems to me, from an objective point of view, to be sheer folly. And yet everyone holds certain ideals by which he guides his aspiration and his judgment. The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty, and truth. To make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.

Read a sample chapter of An Einstein Encyclopedia, by Alice Calaprice, Daniel Kennefick, & Robert Schulmann here.

Feynman on the historic debate between Einstein & Bohr

The golden age of quantum theory put many of the greatest minds of the 20th century in contact with some of the most significant scientific and philosophical questions of their era. But it also put these minds in contact with one another in ways that have themselves been a source of curiosity and ongoing scientific debate.

Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein, two towering geniuses of their time, were both as revered for their scientific contributions as they were beloved for their bursts of wisdom on a wide range of subjects. It’s hard not to wonder just what these men thought of one another. Princeton University Press, which published The Ultimate Quotable Einstein in 2010 publishes The Quotable Feynman this fall. The book includes reflections by Feynman on Einstein, from his memorable mannerisms to his contributions to some of the most heated debates in 20th century science.Feynman quote

Perhaps because of the gap between their career high points, (Einstein died in 1955; Feynman didn’t receive his Nobel Prize until 1965), there are no verified quotes where Einstein alludes to Feynman or his expansive body of work. But Feynman had made observations on the older physicist, several of which revolve around Einstein’s famous 1927 public debate with Niels Bohr on the correctness of  quantum mechanics. Central to the debate was this question: Were electrons, light, and similar entities waves or particles? In some experiments they behaved like the former, and in others, the latter.

In an attempt to resolve the contradictory observations, Einstein proposed a series of “thought experiments”, which Bohr responded to. Bohr essentially took the stance that the very act of measuring alters reality, whereas Einstein insisted that reality exists, independent of the act of measurement. Key to the philosophy of science, the dispute between the two giants is detailed by Bohr in “Discussions with Einstein on Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics”. Richard Feynman is quoted as commenting on the debate:Feynman quote 2

An Einstein Encyclopedia contains a section on the Einstein-Bohr debates, as well as a wealth of other information on Einstein’s career, family, friends. There is an entire section dedicated to righting the various misconceptions that swirl around the man, and another on his romantic interests (actual, probable, and possible).

In spite of their differences, Bohr and Einstein were friends and shared great respect for each others’ work. Until Einstein’s death 3 decades later, they continued their debates, which became, in essence, a debate about the nature of reality itself.  feynman quote 3

Check out other new Einstein publications this fall, including:

An Einstein Encyclopedia
The Road to Relativity

A look within — MRI technology in action

It’s 2014, and although we don’t have flying cars or teleportation, we do have some truly amazing technologies. The video of a live birth posted below has been making the social media rounds in recent weeks, and it is a wonderful glimpse of the imaging possible through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology.

To fully understand the history and future challenges of imaging technology, we recommend Denis Le Bihan’s book Looking Inside the Brain: The Power of Neuroimaging. Le Bihan is one of the leading scientists and developers of MRI technology, so who better to guide readers through the history of imaging technology from the x-ray and CT scan to the PET scan and MRI. He also explains how neuroimaging uncovers afflictions like stroke or cancer and the workings of higher-order brain activities, such as language skills and also takes readers on a behind-the-scenes journey through NeuroSpin, his state-of-the-art neuroimaging laboratory.



Looking Inside the Brain
The Power of Neuroimaging
Denis Le Bihan
Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan

The Most Comprehensive Collection of Einstein Quotes Ever Published

Here is the definitive new edition of the hugely popular collection of Einstein quotations that has sold tens of thousands of copies worldwide and been translated into twenty-five languages.

The Ultimate Quotable Einstein features 400 additional quotes, bringing the total to roughly 1,600 in all. This ultimate edition includes new sections–“On and to Children,” “On Race and Prejudice,” and “Einstein’s Verses: A Small Selection”–as well as a chronology of Einstein’s life and accomplishments, Freeman Dyson’s authoritative foreword, and new commentary by Alice Calaprice.

In The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, readers will also find quotes by others about Einstein along with quotes attributed to him. Every quotation in this informative and entertaining collection is fully documented, and Calaprice has carefully selected new photographs and cartoons to introduce each section.

We invite you to take a look at chapter one online:

“A happy man is too satisfied with the present to think too much about the future.”
–Einstein (age 17)

The Ultimate Quotable Einstein
Collected and edited by Alice Calaprice

With a foreword by Freeman Dyson

History & Philosophy of Science titles to check out

Be the first to see our new history & philosophy of science catalog at:

Three Princeton titles are on Library Journal‘s best sellers list in History of Science:

The Origin Then and Now
An Interpretive Guide to the Origin of Species

By David N. Reznick
Read the introduction online:

Predicting the Unpredictable
The Tumultuous Science of Earthquake Prediction

By Susan Hough
Read the first chapter online:

A Biography

By Alwyn Scarth