Arts & Culture / Mosaic / February 21, 2018

STEM professors share book recommendations

Katherine Adelsberger: “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History”

Douglas and Maria Bayer Endowed Chair in Earth Science Katherine Adelsberger believes everyone should read Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.” The book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2015, explains how humans are currently driving the sixth great extinction of life on Earth.

“It’s a couple years old now, but it’s one of my favorites still because it deals with what’s going on right now,” she said. “It’s really well written, it’s easy to read and it’s an important piece of information that people should have.”

Adelsberger said students enjoy “The Sixth Extinction” because it deals with important issues through accessible, compelling writing. The book takes a more personal approach to environmental crises than other works of nonfiction.

“[Kolbert] tells stories about people also,” Adelsberger said. “You get to know the researcher a little bit and why are they here, and they have a passion for saving this frogÑthat’s an interesting story by itselfÑand it talks a little bit about human efforts to both study things and then the people who are making efforts to save species and the problems they’re facing.”

“The Sixth Extinction” tells a story that is important for human beings to learn in an interesting way. To Adelsberger, this is important because environmental crises can be easy for American consumers to overlook.

“It’s very easy to sit in our houses and to not see the effects that are happening to the planet because we’re very insulated—especially in America—from what’s happening,” she said. “Because we’re not at the Arctic where most of this is happening and we’re not living on the equatorial zone where the acidification of the ocean is becoming noticeable. Especially in Illinois, it’s easy for us to just ignore all of that and not deal with it.”


Andrew Leahy: “Super Crunchers”

Associate Professor and Chair of Mathematics Andrew Leahy assigns “Super Crunchers” by Ian Ayres to his statistics students. The book deals with the idea that as artificial intelligence develops more sophisticated formulas to predict outcomes, certain professions are becoming obsolete.

Medicine is not usually perceived as a profession easily replaced by machines. However, as Leahy pointed out, computer programs play a growing role in medical decisions.

“You have this image that [doctors] are these people making valiant, life-saving decisions when the reality is that you know from a mathematical perspective what you’re doing is taking the inputs, the symptoms—the blood tests, the way the patient presents themselves—and you’re outputting a probability distribution. There’s software that can automatically predict these things,” Leahy said.

Direct instruction in education is another unexpected example. Leahy said that while education studies promote engagement, research shows that following a script may be more effective.

“According to [“Super Crunchers”] there’s plenty of data saying if you need to teach reading to elementary students then analytically, looking at all of the data, this is the way that it should be done,” he said.

The book may be particularly useful to students because it addresses the ways in which technology is transforming job markets.

“Google now has algorithms that are—or will be in five years—as good as anything a radiologist could do,” Leahy said. “So this artificial intelligence, this ability to make decisions based on the data that you have available is overcoming our human expertise. And what really portends is that some of these jobs are not necessarily going to be here 10 years from now.”


Nathalie Haurberg: “The Dispossessed”

Assistant Professor of Physics Nathalie Haurberg discovered her all-time favorite book, “The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. Le Guin, in graduate school. Le Guin’s science fiction and fantasy novels deal with themes of science and government.

“It makes us examine our place in society and our role in society in a way that’s not cynical,” Haurberg said. “It’s about recognizing why we value what we value, including science. And as a scientist it particularly speaks to me, I guess.”

She appreciates Le Guin’s ability to write complex ideas into her stories in thought-provoking ways. She believes “The Dispossessed” resonates with students in particular.

“It’s a book full of lines that will make you think,” Haurberg said. “It’s full of stuff that sticks with you. Even now, thinking about reading it and thinking about how I felt when I first read the words as a graduate student, it really reminds me of who I was and how I’ve grown.”

Le Guin’s ideas about anarchy, in particular, have stayed with Haurberg. Le Guin and Haurberg both subscribe to the philosophy that hierarchies are detrimental for human beings.

“For me it’s the best novelization about what it really means to be an anarchist,” she said. “I just think it’s one of the most well thought-out ways to present a coherent picture of what it means to be an anarchist but not be cynical. It’s not about how everything’s awful, it’s about why are things the way they are and how are they different if you don’t subscribe to authority.”

There is hope for humanity at the core of “The Dispossessed.” This forward-looking interpretation of anarchy is important to Haurberg.

“In some ways it means the best thing about humans is the part we give to others,” she said. “[This book] examines that at many levels.”

Phoebe Billups, Staff Writer

Tags:  book reccomendations environment literature STEM Technology

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