Entropy and the Magic Flute

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9780195081992: Entropy and the Magic Flute

Harold Morowitz has long been regarded highly both as an eminent scientist and as an accomplished science writer. The essays in The Wine of Life, his first collection, were hailed by C.P. Snow as "some of the wisest, wittiest and best informed that I have read," and Carl Sagan called them "a delight to read." In later volumes such as Mayonnaise and the Origin of Life and The Thermodynamics of Pizza, he has established a reputation for a wide-ranging intellect, an ability to see unexpected connections and draw striking parallels, and a talent for communicating scientific ideas with optimism and wit. Kirkus Reviews praised Mayonnaise as "wonderfully diverting and very wise." Nature wrote of Thermodynamics, "his chocolate-coated nuggets of science will continue to entertain and do surreptitious good."
With Entropy and the Magic Flute, Morowitz once again offers an appealing mix of brief reflections on everything from litmus paper to the hippopotamus to the sociology of Palo Alto coffee shops. Many of these pieces are appreciations of scientists that Morowitz holds in high regard. In the title piece, for instance, Morowitz tells of his pilgrimage to the grave of Ludwig Boltzmann, buried in the same cemetery--Vienna's Central Cemetery--as Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms. He also writes of J. Willard Gibbs ("thought by many to be the greatest scientist yet produced by the United States"), Jean Perrin (author of Les Atomes, a now-forgotten classic that convinced virtually everyone in science of the validity of the atomic hypothesis), Einstein, Newton (on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of his Principia, a date that passed virtually unnoticed except by Morowitz), Murray Gell-Mann, and Aristotle. Of Aristotle, Morowitz observes that "most people whose information comes from academic philosophy fail to appreciate that--among his many fields of expertise--first and foremost, Aristotle was a biologist." Indeed, fully a third of Aristotle's writings are on the life sciences, almost all of which has been left out of standard editions of his work. Many other pieces focus on health issues--such as America's obsession with cheese toppings, the addiction to smoking of otherwise intelligent people, questionable obstetric practices--and several touch upon ethics, whistle-blowing, and scientific research. There is also a fascinating piece on the American Type Culture Collection, a zoo or warehouse for microbes that houses some 11,800 strains of bacteria, and over 3,000 specimens of protozoa, algae, plasmids, and oncogenes.
Here then are over forty light, graceful essays in which one of our wisest experimental biologists comments on issues of science, technology, society, philosophy, and the arts.

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About the Author:


Harold J. Morowitz is Robinson Professor of Biology and Natural Philosophy at George Mason University, in Virginia. He writes a regular essay column for Hospital Practice, and has contributed to Psychology Today, Discover, and The New York Times.

From Kirkus Reviews:

More short essays (49, no less) in this latest collection (Mayonnaise and the Origin of Life, 1985, etc.) culled from Morowitz's regular contributions to Hospital Practice. There's some attempt at thematic ordering here: essays on physics and physicists (Morowitz is a biophysicist); essays on ethics; on academia; on biology, etc.--but since the groupings include a set of pieces that are ``personal'' and another set assembled simply because Morowitz wrote them on trains or planes, the logic is a bit thin. It doesn't really matter, though, since the author is a master of the short (three- or four-page) piece that reveals a sensitive, sensible mind at work, one seasoned enough to take the long view of science and society. Certain Morowitz characteristics surface throughout: He's an indefatigable source-checker, for instance, referring to standard and not-so- standard reference works. He tells us, among other things, that we're deprived of Aristotle's biology writings since they're largely omitted from the standard college editions of the thinker's work. Similar sleuthing about the namesake of his new academic affiliation--George Mason University--discloses that this Virginian appears as a mere footnote in standard American histories but was, in fact, the author of Bill-of-Rights language honed to perfection by Thomas Jefferson. Morowitz also likes to travel, finding inspiration in treks to the Vienna cemetery where physicist Ludwig Boltzmann is buried; to Kobbi Fora, where our early ancestors have come to light; to Hawaii for the study of lava flows, and so on. Such a broad mix is sure to include something for everyone. A favorite is an essay written by a rock 3.85 billion years ago, lamenting the desecration of the earthscape with all that toxic oxygen in the atmosphere and all that slimy green-gray goo coating those nice ocean-wet seashore stones. Very clever, Professor Morowitz. -- Copyright 1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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