Commuting with Curie. My top five audiobooks from 2017

In 2017, my daily commute (driving) increased from about 30 minutes to 90 minutes giving me the challenges of battling traffic, but also the opportunity to listen to audiobooks. The Libraries of South Australia allow users to borrow audiobooks. This has been a treasure trove of entertainment and learning, as I have devoured a banquet of excellent books, both fiction and non-fiction.

While I have listened to a number of biographies and fictions, I have particularly enjoyed non-fiction books on science. Below are my top five, starting at my #1 pick.

#1 The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era by Craig Nelson.

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This book gives the history of the discovery of radiation and presents a fascinating journey from Curie to Fukushima. The biographies are rich and enthralling. I was particularly captivated by the stories of the Curies, and their remarkable achievements. Also, the role of Lise Meitner was exceptionally well covered, marking her great achievements and showing how unjust it was in her not being awarded the nobel prize with Otto Hahn. The biography of Enrico Fermi was inspiring. Teller and Oppenheimer were beautifully compared and contrasted. The book ends in discussing the risks and benefits associated with the modern use nuclear power and wonders if we are too risk adverse, particularly when comparing human loss and suffering at the hands of both nuclear power and fossil fuels.


#2 Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking, Fast and Slow by [Kahneman, Daniel]

Coming from a background in natural science, I was not aware of Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s research in cognitive sciences. This book literally rewired my mind. Kahneman’s research elegantly shows the power of cognition and its wide implications into unconscious biases and decision-making. This book has genuinely caused me to reflect on my own cognitive biases and to understand the eponymous two agents (fast and slow) that influence my own decisions. I can say that I have implemented some of the described techniques into grant writing to present my ideas with more cognitive ease.


#3 AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War by Tom McNichol

AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War by [McNichol, Tom]

AC/DC is a history of the first standards war over electric current fought primarily between Edison and Westinghouse. There are many lessons here concerning basic scientific discoveries and how they are translated into products and services. Manipulation, deception, shoddy science and underhanded tricks were all part of the rivalry. Edison vehemently defended direct current as the future of electricity distribution and did everything in his power to show that AC was not just unsuitable, but deadly. In this endeavour, he vigorously promoted AC in the development of the electric chair to show just how dangerous it was, hoping to increase the adoption of DC. In the end, AC became the clear winner in the long distance transmission of electricity. However, author McNichol reminds us of the importance of DC in batteries and shows us that, not only is DC here to stay, but increased use in mobile devices and power storage means that the use of direct current has an important place in our future.


#4 A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

I have always wanted to read this book and was glad to find it on audiobook. When originally released, this book became a classic and brought the strange word of astrophysics to popular culture. Nowadays, black holes, the big bang, and gravitational waves are all concepts that a prominent in society and we have Stephen Hawking’s bestseller to thank. I studied this book for its style in science communication and tried to peek in on the strategies that Hawking used to explain complex subjects simply. Besides being a fascinating look into contemporary astrophysics, the chapter describing Newton’s discoveries and approach to natural philosophy were completely fascinating and were presented exceptionally well.


#5 The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman

This book presents seven of Feynman’s lectures on physics. Each of the lectures covered material that I studied a long time ago as an undergraduate; however, I found Feynman’s lectures to be original and captivating. He is able to draw connections between physics and thermodynamics, quantum mechanics and gravitation, and brings together an enriching overview of the fundamentals. I secretly love thermodynamics and loved Feynman’s application of the second law to the distinction of the past and future.


Personal Impact of Reduced Government Funding for CRCs

In last night’s budget, the Australian Government has reduced funding for Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) by $80 million in coming years.  A result has been the cancellation of the 2014-2015 round.

As I have been involved in potentially 2 CRC bids this year, the announcement has come as a surprise.  The finishing touches were just being organised for the bidding process which was set to close in July.  Ongoing work and planning has been accelerating in the past many months with long term, strategic planning, over years.  One CRC bid team I have been involved has invested huge amounts of time, a substantial amount of money, energy, and effort in establishing links with commercial partners and attracting media and state government interest in preparing for the current round.  This effort will not have to be redirected to other schemes that will not be as impactful.

This could send a mixed message to committed industry partners about the government supported options for partnering with Universities.  It also seems contradictory to Christopher Pyne’s “Excellence in Universities” speech, 7th December, 2011

In this speech, Mr. Pyne touted the success of the Mining CRC and offered it up as a model of the importance of industry/university collaboration for creating jobs and driving innovation in the manufacturing sector.

Last night’s budget was intended to be for the good of the country; however, this move raises questions about how the current government intends to provide incentives for Universities and industry to partner and get University research translated into innovative outcomes for the benefit of all Australians.