Darwin’s Origin of Species – read by David Case (17hrs)
The Origin of Species, first published 24 November 1859, introduced the theory that populations evolve over the course of generations through a process of natural selection. Darwin's book was the culmination of evidence he had accumulated on the voyage of the Beagle in the 1830s and expanded through continuing investigations and experiments after his return.
The book is readable even for the non-specialist and attracted widespread interest on publication, but was controversial because it contradicted religious beliefs that underlay the then current theories of biology, and so generated much discussion on scientific, philosophical, and religious grounds. The scientific theory of evolution has itself evolved since Darwin's contributions, but natural selection remains the most widely accepted scientific model of speciation. Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus, legal challenges to the theory of evolution continue to this day in some countries.
Genome: The Autobiography of a Species – by Matt Ridley, read by Paul Matthews (14½hrs)
The human genome, the complete set of genes housed in twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, is nothing less than an autobiography of our species. Spelled out in a billion three-letter words using the four-letter alphabet of DNA, the genome has been edited, abridged, altered and added to as it has been handed down, generation to generation, over more than three billion years. With the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, we, this lucky generation, are the first beings who are able to read this extraordinary book and to gain hitherto unimaginable insights into what it means to be alive, to be human, to be conscious or to be ill.
By picking one newly discovered gene from each of the twenty-three human chromosomes and telling its story, Matt Ridley recounts the history of our species and its ancestors from the dawn of life to the brink of future medicine. As well as giving a fascinating account of the search for a genetic basis to homosexuality, he finds genes that we share with bacteria, genes that distinguish us from chimpanzees, genes that can condemn us to cruel diseases, genes that may influence our intelligence, genes that enable us to use grammatical language, genes that guide the development of our bodies and our brains, genes that allow us to remember, genes that exhibit the strange alchemy of nature and nurture, genes that parasitise us for their own selfish ends, genes that battle with one another and genes that record the history of human migrations. From Huntington's disease to cancer, he explores the applications of genetics: the search for understanding and therapy, the horrors of eugenics and the philosophical implications for understanding the paradox of free will.
“Genome is a tour de force: clear, witty, timely and informed by an intelligence that sees new knowledge as a blessing and not a curse. It is also a cracking read.” Nigel Hawkes, The Times
Kinds Of Minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness – written and read by Daniel Dennett (3½hrs)
Combining ideas from philosophy, artificial intelligence, and neurobiology, Daniel Dennett leads the reader on a fascinating journey of inquiry, exploring such intriguing possibilities as: Can any of us really know what is going on in someone else’s mind? What distinguishes the human mind from the minds of animals, especially those capable of complex behavior? If such animals, for instance, were magically given the power of language, would their communities evolve an intelligence as subtly discriminating as ours? Will robots, once they have been endowed with sensory systems like those that provide us with experience, ever exhibit the particular traits long thought to distinguish the human mind, including the ability to think about thinking?
Dennett addresses these questions from an evolutionary perspective. Beginning with the macromolecules of DNA and RNA, the author shows how, step-by-step, animal life moved from the simple ability to respond to frequently recurring environmental conditions to much more powerful ways of beating the odds, ways of using patterns of past experience to predict the future in never-before-encountered situations. Whether talking about robots whose video-camera “eyes” give us the powerful illusion that “there is somebody in there” or asking us to consider whether spiders are just tiny robots mindlessly spinning their webs of elegant design, Dennett is a master at finding and posing questions sure to stimulate and even disturb.
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space – by Carl Sagan, read by Carl Sagan and J Charles (10 hrs)
This logical successor to Cosmos (1980) offers the characteristic Sagan blueprint for humankind's long-term vitality. In 1990, while speeding out of the solar system, the Voyager 1 spacecraft snapped photographs of the planets. From a distance of 3.7 billion miles, the Earth appears as a “pale blue dot”--a metaphor Sagan employs to underscore the utter insignificance of our home world in relation to the great expanse of space. In his usual eloquent and impassioned language, he builds a cogent argument that our species must venture into this vast realm and establish a space-faring civilisation. Fully acknowledging the exorbitant costs that are involved in manned spaceflight while we concurrently face pressing social, economic, and environmental problems at home, Sagan asserts that our very survival depends on colonising outer space. Astronomers have already identified dozens of potential Armageddons in the form of asteroids that will someday smash into Earth. Undoubtedly, many more remain undetected. The only way to avert inevitable catastrophe, Sagan argues, is for nations to join together and establish a permanent human presence in space. Ultimately, he predicts, humans will conquer space because, like the planets that roam the sky (planet means wanderer in Greek), we too are wanderers. Deep within us lies a spark that compels us to explore, and space provides the new frontier. The exploration of space will inspire the world's young people and unify quarrelling nations. Technology has brought humanity to its moment of truth: our species has the capability either to annihilate itself or to avoid extinction by journeying to other worlds. The preferable choice is obvious to Sagan.
Religion and Science – by Bertrand Russell, read by David Case (2¼hrs)
Lord Russell, philosopher, agnostic, mathematician, and renowned peace advocate, offers a brief yet insightful study of the conflicts between science and traditional religion during the last four centuries. Examining accounts in which scientific advances clashed with Christian doctrine or biblical interpretations of the day, from Galileo and the Copernican Revolution, to the medical breakthroughs of anaesthesia and inoculation, Russell points to the constant upheaval and re-evaluation of our systems of belief throughout history. In turn, he identifies where similar debates between modern science and the Church still exist today.
This classic is sure to interest all readers of philosophy and religion, as well as those interested in Russell's thought and writings.
The Character of Physical Law – by Richard P Feynman, read by Jeff Riggenbach (2¾hrs)
Richard Feynman offers an overview of selected physical laws and gathers their common features into one broad principle of invariance. He maintains at the outset that the importance of a physical law is not “how clever we are to have found it out, but . . . how clever nature is to pay attention to it,” and tends his discussions toward a final exposition of the elegance and simplicity of all scientific laws. Rather than an essay on the most significant achievements in modern science, The Character of Physical Law is a statement of what is most remarkable in nature. Feynman's enlightened approach, his wit, and his enthusiasm make this a memorable exposition of the scientist's craft.
The Law of Gravitation is the author's principal example. Relating the details of its discovery and stressing its mathematical character, he uses it to demonstrate the essential interaction of mathematics and physics. He views mathematics as the key to any system of scientific laws, suggesting that if it were possible to fill out the structure of scientific theory completely, the result would be an integrated set of mathematical axioms. The principles of conservation, symmetry, and time-irreversibility are then considered in relation to developments in classical and modern physics, and in his final lecture Feynman develops his own analysis of the process and future of scientific discovery.
The Lost Lecture – delivered by Richard P Feynman (1¼hrs)
Rescued from the archives of Caltech, Feynman’s Lost Lecture is a blessing for all Feynman followers. Most know Feynman for his anecdotes and exploits in his best-selling, world-renowned books Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? But the part always lacking in those stories was his intuition and genius for making the most complex problems of modern science easily understandable. With this CD we hear the voice of the great Feynman with all his ingenuity, insight, and acumen for argument, as he uses nothing more than high-school geometry to explain why the planets orbit the sun elliptically instead of in perfect circles.
The Whole Shebang: A State of the Universe(s) Report - written and read by Timothy Ferris (6hrs)
“Plenty of books try to explain the origin of the universe, but despite the ascendance of the Big Bang theory, numerous details of that theory remain in flux as new observations are made and new hypotheses formed (and then confirmed or rejected). The Whole Shebang is an up-to-date account of the various mechanisms believed to have contributed to the universe as we now know it, from the Big Bang itself to inflation to superstrings. The Whole Shebang eschews mathematics and formulae and explains cosmological concepts in clear and enticing prose. If you need an update on the state of the universe, you'll find it here.”