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Black Holes, Beakers, and Books:
A Popular Science Book Club

Are you interested in exploring the vast mysteries of the cosmos, understanding human evolutionary history, or talking about the long-term future of the planet earth? These topics and more will be discussed in Black Holes, Beakers, and Books, a popular science book club that reads and discusses popular science books published within the last five years.

Unless otherwise noted, all meetings will take place:

Sundays from 3:30 to 4:30 pm
Director's Conference Room, First Floor
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh — Main
4400 Forbes Ave. in Oakland

Upcoming Discussions

Sunday, January 24, 2016
Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One's Looking
As a cofounder of OKCupid, Christian Rudder could perform data experiments that were unbeknownst to the site's millions of members. Whether his meddling was unconscionable is up for debate, but the results of his big data tests reveal fascinating insights into human behavior. After examining reams of information about daters, he uncovered the unexpected about our racial perspectives, capability for honesty, and what predicts a good relationship match.

Sunday, March 20, 2016
Please note the special date due to the Easter holiday. Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying)
Bill Gifford reports on our obsession with staving off age - or how humans can be more like the naked mole rat, an animal that is resistant to pain and cancer and lives for decades. He shares successful and not-so-successful results at extending longevity and delves into the misconceptions and latest research on youthfulness.


Contact Information

Rita Botts,, 412-622-3151


Visit Local Science Organizations

Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh The Carnegie Museum of Natural History offers exciting exhibits, science lectures, and more.

Cafe Scientifique, Pittsburgh Cafe Scientifique presents monthly science lectures at the Carnegie Science Center.


Previous Discussions

Sunday, February 8, 2009
Darwin's Origin of Species: A Biography
by Janet Browne
Join us for a discussion of Darwin's Origin of Species: A Biography by Janet Browne, which probes the life of scientist Charles Darwin and explains why his theory of evolution is as controversial today as it was more than a century ago. This discussion coincided with Ms. Browne's appearance at the Drue Heinz Lecture series on February 9, 2009.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors
by Ann Gibbons
The First Human throws readers into the competitive world of fossil hunting as four international teams race to solve the mystery of human evolution. Ms. Gibbons joined us to fuel the discussion about her fascinating book.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body
by Neil Shubin
This book explores the evolutionary past of our body's anatomy by tracing the organs of the human body back millions of years - long before the first creatures walked the earth. Representatives of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History brought fossils to supplement this discussion.
Sunday, August 9, 2009
The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
by Ray Kurzweil
Some scientists have predicted the coming of the “singularity,” at which time human biology and technology will merge. In The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Ray Kurzweil explores this idea with optimism, predicting that the singularity will create a new human species free from the constraints of biology, even bodily death. Mark Palatucci, a Ph.D student in Robotics/AI at Carnegie Mellon University, joined us for this discussion.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Almost Human: Making Robots Think
by Lee Gutkind
Amazing advancements in robotics engineering are being made right here in Pittsburgh. In Almost Human, Lee Gutkind, a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh and foremost writer of creative nonfiction, describes the fascinating world of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. Lee Gutkind joined us to talk about his book.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind
by Marvin Minsky
In the quest to create a viable artificial intelligence, understanding the multifaceted features of the human mind is vital. The Emotion Machine is Marvin Minsky’s call for a “back to basics” approach to using the human mind as a model for artificial intelligence. Marvin Minsky joined us via telephone to discuss his book.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet
by Mark Lynas
What will happen to the earth and human civilization if the planet warms by one-to-six degrees Celsius? Mark Lynas tries to answer this question by looking at warming data past and present, concluding that, depending on the level of warming, the consequences range from the loss of mountain glaciers and coral reefs to the total destruction of life on the planet. Lynas recommends some preventive measures to avoid this calamity, but are we already too late to implement them? An employee of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History joined us with objects from the Polar World exhibit to talk about the influence of climate change on polar habitats.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean's Are One
by Sylvia A. Earle
Described by some as "a Silent Spring for our era," The World is Blue is Sylvia Earle's depiction of Earth's oceans in crisis, as overfishing, pollution, and climate change drive species into extinction and throw off the delicate balance of the entire planet's ecosystem. Like Rachel Carson before her, Earle calls for an impassioned response to this environmental crisis before it spirals out of control. An employee of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History joined us with objects from the Whales/Tohora exhibit.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
Chasing Spring: An American Journey Through a Changing Season
by Bruce Stutz
Part science, part travelogue, Chasing Spring follows Bruce Stutz's journey across America to "see spring in various phases." What he discovers on his trip is both fascinating and disturbing: climate change is causing spring to arrive earlier, resulting in altered migration patterns for animals, glaciers that melt more quickly, and unbalanced relationships between plants and pollinators. In the end Stutz's book is both a personal and scientific appreciation of spring, and a warning about our planet's future. Bruce Stutz joined us via teleconference.
Sunday, October 17, 2010
Proust Was a Neuroscientist
by Jonah Lehrer
Can science and the arts be reconciled? Neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer claims they can because artists, such as the writer Marcel Proust, often stumble upon scientific truths independently of scientists. Alison Barth, a neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University, joined us for this discussion.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind
by Gary Marcus
The human mind is rightfully held up as an amazing product of evolution, but it is also flawed in numerous ways. Kluge explores why, and offers tips for identifying and working around the errors our minds produce. Kathleen Salerno, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Neuroscience, joined us for this conversation.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
by Daniel H. Pink
Bestselling author Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind) moves beyond simplistic notions of human motivation by exploring the latest science about what drives us, and how this science is being implemented by individuals and organizations. Daniel Pink will discuss his book with us via teleconference!
Sunday, February 20th, 2011
Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality
by Jonathan Weiner
Weiner’s excellent science writing on finch evolution won him a Pulitzer Prize for The Beak of the Finch. Now he has returned with another eloquent scientific tale, this time about the search for a cure to aging.
Sunday, March 20th, 2011
The Mind's Eye
by Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks is well-known for his terrific books on abnormal psychology, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Musicophilia. His latest explores the connection between vision and mind, focusing on six clinical tales of how vision impairment influences the way we perceive reality.
Sunday, April 17th, 2011
Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives
by Annie Murphy Paul
There are many environmental influences on children that parents obsess about: the schools they attend, how much television they watch, who they hang out with, etc. But new research suggests that the prenatal environment—including the mother’s nutrition, use of alcohol, and environmental toxins—may be the most important influence that determines our children’s lifelong health and happiness.
Sunday, May 22nd, 2011
Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping, and Praying to Going to War and Becoming a Billionaire
by Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa
Miller and Kanazawa, noted evolutionary psychologists, explain why we do what we do based on gender and other biological traits. Believing our minds and bodies are essentially stuck in the Stone Age, they say humans' impulses haven't caught up to today's technological world. Donald McBurney, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, joined us for the discussion.
Sunday, July 24th, 2011
The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments
by George Johnson
Unlike today's researchers who often conduct lengthy experiments in multiple trials with many participants, these scientists often worked alone. Their resulting discoveries were groundbreaking, from Lavoisier's discovery of oxygen to Millikan's discovery of the electron. Johnson profiles those moments when, "using the materials at hand, a curious soul figured out a way to pose a question to nature and received a crisp, unambiguous reply."
Sunday, September 25th, 2011
How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond
by John Powell
Author John Powell longed to be a rock star but ended up a physicist. Perhaps that's why he's able to present his acoustical theories in a fun, accessible manner. He explores questions such as why we enjoy some sounds but are repulsed by others, why some folks have perfect pitch, and why minor keys sound mournful.
Sunday, November 20th, 2011
How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival
by David Kaiser
In 1970s California, the physicists of the Fundamental Fysiks Group were not stereotypical scientists in lab coats with pocket protectors. This eccentric group dealt with quantum theory while wearing dashikis and beards, bringing Eastern mysticism and philosophy to their physics during an otherwise quiet decade in their field. Kaiser joined the discussion via teleconference.
Sunday, January 22nd, 2012
The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos
by Brian Greene
The brilliant author of The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos returns with a book on parallel universes. This Rhodes scholar's explanations of relativity theory, multiverses, and black holes are meant to be accessible to the layperson. Edward Gerjuoy, emeritus physics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, joined us for this discussion.
Sunday, March 25th, 2012
Physics of the Future
by Michio Kaku
Dr. Michio Kaku, the co-creator of string field theory and a Harvard and Berkeley grad, predicts the next 90 years of physics advancements, which he views largely as positive. Kaku believes humans will be controlling objects with their minds, living in "intelligent" rooms, shopping online via contact lenses, and forgetting the meaning of the word "tumor."
Sunday, May 20th, 2012
Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain
by David M. Eagleman
Acclaimed for his recent collection of fictional vignettes, Eagleman draws upon his day job as a neuroscientist to write this work of nonfiction. He explores the inner workings of the subconscious mind, using vivid written illustrations to explain how our brains behave when we don't even realize it. The neural impulses behind optical illusions, hallucinations, gut feelings, synesthesia, and other tricks of the mind are laid bare.
Sunday, July 22nd, 2012
Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
by Joshua Foer
We all used simple mnemonic devices in elementary school to recall the names of the Great Lakes and other facts. When Foer decides to compete in the U.S. Memory Championship, he learns to create mnemonic devices far more complex. He succeeds at memorizing the order of multiple decks of cards, the names of dozens of strangers, and a host of numerical data that we now often store in our smart phones instead of our brains. Foer reveals how he's able to remember all this information, as well as the neurological networks behind his new abilities.
Sunday, September 23rd, 2012
Playful Brain: The Surprising Science of How Puzzles Improve Your Mind
by Richard Restak and Scott Kim
Neuroscientist Richard Restak and puzzle author Scott Kim admit that the jury's still out on whether Sudoku and crosswords can prevent genetically linked diseases such as Alzheimer's. They do believe, however, that brain teasers, riddles, and other puzzles can enhance the mind. Playing such games can improve both working and long-term memory. Through pages of Kim's illustrated puzzles, Restak explains how solving these enigmas can exercise various abilities in our brains - from spatial and visual thinking to motor skills and mathematics.
Sunday, November 18, 2012
Richard Holmes
The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
From expeditions to Tahiti and Timbuktu to hilarious hot air balloon experiments, from celestial discoveries to tests of nitrous oxide and methane, Holmes conveys the scientific fervor in Britain in the late 1700s. Writers join the craze, with Keats and Coleridge incorporating discoveries into their verses. Frankenstein also makes an appearance.

Sunday, January 27, 2013
Jim Al-Khalili
The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance
Most of the selections for this book discussion group have come from a Western perspective. Iraqi-born physicist Al-Khalili offers the perspective of the Arab world and its many contributions to science, including optical discoveries, pre-Copernicus heliocentric models of the solar system, and the particle theory of light.

Sunday, March 24, 2013
Edward J. Larson
An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science
Pulitzer Prize winner Larson is less concerned with the rivalries of Antarctic explorers than with their considerable scientific contributions. The incredibly arduous expeditions of Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton in the early 20th century brought about discoveries in geology, biology, and oceanography and were propelled by widespread interest in science back home.

Sunday, May 12, 2013
Jim Ottaviani
For the first time, Black Holes, Beakers, and Books will discuss a work from our graphic collection. Ottaviani has written the biography of a great American physicist, Richard Feynman, who won the Nobel Prize, worked on the Manhattan Project, and helped expose the weaknesses that led to the Challenger space shuttle disaster. The author has deftly interwoven Feynman's scientific life with his family and personal life, including his relationship with his sister, who became a successful scientist in her own right.
Ottaviani joined our discussion by phone.

Sunday, July 28, 2013
Steven Pinker
The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
From the prolific writer on human nature comes an examination of the psychology and history of violence and nonviolence. Despite the constant onslaught of human-inflicted catastrophes such as the Newtown school massacre, civil wars in Mali and Syria, and concurrent wars waged by the U.S. in the past decade, Pinker argues that in the grand scheme of things, violence is on the wane. The Harvard University professor looks at the most violent peoples and places, advances in human reason, and how women might have had an effect on the drop in violence.

Sunday, September 22, 2013
Sam Kean
The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
Most of us left the periodic table behind in high school or college, and recall it as an inanimate grid of numbers and letters, only a few of which remain in our memory. Kean brings each element alive through stories of discovery, intrigue, madness, and betrayal. The Disappearing Spoon was shortlisted for the 2010 Royal Society Winton Prize, awarded to outstanding works of popular science.

Sunday, November 24, 2013
Christopher Ryan
Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality
Monogamy and its historical, sociological, and anthropological origins are re-examined by this husband-and-wife author team. Not without controversy, they tackle such questions as: Have humans always been monogamous, or did we evolve toward that state? How reliable is evolutionary psychology on the topic of human sexuality? Why might older married men choose adultery despite their best efforts to be faithful?

Sunday, January 26, 2014
Deborah Blum
The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
In 1920s New York City, murderers could use poisons as their weapons without being traced. Two forensic scientists, a toxicologist and the chief medical examiner, manage to solve some of these chemical mysteries, though not without deadly mistakes. Pulitzer Prize-winning Blum has created a delightful compound: true-crime thriller, popular science, and Jazz Age history.

Sunday, March 23, 2014
Chris Anderson
Makers: The New Industrial Revolution
Maker spaces, such as the nationwide TechShop and other public workshop arenas, are becoming a new forum for entrepreneurs, inventors, and craftspeople. These spaces give everyday citizens the opportunity to create finely-tuned 3-D objects without the prohibitive expense of high-tech engineering equipment. Anderson explains how makers are changing both the economy and the design world.

We'll take the first half of the hour to discuss the book, after which we'll go to the second floor to view a demonstration of the library's newly acquired 3-D printer.

Sunday, May 18, 2014
Note: Special date due to the Memorial Day holiday!

David Epstein
The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance
Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein takes the nature vs. nurture debate to the court, the track, and the genetics lab. Scientists and world renowned athletes share their evidence for both sides, as well as discuss the role of gender and ethnicity in physical fitness excellence. You may be surprised to learn which athletic skills are innate, and which are learned, as Epstein questions whether 10,000 hours in any discipline can make anyone an expert.

Sunday, July 27, 2014
Mike Brown
How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming
After years of searching, astronomer Mike Brown identified a heavenly body called Eris in 2005. The thrill of discovery was eclipsed by contention as Eris elbowed Pluto out of planetary status. Pluto, which generations of school children were taught was the ninth planet, was demoted to dwarf planet. Those same children began sending Brown hate mail for axing Pluto, but he now defends his science in this very readable memoir.

Sunday, September 28, 2014
Susan Cain
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking
A self-described introvert introduces us to a diverse spectrum of her peers: people who prefer solitude, listening, and working independently. While a third to half of humans fall into the introvert category, Cain believes that workplaces and schools are created largely for extroverts, which means that society loses out on a great deal of talent, ideas, and energy. She examines the psychology and neuroscience behind introversion and provides guidance for introverts to succeed in a world of extroverts.

Sunday, November 16, 2014
Stuart Brown with Christopher Vaughan
Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
Is play necessary at every age? Can it improve lifelong neurological performance? What sorts of play are important for adults? The founder of the National Institute for Play offers answers to these questions and others.
A mentor from The Labs, CLP's teen digital learning program, led us in an activity on play.

Sunday, January 25, 2015
Adam Alter
Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave
Imagery and color affect humans in profound ways, but are they so powerful as to reduce criminal behavior, raise levels of generosity, and increase innovation? Alter examines how our behavior is influenced in the subtlest ways.
After discussing the book, we performed a related experiment.

Sunday, March 22, 2015
Akiko Busch
The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science
Crowdsourcing, affordable monitoring devices, and other technological advances have empowered volunteers like Busch to effect environmental change. A personal account from an amateur naturalist who counts eels and bats, tracks invasive plants, and finds beauty in her recordings in New York's Hudson Valley.
We tested out the Speck, a portable air quality monitor for use by citizen scientists, now available for checkout from our Squirrel Hill location.

Sunday, May 31, 2015
Mary Roach
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
From flatulence to Elvis's colon, from healing saliva to cavity searches, this veteran of popular science books makes the unpalatable fascinating.
After discussing the book, join us for a related experiment.

Sunday, July 26, 2015
Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World
with selections from The Art of Fermentation: An In-depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World
A materials scientist examines all the stuff around us, from paper and stone to steel and concrete, and even writes a script for a play that defends plastic. We'll discuss Stuff Matters, as well as the first two chapters from The Art of Fermentation.
Join us for a related experiment, Fermentation in a Bag.

Sunday, September 27, 2015
Zero to Maker: Learn (Just Enough) to Make (Just About) Anything
Would you like inspiration on transitioning to a career of making? Are you a fan of Make magazine? Have you been looking for a primer on the wide array of skills and tools within the maker movement? If so, let David Lang be your guide.
Join us for a related experiment, 3D Modeling and Printing.

Sunday, November 22, 2015
The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History
Our planet has experienced five long-ago mass extinctions, but here journalist Elizabeth Kolbert explores our approach toward the sixth. While the exact causes of the first five are still open to debate, and range from asteroids to volcanic events, the next mass extinction will be blamed squarely on Homo sapiens. Kolbert takes us back in time to explain previous extinctions, then goes around the world to document current changes in species and habitats.
After discussing the book, join us for a related experiment.