Years ago, talk of a space race referred to competition between the United States and Soviet Union to put men in orbit and then send them to the moon. Nowadays, it applies to a few billionaires vying to go where only the most powerful nations went before—that is, beyond planet Earth. Christian Davenport, a journalist on the Washington Post’s financial staff who covers the space and defense industries, was able to talk to these billionaire entrepreneurs and chronicles their rivalries and ambitious, out-of-this-world projects in The Space Barons. These private, commercial space efforts are only about a decade-and-a-half old or less, yet they’ve made tremendous strides in a relatively short time, marking the end of the government’s monopoly on exploring the cosmos and holding considerable promise for the future.
Malcolm Gladwell follows the fascinating sociology of The Tipping Point and Blink with Outliers (Little, Brown, $27.99). Defining “outliers” as people who do extraordinary things, Gladwell maintains that we consistently misunderstand the reasons for their achievements, reversing the relevant and the irrelevant in explanations for such phenomena as star soccer players or high-achieving Asian math students. How could Townsend Harris public high school in Manhattan, in forty years, produce three Nobel Prize winners, six Pulitzer Prize winners, and one Supreme Court Justice, as well as George Gershwin and Jonas Salk? A conventional mind might attribute the feat to high-quality teaching, but the true reasons lie outside the schoolyard. An Italian immigrant community in Pennsylvania boasts a death rate for heart disease that is half that of the rest of the United States. An ordinary doctor might compile information on diet, exercise, and genes, but a medical outlier discovered the real reason for this population’s health, and it was one not found in medical textbooks. Gladwell documents how conventional thinking can be corrected by looking beyond the seemingly obvious.
According to the Washington Business Journal, the D.C. metropolitan area is the fourth-worst commute in the country and has seen a surge of aggressive driving. The mounting frustration with our world-class gridlock is an ideal backdrop for Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic (Knopf, $24.95), the new Freakonomics for cars. First, Vanderbilt wants us to know that we all overestimate our driving skills; researchers say there are some 2,000 discrete skills we employ in driving, and many of them we do not employ well. Take merging, for example. Deciding when to merge is the single most stressful activity undertaken in daily traffic; to merge early or to merge late is a decision often cast in moralistic tones. Vanderbilt says he used to be an early merger, thinking it was the polite and efficient move. After researching his book, he has become one of those late mergers he previously thought of as selfish jerks.