Intriguing idea, but I need more "pop" in my science.

I heard about Mario Livio's book Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein -- Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe on some sort of NPR interview that he did, and, based simply on the title, thought it might make for an interesting read.

It probably is, but it is not for me. I only got to page 13, and I decided that, although a real scientist would probably consider this title "popular science," it is still a little hardcore for me. Livio's basic idea is that great scientific discoveries don't pop out of nowhere; they are, in fact, made when scientists make lots of little mistakes and even a few huge ones while they're trying to figure stuff out.

The chapters cover scientists including Charles Darwin*, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, and Albert Einstein, among others, and it certainly seems like a well-written book that the right reader might really enjoy.** But for me, right now, it's just a little dry: "The blunders described in this book have all, in one way or another, acted as catalysts for impressive breakthroughs--hence, their description as 'brilliant blunders.' They served as the agents that lifted the fog through which science was progressing, in its usual succession of small steps occasionally punctuated by quantum leaps." (pp. 10-11.)

*It didn't help that the book opens with Darwin and evolution, and I find evolution just about the most dull subject there is. If I even just hear the word "evolution," I start immediately yawning and my eyes get heavy.

**And I'm just totally scattered these days. If I had more time and my old powers of concentration I might have enjoyed this one a lot more too.

Everybody poops.

I loved, loved, LOVED Rose George's investigative book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.

Let me rephrase, as a matter of fact: I would go so far as to say that I would be a totally happy camper if I could find a nonfiction book this good to read every single week. Or perhaps two every week. Two superlative nonfiction titles a week (and the time in which to read them, as long as we're dreaming). I don't ask much, do I?

But I digress. As you can tell from the title, George's book is about all things poo, defecation, sanitation, sewage, toilets, and all sorts of other lovely and earthy topics not normally discussed in polite company (the author frequently points out, for example, that everyone, including celebrities, want to be involved in "clean water" campaigns, but nobody wants to deal with the less glamorous "sanitation" part of "water and sanitation").

George had me from the second chapter*, in which she has much to say about TOTO, a Japanese toilet manufacturing company. They take their toilets very, very seriously in Japan, so TOTO takes its product very seriously as well. And I chuckled each time I read the name--we own a TOTO toilet of our own here at Chez CR, and we've always been very happy with it.**

The book is not all lighthearted--George points out fairly early on that 2.6 billion people in the world don't have sanitation (as of 2008, when this book was first published). And then she puts that into context for first-world readers: "I don't mean that they have no toilet in their house and must use a public one with queues and fees. Or that they have an outhouse, or a rickety shack that empties into a filthy drain or pigsty. All that counts as sanitation, though not a safe variety. The people who have those are the fortunate ones. Four in ten people have no access to any latrine, toilet, bucket, or box. Nothing. Instead, they defecate by train tracks and in forests. They do it in plastic bags and fling them through the air in narrow slum alleyways. If they are women, they get up at 4 a.m. to be able to do their business under cover of darkness for reasons of modesty, risking rape and snakebites. Four in ten people live in situations where they are surrounded by human excrement because it is in the bushes outside the village or in their city yards, left by children outside the backdoor. It is tramped back in on their feet, carried on fingers onto clothes, food, and drinking water." (p. 2.)

Ooof. A paragraph like that'll make you think, especially when it appears on the second page of the book, for the love of all that's holy.

And yet she has a lovely light touch with her subject, and although she doesn't really insert herself in the narrative, her voice is delightful. I found her style somewhat similar to Mary Roach's, but I liked George's tone and prose so much better--Roach sometimes gets a bit "twee" for me and I get tired of her endless footnotes, some of which are funny but which mostly end up being just distracting.

So why did I check this book out? George has a new book coming out, called Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, about worldwide shipping, and that sounds very good too. While I was waiting for it, I thought I'd read this earlier title, and now that I know how good this author is, I'm really excited to get the new book.

*The first chapter, on sewers, is excellent also.

**I may be the first person in the world who demanded that my plumber charge me more when he replaced our broken-down toilet a few years back. He offered a standard Mansfield, and I had to explain, "Look, this is our ONE toilet, and how can I put this delicately, we need a workhorse here." So he gave us the TOTO, which cost more, and has been worth every penny. It was put in on my birthday (a great present), and lives in family and house lore as "Toto the Birthday Toilet."

Jim Ottaviani strikes again.

I don't read as much science nonfiction as I should, I'll admit.

This is a puzzler, because I have liked almost all of the few science books I have plowed through over the years. I think I have to be in the right mood and the right place mentally--science nonfiction, even popular science nonfiction, seems to demand a bit more attention and reading in longer chunks of time than I often have these days. But when I find a short science title by an author I have always enjoyed...I bring it right home.

A case in point last week was Jim Ottaviani's (and Maris Wicks's) young adult graphic novel Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas. When I saw this on the shelf on the library, I got all excited; I love Jim Ottaviani. I'm not a huge reader of graphic nonfiction but Ottaviani's artwork is easy to follow and his treatment of often complicated scientific precepts (and biography of scientists, often complicated individuals in their own rights) is clear enough that even I can grasp most of what he's explaining.

In this short volume, Ottaviani and his co-author Wicks provide brief overviews of the lives, educations, and work of primate naturalists and scientists Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas (of whom I'd never even heard before picking up this book). The book is under 140 pages long, so you can imagine that most of the discussion of their work among the animals, and their very differing personalities, is superficial at best. So although the book left me vaguely unsatisfied, I do think it functioned well as a great introduction to primate science and three fascinating women. It left me wanting more, which all really great books do (I think), and provides a very nice bibliography if you're inclined to go find more to read on these subjects.

Back to the Library: April 2013

Well, here's two more books I had to take back to the library yesterday, unread:

Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning, by Benjamin Bergen

Here's a bit from its PR blurb: "In Louder than Words, cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen draws together a decade’s worth of research in psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience to offer a new theory of how our minds make meaning...Meaning is more than just knowing definitions of words, as others have previously argued. In understanding language, our brains engage in a creative process of constructing rich mental worlds in which we see, hear, feel, and act."*

And here's a review: Kirkus Reviews


Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, by Steven Johnson

Johnson is the author of several of those types of nonfiction books I call "Making Sense" or "Big Think" books--like The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. I don't know why I keep checking Johnson's books out; he completely annoys me in that "the future is gonna be GREAT!" way that all Wired magazine authors do. (I mean, I hope the future will be great too, but I don't know that it's going to be great, and let's face it, "great" means different things to different people. Walking around attached to a smartphone at all moments of your life, for instance, doesn't really sound "great" to me. But that's just me.)

But, here's a bit from its promotional copy: "At a time when the conventional wisdom holds that the political system is hopelessly gridlocked with old ideas, Future Perfect makes the timely and inspiring case that progress is still possible, and that innovative strategies are on the rise. This is a hopeful, affirmative outlook for the future, from one of the most brilliant and inspiring visionaries of contemporary culture."

And here's a review: Wall Street Journal**

Now, on to other stuff I can maybe actually get read before it comes due at the library.

*It was way optimistic of me to think I was going to make it through a denser book like this just now. I just don't have the concentration, sadly.

**Frankly? I read the first ten pages of the Johnson and was bored to tears. Even when the book was the only thing in my bathroom I still didn't feel like reading it. And the same thing happened to me reading this review, which probably means I should find a different review to post. But linking to a review I couldn't finish of a book I couldn't finish seemed too right not to do.

Nonfiction educates us, whether we want it to or not.

So I read Florence Williams's really fascinating book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History almost entirely in the bathroom, and skipped around quite a bit among chapters, but I still enjoyed it. What I MOST enjoyed, however, was that Mr. CR evidently spent some time in the bathroom reading it as well. This is how his experiences with the book progressed:

The first day he came out of the bathroom and said, "Wow, breasts are really interesting."*

The second day he came out of the bathroom and said, "Thinking about what's all floating around in the environment, that's pretty weird."

The third day he came out of the bathroom and said, "I can't read that Breasts book anymore." And I think he really did stop reading it.

So what was the breaking point for Mr. CR? I think it was reading about all the chemicals and toxins in our environment, and how our bodies (womens' breasts, in particular) suck up and synthesize and deal with all those said toxins. But this book was about much more than just that.

I'd probably classify this book as popular science with a good dose of sociology thrown in: Williams discusses the anthropological and cultural history of our breasts, and also talks to a lot of scientists and researchers about their various studies, from the more sociological (male preferences for breast sizes) to the more genetic (including undertaking the chemical analysis of her own breast milk). I think that's the chapter where Mr. CR started to lose it, because you start to find information like this, on why flame retardants show up in everyone's breast milk:

"As one industry website proclaimed, 'Today, polyurethanes can be found in virtually everything we touch--our desks, chairs, cars, clothes, footwear, appliances, beds, the insulation in our walls, roof and molding on our homes.'

There's just one problem: it's highly flammable, earning nicknames like liquid gas and fatal foam. A typical home filled with polyurethane products can literally burst into flames in five minutes once the petrochemical gasses heat up enough. Much household and office foam is treated with flame-retardans designed to delay ignition. The substances, which include bromine, chlorine, and phosphorus versions, came into widespread use after 1975..." (p. 202.)

And that sort of information, coupled with the science of how breast tissue, more so than other body tissues, sucks up environmental ingredients and interacts with them, is what starts to freak a reader out.

Depressing subject matter notwithstanding, I really enjoyed this one.** I like a good science read that isn't completely dumbed down but which is still within my understanding, and Williams has a nice writing style. She reminds me a bit of Mary Roach, but I like her better--Roach seems (to me, anyway) to be becoming increasingly cutesy in her science writing.

So do give this one a try. If nothing else you'll probably be amused by the photos on the front and back covers. Very clever.

*This still makes me giggle. You think it's interesting reading about them, guys? Try walking around with the complex buggers.

*I know The Lesbrarian swears by Stacked, and I mean to read that one too, but I think I enjoyed the heavier emphasis on science topics that this book offered.

Where will the next big epidemic come from?

Would you believe I spent the past week blowing through a book on diseases (primarily caused by viruses) that cross over from animals to humans?*

Well, I did, and it was a fantastic read. The book in question was David Quammen's Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, it's 520 pages long, and yes, it's about disease and human pandemics, and I could not put it down.

This came as somewhat of a surprise, since I've looked at some of Quammen's other science/natural history books, and found them somewhat dull. So either this is just a subject that I find interesting (and I do), or he took his style up a notch in this one, or I didn't give his earlier books a fair trial. All possibilities.

To be specific, Quammen reports on "zoonoses"--diseases that are communicable from animals to humans (thanks, Merriam-Webster's). Here's some introductory information from Quammen:

"Ebola is a zoonosis. So is bubonic plague. So was the so-called Spanish influenza of 1918-1919, which had its ultimate source in a wild aquatic bird and, after passing through some combination of domesticated animals (a duck in southern China, a sow in Iowa?) emerged to kill as many as 50 million people before receding into obscurity. All of the human influenzas are zoonoses. So are monkeypox, bovine tuberculosis, Lyme disease, West Nile fever, Marburg virus disease, rabies, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, anthrax, Lassa fever..." (p. 21).

So yes, a real upper subject. But Quammen makes it very compelling, tracing the emergence, outbreaks, study and history, and other aspects of a variety of zoonoses, from Hendra to Ebola to influenza to HIV. It's quick-paced, particularly for science writing, and there's a ton of fascinating things to learn here. Did you know, for instance, that HIV might have "spilled over" from animal to human hosts as early as 1908? I didn't.

It's a really fascinating book. I wouldn't read it right before you get on an airplane, or if you live near a lot of bats. Otherwise, do have at.

*Although, check out that freaky cover. Mr. CR is reading it now, and I've had to request that he put it down facedown, because the cover freaks me out.

Why does the world exist?

It's depressing, but today all I have to offer is yet another post about a nonfiction book I couldn't finish (and barely got started). Sometimes it seems like I'm not finishing a lot more nonfiction books than I'm finishing, but that does happen quite a bit. The book I couldn't get into last week was Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?

It's supposed to be a really good book, and it's gotten a lot of great reviews*, but frankly, like most big philosophical questions, Why Does the World Exist? is not something I care all that much about. And to me, that makes this book somewhat of a tough slog. This is the prologue, in its entirety:

"Prologue: A quick proof that there must be something rather than nothing, for modern people who lead busy lives.

Suppose there were nothing. Then there would be no laws; for laws, after all, are something. If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted. If everything were permitted, then nothing would be forbidden. So if there were nothing, nothing would be forbidden. Thus nothing is self-forbidding.

Therefore, there must be something. QED." p. 1.

Christ, who actually has the time for stuff like that? If there's nothing, would there be words to be all cutesy with, like in that paragraph? I think not. So, although I'm sure it will show up on many "Best of..." book lists for 2012, I'm probably not ever going to read it. QED that.

*Even this review in the Christian Science Monitor is mostly over my head, but I still enjoyed it, particularly where its author discusses how one of the ideas that seems to bother Holt (the universe existing simply as a "brute fact") doesn't really bother the reviewer all that much.

A little light reading about viruses.

In retrospect, reading Carl Zimmer's slim science book A Planet of Viruses right as flu season kicks off probably wasn't the smartest plan.*

VirusesBut I am not known for my smart planning, or my smart anything, really. So read it I did. And it was awesome. In short chapters describing such popular viruses as the rhinovirus (that causes the common cold), the influenza virus, the human papillomavirus, SARS, HIV, and many others, Zimmer manages to provide a nice overview and history of his subject, as well as a number of really interesting science tidbits. I found this one fascinating:

"Endogenous retroviruses may be dangerous parasites, but scientists have discovered a few that we have commandeered for our own benefit. When a fertilized egg develops into a fetus, for example, some of its cells develop into the placenta, an organ that draws in nutrients from the mother's tissues. The cells in the outer layer of the placenta fuse together, sharing their DNA and other molecules. Heidmann and other researchers have found that a human endogenous retrovirus gene plays a crucial role in that fusion. The cells in the outer placenta use the gene to produce a protein on their surface, which latches them to neighboring cells. In our most intimate moment, as new human life emerges from old, viruses are essential to our survival." (p. 52.)

Now, I only understand maybe half of that paragraph, and it's not the most elegant sample of Zimmer's writing that I could find. But that is still some fascinating science-fiction-type shit right there, I say.

ZimmerIf I had more time I'd read this book all over again, because sometimes I didn't fully understand what I was reading (particularly in the chapter on bacteriophages, which, as far as I can tell, are viruses that infect bacteria). But I certainly got enough out of the one reading to be able to heartily recommend this one. Although I do think it needs a better cover. Frankly, if it were up to me, I'd splash the author's photo all over it--he's a thinking gal's smoking hottie. And man, he's a good science writer. I still think back on reading his book Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures with real pleasure: never has such a gross read (parasites: yuck) been such an engrossing one.

*I learned that "according to one hypothesis, [most flu cases occur during the winter] because the air is dry enough in those months to allow virus-laden droplets to float in the air for hours, increasing their chances of encountering a new host. In other times of the year, the humidity causes the droplets to swell and fall to the ground." (p. 18.) So when I was out this past weekend and someone sneezed in my vicinity, I freaked out trying to determine how dry the air is currently and therefore how infectious that sneeze would be. Next thing you know I'll be walking around with a little water spritz bottle, just squirting it randomly around myself. Knowledge is fun but it certainly doesn't help make one a more normal person, does it?

A book on brains my brain just isn't up to right now.

BrainI keep trying to read Sandra Aamodt's and Sam Wang's Welcome to Your Child's Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College, but I'm just not going to be able to finish it.

I'm a fretful parent (lucky CRjr--every time he hits a developmental milestone I mentally check it off the list, enjoy it for all of five seconds, and then start fretting about the next step*), so I thought it would be interesting or helpful to know more about how children's brains develop. I still think it would be, but this is not the book for me. Although the authors seem to know their stuff and they toss in encouraging asides like their assertion that your child will be fine as long as you do a "reasonably competent" job caring for them, I'm still finding it a rather tough book to follow.

Perhaps this is because I am so used to reading parenting books that are chronologically oriented, whereas this one is organized along subject lines, with chapter headings like "Once in a Lifetime: Sensitive Periods (birth to 15 years)", "Born Linguists (birth to eight years)," and "Connect with Your Baby through Hearing and Touch" (third trimester to two years)." That last is actually chapter 11, AFTER chapter 9, on adolescence. It was just too hard for me to follow. One nice thing about it is that it contains multiple sidebars offering "Practical Tips" and "Myth Busting" throughout; when I had to take it back to the library I just read through most of those (skipping the text) and called it a day.

*The same people who tell me the baby's just fine and I should stop worrying about every little thing like a nut job are usually the same people who tell me about the importance of early detection of problems so they can be addressed sooner rather than later. It's a Mommy Catch-22.

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Science

Okay, we're going to finish up our alternative take on the Time 100 Best Nonfiction list if it kills me. Today's a big category, but at least it's one I understand: Science.

Now when I say I understand, I mean I understand it as a category. I emphatically don't understand science (or math) as a concept; if I did I'd be a lot more successful.* What I find annoying about science is that someone can explain it to me all they want, even fairly graspable concepts like electricity, and a minute later I'll have forgotten EVERY SINGLE THING about the explanation. It's like the Men in Black came through with their mind-wipey thing. Mr. CR says this is what I do when I'm not interested in something--in goes in one ear and out the other without making any sort of impression. So whether it is a question of being intellectually deficient or just uninterested, you'd think this would be a category I wouldn't enjoy.

But I do. When I find a good, readable, understandable, and yes, the most overused word of all, compelling science book, I really really love it. So I'm excited to discuss this one. Now, here are the books Time listed:

A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking
Coming of Age in Samoa, by Margaret Mead
The Double Helix, by James Watson
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer**, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Lives of a Cell, by Alice Park
The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris
On Human Nature, by Edward O. Wilson
The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins
Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn

This is a poor list, in my opinion, and one that is skewed too heavily to the biological and "soft" sciences (particularly the Margaret Mead--I might argue about anthropology being a true "science"--and I say that as someone with a degree in library "science," so I know how broad labels can be). Of course the Hawking title is there, although it reminds me of something I read once that posited that that book was the most bought and least read book in the world, which seems to me about right. There's nothing really wrong with the titles themselves, particularly if you want to read books that have proved controversial--like the Morris and Dawkins books (I'm a bit suprised that Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb isn't listed here, as it was also hugely controversial), and some of them are quite good. But let's see what we can come up with:

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, by James Watson. This is an EXCELLENT choice. If you read only one science book in your life, make it this one. Not only is it a fantastic discussion of the discovery of the structure of DNA and the birth of the study of genetics as we know it, but Watson as an author is not only good at explaining the science, he's also like your favorite chatty cousin who always knows the best gossip on everyone and isn't afraid to share. Regardless of how you feel about his treatment of women scientists (did he and Crick rip off their colleague Rosalind Franklin's research?), it's a fascinating read.

Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering, by Henry Petroski. It would behoove everyone to know a little something about engineering as an applied science, and Petroski makes the topic exciting (yes, exciting!) in this consideration of engineers pushing the envelope.

The Last Sorcerers: The Path from Alchemy to the Periodic Table, by Richard Morris. Very readable history of science/chemistry.

An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain, by Diane Ackerman. I'm not a Diane Ackerman fan myself but I've known lots of very smart mathy and sciencey people who enjoy her, so I thought she deserved a place on the list. This is one of her more well-known titles, about the brain (which is always a fascinating subject to read about, I think).

Fallout, by Jim Ottaviani, with Suspended in Language (about physicist Niels Bohr) being a close second. This is a graphic novel about the development of the atomic bomb, and it is quite possibly the best science book I've read. Ottaviani is a super talent.

Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures, by Carl Zimmer. Quite possibly the most memorable science (or any genre, for that matter) title I have ever read. Parasites are fascinating, although their ick factor is high. But they're most definitely here to stay and their lives are entwined with ours, so it's important to know about them, and Zimmer is a fantastic science author.

Prime Obsession Bernhard Riemann & the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics, by John Derbyshire. I think there should be at least one math book on this list, and frankly, this is the only one I've ever finished. I tried Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace, but it was beyond me. Like, it didn't even feel like it was in English, beyond me.

I was a little surprised there wasn't anything by Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, Dava Sobel, Jonathan Weiner, or Michio Kaku on the Time list, frankly, they're big names in the field. And both of our lists are remiss in the fields of astrophysics/space exploration--do you have any titles in that area or others that you could suggest?

*I often worked the Friday night shift at the public library, and when proud parents would tell me how advanced their children were in reading, I always wanted to say, "You know where that gets you? That's right--working behind a public service desk at 8 p.m. on a Friday night. I'd encourage your child in math, if I were you."

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Food and Health, Part 2.

No fooling around; Health titles today (we covered Food earlier in the week). If you'll remember, here's what Time magazine had to say:

And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts
The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, by Dr. Benjamin Spock
The Joy of Sex, by Dr. Alex Comfort
The Kinsey Reports, by Alfred Kinsey
 Our Bodies, Ourselves, by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective

Of those, I've only read the Shilts book, which I remember as being very interesting and well worth a read. I still think most of this list is weak, and would serve more as a "well-known reference book" list more so than a list of the "best nonfiction." Why not just throw the Merck Manual or the Physicians' Desk Reference or the DSM-IV on the list and be done with it? Here are the books I'd suggest instead:

Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude, by Amy Bloom. A slim little book, packed with empathetic and fascinating stories about gender. Really. It's way more fascinating than it sounds and will blow your mind regarding the number of children born with some kind of genital, well, abnormalities isn't quite the word of I'm looking for, but issues.

Your Medical Mind: How to Decide What Is Right for You, by Jerome Groopman. If you're going to read a how-to book, read a good general one about understanding your own attitudes about and approaches to medicine and health care.

The Hot Zone, Richard Preston. It reads more like a thriller, but Preston's fast-paced story about the Ebola virus is both informative and scary as hell.

How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter, by Sherwin Nuland. He of one of my other favorite medical books, The Doctor's Plague, explains exactly how we die and the human body breaks down. Nuland himself is a doctor and makes the details, if not more palatable, at least understandable.

Nobody's Home: Candid Reflections of a Nursing Home Aide, by Thomas Edward Gass. I've been meaning to re-read this one because it stands out in my memory more than any book about nursing homes should. I think I appreciated it because it was a thoughtful read by someone actually doing the work of caring for old people. (Narratives by honest-to-goodness workers are kind of tough to find.) None of us want to die young, so let's face it, old-age care is something we have to think about.

I know I'm missing a ton of titles; I've read a surprising amount of really good health-care narratives (Pushed, about childbirth, and Normal at Any Cost, about giving growth hormones to short kids, also come to mind, but there isn't enough room on our list here for them.) What Health titles would you suggest?

I'm not convinced on the evolution stuff, but I still enjoyed the read.

Dunbar I'm not entirely sure why I checked out the title How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar's Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks, by Robin Dunbar, but I'm guessing I saw it on my library's list of new nonfiction books and thought it sounded intriguing.

I wasn't wrong--Dunbar is a professor of psychology and offers here a variety of very readable science essays on evolution and other "evolutionary quirks" like why tall people seem to be more successful, why we laugh, what morning sickness could be for, and how many friends with whom we can really keep in actual successful contact (the number seems to be about 150, known as Dunbar's Number). For basic science writing, it's kind of light and easily understandable:

"Our brains are massively expensive, consuming about twenty per cent of our total energy intake even though they only account for about two per cent of our total body weight. That's a massive cost to bear, so brains really need to be spectacularly useful if they are going to be worth the cost. The consensus, at least for the primate family, is that we have our big brains to enable us to cope with the complexities of our social world...It seems that it is pairbonding that is the real drain on the brain. So let me ask: have you been struggling yet again with your partner's foibles?...Among the birds and mammals in general, the species with the biggest brains relative to body size are precisely those that mate monogamously." (p. 12.)

I enjoyed that a lot. Particularly in light of my and Mr. CR's recent and unsatisfying skirmishes regarding what constitutes a fair division of household duties.

So yeah, in bits, this is an interesting book. I did skip some of the chapters that were more blatantly about evolution, mostly because I just don't care about evolution as a subject at all.* If you're looking for a book that will provide some neat ah-ha! moments, you might like this one; but it will be liked best by those with a strong bent toward the topics of evolution and evolutionary biology and psychology.

*There is nothing I find more boring than the creationism/evolution debate. I don't even get why it IS a debate, frankly. If you believe that God can do anything, why is it hard to believe that God could create evolution? But much of that is probably my ignorance talking. I don't really know anything about the science of evolution, except that it seems to involve a lot of something I once saw on my brother's t-shirt. Two scientists, working at a chalkboard. On one side are equations, and on the other side are equations, and in the middle: "A miracle occurs." Evolutionary scientists always seem (to me, anyway) to be the types who say, "a million years ago was this, then a miracle occurred, and now we all have wider pelvises. At least we think it's because a miracle occurred, but we don't really know."

Not quite what I wanted in a science read.

I'm not much a science reader, but when I find a science book or author I enjoy, I really enjoy them. (And their books tend to stay with me.) Ever since I read Carl Zimmer's fantastic Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures, for instance, I've read everything I can by Zimmer and keep an eye out for books about parasites. (As well as, well, keeping an eye out for parasites. Bed bugs--yuck!)

Dunn One such recent book is Rob Dunn's The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today. Dunn's premise is interesting--a take on disease and human health that considers not what goes into our bodies, but what has been taken out of them as we wage war on all sorts of little beasties by living inside, interacting less with nature, disinfecting everything we can get our hands on, and generally trying to make our environments germ- (and worm-) free. In his early chapters, for instance, he discusses Crohn's disease, a painful and largely misunderstood and often untreatable, and increasingly common, bowel disease, and how it might actually be occurring more often because, at least in first world countries, we very rarely suffer from any kind of intestinal worm infestations.* He actually describes treatments wherein Crohn's sufferers volunteer (by many means) to get worms--and in some cases it actually does seem to work.

I wish I could tell you more, but I stopped reading this one at about p. 56. It was interesting, but I felt like the prose was kind of stilted, and the author was taking way too long to tell me his stories. Here's an example, from early in the book, when he's talking about an animal called the pronghorn, and what its strange evolution tells us about evolution and our environmental interconnectedness in general:

"Counting pronghorn is difficult, like counting crows or clouds. They are suddently everywhere and then, just as suddenly, nowhere. In most of the places they live, they remain unstudied, nameless, and totally wild. But there exists a grassland in the National Bison Range of Montana where the pronghorn are well-known. There the grass grows until it is about halfway up their backs and then stops...The National Bison Range is still wild enough that things can live, mate, and die without ever being noticed, but it is defined enough, a world unto itself, that a man and a woman might hope to watch a few animals live out their lives and in doing so learn broader truths. So it was that in 1981, the zoologist John Byers took it upon himself to be such a man, and his wife, Karen, would be such a woman." (p. 24.)

I think he's trying to be dramatic, but to me it just comes off as stilted. Still and all though, an interesting premise, just not my kind of prose.

*I know, ick. Still kind of interesting.

Science lite.

Every now and then I really like a good science read. I don't read science all that often, but if I find a title I can understand, I enjoy the subject much more than I ever did in high school.*

Clockwork I was able to understand most of Edward Dolnick's history of science title The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World, so the book met my first criteria for science reading. Although the subtitle includes that bit about the Royal Society, this is much more a book about some of the luminaries who were part of that organization (Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren, and eventually Isaac Newton) and those whose discoveries they built upon (Descartes, Johannes Kepler, Galileo).

For the first hundred pages, I really enjoyed the book. I understood it; the writing was quite vivid; the chapters were short; all things I typically enjoy in my nonfiction. But as the narrative wore on I started to feel that the chapters were a little too short and the writing a bit too choppy: I finished it, but in my opinion it never really coalesced into a cohesive narrative about the Royal Society, some of its most noteworthy members, or science in the seventeenth century as a whole.

But Dolnick does have a nice touch with setting the stage (his first chapters are all about plagues and fires sweeping across Europe in the 1660s): "Making matters harder still, London was not just built of wood but built in the most dangerous way possible. Rickety, slapdash buildings leaned against one another like drunks clutching each other for support. On and on they twisted, an endless labyrinth of shops, tenements, and taverns with barely a gap to slow the flames." (p. 31.)

He brings that same descriptive power to Newton's struggles with and eventual mastery of mathematics, planetary movements, the power of gravity, etc. And it's wild to realize how much some of the thinkers of this age accomplished, and how much they accomplished separately but concurrently. Newton and one of his main rivals, Gottfried Leibniz, evidently worked out calculus within years of each other, although Newton was too paranoid to publish his work as soon as he theorized it.

Huh. Imagine just "working out calculus." So yes, there are quite a few interesting tidbits like that in this book, but still...I finished it feeling a bit disappointed that it hadn't read a little smoother.

*Being a lazy student, I signed up for "General Physics," which was my school's version of "Physics for Dummies." I didn't want to be a scientist, I figured, why kill myself with regular physics? Our textbook even considered us too dumb for regular pronunciation guidelines; it said things like "joule (rhymes with tool)" and "torque (rhymes with fork)." Ha! I was so busy laughing at that textbook I never even learned what a joule really is.

The sound of a happier person reading.

For whatever reasons I have been more tranquil this week. I think it is because I have either a) decided not to think about world events (the fact that states are working to cut worker rights and salaries when we're fighting two pointless and expensive wars--or maybe three--who the fuck knows what the Pentagon is planning for Libya) and culture (books are dead and everybody clearly loves gadgets more than I do, if they can stomach the thought of buying Kindles and iPads and smart phones, oh my), or b) I have just been finding good nonfiction that is helping me keep my mind off all of the above. It might also be because the weather's a bit warmer. Hard telling what goes into the daily soup that is one's state of mind.

Snail One of the books helping to keep me tranquil was Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. When I read the review of it at MadREADS, I was intrigued, so I checked it out, although I am not normally one for nature books of any kind. (I make an exception for Rachel Carson. I love her.) The story of this tiny little book is simple: Bailey has been suffering from a neurological malady for many years, and once, when she is completely debilitated and bedridden by her disease, a friend visits her and brings along a snail she found on a walk, thinking simply that Bailey might like it. They fill a pot with violets and dirt and set the snail in it, and soon Bailey is watching the snail navigate its slow and steady way around her home.

Bailey does not share many details about her illness, but it of course colors every page: "Each morning there was a moment, before I had fully awakened, when my mind still groped its clumsy way back to consciousness, my body not yet remembered, reality not yet acknowledged. That moment was always full of pure, sweet, uncontrollable hope. I did not ask for this hope to come; I did not even want it, for it trailed disappointment in its wake. Yet there it was, hovering within me--hope that my illness had vanished with the night and my health had returned magically with daybreak." (p. 21.)

I find her writing both simple and very beautiful, and she brings that sensibility to her descriptions of her snail, as well as to the information she shares about snails that she learns from wide and historical reading. As she moves the snail from her violet pot to a terrarrium and eventually back out into the wild, you get the sense she just felt privileged to interact so closely with another little life. It's not really a happy book, but it's a very hopeful little one. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Color me unimpressed.

I've never quite understood the appeal of author Oliver Sacks.

This started in college, when I knew several people who had to read his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat for their psychology classes, and just raved about it. I picked it up and thought it was completely boring, and although I continue to look at every new book he publishes, I still haven't found one that does anything for me.

Sacks This has been the case again with his latest title, The Mind's Eye. It's yet another collection of medical oddity stories, culled from Sacks's life and work as a doctor and professor of neurology and psychiatry. I only read the first two chapters, so perhaps I shouldn't say anything. But the fact remains that I just don't understand why this guy is a bestselling nonfiction author. I find his writing so dry:

"In contrast to these severe visual problems, her speech comprehension, repetition, and verbal fluency were all normal. An MRI of her brain was also normal, but when a PET scan was performed--this can detect slight changes in the metabolism of different brain areas, even when they appear anatomically normal--Lilian was found to have diminished metabolic activity in the posterior part of the brain, the visual cortex." (p. 7.)

God. If I wanted to hear something a) depressing, and b) expressed in a lot of words I didn't understand and feared, I'd just go to the doctor myself. In the case study above he is referring to a musician who was losing her ability to read music (or words, for that matter). And that's all this first chapter is: describing this poor woman's degenerative neurological condition. In these books I keep expecting Dr. Sacks to be able to help these people he's describing, but it never really seems like he does--he always just seems there to report on these phenomena. Blah. Too depressing for me by half.

Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: In the Shadow of the Moon

I am deeply uninterested in most science topics, and particularly space exploration. When my family* debates whether or not people have actually landed on the moon, I typically zone out, as I don't particularly care one way or the other.

Moon So how odd that I'm suggesting a book like Francis French's and Colin Burgess's In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969. But suggesting it I am, particularly if you know a reader who likes a good science read with a few human interest stories thrown in. The format of the book is simple and well-organized; basically, the chapters describe each Gemini and Apollo mission leading up to the moon landing in 1969. In addition to describing the technical challenges overcome in each mission, the authors do a great job of describing the astronauts, their working relationships with one another, and their experiences in space.** These are not your typical astronaut stories--one of my favorites was learning about how Rusty Schweickart (on Apollo 9) suffered from nausea and "space sickness," and then volunteered to be tested so NASA could learn more about what caused it. This did not make him particularly popular with the rest of the astronaut crowd, who wanted to pretend that space sickness was no problem. Another astronaut, Bill Anders, had this to say about Schweickart's willingness to be studied:

"'But Rusty probably over-volunteered to research space sickness, and I don't think the general astronaut crowd appreciated that. I thought it was probably a pretty good idea. But as you know, fighter pilots never get sick, we all know that! And here was Rusty, more or less on his own, volunteering to be a space sickness guinea pig. That probably cost him any further missions.'" (p. 357.)

Typical: volunteer to be helpful, and get penalized for it. The book is full of fascinating stories like that, but it's still rigorous enough to please more hardcore science readers. And, in an added bonus, if you buy the paperback, you'll be getting an index that I created!*** That's right--that's why I read this book in the first place: not so I'd be better informed during my family's moon landing debates, but rather to do the index. What a treat--although I always enjoy indexing, not every book I index is as readable as this one was.

So who might like this book?

Science buffs, particularly those with an interest in the space program.

History buffs--I'm thinking of getting it for my brother, who is not a science reader per se, but who enjoys good history books and is also curious about technology.

*I mean my parents and siblings--Mr. CR thinks we're nuts for debating this issue. What he forgets is that my family likes to debate EVERYTHING.

**Also fascinating is learning how each astronaut felt about the "earth view" they got from space. It's one of those little human reaction stories that often gets lost in the broader science narrative.

***The hardcover edition doesn't have an index at all, which makes no sense, and which many reviewers at Amazon mentioned as a problem with the book. Kudos to the University of Nebraska Press for deciding to put an index in the paperback edition, although it should have been there all along.

A solid Mary Roach read.

Mary Roach is known for her accessible and, at times, even quite humorous science writing--she made a big splash with her first title, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and she's been quite popular ever since.

I really enjoy accessible science writing (frankly, science has to be made accessible if I want a chance in hell of even vaguely understanding it) and I find it just plain takes a good writer to make science (and most nonfiction, really) understandable, so these types of "popular" science books are usually very good reads.* Sadly, though, I wasn't all that turned on by Roach's previous two titles, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. But I was very, very pleased with her latest, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.

Mars Space exploration and travel to the moon is one of those subjects I never seek out consciously, but which I often enjoy reading about serendipitously. (One of my favorite books ever to index was In the Shadow of the Moon, about the evolution of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs) I never would have picked up Roach's book based on its subject, but I blew threw it in a couple of dedicated nights of wee-small-hours reading, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I didn't bookmark anything for quoting; Roach's style is best taken as a whole. And yes, she did put in the obligatory chapter about sexual intercourse and weightlessness, but I'll tell you what the really interesting chapter was: how NASA went about trying to solve the problem of astronaut, ahem, elimination. And I don't mean being cut from the program. I mean the problem of trying to poo in (early in the program) plastic baggies or (later in the program) a toilet that could handle waste without letting fecal matter out to circulate through the cabin. Now THAT was the money chapter, in my opinion. 

*I realize, in a funky ironic twist, that this sentence itself is barely understandable. See? Good writing is hard!

Both ends of the spectrum: Birth.

I have decided, eighty-nine pages into it, that preggers ladies should probably not be reading Jennifer Block's Pushed: The Painful Truth about Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care.

Pushed Which is a shame, because I've been finding that it's a really interesting book. There's some fascinating, FASCINATING, stuff in it about how many labors are induced (and for what reasons), how many c-sections are currently performed in America (and why), epidurals, "rushing" natural labor, and all sorts of other labor and medical history bits and bobs. It's my favorite type of medical nonfiction book--pretty detailed, offering historical context (the history on episiotomies, the different types of drugs used during labor, and forceps alone make this book worth it), and a bit questioning of the medical establishment. There's also a lot of interesting stuff about the dynamic between nurses (and midwives), who are often more open to letting labor start when it's going to start and take as long as it's going to take, and doctors, who tend to be a bit more into what they call "active management."

If you have a better attitude toward the medical establishment than I do, this may not be the book for you; it's a bit argumentative (you can tell that from the opening line of the publisher's description: "In the U.S., nearly half of all mothers are chemically induced into labor whether they want it or not; almost a third give birth via C-section." I've known loads of women who were most pleased with both their inductions and their epidurals, but this wouldn't be the type of book I'd probably suggest to them.

Weirdly, I think I'd like to get this book back when I'm not pregnant. It's an eye-opener, that's for sure--and I might even suggest it to go along with another interesting book on the subject, Peggy Vincent's Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife.

The unbelievable life of Henrietta Lacks.

I was absolutely blown away by the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. In the best possible way. And I loved being blown away by it, because it's been getting a lot of attention this spring, and every now and then I like to see a hyped book that is actually worth it.

Henrietta If you haven't heard of it, it's the story of an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks, who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Only her story didn't end there; when the tumor on her cervix was originally studied, the doctor who took a sample of it at Johns Hopkins passed it along to a researcher named George Gey, who was trying to find a way to grow cells that could be used in medical experimentation. He hadn't been having a whole lot of luck, until he received Henrietta's cancerous cells, which grew, and grew, and grew...until they became known, formally, as the HeLa cell line, and went on to be used in hundreds (if not thousands; I'm not sure of the exact numbers) of medical experiments in labs around the world. Hence Henrietta's "immortal life."

I was not only blown away by the science of this book, but also by Henrietta's own story (growing up in poverty; having five children before dying at age 31; and still having the time to be a friend to those around her, cook meals for any family member who showed up, and even going out dancing with her girlfriends) and by Skloot's telling of it. In the course of researching the story, Skloot became involved in the lives of several of Henrietta's children, most particularly her daughter, Deborah. Often her relationship with the family was tense; they didn't really know what was happening, even after they were told (many years after the fact) about how their mother's cells were used, and many of them lacked health insurance, money, or access to decent health care, which understandably made them even more wary of the establishment.

Don't worry if you're not a science reader. Skloot makes the pertinent details easy to understand. Likewise, if you're a science reader and don't care much for the human interest stories, give this one a try anyway. If nothing else, it's a valuable narrative at a time in our history when, every time you go to the doctor, they like to get some urine and blood from you that you never hear about again.* I don't know that there's anything to be done about it, but it never hurts to be aware of facts like, once doctors remove tissue from you, that tissue no longer counts as you (even though it still contains your DNA) and they can pretty much do whatever they want with it.

It's a great book, one of my favorites of the year so far. I plan to hand it off to several other family members, which is going to be easy, since I spilled my Fiber One cereal all over it while reading it and eating breakfast, so I just had to buy my copy from the library. (I cleaned it up enough so that it is readable, but never let it be said that I shirk at my duty of paying for books I damage. This is the first one in thousands, so I can't feel too terribly about it. However, Mr. CR has suggested, and I have agreed, that I should no longer read library books while I eat my cereal.)

*At least this always seems to happen to me at the doctor. I mean, I guess it's good that they never find anything bad enough that they have to call me, but still. I give blood, I'd like to hear what they're finding.