PopScience Book Reviews

Monday, 15 February 2010

“Unweaving the Rainbow”, Richard Dawkins

“We pick up a trilobite and the books tell us it is 500 million years old. But we fail to comprehend such an age, and there is a yearning pleasure in the attempt.”

It is the same yearning pleasure I feel when looking at the night sky but not just romantically looking between it and the eyes of my beloved, happy with time and place, but looking beyond the perceived beautiful ceiling, looking as much as my  mind is able into the depth of the distance between the dots, and trying to push further that ability in a dizzying spiral of comprehension and stupour. It is the same dizzying spiral I get lost in when trying to understand how I have come to be alive out of the uncountable alternative humans and how it is possible that it is this particular human thinking a thought that somehow proves its existence.

Richard Dawkins, hero of scientific elation, wrote Unweaving the Rainbow as a response to people accusing him and other scientists of taking beauty and happiness out of the world by providing explanations. Especially the chapters that see him unweaving light and sound, taking easily understood concepts and taking them apart, finding poetry and metaphor in them, are where he shines. Later, it is more Dawkins as we know him, discussing memes, selfish cooperators and speculating about the evolution of the brain. (More unusually, there is also a single page on which, with a lot of foresight, he predicts the premise of the blockbuster Avatar, as well as a current long-distance intimacy project.)

I wish all those people who were proud of having no interest in/no talent for science would read this.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

“The Frog Who Croaked Blue” – Jamie Ward

Filed under: Book Review — popscience @ 11:36 pm

This is a small, pretty and well-presented book about synesthesia, the mixing of the senses that occurs in 1 in 25 people and is completely alien and fantastical to the rest of us. It exists in many different forms (like seeing a colour when we sense a certain smell) and Jamie Ward gives a very readable summary of how and possible models for why it happens.

He starts off with counting our senses, including some I have never thought of before: there are the five common ones plus pain, temperature, balance, proprioception (position of limbs) and interoception (internal perception).

Ward develops a model in which synesthesia is a stronger version of multisensory experiences we all have. Our tendency to connect taste and smell, for example, makes us describe smells as “sweet”. And we are easily impressed by ventriloquists, because our brains want to combine the voice we hear with the mouth we see moving. Synesthetic experiences, however, are involuntary and always switched on and there is some evidence that the condition, but not its type, are inherited.

Like in all good popular science books dealing in any way with the brain, the reader gets to hear about cool baby experiments: Adults had matched intensity levels of sound and light. When these were given to babies, they got bored more quickly when given matching stimuli in succession, than, for example, a very bright light followed by a low sound. This shows that there is much more mixing of the senses occuring in non-synesthete infants than non-synesthete adults and that babies may experience stimuli to different senses as the same thing.

A brilliant MRI study mentioned showed that when people who see colours when they hear words were observed, the region of the brain lit up that is responsible for colour vision. A control group that had learned to associate certain words with colours, did not.

Despite my opening statement I like to think that I am somewhere between a synesthete and non-synesthete, as I have easily accessible number and time lines in my mind’s eye, something which Ward describes as common in synesthetes, and some numbers do come with a special colour for me. Read this book if you feel the same way!

The book finishes by discussing some ideas about the evolutionary benefit of synesthesia. Ward comes down on the side of memory – synesthetes have repeatedly been shown to have better memory, which would obviously give them an advantage in a prehistoric world without written instructions or warning signs.

Friday, 10 April 2009

“Measuring the world” – Daniel Kehlmann

Filed under: Biography,Book Review,History,Mathematics,Popular Science — popscience @ 5:59 pm
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What a fantastically funny read! “Die Vermessung der Welt” is two biographies in one, lovingly weaving together the lives of Carl Friedrich Gauß (Gauss) and Alexander von Humboldt, both of whom lived and changed German science in the late 18th and early 19th century.

Both men, as good scientists, had an obsession with knowledge. Humboldt, tiny and possibly homosexual Prussian aristocrat with a famous older brother and a thirst for adventure, without much talent for human interaction, tirelessly and with little regard for his fellow travellers, measured most of South America, in the process accidentally tasting human flesh, forming strange attachments to a stray dog, mapping the canal connecting the Amazon and Orinoco rivers and stealing human corpses. Gauß, from a poor family and reliant on patronage, impatient with the slow wit of everyone else he met, at least partially aware of the social faux-pas he committed, turned his mind to several big mathematical problems at a time and completed his masterpiece, the Disquisitiones Arithmeticae, in his early 20s, and was known as the prince of mathematicians.

Kehlmann’s genius lies in the exclusive use of indirect speech between all of his characters, which creates a comical distance between reality and these extraordinary protagonists although I cannot vouch for the English translation as I read this book in German.

This book has to be taken with a pinch of salt, however, as some liberties appear to have been taken with facts and many anecdotes are so droll they must have been invented by the author. But the alternating (and then joining) chapters of Humboldt versus Gauß are so hilarious and the characters Kehlmann shapes so infuriatingly strange and German that I personally wouldn’t care if it was pure fiction.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

“Dragon Hunter” – Charles Gallenkamp

Filed under: Biography,Book Review,Evolution,History,Popular Science — popscience @ 1:40 pm

“Dragon Hunter” is the account of Roy Chapman Andrews’ Central Asiatic Expeditions in the 1920s and reads like part biography, part adventure fiction. If Indiana Jones is a hero of yours, you should know that Andrews has often been suspected to be the model for this “indomitable archaeologist-adventurer” and you will probably enjoy this book very much.

Andrews  “possessed an entrepreneurial spirit of sweeping dimensions”, which made his career illustrious and incredibly successful, but he was also a hugely popular socialite in New York and in the foreign colony in Peking where he spent many happy years planning and carrying out his expeditions. Andrews’ friendships and acquaintances included those with a Russian prince, the mother of Czar Nicholas II as well as the owner of a high class Yokohama brothel, while his first wife Yvette was a close friend of Prussian princess Viktoria Luise.

While Andrews’ legacy, the Central Asiatic Expeditions, were borne out of his desire to explore the unknown, their scientific validation came from mentor Henry Fairfield Osborn’s racist theory that Asia must be the cradle of humankind and civilisation, as an African origin of man seemed “decidedly unpalatable”. Andrews therefore sets out to find the “missing link” in the Gobi desert. As biographers often do, Gallenkamp states this latent racism and moves on without much judgment. When the expeditions did not turn up any human fossils, this was outweighed by the volume of dinosaur and extinct mammal fossils they unearthed and the lack of support for any theory of human evolution was not considered a failure.

An educational side effect of this book is the insight the reader gains into Mongolia’s history and culture at the start of the last but also preceding centuries. A never-ending tug-of-war between Russia and China along with a rich religious history and the influences of nomads and immigrants make this land-locked country feel like the heart of Central Asia. Despite some unflattering remarks about the natives by the explorers (unmoral, dirty, adulterous, without compassion for the dying), some friendships develop between Mongols, Chinese and the American explorers, but for the most part, the foreigners living in Peking, including Andrews and his fellow scientists, shut themselves away into a happy enclave, remarkably insensitive and oblivious to China’s political upheaval in the 1910s, 20s and 30s and “learned to steel [themselves] against the civil unrest and atrocities that occurred almost daily”, like public executions. Battling Chinese warlords and corrupt Mongolian governments mean the expeditions end after a few years, buried in red tape and xenophobic (or anti-colonial) attitudes.

Andrews’ scientific achievements were significant and some of the fossils found by his multi-disciplinary expeditions shed a lot of light on mammalian evolution. The reason he was so enormously popular in his time was probably due to his “flamboyant nature”, charisma and love of adventure which he managed to convey to a huge audience. Gallenkamp concludes wistfully: “in terms of romance, daring, and sheer audacity, we will never see the equal of his grand adventure again.”

Read this if you have ever wished you were born when there was still a few blank spaces left on the maps of the Earth.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

“Richard Dawkins” – Alan Grafen & Mark Ridley (ed)

This is a hommage to Dawkins, split into 25 essays in 7 parts, most focussing on the impact The Selfish Gene has had on the authors and their respective fields. For someone like me, who shamefully still hasn’t read the Selfish Gene, it further persuades to finally get around to it.

Steven Pinker’s contribution, as expected, is clear and interesting and concerned with language, as he deals with some of the confusion Dawkins’ use of the word “selfish” has caused – if human brains, effectively lumps of neural tissue, have conscious experiences like wanting and feeling, “there is no principled reason to avoid attributing states of knowing and wanting to other hunks of matter“. Genes “know” things through the sequence of their DNA, “try” by creating extended phenotypes whose effect is a differential ability to survive and reproduce, leading to feedback loops into the next generation of the gene. Pinker argues that a major achievement of The Selfish Gene was to allow the application of mentalistic terms to biology, which in turn has exerted a positive influence on the study of consciousness, where concepts like wanting and thinking can be dealt with as manifestations of abstract phenomena.

Selfish, of course, does not need to imply ruthlessness or the lack of collaboration, as genes often achieve their imperative by building organisms programmed to commit selfless acts and get along with their relatives and neighbours. We must remember, as Pinker notes, that “the motives of the gene are entirely different from the motive of the person“.

As the last chapter of The Selfish Gene deals with memes, the phrase coined by Dawkins describing cultural replicators, so do some of the essays in this collection. Robert Aunger notes that no significant body of empirical research has developed out of the excitement sparked by the meme theory. The problem seems to be that memes can be used to explain everything, and therefore explain nothing.

One of my favourite essays was that by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, which discusses the effect of The Selfish Gene on the research of family relations. They identify in-laws as a “cross-culturally ubiquitous source of marital conflict”, discuss why full siblings may cooperate more than half siblings and why people more often comment on an infant’s resemblance to its father than its mother.

As this review presents only a small sample of a sample of fields influenced by Richard Dawkins’ writings, and as nearly every essay in this collection comments on his readability and style, The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, should probably be required reading for anyone professing an interest in the biological sciences.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

“Biohazard” – Ken Alibek

Filed under: Biology,Book Review,History,Science — popscience @ 4:09 pm
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“Biohazard” walks the line between popular science and terrifying cold war politics: it is a blood-curdling account of the Soviet Union’s bioweapons research program, written by Ken Alibek (or Kanatjan Alibekov, before defection), its deputy director and foremost scientist.

I read this during my search for useful quotes for my PhD thesis (which is not on bioweapons!) and couldn’t put it down because I needed to know whether he would end with a reassuring “and that was the end of all our evil mass destruction science”. He didn’t. This book caused quite a stir in 1999, when it was released and Alibek’s main point, beside a need to confess the sins of his past, is to warn the West that Russia and other parts of the former USSR still had much more advanced agents of biological warfare than anyone could imagine.

A lot of this book describes the workings of the Soviet machine, inter-relations between different directorates, agencies and organisations, vicious political blackmail and Cold War diplomacy, and that can be a little confusing for the politically disinterested. Then there are Alibek’s descriptions of the strains of Ebola and Marburg viruses, anthrax, smallpox, tularemia and many other deadly pathogens his Biopreparat institutes were working with and they leave little to the imagination: how much damage could have been done and the horrible deaths people would have died in the event of a biological attack. If the animal testing wasn’t graphic enough, there were also the occasional accidental outbreaks in the testing facilities that killed workers and residents.

Despite his responsibilities and actions, I ended up liking Alibek, as he slowly comes around to once again “honoring the medical oath [he] betrayed for so many years”.

I was a child in West Berlin when the Wall came down and had always seen Mikhail Gorbachev as some sort of gentle and peaceful hero of unification and therefore was distraught to read that he signed off on “the most ambitious program for biological weapons development ever given to our agency”, including funding for a “viral reactor to produce smallpox at the Russian State Center of Virology and Biotechnology”, the facility known as Vector, that is still one of only two centers in the world today legally holding a stock of smallpox.

This book made me so uneasy and should everyone, and I’m not sure I recommend it – only to those with a strong stomach and a sunny optimistic disposition.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

“Race, Culture and Intelligence” – Richardson and Spears (ed)

Filed under: Book Review,Genetics,History,Science — popscience @ 8:24 pm
Tags: ,

I bought this book at a sale for 50 cent, mainly because of its title and the fact that it was published in 1972. I was hoping for some shocking opinions rife with racism so that I could write about them here and possibly ridicule them. But unfortunately (for me, but fortunately for the 70s as a decade,) it is a fairly enlightened collection of essays by a bunch of sensible scientists, social and real (kidding), that are putting up solid arguments against the followers of Galton-like racism masked as science.

These essays are drawn from three areas concerning intelligence research; psychology, biology and sociology, and the conclusions drawn by the 15 writers all seem to agree that a) an IQ score is a terrible way to measure something as complex and manifold as intelligence and b) it is likely going to be impossible to separate any potential genetic influence from the environmental factors involved in shaping the mind of a human being.

One contributor, John Hambley, points out that insisting on genetic variability to be dismissed (for any trait) gives the “very dangerous impression that recognition of any genetic difference among members of the human species necessarily implies inevitable distinctions, that are judged on an axis of superiority-inferiority.” Instead “variability is a biological resource to be valued”.

I still found some leftovers of 70s vernacular; amazing how unacceptable expressions like “Negroes” and “mongol subnormals” have become. I particularly enjoyed the outdated references to the expected size of the human genome, then shrouded in mystery – it “may consist of as many as five to ten million genes”.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

“On Seeing” – Frank González-Crussí

Filed under: Book Review,History — popscience @ 12:05 pm

Hmmm… this book should not really be reviewed here but in an equivalent Popular Art setting. Having read a review in Nature I got mildly interested but my expectations of cool eye-related trivia and perhaps even the odd optical illusion in print were sorely disappointed. Instead, I found something like “the eye through the ages in poetry and paintings” mixed in with accusations of how people love to see the indecent.

Suiting the subtitle “Things seen, unseen, and obscene”, the first chapter discusses female genitals and how men have often risked death to get a glimpse, as, rather grandly, “Man senses in Woman the insatiability of the ocean, the mystery of the night, and the unfathomableness of infinity.” (And I thought they were just horny.) We then move on to other shock topics such as watching birth, death, defecation and autopsies.

I was a little irritated at the extremely formal and convoluted language González-Crussí uses, exemplified in his refusal to call his “ocular globe” a simple eyeball, and once, he actually uses the royal “we”! He also doesn’t always call a spade a spade when it comes to exposing pseudoscience of centuries past.

I did enjoy reading this book, however, for the many short stories with (sometimes unremarkable) visual references the author summarises and the occasional scientific reference. The reason for feeling uncomfortable when we catch someone staring at us, for example, might be “an atavistic remembrance of a danger sign that […] meant that we were being watched by a predator”.
Also, it is true that a picture may be worth a thousand words but it never actually says them and we always see what we want or expect to see – it is merely “a dumb sign that an event of some sort has taken place, or that something exists – or has existed – that looks like the image captured by the camera.”

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

“Irreligion”, John Allen Paulos

Filed under: Atheism,Book Review,Popular Science,Religion,Skepticism — popscience @ 10:05 pm

I have a crush on this book. It’s so neat and clever and pretty and fits nicely into any handbag – ok, maybe it’s the perfect accessory rather than a crush, but “Irreligion” is definitely a book any religious skeptic will always want around.

John Allen Paulos is a mathematician-atheist who has collected, like Dawkins, the most common arguments for the existence of God, and, like Dawkins, he refutes them one by one in a hugely entertaining way. Some of them I understood a lot better in the short and sweet form presented here, even though there is nothing original in them. Paulos’ witty style, spiced with personal anecdotes was a pleasure to follow and quotes like “much of theology […] is a kind of verbal magic show” are worth remembering.

I cannot possibly badmouth the God Delusion, but at some time in almost any long-term (reading) relationship comes the point where you like to flirt with the cheeky book next door because it makes you laugh in unexpected places and gives you just what you needed in a lighter and quicker way.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

“The Devil’s Doctor” – Philip Ball

Filed under: Book Review,History,Popular Science,Science — popscience @ 11:48 am
Tags: ,

Although this biography of Paracelsus starts as a promising guide to medicine and magic in the late middle ages, finishing it turned out to be almost as painful as one of the crude surgery practices described therein.

Philip Ball, a former editor for Nature, introduces Paracelsus, renegade doctor, occasional skeptic, devoted Christian, dabbler in magic, would-be reformer of medicine, boastful megalomaniac, self-styled theologian and passionate alchemist, as a living paradox. There are dozens of contradicting viewpoints that remain of Paracelsus’ writing, outlining a character increasingly difficult to categorize as either “buffoon or genius”, as Ball points out even in his acknowledgements.

Paracelsus was a traveling medic and surgeon (quite distinct professions in those times) with questionable medical qualifications, who made enemies wherever he went. His religion, according to Ball, “might be best described as reformist in spirit, Catholic by default, and wildly unorthodox in practice.” He was “struggling to do something like science with a miner’s coarse lexicon and the mind of a poet”, never actually making a discovery that is still valid today, yet he single-handedly “started a medical revolution and founded a chemical tradition”. He had views about everything, calling Luther and the Pope’s arguments equivalent to “two whores debating chastity”, likening himself to Jesus and setting out dos and don’ts for young doctors: useful (possessing a “gentle heart and a cheerful spirit”), interesting (“should not be a runaway monk, should not practise self-abuse”) and perplexing (“must not have a red beard”). Most importantly, he tried to save lives, more often failing than not, but nevertheless being better at it than most of his contemporaries. Paracelsus advocated the use of personal experience, local cures (determined by astral influences, unfortunately) and his home-made drugs over the outdated recommendations of Galen.

This is not merely, or perhaps even mainly, a biography. Ball presents an account of Renaissance magic and science that is at times much too detailed and drags on for at least four chapters too many, peppered with relevant Paracelsian facts wherever appropriate. Then again, why not? We have here a person who seems to bind together, by his traveling route and larger-than-life nature, conflicts, wars, kings and the birth of a new religion, so maybe using Paracelsus’ life and journeys like a red thread through Renaissance Europe is a great idea. If only it wasn’t quite such a long thread.

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