The Button Box, Lynn Knight
The subtitle kind of sums this book up: “The story of women in the 20th century, told through the clothes they wore”. It covers the wars, the periods when women went to work and when they were turned back out of the work force, suffragettes and suffragists, the New Look… It’s not my usual area of interest, but Lynn Knight makes this about more than fashion — it’s about how fashion highlighted the preoccupations of women and what it said about their status and expectations.
I found it really restful and, yes, interesting — I love the concept of rummaging through a family button box to look at past garments and fashions. It makes me wish I’d dug through some of my grandmother’s stuff sometimes. I think even my mother has some odd buttons and so on lying around; in a way, ready-made clothes being such a thing has cut my generation (and somewhat the previous generation) off from the continuity with family we used to have through rag bags and button boxes. That’s not all a bad thing, but I loved the anecdotes from Knight about playing shop with the buttons for payment, the buttons that reminded her of home made clothes…
If you’re a fan of the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee, you’ll probably love this. If you’re a fan of microhistory, again, it’s probably up your street. And if you need something restful to remind you of a childhood playing with buttons and doll houses, well, it might also be for you.
The Deeper Genome, John Parrington
I should have reviewed this when I read it, but it seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle somewhere. I’m left with only general impressions and the knowledge that I intended to give it a four star rating. That alone should tell you it’s decent pop-science, delving into the genome and trying to give the reader a deeper understanding of it — not just the basic string of AACTGGA or whatever, but more detail. The first chapters are more basic, of course, giving the reader a bit of a background against which to evaluate all the new research.
I recall it being clear and easy to read, and where it went into epigenetics, microRNAs and piRNAs, I was fascinated. Some of this stuff, it only touches on, because it’s complex or not fully researched yet. Still a good read!
One Renegade Cell, Robert Weinberg
One Renegade Cell is a classic by now in terms of pop science books which explain cancer for an interested but non-specialist audience. It’s a little out of date, and some of the hopes Weinberg talks about in terms of treatments to come haven’t come to pass at all. But the basics are still true, and you can get a good basic understanding of how cancer works by reading it. It’s clear and accessible, and I didn’t find it prone to fear-mongoring either — sometimes when someone is writing about cancer, it seems like they can’t help but try to scare the reader silly.
One Renegade Cell doesn’t try to mystify cancer or play up its impact; the impact of cancer pretty much speaks for itself. It’s a solid read, even though it’s out of date now.
The Making of the Fittest, Sean B. Carroll
The Making of the Fittest is really about that subtitle: “DNA and the ultimate forensic record of evolution”. It’s all about showing that DNA holds the record of evolution, and essentially proves what is difficult to see in real time. There are some good examples, but overall I found myself wondering if anyone who wasn’t already convinced would become convinced by this book. DNA isn’t exactly a secret, and the fact that many species share DNA isn’t either, and yet people still doubt that that means anything.
It’s a good enough read if you’re looking for examples, though, and good if you really want to get to grips with examples of convergent evolution, too.
Hengeworld, Mike Pitts
For the most part, Hengeworld is a thoughtful discussion of the various discoveries about henge sites, mostly in the Wessex area. It looks at dating and old digs, piecing together as accurate a story as possible and trying to put together the context of Stonehenge and the places like it. I’m pretty happy that, at least in 2000ish when this was written, Pitts was saying nothing controversial — his work aligns with that of Francis Pryor (notably not referenced, though) and Mike Parker Pearson.
One note, though — where Pitts discusses people protesting the dig at Seahenge, he insists that the protestors didn’t understand what was going on. Surely, he seems to think, if they’d understood the circle was going to be destroyed anyway by the sea, if they’d understood the importance to archaeology, they wouldn’t have had anything to protest about. But that ignores the link people still have with the prehistoric monuments like Seahenge. It was built of timber, so surely our ancestors knew it would rot in the end. It was built on the shore, for goodness’ sake — a liminal, impermanent place if there ever was one. They meant for Seahenge to be taken by the sea, perhaps. It may even have been important to them. Who is Mike Pitts, or any archaeologist, to claim that’s not worth respecting?
I share the curiosity about megaliths and henges — obviously. I’ve read this book. But sometimes I do wonder why we privilege our understanding of them over the symbolism they had for ancient peoples. On the one hand, of course those people are gone and won’t know what’s happening. On the other… maybe rescuing Seahenge is not a sign of respect for the past, but a desecration. However important you think the archaeology is, I think there should be room to consider that and accept that some people may feel it trumps the opportunity for radiocarbon dating, and freezing the remains of Seahenge in time in a climate controlled environment. That is not, after all, what Seahenge was built for.
When Pitts concludes that different eras have made what they will of Stonehenge and the other megalithic and megadendritic structures out there, he’s closest to recognising their real power, I think.
Why Dinosaurs Matter, Kenneth Lacovara
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 19th September 2017
The idea of this book is pretty much encapsulated in the words from the summary: “What can long-dead dinosaurs teach us about our future? Plenty.” It’s the story of the dinosaurs as a highly successfully set of creatures who ruled the world — for a time. It’s also the story of their decline and fall, so to speak, and the lessons we can learn from them. Also, a reminder that a penguin is very literally a dinosaur, just as we’re very literally primates.
There’s nothing revelatory here if you’re into dinosaurs, but if you’re looking for something more general than David Hone’s The Tyrannosaur Chronicles, something to get you up to date on current dinosaur scholarship, this isn’t a bad place to start. And I agree with Lacovara: dinosaurs shouldn’t be viewed as synonymous with something obsolete. They ruled the world for a reason.
The Trouble With Physics, Lee Smolin
I came out of reading this book with a pleasing illusion that I understood something of the state of modern physics. Smolin’s style worked for me in explaining things well enough that, for once, I wasn’t left boggling and having to reread pages over and over again to cram the concepts into my head. Perhaps it helps that he’s not an inveterate supporter of string theory, and can explain where it doesn’t work as an explanation for our universe and why — sometimes, it helps to know where concepts break down as much as it helps to know where they succeed.
Part of the book isn’t just about physics at all, though: it’s about the progress of science in general, and how science progresses. I’m not sure Smolin really gets at anything profound here, but when it comes to the specifics of critiquing why physics has come to a standstill, he genuinely cares and genuinely wants to solve the issue. The way he presents it, it’s clear that it’s time for people to re-evaluate string theory and accept that quite possibly it will never yield the answers we’re looking for.
Some days after reading it, being me, I can no longer explain string theory to anyone else, but I can explain why it doesn’t work, so I got something out of this! And I more or less enjoyed letting it turn my brain inside out, too.
15 Million Degrees, Professor Lucie Green
If you want to know all the things we know or guess about the sun, this is definitely the book for you. Lucie Green isn’t just a science communicator — she’s actually doing the research, so she knows what the current questions are, what the latest research is, and all the history of how we came to know what we know. Her enthusiasm is plain throughout, and she does a good job of describing both the actual physical events of the sun, and the sensation of observing and understanding them.
If you’re not hugely into physics, you might find that a few chapters do start to drag. But for the most part, it’s a fascinating book — and there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t know.
A Crack in Creation, Jennifer Doudna, Samuel Sternberg
If you haven’t heard of CRISPR before, chances are you’ll be hearing of it again pretty soon. It’s starting to be used in clinical trials to edit the genes of human embryos, and it’s already being used in countless research projects. It’s an amazing tool which could completely revolutionise gene editing, allowing very precise changes to be made with very little unintended impact. Doudna is one of the people who has been involved in developing CRISPR and recognising its potential, and her book covers exactly how it works and the potential it has — and some of the philosophical questions around how we’re going to use it.
The explanations of how CRISPR works are perfect: clear and precise, along with diagrams which help elucidate the processes described. Even if you already know a little about CRISPR, this account will probably help you understand just how it works and why it’s so revolutionary.
As far as the ethics/philosophy goes, Doudna says nothing particularly revolutionary. (It’s very much framed as her book, despite Sternberg’s involvement.) What struck me especially was her conviction that this is a decision that has to be made by people in general, not just scientists — it’s something I agree with very much, and why I have a science blog of my own.
An important read, I think — even if you’re not hugely into science/gene editing.
Babylon, Paul Kriwaczek
Not that long ago, I abandoned Gwendolyn Leick’s book Mesopotamia because of the overwrought sentences and the weird, unsourced assertions, like this:
“Perhaps the fountains and pools in Middle Eastern buildings of much later centuries retain a faint memory of the old lagoon in the very south of Mesopotamia.”
And yet, I pick this up, and in the second chapter…:
“Remembered too was the Apsu, the sacred lake from which [a god] emerged, referenced by a basin of fresh water installed in every later Mesopotamian temple — and perhaps also, long after, still remember in the Wudu, or washing, pool of the Islamic mosque and maybe even in the baptismal font of the Christian church.”
There’s no source in the further reading for this. I know that much of what we think we know about Mesopotamia must be speculative, but this repeated assertion leaves me with so many questions. It’s not my area, really, but I can’t help but want to point out that fresh water is easy to conceptualise as sacred because it’s so necessary to human life. By this point in the book, maybe two solid archaeological finds have been referenced, along with a handful of later texts. In the same way, Krizwaczek links the Virgin Mary to the goddess Inanna via Inanna’s symbol of the cow shed:
“The Queen of Heaven of the Christian church would one day give birth to her baby saviour in a distant but direct descendant of the mother-goddess’s cow-byre.”
This feels more like imaginative recreation than history. It’s all very pretty to read, but I’m wary of these links. English literature makes such claims of links between literature which the authors never thought of themselves; sometimes the link is elegant and pretty and makes sense, and yet means absolutely nothing, because it wasn’t actually really made in the author’s mind. So too, perhaps, with religion. I’d at least like to see some solid references; even popular history has room for sources and referencing, even if in a supplementary chapter 90% of readers don’t look at.
The book is pleasant enough to read, but marred by the fact that I don’t know how much credence to give to any of it.