A Rough Ride to the Future, James Lovelock
I found Gaia interesting, and if not entirely in line with what I believe, still plausible; it’s obvious that the Earth’s ecosystems are governed by systems of feedback, and that sometimes that has had a stabilising effect — and that life continues to find a way to survive. From this book, it seems like Lovelock believes the ‘rough ride’ is mostly for humanity, ignoring the fact that we’ve severely thrown off natural systems, and that we’re not innocent in this. We’ve known we’re doing it for quite some time, and yet he sort of shrugs it off and says there’s no use feeling guilty. Well, guilt won’t fix the climate, but a sense of responsibility might help.
He’s right that humans have to change and adapt to the changing climate, but I’m not so sanguine that’s going to be enough for life to go on. I’m pretty sure bacteria and archaea will get along fine, but we’re decimating the ranks of amphibians, big mammals, sea creatures, etc. And he’s not always up on modern science: he still seems to believe, here, that the atmosphere can’t be more than about 25% oxygen without causing regular devastating fires. He’s wrong: we know the oxygen saturation has been much higher, and life went on — that’s why there were gigantic dragonflies; they couldn’t have survived in a lower-oxygen atmosphere.
While the Gaia theory has been influential, I think perhaps Lovelock should sit down and stop profiting by it. This book is rather rambling, at times even confused.
The Worm at the Core, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski
You might think that a book about the role of death in the way humans approach life would be morbid, and probably difficult to read. I didn’t find it that way; in fact, I found that it reflected a lot of my own musings about it (said musings being helped along by the fact that for years, my biggest anxiety was about death). As someone with anxiety, this fear and knowledge about death hasn’t been hidden for me, and I wasn’t really surprised by the results of the authors’ research showing that it is a key anxiety for many or even most people.
If you read it without that background, you may feel that it’s rather overstating its conclusions. I think that might be a fair assessment if you try to apply it too literally to everyone. There are some people who’ve dealt with the anxiety, or don’t feel it at all. But in general, I do think that knowledge and fear underlies a lot of human thought and behaviour.
Definitely a worthwhile read, and actually quite smooth and easy too. I ended up reading it all in one Eurostar trip.
NeuroTribes, Steve Silberman
This is a bit of a slog to read, because it spends a lot of time lingering on details that you may or may not feel are relevant. It goes into the lives of the people who ‘discovered’ autism and described it clinically, much more than it goes into the lives of actual autistic people, and there’s one chapter I found rather troubling which follows the family of an autistic child. It focuses on their anguish and confusion, and their increasingly desperate attempts to “treat” their son with whatever unpleasant, pseudo-scientific methods they could find. By the end, I was desperate to hear that someone had actually ever asked the child what effect it had on him. (As far as I can tell, nobody did.) Those particular parents weren’t extreme, but nonetheless, I got very tired of their desperation to have a “normal” child.
It also does some retrospective diagnosing of a couple of scientists and thinkers from days before there was such a diagnosis. I’m always a bit iffy on that: there do seem to be good grounds to make those judgements, but… most of the people I know now don’t know much about what goes on in my head and why I react the way I do. I don’t want them diagnosing me once I’m dead. Still, at least it does provide autistic models and heroes for people now.
I’m also a little leery of the ubiquity of being on the spectrum in Silberman’s view. Lots of fandom, lots of engineers, maybe even most in the picture he’s painting — it’s a stereotype of fandom and of STEM that I haven’t necessarily found to be true. And fandom hasn’t been so very welcoming of actual neurodiverse people, either. If it’s ever been the perfect home for them, it isn’t now.
All in all, though, I did find the book interesting, and the perspective on neurodiversity as something to be accommodated and used productively is one that’s definitely timely. Despite my criticisms, I found it an interesting book — and it definitely treats autism as a spectrum, touching all kinds of people. This definitely isn’t the attitudes of Autism Speaks: instead, Silberman urges understanding, accommodation and respect.
Spaceman, Mike Massimino
I blame (or credit) my mother entirely with my interest in space and astronauts. I’m not the exploring type myself, but I love reading about those who have, and their unique experiences. Mike Massimino puts himself across as a fairly ordinary guy, from a fairly uninspiring background, who made good in the end despite not being the smartest, best prepared, most qualified, etc. Obviously, given the source, one has to keep a grain or two of salt in the mix to counter both self-deprecation and potential self-aggrandization, but mostly Massimino struck me as a straightforward sort of guy.
I actually found some parts of the story extremely touching. The thing that gets me about NASA and like ventures is the sense of family — the way the astronauts are there for each other and one another’s families. That’s definitely in evidence here, not just in Massimino’s accounts of his training and working life, but also in terms of his private life. His father’s cancer is treated with help from NASA people, and from the sound of it, half the staff contributed in terms of giving blood, platelets, etc. That section is rather touching.
Technical this memoir is not. There are a few bits of interest about Massimino’s training and adaptation to zero-G, etc, but mostly it’s about the path he took to get there — trying to correct his vision with lenses, dealing with classes he didn’t understand, etc. Which is not to say it’s not interesting, it’s just not popular science; it’s definitely a memoir.
Death on Earth, Jules Howard
I was hoping for more from this book, I think. It glances into some of the issues covered in The Worm at the Core, which I also read recently — the anxieties we have about death, as a species, and how we handle it — but it backs away from any depth there. It sort of looks into decay and the reaction of other animals to death, but it doesn’t find much conclusive there, either. Honestly, I found it interesting enough to read at the time, but it seemed more like a musing about the process of trying (and failing) to write a book that’s really about death on Earth. I didn’t learn any new science or any cool facts, but I know all about Howard having a panic attack at an anti-ageing conference event and trying to teach his daughter about death.
You might find it entertaining, if that’s what you’re interested in, but it’s not really about death.
The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert
Considering the subject matter — the extinction or likely extinction of much of Earth’s biodiversity — Kolbert manages to write an absorbing narrative which wasn’t just depressing, though it sometimes was that, but also fascinating. She covers various creatures that we may have seen the last of, or may soon see the last of; creatures which only survive in captivity, and creatures which we didn’t even think to protect.
The fact is, humans are doing a lot of damage to our own ecosystems. Kolbert documents that and shows where it’s going, or at least, where it’s likely to go. What happens in the end is still, maybe, there for us to change. Maybe. It’s too late for a lot of species — perhaps most amphibians, for example — but we might still be able to stop this. The Sixth Extinction goes into some of the delights biodiversity has to offer, perhaps in hopes of inspiring some people to step up.
None of it came as a surprise to me, but I found the book interesting and entertaining all the same, if not exactly uplifting.
In Search of the Multiverse, John Gribbin
I don’t understand quantum physics or string theory, really — I couldn’t possibly explain them to someone, anyway. But I keep trying to, and this book has probably got the closest to making me really interested in the topic. It’s easy enough to follow, and doesn’t throw maths at you without explanation, and it helps that it’s focused on one of the important more interesting factors: quantum theory and string theory could require a multiverse. Gribbin has a look at all the reasons a multiverse seems likely, including the fact that quantum computing works at all, and takes you through anthropic reasoning, etc, etc.
Overall, I still find parts of this difficult to get on with. We can’t know that we live in an average universe — even if there are an infinity of different universes, that doesn’t follow that universes which are suitable for life are more common. We could be living in a rare universe. We can’t see what the probabilities of anything are when we only have experience of one universe — nobody has ever convinced me we have the data to really judge.
This is probably going to date badly when it comes to its explanations of string theory and a theory of everything, but for someone as lacking in knowledge as me, it works.
Pavlov’s Dogs and Schrodinger’s Cat, Rom Harré
I’m torn about this book: on the one hand, it does what it sets out to do pretty well. It describes experiments that happened to use living subjects, treating those living subjects as though they’re simply part of the equipment. On the other hand, it very deliberately doesn’t engage with the moral aspect of these experiments, instead choosing to present the experiments dispassionately, claiming to be unable to deal with the moral dimension.
I can appreciate this way of looking at the experiments as a way to gain an understanding of them, but I think avoiding the moral dimension in the end just seems cowardly. If it’s your point of view that the suffering of an animal is worth it for the sake of the experiments, then at least own it. Admit the distress is there.
Without addressing that aspect, this book actually comes across as very flat. I ended up losing interest in a lot of these experiments, because animals aren’t just another piece of equipment. We have to use living tissue in experiments because only living tissue responds in the weird and wonderful ways that it needs to in order to give true results. Pretending a dog is a just a petri dish that happens to be pumping blood and breathing air seems disingenuous and pointless.
If you’re interested in the purely scientific treatment of animals as just objects in an experiment, this will work fine for you — that’s what the author delivers. If you find it hard to separate the two, or like me believe that it’s our duty to at least own what we do to animals, then it may fall rather flat.
Dino Gangs, Josh Young
Based on the work of Philip J. Currie, the man who helped to found the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller (a very worthwhile visit if you find yourself in Alberta), this book goes into various aspects of dinosaur life, mostly focusing on the tyrannosaurid Tarbosaurus. The main theme is Currie’s theory that they hunted as a pack, based on several lines of evidence such as finding articulated skeletons apparently buried at the same time, the high proportion of predators in the landscape, etc.
Unfortunately, there are two problems with this book. One is the repetition. The other is the fact that evidence contradicting Currie’s theories is presented several times, and then ignored — like the fact that the bonebeds might show a high proportion of Tarbosaurus, but their trackways comprise only 5% of the estimated population. And the fact that Komodo dragons devour their prey whole, which would lead to deposition of more predator remains than prey, even though prey are actually more abundant. Or the fact that the geologists aren’t at all sure the bodies were deposited at the same time.
I have no problem with the idea of dinosaurs as pack animals, but there seem to be some serious objections to Currie’s reasoning, which this book rather skims past as if they don’t matter. The way Young portrays Currie, it’s as though he pounces on things that confirm his ideas, and dismisses other things because they don’t fit with his ideas — the marks of a terrible scientist. Currie is widely respected, so that may well not be true, but that was definitely the impression I got here.
There are interesting more general bits of info about palaeontology, other aspects of Tarbosaurus, the realities of fieldwork… but mostly I’d stick with The Tyrannosaur Chronicles for something that feels a bit more solid.
Words and Rules, Steven Pinker
If you’ve read The Language Instinct, you don’t really need to read this book. It’s very much the same theory, with perhaps some different examples, maybe a slightly different slant. Reading it, there was nothing new to me, and I think that it isn’t new because it was all covered in The Language Instinct (though it may be some other books have filled in some gaps in my knowledge before this, in the interim).
Pinker’s work is reasonably easy to read and well-illustrated with examples; he’s very convincing in the way he sets forth his ideas, which does make me rather tempted to find someone who disagrees with him equally convincingly and see what I think after that. Any ideas, friends?