Virolution, Frank Ryan
The cover made me worry that this was going to be complete pseudo-science, but it’s not bad at all. It’s a little scatterbrained — although the title is Virolution, a good chunk of it involves epigenetics, and it isn’t very clearly linked to the viral theme. The main thrust of the book is: evolution didn’t just happen by natural selection, but also through symbiosis. That symbiosis includes symbiosis with bacteria and viruses, as we co-evolved.
It’s not something I disagree with, and Ryan lays out the ideas clearly and informatively. I’m not sure I see such a huge role for viruses in evolution, at least not in the sense that he does. I don’t think it really modifies natural selection that much. Perhaps I’m just a little too familiar with stuff like Lynn Margulis’ theories about symbiosis? I’d always seen a fairly big role for symbiosis in evolution, because of course it drives co-evolution to establish stable mutualism.
Not a bad book, but perhaps a little too enthusiastic about its claims, and a little too scatterbrained about the content.
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godfrey-Smith
A mixture of science and philosophy about consciousness, I found this book really fascinating. The joins between the two are pretty seamless, so they lead into one another and contribute to one another — if you hate philosophy, this would probably still be okay for you, because it does lean a little toward the science end. To my mind, anyway. If you don’t have a strong grounding in either, it’s still accessible and fascinating, as long as you have some level of interest in the subject.
What we know about cuttlefish and octopus minds is just astounding — their intelligence is almost uncanny, and yet we know very little about how they experience the world. There were a few surprises here for me — their typically short lives, their decentralised control of movement, the seeming personalities of the animals the author observed…
There’s a lot of anecdotes and such, so if you’re looking for hard science, this isn’t really what you want. But if you’re casually interested, then I recommend it. And if you can end it without wanting to dive and meet some cuttlefish and octopi for yourself, you must be made of stone. (Not really, but. I’m left so curious! That’s a thing I love in a book.)
The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery
This is more of a memoir about experiences with octopuses than a popular science book about them, despite where Waterstones shelved it (at least in Brussels). It can get a bit woolly at times, since Sy Montgomery seems pretty preoccupied with how she experiences her meetings with octopuses, and what it does to her soul, but there are some interesting bits and I did enjoy reading about the individual personalities of Athena, Kali, Karma and Octavia.
Sometimes I’m not sure at all how well founded her speculations are — for example, she mentions a theory about an octopus taking a dislike to someone because it could taste the fact that she was on medication. Theoretically, I guess that’s possible, but practically, I’m not sure it’s true — or how on earth we could possibly know what an octopus senses, and whether it likes or dislikes what it finds.
Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds is the better book about octopuses, I think, and goes more into a philosophical examination of their consciousness. This is mostly about Sy Montgomery — which might be your thing, but isn’t so much mine. The more I think about it, the less I rate it.
What is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology, Addy Pross
I’m rather underwhelmed by this book. Though it is praised as “uncover[ing] the chemical roots of Darwinian theory, thereby opening a novel route connecting biology to chemistry and physics” (and by a Nobel prize winner, no less!), I think this route is far from novel. It’s always been obvious to me that biology is chemistry in living cells, that all the rules of chemistry derive from properties described by physics, and indeed that physics is based on mathematics and mathematics on logic. This just doesn’t seem revelatory to me — it’s apparent from the first time you understand that enzymes are simply manufactured catalysts and that RNA can replicate itself. And I understood that when I was doing my AS Level in biology, if not before, so that was 2007. This wasn’t published until 2012! So I can’t have unconsciously absorbed the conclusions of this book via somewhere else.
As a survey of exactly how the subjects link up, it works relatively well. The writing is clear and the logic works, and if you didn’t connect the dots for yourself, it allows you to do so. It’s perhaps a little more specific than my 2007 understanding, referencing RNA experiments I hadn’t heard of, but the basic theory has always been apparent to me. I don’t understand how it is considered controversial or groundbreaking.
Perhaps this is more surprising to scientists who have been stuck within their own segregated area, though. As an outsider whose contact with science was limited to New Scientist and popular science books from 2007 to 2014, perhaps my simpler view of things helped me to connect the dots, where an actual biologist just couldn’t accept that biology is simply chemistry when it seems so much more complex. It seems odd to me, but it’s all I can think of. And it’s not as though I’m a chemistry or physics superfan — I’m happy to stay on the level of biology!
Byzantium, Judith Herrin
This is clearly a labour of love: Herrin knows her stuff, and is trying to communicate it to a broader audience. Sometimes this results somewhat in insulting the general reader’s intelligence, and yet at other times she gets deep into minutiae rather than covering the stuff that might really interest people — like the role of mutilation (instead of assassination) in political takeovers. I wanted a lot more of that, and yet this one review explains it much more thoroughly. And yes, that’s a very brief explanation, but it’s more than Herrin did.
Byzantium is a fascinating empire, and we do owe more to it than we often believe. Rome dominates our thoughts, both in religion and in history — especially in Britain, of course, since we were ruled by Romans and then our entire state religion is based on a reaction to Roman Catholicism. But Byzantium has much to teach us about the European past as well.
Herrin definitely has a bias toward Constantinople and their way of worshipping and… just about everything. At times, an apparent hostility to Roman Catholicism breaks through, which is rather odd from a scholar (and yet, might have made the book more interesting if it were a bit more apparent — you have to choose which way to go, and make it clear).
Interesting read, but does get a bit bogged down in details and repetitive.
The Human Brain, New Scientist
It may not be surprising to learn that this collection, featuring articles and features about the human brain, was absolutely right up my street. If you’re interested in the human brain, but you’re not ready to dive into a full book about it, this makes a great, varied collection, focusing on different things like memory formation, the ageing brain, psychology, sleep…
There’s a lot of stuff in here, but it’s all in bitesize chunks. I do recommend this, and the other New Scientist collections — but if you’ve collected issues religiously, there’s nothing new in here as far as I know.
Mind-Expanding Ideas, New Scientist: The Collection
Possibly necessary for full disclosure: I got four of these as a free gift for subscribing to New Scientist. They contain articles from past issues, generally the ones that stand the test of time, and collect them together by topic. This one is mostly physics, which… is not so much my thing. It’s “the most incredible concepts in science”, can’t we have some more love for biology? Epigenetics is mind-expanding — and probably more personally relevant than quarks and leptons to most readers.
That said, I am into biology and find physics a little frightening. Reading this volume mostly left me a little scared and at least halfway to an existential crisis.
If your interest is in dark energy and quantum theory and special relativity, though, then there’s a good chance it’s perfect for you.
Fairweather Eden, Mike Pitts, Mark Roberts
This is a fascinating account of a fascinating site: one of the earliest known sites of human activity in the UK. Eartham Pit, Boxgrove is an internationally significant site and it had a lot to tell us about Palaeolithic humans. Don’t be fooled into thinking that because we don’t know much about the people who made the site it’s going to be a boring read: it’s interspersed with the story of the excavation itself and the scientific analysis that went into discovering what happened there. It’s not just about old animal bones, but about the people who made the site, then and now.
If you want to know about early human occupation of Britain, this site is one of the key pieces of evidence, and this book beautifully unravels the history of the dig, its context and the conclusions we can draw from it. I found it a really easy read, too, with relatively short chapters to keep things moving through the information and story it revealed. Definitely recommended.
Britain After Rome, Robin Fleming
Britain After Rome is a rather exhaustive, not to say exhausting, history of Britain after the Romano-British period. It focuses on material culture like grave goods and excavations, rather than the texts and what we think we know. Sometimes these contradict each other, and sometimes they fit together in illuminating ways; Fleming takes her time unpacking both situations. It results in a broader look at society than we might see elsewhere, including the lives of women and the fashions of clothing, as well as the big questions of politics, commerce and religion. (Not that the role of women is a small question, but it’s one about which we know less.)
I did enjoy reading it, but I had to take it in little parcels rather than sitting down to read right through. Despite the avoidance of extensive footnotes, it feels scholarly, dense, lengthy. There’s a lot of material and some of it is lingered over very lovingly.
How Long is Now? New Scientist
If you know what New Scientist is like and what these books are like, this is more of the usual. People ask their strange or not-so-strange questions about topics scientific, and other people chip in with what they know. Where one answer didn’t quite cover all the angles, another one is often included. You’ll notice folks like David Muir of Portobello High School answering a lot of questions, while others are answered by people who happen to work in something related or had that curiosity themselves and carried out experiments. Sometimes the questions are interesting, sometimes less so — and sometimes the answers are satisfying, and sometimes they’re not quite enough.
It’s an excellent source of general science knowledge, and a good type of book to dip in and out of casually. I did notice that some of the answers are also included in at least one of the New Scientist collections, which I guess is to be expected.