What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, Randall Munroe
What If? is a fun outing in which the author of xkcd answers weird science questions while ignoring the implausibility of those situations ever arising. So we get things like “what if all the rain from a cloud fell in one big droplet” and “what if Earth started expanding” — and Munroe answers them, rummaging through scientific papers and obscure experimental results to find out his closest guess at what would happen. I can’t really speak for his science in most places (only the DNA question was really down my street), but given how pedantic the internet can be, I’m sure Munroe did his absolute best to find an answer that would be, if not incontestable, at least not easily dismissed.
The whole thing is illustrated with Munroe’s usual stick figures, and I still remain completely baffled as to how the combination of his stick figures and his lettering can imbue things with feeling. It makes no sense. And yet the Moon promising to help the Earth start spinning again? Gah. Moon, I love you!
He also has a humorous tone and a clear way of explaining, so despite the weird situations that he examines, it pretty much all makes sense… though I took his equations for granted, and any other calculations.
The World Without Us, Alan Weisman
This book tries to imagine what the world would be like if we were just raptured away or abducted by aliens, with little or no warning. Despite being ostensibly a book about the world without us, it turns out to mostly be a book about us. Or, more accurately, what we’ve done to the world, which the world will have to cope with whether we’re here and part of that or not. If you’re science-aware, there’s probably not much to learn — in fact, if you’re up on your climate science, what’s here is very basic when it comes to that. It does muse interestingly on certain specific animals and habitats which would benefit from a world without humans. There’s some good stuff on places where humans don’t go, which are proving to be wildlife sanctuaries even when they’re utterly radioactive.
But mostly, I think I hoped for a bit more of the future, and a bit less of the past and present. Of course, the past can tell us what some environments used to be like without human intervention, or after specific types of human intervention. And of course, the present shapes what will come. And we can’t really predict evolution — look at the differences between the stuff in the Burgess shale and later forms, for example. Or even the way that mammals succeeded the dinosaurs. But I still hoped for a bit more about the future, what kinds of animals might thrive, what it might look like.
If you’re already depressed by what humans have been up to, this will make you feel worse. A lot worse. None of it was news to me, but still… Yeesh, we’ve messed up.
Virus Hunt, Dorothy H. Crawford
It’s been a little too long since I read this for me to review it effectively, but I definitely found it a fascinating read. Not only does it go into the various theories of how AIDs hopped between primates and humans, but it goes into the evidence for that in terms of the different strains of HIV — and their virulence in humans. There’s a lot of data here, and I think it could be overwhelming for someone who isn’t that interesting, but I found it fascinating.
If you’re looking for a social history of the disease, this isn’t where you want to look, though. It’s very much about the virology: tracking down the point of zoonosis, and figuring out how the various SIVs are related to our HIVs. It even illuminates the fact that there are various strains of HIV in the human population, something I didn’t actually know — I was under the impression that HIV jumped to humans once, and that one strain spread widely. Instead, there are actually some differing strains, with differing degrees of virulence.
All in all, pretty darn fascinating, as long as you’re ready for a wild epidemiological ride. Makes a very good supplement to the less technical view of David Quammen’s Spillover and the way it covered HIV.
The Celtic Revolution, Simon Young
A mostly readable and entertaining book which has nonetheless mostly slipped my mind since I read it. The main thesis was that the Celtic tradition — which it has to work to define, given the arguments about such a thing existing at all — drove a surprising amount of the development of modern society. I seem to recall there was something that annoyed me, and I think it was in the section on King Arthur. Just… that whole condescending attitude about the Welsh hope for and belief in the return of Arthur.
While I like that it acknowledges a Celtic identity and influence, I’m not sure I’d recommend this book. There have been some really fascinating books about the Celtic culture, even Nora Chadwick’s outdated The Celts, which I’d recommend more.
Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh, Joyce Tyldesley
The problem with Hatchepsut, compared with the subject of another of Tyldesley’s biographies, Cleopatra, is that there just isn’t enough to go on. While Tyldesley does a good job at presenting the information we have about Hatchepsut, there just isn’t enough of it. Given the way the female pharaoh’s reign was hidden deliberately and by the misunderstanding of scholars and the pillaging of Egypt’s antiquities, I’m not sure if anyone can write a satisfying biography of Hatchepsut. Even where Tyldesley tries to look for the personality of Egypt’s female pharaoh, it seems so thin and speculative that it doesn’t work very well.
The benefit of all this, of course, is that this isn’t sensationalised. There’s no absurd speculations about Hatchepsut’s gender and sexuality — an approach I could really imagine from some less source-based biographies, in this world where such things are endlessly fascinating to many. It sticks to the facts, presenting something as close to authenticity and truth as we can get from this distance.
It’s just, even if you don’t want something sensational, that can be less than satisfying. This book is enjoyable if you’re into Egypt and Egyptology, but perhaps less so if you’re looking for an inspirational story about a woman overcoming patriarchy. Personally, I enjoyed it, but I can understand those who have found it dry.
One Plus One Equals One, John Archibald
The origin of complex life is endlessly fascinating, and various evolutionary innovations made it possible. This book covers an extraordinarily important moment: symbiosis between existing cells which produced the organelles on which most cells rely. We wouldn’t get far without mitochondria producing ATP for us. And yet it’s been clear to me for a long time that mitochondria had a separate origin. Some of the DNA in our cells exists solely within our mitochondria. That DNA doesn’t even obey the same rules as the rest of our DNA when it comes to producing gametes.
For me, then, this book took something incredibly obvious and broke it down into more steps than I needed. It works to convince you that symbiosis could have occurred. But to me, that’s immediately apparent from the fact that some of our organelles have clear extra-cellular origins. So that aspect of the book was quite slow for me. It’s interesting to read about the research and the people who proposed the theory anyway, though. If you’re into biology and you don’t already know/accept that mitochondria were once free-living bacteria, this is interesting and illuminating!
On a related note (not addressed within the book), it makes me wonder… How do people who don’t believe in evolution handle the existence of mitochondria? They pretty clearly show evolution and co-evolution occurred in the genesis of complex life. If mitochondria weren’t free-living bacteria that adapted to living within simple cells, why do they have their own genetic material? Did God leave it in by accident?
Don’t answer that.
A History of the World in Twelve Maps, Jerry Brotton
I was fascinated by the idea of this: of course maps are a huge part of how we understand our world, and the way we format our maps is a big giveaway to the way we feel about the world. A map covered in clearly-marked borders marks separations and national boundaries; different maps with disputed borders show areas of conflict. Maps can reveal belonging and isolation and the limits of the human imagination.
Unfortunately, Brotton’s writing is really dry, from my perspective, and I wasn’t always convinced about his choice of maps. Or rather, he would pick maps and then talk about almost everything but the map: the context the map came from, yes, the politics of those that made it, yes. But the map itself, less so. Now, context is a great thing — hello, I was pretty much exclusively a new historicist as a literature postgrad — but I wanted more about the maps. More images would probably have helped, too.
If you’re more interested in the history of cartography and geography than I am, this is probably a great book. It just didn’t quite take the angle I was looking for.
Gutenberg’s Fingerprint: A Book Lover Bridges the Digital Divide, Merilyn Simonds
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 11th April 2017
This is more of a personal memoir than I expected, somehow; with a title that references the digital divide (a common term for the social problems arising from the rich having computer access and the poorer being denied opportunities because they don’t) and Gutenberg, I expected something else. Instead I got something meditative, which deals with book creation and paper-making from a very personal perspective. And, it turns out, Simonds isn’t talking about the same digital divide I was thinking about — it just means the gap between print and digital, and digital books being here to stay now.
So not the book I was hoping for, but it’s not a bad meditation on books and paper and making things. The prose is evocative and the musing interesting, just… much more personally focused than I expected from a book with this in the blurb: “Poised over this fourth transition, e-reader in one hand, perfect-bound book in the other, Merilyn Simonds — author, literary maven, and early adopter — asks herself: what is lost and what is gained as paper turns to pixel?”
Oh, and if you’re interested in the history of the book, Keith Houston’s The Book might be more what you’re looking for.
The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker
Perhaps a book on how to write by a scientist who studies neurology and linguistics and how they interact seems odd, but it’s right up Pinker’s street. He loves to think about language and the way it evolved, and what is natural for our brains when it comes to language. While he does go into the rules of grammar and the parts of speech and all of that, he tempers it with an understanding of why we make the kinds of mistakes we do, and when it might be time to let go and surrender to the fact that we just don’t think the way grammar prescriptivists would like.
His style is, fortunately, readable and engaging, though I did begin to tune out when it got very technical, or when there were a lot of tables presenting all kinds of information. I’ve never learnt to diagram a sentence, being part of that denigrated lot who didn’t get taught grammar in school. Instead, I rely on… well, a sense of style. A gut feeling that something is right or wrong. It usually doesn’t steer me wrong; where it might trip me up is in more formal writing, and cases that don’t often come up — like remembering how exactly to apply who vs. whom.
I enjoyed the parts of this which touched specifically on academic writing, and the kind of nonsense academics can sometimes produce in their attempts to elevate their subject of study and get funding. It’s why a lot of literary theory is utterly impenetrable to me, for example. On the other hand, I can see that if I applied some of Pinker’s ideas to the style of my undergrad science essays, I’d get very low marks. Sometimes you just have to bow to the academicese.
Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew, John Pickrell
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 7th March 2017
Weird Dinosaurs is a fun and reasonably accessible look at some of the more unusual dinosaurs discovered (or sometimes rediscovered) in recent years. Perhaps they’re not that unusual if you follow dinosaur news — I certainly wasn’t that surprised by some of these — but it is an interesting summary of some of the latest in dinosaur news. Despite what you might think, there are still loads of dinosaurs being discovered, and this book really emphasises the possibilities out there. It’s quite likely we’ve barely scratched the surface. The dinosaurs we’ve found are most likely the really common ones, which would be more likely to be preserved long enough to fossilise. So there’s all kinds of weird wonders out there.
If you’re interested in dinosaurs, I think this is a worthwhile read. It covers dinosaurs with feathers and what kinds of dinosaurs we might expect to find with feathers; habitats where we haven’t always believed dinosaurs could survive, like the Arctic; dinosaurs with unusual morphology which we can’t quite figure out. It’s a good survey for the layperson, though sometimes I felt it got a little bit dry and wandering as it went into background details.
Favourite thing about this book: probably the history of the Transylvanian gay spy baron who nearly became king of Albania. Let’s not forget Franz Nopcsa.