Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly
Despite my mother’s interest in space and all things to do with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, I never knew about the ‘computers’ who supported the US race to space. The history I knew was all about the big shots: the astronauts, the program director, even the doctors… It was a white, male history. And it was a history that was worth knowing, no denying: the astronauts and scientists it covered worked hard and achieved amazing things.
But there were women behind them, and black women at that. Reading this, it was a little unbelievable at times that none of them ever showed up in the histories I read before. And sometimes it was unbelievable to read about racism, segregation and sexism and then see such a recent date on it.
If you know someone who says women have never achieved anything, well, this book’s for them. If you know a black little girl who wants to be a scientist? This is for her, too. If you want to be more informed about women in STEM? You guessed it.
It’s not always the most focused read, covering as many women as Shetterly could get concrete details on. She didn’t just cover their lives when at NASA, but their time pre-NASA and even pre-NACA. It leaves you with a lot of names to keep track of, but it’s worth paying attention. I appreciate the way Shetterly puts the women into their social context, showing how they also had families to support, how they helped other women and black people around them, how they were involved in the wider societal change of the time. All of these women are worth reading about — and I think I’m only sorry they didn’t each have a book to themselves.
The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, David Damrosch
The Epic of Gilgamesh is some of the oldest literature we have access to, so you’d be forgiven for imagining it must have had a huge influence on subsequent mythology. The truth is, it was only rediscovered relatively recently, via archaeology, decipherment and a fair amount of politics. And of course, money. David Damrosch’s book discusses both the epic itself, its themes and context, and the archaeological and political process of bringing it back to light.
Despite the fact that it’s talking about archaeology, political manoeuvring and the long process of decipherment, The Buried Book manages to be entertaining and even gripping. I was certainly hooked, anyway. Damrosch does a great job of making it accessible and interesting, and pulling out facts that are both pertinent and interesting. You’ll learn a fair amount about Mesopotamia from this, not a little about British archaeology and the process of deciphering an ancient language, some interesting titbits about various personalities you’d never heard of before… and of course, about the epic itself — which is well worth reading.
In fact, if you’re thinking about reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, I’d recommend reading something like this first. Get some context on where it came from, where its been, and how people are still using and relating to the story told now. Then grab a translation and settle in.
The Tyrannosaur Chronicles, David Hone
The Tyrannosaur Chronicles is a pretty entertaining survey of everything we currently know about tyrannosaurs — not just T. rex, but the related tyrannosaurs. That means it includes dinosaurs we don’t always think of as tyrannosaurs, but which are classified as types of tyrannosaur because of their close relationship to T. rex. The book is upfront about the fact that the information in it is going to be out of date before long — though not, I think, from the perspective of a layperson.
A lot of the info is stuff you may well already know, like the fact that T. rex was most likely feathered. But this book discusses it in detail, going into parts that were likely to be feathered, where the tyrannosaurs might have been scaled as traditionally depicted, etc. There are various different cases where there are theories about the tyrannosaurs that can’t be proven one way or another, and this book goes into them in detail. It discusses the evidence and findings, bringing them together into an entertaining and informative package of pure tyrannosaur-related awesomeness. It never got too dry or anything; I found all of it interesting and relevant.
Like all the best dinosaur books, it made me want to run out and become a palaeontologist, somehow. And it also made me crave overviews of other dinosaurs — can I have a book like this about the sauropods, now? Please?
The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean
The Disappearing Spoon is not quite as entertaining to me as Sam Kean’s book on neuroscience, but it’s still reasonably fun and definitely an easy read. There’s all kinds of random facts, and he makes things like electron shells very clear — even for me, with my brain’s stubborn refusal to grasp it all. He writes with humour and enthusiasm, pulling out interesting characters and discoveries from the history of the Periodic Table and its elements.
I’m just not as into chemistry/physics as I am biology. Even organic chemistry. I should be, but, alas. So I found that this dragged a bit — for me. It’d probably be unfair to assume it’d drag for you as well, if you’re actually a fan of chemistry.
The Secret Library, Oliver Tearle
This is a beautifully presented book, at least in the hardback — the dustcover is lovely, with a keyhole cut into the front and edged with silver, and the book is nicely bound. It’s not quite as meta as the binding of Keith Houston’s The Book, but it’s still a lovely object that will make a good gift for book lovers of your acquaintance.
In terms of content, it’s fairly shallow: it’s a whistlestop tour, as it says several times, so the facts here are more on the level of trivia than anything in-depth. If you’d like a survey of literature and weird facts relating to literature and literary figures, it’s a good one. It made for a good book to read on the train, too, as you could easily dip in and out of it. There was no need to keep track of things too closely.
I think I hoped for more, but honestly, I’m not sure what I was expecting.
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.