Tag: science


Review – Where the Universe Came From

Posted 31 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of New Scientist: Where the Universe Came FromInstant Expert: Where the Universe Came From, New Scientist

These books are based on the Instant Expert events that New Scientist hosts on various topics. I’ve been to two of them (one on genetics, one on consciousness), and they’re pretty great: pitched at a level most educated people can understand, but delving a bit deeper into some of the latest events and innovations in whatever area of science they cover. They generally have a panel of experts and, honestly, some pretty good food… Anyway, so I was interested to read this one, even without the good food.

Sadly, it’s more relativity than Big Bang; it’s more worried about how to resolve the issues between quantum physics and relativity than about what we do know. That said, it’s pretty accessible and I did follow most of it, which is more than can be said for most attempts to educate me about relativity. However, it does contain repeated material from New Scientist collections and possibly also previous books; how much, I couldn’t say, since I haven’t read those exhaustively.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Herding Hemingway’s Cats

Posted 28 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Herding Hemingway's Cats by Kat ArneyHerding Hemingway’s Cats, Kat Arney

I didn’t expect to get that much out of this, since it explores the subject of genetics — I read a lot about genetics, after all, and have done one or two modules focusing on it. And it’s true that the tone is very light and journalistic, quippy and light and funny, but it also has an extensive section for further reading and covers some fascinating topics I didn’t know about. The section on epigenetics was particularly interesting; I’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm for epigenetics, of course, but this was a more measured and conservative interpretation.

It’s the kind of book that left me turning to my wife and saying, “hey, did you know…?” a lot, and looking up things online (like Minoo Rassoulzadegan’s white-gloved mice). There’s a lot of complications and new things coming out about genetics, and this proved to be an excellent survey of that.

The only thing I disliked was the way the interviews were presented — almost like a dialogue in a novel, but without new paragraphs for new speakers. It made it a little difficult to follow, and I’m not all that interested in what kind of shoes the scientist in question was wearing during the interview.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Vital Question

Posted 24 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Vital Question by Nick LaneThe Vital Question, Nick Lane

If you have a solid grounding in science already, particularly biology, this is probably going to be accessible for you — but if not, you might struggle a little. It starts off alright, but it gets quite dense in places, and if you’re not super-interested, you’ll probably get bogged down. That said, to me it was fascinating, and generated testable hypotheses about how early life could have functioned.

I still disagree with Nick Lane on some points, like the dismissiveness with which he treats “junk” DNA. But he covers a lot of interesting stuff about endosymbiosis, mitochondria, the way mitochondria work with the host cell, how the differences between bacteria and archaea arose… It’s a wide-ranging book, and it’s hard to summarise everything that he touches on.

He also makes some pretty bold predictions about life elsewhere in the universe — that it will work in pretty much the same way as it does on Earth. I don’t disagree with what he says here.

So all in all, a worthwhile read, but bring your thinking cap if you’re not a biologist.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Neanderthal Man

Posted 22 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Neanderthal Man by Svante PaaboNeanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, Svante Pääbo

This book is less about Neanderthals themselves and more about the biological and technical details of extracting their long-extinct genomes from the preserved bones we’ve found, and also about Svante Pääbo himself — it touches on his bisexuality, his moves between institutions, even his affair with a colleague’s wife. I could’ve done without the personal info; it often felt like it was completely incidental to the extraction and sequencing going on in his teams. There were some interesting bits in the way his team worked together, and his decisions as the leader, but his affair with Linda Vigilant was entirely irrelevant.

Still, it’s a fascinating narrative taken as a whole, tracking the various theories, setbacks and new techniques Svante Pääbo and his team went through in finally extracting and sequencing the Neanderthal genome. There’s some coverage, too, of how it differs from the Homo sapiens genome and that of chimpanzees, and what that means in terms of phylogeny and the relationships in the family tree of human development. It also touches on some of the politics of science: rival groups, jockeying for funding, terminating partnerships which aren’t delivering what you hoped… A reminder that you’re never gonna get away from politics of some sort, I suppose!

I found it deeply interesting and well explained, though I am a little disappointed that it was more of an autobiography of Pääbo’s working life than about Neanderthals and what we know about them because of his work.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Being Human

Posted 20 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Being Human by New ScientistBeing Human, New Scientist

There’s perhaps not much to say about this collection: it’s much the same as the other New Scientist collections, in that it brings together a number of articles and features on a theme, using material from past issues. This is a bit more general than The Human Brain, of course, though it covers some of the same ground. If you read New Scientist religiously, none of this will be new to you; if you want to collect it in a more permanent form than the weekly issues, or grab one that’s on a specific topic, these are great for that.

To me, all of this is accessible, well explained and interesting. Your mileage may vary depending on what aspects of science interest you most.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Medical Frontiers

Posted 17 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Medical Frontiers by New ScientistMedical Frontiers, New Scientist

This is a bit different to the other New Scientist collections, in that it’s focused on the practical applications of science in one particular arena: medicine. I found it a fascinating look at medical technologies and theories, and how they might change healthcare. It’s the usual suspects, of course: stem cells, etc — and it touches on some of the past advances in transplantation, antibiotics and other drugs…

So it’s not quite the scale of relativity or dark matter, but to me it’s all the more fascinating for being relatable to everyday life. Like the other New Scientist collections, it’s a good way to catch up to and collect a bunch of articles on the topic.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Relativity: Einstein’s Mind-Bending Universe

Posted 13 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Relativity; Einstein's Mind-bending Universe by New ScientistRelativity: Einstein’s Mind-Bending Universe, New Scientist

WHOOOOOSHHHH.

That sound? Oh, that was just most of this collection going over my head. It’s still good for the same reasons as the other New Scientist collections: it collects articles and features on a theme into one slightly more durable collection, so you don’t have to keep every issue of the magazine ever that contained stuff that really interests you.

Unfortunately for me, this is physics. A lot of the time I’ll understand perfectly while reading it, but I couldn’t explain it to someone else. Some of the time I won’t understand at all, and I’ll just skim past the words. Despite the assurances of the New Scientist employee who sold me this, I’m squarely in the latter territory for large stretches of this. It’s probably great if you understand physics and are really interested in putting in the time to understand it. I’m… not, really.

It’s an interesting collection, worthy topic, yada yada. I’m glad I had a crack at reading it. But… nope. Not for me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Reinventing Darwin

Posted 12 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Reinventing Darwin by Niles EldredgeReinventing Darwin, Niles Eldredge

The most prominent phrase in this book by far is “we naturalists”, which I think demonstrates pretty well the ideological stance of the author. Niles Eldredge begins by setting the scene: the “naturalists”, people like himself and Stephen Jay Gould, vs the “ultra-Darwinists”, like Dawkins. The naturalists have a more nuanced view of natural selection, while the ultra-Darwinists think selection occurs on genes and genes alone (according to Eldredge). This book is a debate about the fine details of natural selection, not about whether it happens: “Darwin demonstrated without a shadow of a doubt that natural selection is an ineluctable law of nature” (p.12), “No one doubts that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is correct” (back cover) — so if you’re in any doubt about evolution itself, this won’t convince you.

I don’t know whether science has sorted out a lot of this dichotomy yet, or whether you don’t see it at BSc level, or if the structure of the Open University is such that you happen to get exposed to both views, but I didn’t think of the debate in these starkly delineated terms at all. I’ve been taught principles espoused by both sides, in a kind of synthesis. Of course, it probably also helps that I’m coming in from outside, but either way, I see value in both sides of the debate.

Eldredge manages to be reasonably even-handed, despite the “we naturalists” refrain, and sets forward a good case for species sorting, punctuated equilibria, stasis, etc. Even though my training leans toward the genetics end of things, because I find the biochemistry fascinating and ecosystems less so, I can’t think of anything I vehemently disagreed with, except that refrain of “we naturalists” — which started to come across as needlessly divisive, given that plenty of people sit somewhere in between.

Of course, this is from 1995, so it’s not the most up-to-date text; to me, it was kind of interesting because it fossilised attitudes at the point Eldredge was writing. I don’t think anything in it was new, surprising or controversial to me. The style was rather dry and repetitive (we get it, we get it, “you naturalists” are not denying natural selection); I’m told Gould was a better prose stylist, so that’s probably where I’ll turn next.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Virolution

Posted 10 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Virolution by Frank RyanVirolution, 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.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Other Minds

Posted 8 May, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 9 Comments

Cover of Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther 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.)

Rating: 4/5

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