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.
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.
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.
Genome: the Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Matt Ridley
Genome is somewhat out of date by now, published back in 1999. Bearing that in mind, it was a pretty good read; sometimes, the themes Ridley chose for a particular chapter weren’t all that closely tied to the chromosome he chose, and issues like that, but that’s the problem with our chromosomes. The information isn’t distributed neatly across our chromosomes: in fact, those of us with a Y chromosome have one that does almost nothing overall, despite the fact that it affects carriers’ phenotypes so markedly.
It’s mostly informative and tries hard to avoid reinforcing certain misconceptions — like the idea that a gene codes for a disease, or that things are as simple as a single gene coding for a single trait. A lot of the anecdotes are familiar to me from previous reading, but it’s still interesting to see them presented in this way. It’s pretty modern-human-centric: I mean, if you’re going to look at our autobiography of a species, then I think at least a little time needs to be given to the past of our species. People so often want to know how closely we’re related to Neanderthals.
I think Ridley’s tone is a little dry, though; given that and the fact that the book is a little out of date now, I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone looking for a quick and up to date whip around of what we know of genetics. If you have a more general, patient interest, though, why not?
This Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin
Despite loving singing, and having been good enough to perform and not have people run away, I know very little about music. Not that Levitin would be a snob about that, from the sound of this book, but it still forms a bit of a barrier to understanding when someone starts talking about semitones. I can sing C on demand, and I know when something is out of tune — what more do you want? (Although unlike most people, I have a bad sense of timing, apparently: I routinely sing slower than the original version of anything I’m performing. Most people apparently preserve the timing of the version they know best. Trivia!)
So anyway, the music side of this passed me by, mostly, despite the primer in the opening chapters. But the neuroscience behind music is fascinating, and Levitin explains it well. There are a few sections which drag as he spends too long explaining things, but on the other hand he references a wide selection of music, applying what he’s talking about to songs people often know. (Which again led me to wishing I knew more music, but this time popular music — I think I got one out of every five references? And my acquaintance with Bowie is pretty darn recent.)
I feel like the best people to appreciate this have a bit more music theory and a bit less neuroscience in their background, but nonetheless, I found it an intriguing read.
Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, Peter D. Ward, Donald Brownlee
Having read David Waltham’s Lucky Planet, there isn’t much in this older book which is new to me, even though he recommended it for further reading. It’s less up to date, of course, but that’s because it’s older — and at least it does acknowledge stuff like the Viking lander biological experiments, which Waltham did not. If you’re interested in the evidence that’s out there for the fact that our planet might be rare indeed in producing complex life, I’d recommend Rare Earth over Lucky Planet. The science is solid and thorough, and well explained.
My problem with all books like this is always going to be: we have a sample size of one. How can we extrapolate anything? Sure, we know that intelligent life like ourselves can’t exist in a solar system that doesn’t have the right kind of habitable zone. And yeah, we think carbon is the best possible atom to base biochemistry on. But we only think or know these things because that’s what we need, that’s what we can use, under the conditions in which we find ourselves observing. (In other words, it’s the weak anthropic principle.) None of the data presented convinces me that we can do more than guessing in the dark on this subject.
That’s not a reason not to be curious, of course, but it’s also not a reason to give up looking. Obviously, we won’t find anything if we don’t look. It doesn’t make Rare Earth less worth reading, but it does mean that I think readers should stay aware that Ward and Brownlee have made up their minds, and are presenting only the evidence supporting their case. I honestly don’t find either side convincing, though you, of course, may differ.
Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fuelling Our Modern Plagues, Martin Blaser
Seeing the subtitle of this book, you might think it’s about the overuse of antibiotics which causes diseases immune to every method we have to treat them, especially the practice of giving antibiotics “just in case” and feeding antibiotics to animals (which actually helps them grow faster). In fact, while he does bring those issues up, Blaser is also concerned about an unforeseen effect of antibiotics: they’re killing “good” bacteria, with which we’ve co-evolved and which provide us with advantages (even if they aren’t always unmitigated advantages).
This is the sort of thing that’s really fascinating to me, even if I’m not sure I’m 100% comfortable with some of the things he refers to as “modern plagues” — especially not autism, because hey, I don’t think my friends with autism are “ill”. I think they just think differently, and society has the problem. In any case, Blaser does have some interesting research backing up his ideas, and the first half of the book does a very good job of explaining how we form our own personal microbiomes — and the catastrophic effects (viewed in the long term, as an average, not necessarily for a single person) of our modern health system, which actually destroys, undermines, or even prevents the formation of our microbiomes. Caesarian sections, for example.
I think Blaser’s theories might feel a little overstretched at times, but I don’t mind going along with the basic principle: we have these bacteria in our bodies for a reason, we tolerate them for a reason. We don’t really know the effects of what we’re losing, and the invisible advantages and protections it might offer. This much is definitely true, and also the fact that we’re overusing antibiotics as a kind of “better safe than sorry” — except it is going to make us very sorry, via antibiotic resistance alone.
I found this an enjoyable and pretty well-supported read, with the caveat of course that I’m only on the first year of my BSc and most of my knowledge comes from pop science and online courses.
The Greatest Show On Earth, Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins is, from my point of view, a fairly unpleasant man even when I agree with him. He sets out to make this book an explanation of how evolution works (but for that, I would go with Coyne’s Why Evolution is True), and why it is the correct explanation for various phenomena we can observe around us. It’s not as bad as The God Delusion for anti-theist statements, though there are a few speckled in there, and he makes a fairly good line of argument.
Of course, since I think evolution is an obvious conclusion, so I’m not exactly the audience he was hoping to convince — and it’s likely I didn’t notice instances of his usual arrogant attitude that would bother someone who doesn’t already believe in the same things. I think you’re probably safer with Coyne’s book.
Or this set of logical steps:
- There are creatures who are better adapted to their environment than others of the same species.
- Because they are better adapted, they will be more successful in survival and, consequently, breeding.
- These traits, when heritable, can be passed on the creature’s offspring — and they can have many offspring.
- These offspring will be better adapted, and will meet others who are also well adapted to breed with.
- Good adaptations accumulate over the course of generations.
- The environment is not stable and changes over time. Adaptation is necessary to allow a species to survive in the same area, and species do survive in the same area.
- Over a long period of time, enough changes will accumulate that individuals of that species would not be able to breed with the original species, or with a branch of the species that adapted differently.
- Evolution via natural selection has necessarily occurred.
Plus extra evidence like shared DNA, the fact that we can artificially (and in a very short space of time) cause a species to evolve by selecting traits we want (e.g. high milk yield in cows), and the fossil record which contains plenty of examples of transitional fossils… You don’t need Dawkins; go back to Darwin. Even without the evidence we have now, he saw the necessary chain of events, and he was much more sympathetic to other views, and meticulous about his evidence.
Nonetheless, Dawkins’ book is clear and pretty well-written; I just don’t like his attitude, and I don’t think he will reach the desired audience.