Genre: Science

Review – Ten Birds That Changed The World

Posted April 16, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Review – Ten Birds That Changed The World

Ten Birds That Changed the World

by Stephen Moss

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 416
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

For the whole of human history, we have lived alongside birds. We have hunted and domesticated them for food; venerated them in our mythologies, religions, and rituals; exploited them for their natural resources; and been inspired by them for our music, art, and poetry.

In Ten Birds That Changed the World, naturalist and author Stephen Moss tells the gripping story of this long and intimate relationship through key species from all seven of the world's continents. From Odin's faithful raven companions to Darwin's finches, and from the wild turkey of the Americas to the emperor penguin as potent symbol of the climate crisis, this is a fascinating, eye-opening, and endlessly engaging work of natural history.

Stephen Moss’ Ten Birds That Changed The World is a style of non-fiction I enjoy very much, where history gets illustrated through a focus on key things like archaeological items or, well, birds. Instead of being a straightforward timeline, such things can give a different view on well-worn events and times: an everyday view, or a less human view.

Much of this focuses on how humans have exploited and endangered birds, as one might expect, from climate change to more direct impacts. There are also interesting discussions about other things, though, like the fact that “Darwin’s finches” have become the focus of a sort of mythology around the figure of Darwin. In reality, the finches played little part in the germination of his theories, and were recognised later as the perfect example of his theories in action.

One thing I found a bit questionable was the focus on ravens as mentioned in what Moss referred to as one of the earliest stories, that of the Biblical flood. He’s wrong. The same story is told in the epic of Gilgamesh, also featuring a raven — and that epic was, of course, written before the Bible. It’s curious that he makes no mention of it, but perhaps it’s not very surprising at all since he matter of factly refers to “the birth of Christ” as a way of marking time (not just through using the term “BC”, but specifically stating that something happens “before the birth of Christ”). There’s a particular kind of framing there, subtle but noticeable, and it raises questions about the depth of Moss’ research when discussing mythological and legendary depictions of birds (at the very least), or about his ideological decisions in writing the book. Definitely a weird moment. Of course one’s beliefs shape how one writes and thinks, but a little objectivity is important when you’re talking about historical fact.

All in all, I enjoyed it, but perhaps not as much as I hoped to.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Fish Caught in Time

Posted April 12, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – A Fish Caught in Time

A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth

by Samantha Weinberg

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 256
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

A gripping story of obsession, adventure and the search for our oldest surviving ancestor - 400 million years old - a four-limbed dinofish

In 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a young South African museum curator, caught sight of a specimen among a fisherman's trawl that she knew was special. With limb-like protuberances culminating in fins the strange fish was unlike anything she had ever seen. The museum board members dismissed it as a common lungfish, but when Marjorie eventually contacted Professor JLB Smith, he immediately identified her fish as a coelacanth - a species known to have lived 400 million years ago, and believed by many scientists to be the evolutionary missing link - the first creature to crawl out of the sea. Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer had thus made the century's greatest zoological discovery. But Smith needed a live or frozen specimen to verify the discovery, so began his search for another coelacanth, to which he devoted his life.

I didn’t really expect to be hooked when I picked up Samantha Weinberg’s A Fish Caught in Time. Fish aren’t a huge interest of mine, even coelacanths, and in many ways the book is quite biographical in detail, discussing the life of J.L.B. Smith and Margaret Smith in quite a bit of detail, along with some of the other personalities who searched for live coelacanths.

Nonetheless, I found it surprisingly riveting! And that’s always fun, when a book turns out to surprise you. And there are details about coelacanths too, and the controversies surrounding them (are they a missing link between the water and the land, for example? and do they bear live young, or not?), which the biographical details help to highlight and contextualise.

It also helps to make the political implications of coelacanths and their territories very clear; I hadn’t particularly thought about who might consider themselves to own coelacanths, and yet it’s very clear that various countries and localities and political bodies have tried.

If you’re looking for something that’s more of a deep dive into coelacanth biology and ecology, this wouldn’t be it — but it’s an interesting history of the moment the first recently-dead coelacanth was found, and what it meant, and what it led to.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time

Posted April 9, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time

Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time

by James Suzman

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 464
Rating: two-stars
Synopsis:

Work defines who we are. It determines our status, and dictates how, where, and with whom we spend most of our time. It mediates our self-worth and molds our values. But are we hard-wired to work as hard as we do? Did our Stone Age ancestors also live to work and work to live? And what might a world where work plays a far less important role look like?

To answer these questions, James Suzman charts a grand history of "work" from the origins of life on Earth to our ever more automated present, challenging some of our deepest assumptions about who we are. Drawing insights from anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology, zoology, physics, and economics, he shows that while we have evolved to find joy meaning and purpose in work, for most of human history our ancestors worked far less and thought very differently about work than we do now. He demonstrates how our contemporary culture of work has its roots in the agricultural revolution ten thousand years ago. Our sense of what it is to be human was transformed by the transition from foraging to food production, and, later, our migration to cities. Since then, our relationships with one another and with our environments, and even our sense of the passage of time, have not been the same.

Arguing that we are in the midst of a similarly transformative point in history, Suzman shows how automation might revolutionize our relationship with work and in doing so usher in a more sustainable and equitable future for our world and ourselves.

James Suzman’s Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time didn’t really go where I expected. It takes a very long view of work and starts before humans even evolved, down at the level of cells doing “work” and life acting ultimately to increase entropy (even as it appears to create order). He spends a long time discussing the early evolution of humans and human society, discussing hunter-gatherer societies (extrapolating back from currently existing ones to make guesses about earlier ones, which is always dangerous though probably justifiable).

When he eventually got round to farming societies, half the book was already gone, and he dashed madly onward to do industrial societies at a gallop. I felt like half of this book wasn’t on topic, and some of his promises weren’t kept in terms of what he was going to discuss. Either a lot of the first part needed to be cut, to keep things at a relatively surface-level throughout… or he needed to go just as in-depth on the second half.

There were some interesting titbits here, including contradictions to received wisdom about sexual selection that’s intriguing and which I want to look into further, but it just doesn’t come together well.

Also, the editing was very shaky in some places. Typos galore! Ouch.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Ghosts in the Hedgerow

Posted April 1, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Ghosts in the Hedgerow

Ghosts in the Hedgerow

by Tom Moorhouse

Genres: Mystery, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 271
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

A body lies motionless on the ground. Small, with a snouty head and covered with spines, it is unquestionably dead before its time. And all of those gathered around the corpse are suspect. So which one of them is responsible for this crime - and for the disappearance of many many thousands of hedgehogs in recent decades?

Is it the car driver, the badger, the farmer, the gardener ..? Who could possibly have it in for a hedgehog? In poll after poll they come out top as our favourite mammal. And yet their numbers are estimated to have halved in less than twenty years. Magnifying glass in hand, Tom Moorhouse investigates the evidence. On a vital mission to bring those responsible to justice, prevent further murder and save a species, he uncovers a story full of twists, turns and uncomfortable truths about the trade-offs that exist between humans and wildlife. But he can also see a solution.

Tom Moorehouse’s Ghosts in the Hedgerow tries to use the whodunnit format to interrogate what might be causing the decline in hedgehog numbers seen in the UK in recent years. It does undermine the whole premise right from the get-go by explaining that the decline is only really known anecdotally: hedgehog numbers aren’t really properly counted, and we rely on a bunch of estimates which aren’t really comparable between decades (e.g. between hunters trying to kill hedgehogs before they became a protected species, who would specifically seek them out, and now birdwatchers who may incidentally spot hedgehogs).

Nonetheless, he makes a convincing case that their numbers are declining (which I didn’t really doubt in the first place), and then trots through the suspects: road traffic, badgers, farmland bereft of hedgerows (in contrast to traditional farming), and home/garden design. None of the suspects are surprising if you’ve been at all awake to hedgehog ecology (which I have, as my parents have a hedgehog-friendly garden, and my garden is as well), and of course the final answer isn’t surprising either: it’s all of those things.

It’s a fun idea for a format, but if you’re already interested in hedgehogs, there isn’t much new here. The exact details of how hedgehogs and badgers interact were new to me, but that was about it. However, if you don’t know much about hedgehogs, other than finding them cute, then this could very well be a fun and easy way to learn more, and learn about how to make a difference to them.

To sum it up very quickly: cut holes in your fences so hedgehogs can pass through, use strimmers with caution, don’t use autonomous lawnmowers, rewild your garden, put out some supplementary food for them and a bowl of water, and try to convince other people to do the same (while writing to your MP etc etc about making changes in law). And don’t drive a car, especially not as it starts to get dark and through the night, when hedgehogs roam.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Crypt

Posted March 8, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Review – Crypt

Crypt: Life, Death and Disease in the Middle Ages and Beyond

by Alice Roberts

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 352
Rating: five-stars
Synopsis:

In her previous two bestsellers, Professor Alice Roberts powerfully and evocatively revived people of the past through examining their burial rites, bringing a fresh perspective on how they lived. In Crypt, Professor Roberts brings us face to face with individuals who lived and died between ten and five centuries ago.

The stories in this book are not comforting tales; there’s a focus on pathology, on disease and injury, and the experience of human suffering in the past. We learn of an episode of terrible brutality, when hate speech unleashed a tide of violence against an ethnic minority; of the devastation caused by incurable epidemics sweeping through medieval Europe; of a protracted battle between Church and State for the heart of England – a battle that saw the most famous tomb in the country created and destroyed; and a tumultuous story, forged in the heat of warfare, that takes us out of the Middle Ages into the sixteenth century and the reign of Henry VIII.

In the Middle Ages, there’s barely a written note for most people’s lives. The information we can extract from archaeological human remains represents is an essential tool for understanding our history. Most of these dead will remain anonymous. But, in the thrilling final chapter, Professor Roberts introduces an individual whose life and bones were marked by chronic debilitating disease – and whose name might just be found in history…

I was really excited about Alice Roberts’ Crypt coming out, because I enjoyed both Ancestors (my review) and Buried (my review), and this essentially concludes the trilogy, making it a survey through time about burial practices and archaeological finds in Britain. Crypt in particular was extra-exciting to me because it promised to discuss palaeo/archaeopathology, meaning looking in more depth at how people died, including whether infectious disease may have been involved. There are three chapters (of the seven) which deal heavily with this, discussing leprosy (Mycobacterium leprae), the Black Death (Yersinia pestis), and syphilis (Treponema pallidum) — obviously right up my street as someone who is fascinated by infectious disease (and especially leprosy’s cousin, Mycobacterium tuberculosis).

It was everything I’d hoped for, discussing deaths throughout the Middle Ages and going pretty in-depth about the stories we can see written into bone, plus the ways we’ve been able to find the trace of infectious diseases that are less apparent, or potentially ambiguous. The methods used weren’t too much of a surprise to me (“fishing” for ancient disease DNA using primers definitely occurred to me as a possibility), but it’s still fascinating to see it discussed at a bit more length.

As usual, Roberts writes clearly and engagingly, though maybe I could’ve done with slightly less about Henry VIII’s Mary Rose — I get that context is important, but I’m just not that interested in the Tudors and their squabbles, and I think it could’ve done with a bit less about that.

One thing I do wish is that the book used numbered references. I know it’s for a wider audience, but it’s so hard to follow up any particular interesting claim if I can’t find the paper or book it’s from, even when a detailed references section is included (as here).

Still, I enjoyed it very much, and I wish I had three more lined up just like it.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Hidden World

Posted February 29, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – The Hidden World

The Hidden World: How Insects Sustain Our Life on Earth Today and Will Shape Our Lives Tomorrow

by George McGavin

Genres: Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 288
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Insects conquered the Earth long before we did and will remain here long after we're gone. They outnumber us in the billions and are essential to many of the natural processes that keep us alive and that we take for granted. Yet, despite this, very few of us know much about the hidden world of insects.

In this fascinating new book, entomologist and broadcaster George McGavin takes a deep dive to reveal the unknown truths about the most successful and enduring animal group the world has ever seen, and to show the unseen effects this vast population has on our planet, if only we care to look.

McGavin explores not only the incredible traits that insects have evolved to possess, such as dragonflies that can fly across oceans without resting or beetles that lay their eggs exclusively in corpses, but also the vital lessons we have learnt from them, including how therapy using maggots can save lives and how bees can help grow rich tomato yields.

The Hidden World reveals the wonderful complexity of our relationship with insects, how they have changed the course of our history and how, if we continue to learn from them, they could even be the key to our future and survival.

George McGavin’s The Hidden World comes across as a bit of a grab-bag of random thoughts about insects, particularly given the random insertion of interviews with various naturalists and entomologists mid-chapter. Each one does go some way toward illustrating the point of the chapter, but it still breaks up the flow and makes things feel a bit disorganised.

For all that McGavin is clearly enthusiastic about insects, and dying to share all kinds of facts and figures about them… there wasn’t a lot new for me here. It’s more of a primer for people who aren’t already interested in insects (which generally I wouldn’t say I am, but I have read several other popular science books and studied a degree of medical entomology — so, of necessity, I probably know more than the average person).

So as always it’s enjoyable to read something by a person who is enthusiastic about their subject, but I wasn’t blown away by it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Lost Boys

Posted February 24, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Lost Boys

The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif's Robbers Cave Experiment

by Gina Perry

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 384
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

The fascinating true story of one of the most controversial psychological experiments of the modern era — a real-life Lord of the Flies.

Competition. Prejudice. Discrimination. Conflict.

In 1954, a group of boys attended a remote summer camp where they were split into two groups, and encouraged to bully, harass, and demonise each other. The results would make history as one of social psychology’s classic — and most controversial — studies: the Robbers Cave experiment.

Conducted at the height of the Cold War, officially the experiment had a happy ending: the boys reconciled, and psychologist Muzafer Sherif demonstrated that while hatred and violence are powerful forces, so too are cooperation and harmony. Today it is proffered as proof that under the right conditions warring groups can make peace. Yet the true story of the experiments is far more complex, and more chilling.

In The Lost Boys, Gina Perry explores the experiment and its consequences, tracing the story of Sherif, a troubled outsider who struggled to craft an experiment that would vanquish his personal demons. Drawing on archival material and new interviews, Perry pieces together a story of drama, mutiny, and intrigue that has never been told before.

I really enjoyed Gina Perry’s book about Stanley Milgram’s most famous experiments, Behind the Shock Machine. It shook up the received wisdom about Milgram, and made it clear that he interfered with the data he was presenting, cherry-picked what he wanted to share in order to make his own interpretation inevitable, etc. It’s a book that’s stuck with me, though it’s been a few years since I read it now.

So I was eager to dig into The Lost Boys, which discusses the experiments on groups of young boys made by Muzafer Sherif, designed to play out his theories about how groups can turn on one another and then be reconciled. The book discusses these theories, and then goes off into trying to understand Sherif himself and where these theories came from.

It never manages to be as surprising and illuminating as Behind the Shock Machine, though I did find it interesting, and I think that’s because Sherif’s conclusions are less well-known. I knew about Stanley Milgram’s work like it was in the air (bearing in mind of course that I’m a particular kind of voracious reader and learner), and his work is so well known in the field, so shaking it up makes a real buzz. In this case, less so, and it’s less shocking to find that an experimenter we’re consistently shown manipulating his subjects to get the results he wants was, well, manipulating his results to get what he wanted. That’s apparent early, so there’s no shock going into the deep-dive. Muzafer Sherif would have liked to believe in his own mythology, but for my money he was no Milgram.

It all comes out as a somewhat uncertain book, leaving Perry ambivalent about how to interpret the impacts of the studies on the lives of the participants. She suggests that it was formative for them, that the studies were unethical, but it all comes out much more muted than her conclusions in Behind the Shock Machine.

I’m glad I read it, but my worldview hasn’t been upended.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Soonish

Posted February 18, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Soonish

Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve And/Or Ruin Everything

by Zach Weinersmith, Kelly Weinersmith

Genres: Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 368
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

What will the world of tomorrow be like? How does progress happen? And why do we not have a lunar colony already? What is the hold-up?

In this smart and funny book, celebrated cartoonist Zach Weinersmith and noted researcher Dr. Kelly Weinersmith give us a snapshot of what's coming next -- from robot swarms to nuclear fusion powered-toasters. By weaving their own research, interviews with the scientists who are making these advances happen, and Zach's trademark comics, the Weinersmiths investigate why these technologies are needed, how they would work, and what is standing in their way.

New technologies are almost never the work of isolated geniuses with a neat idea. A given future technology may need any number of intermediate technologies to develop first, and many of these critical advances may appear to be irrelevant when they are first discovered. The journey to progress is full of strange detours and blind alleys that tell us so much about the human mind and the march of civilization.

To this end, Soonish investigates ten different emerging fields, from programmable matter to augmented reality, from space elevators to robotic construction, to show us the amazing world we will have, you know, soonish.

I didn’t love Kelly and Zach Weinersmith’s Soonish as much as I liked A City on Mars: I think that’s partly because the latter is much more of a deep dive, whereas the chapters here are necessarily a bit shallower, since they’re looking at multiple different technologies, and don’t have the time to get into the nitty gritty as much. There’s also some information (and even jokes) that feels repetitive if you’ve already read A City on Mars already, as well.

That said, they pick an interesting raft of likely technologies and start picking into why we don’t have them yet, why they feel within reach, and what we need to figure out to make them reality. The tone is fairly light, but they explain things pretty well.

After a certain point the humour does start to grate a bit, I must admit; I didn’t find that in A City on Mars, and of course, your mileage may vary.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – How To Make A Vaccine

Posted February 10, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 3 Comments

Review – How To Make A Vaccine

How To Make a Vaccine

by John Rhodes

Genres: Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 160
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Distinguished expert in vaccine development John Rhodes tells the story of the first approved COVID-19 vaccines and offers an essential, up-to-the-minute primer on how scientists discover, test, and distribute vaccines.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has affected every corner of the world, changing our relationship to our communities, to our jobs, and to each other, the most pressing question has been—when will it end? Researchers around the globe are urgently trying to answer this question by racing to test and distribute a vaccine that could end the greatest public health threat of our time. In How to Make a Vaccine, an expert who has firsthand experience developing vaccines tells an optimistic story of how three hundred years of vaccine discovery and a century and a half of immunology research have come together at this powerful moment—and will lead to multiple COVID-19 vaccines.

Dr. John Rhodes draws on his experience as an immunologist, including working alongside a young Anthony Fauci, to unravel the mystery of how vaccines are designed, tested, and produced at scale for global deployment. Concise and accessible, this book describes in everyday language how the immune system evolved to combat infection, how viruses responded by evolving ways to evade our defenses, and how vaccines do their work. That history, and the pace of current research developments, make Rhodes hopeful that multiple vaccines will protect us. Today the complex workings of the immune system are well understood. The tools needed by biomedical scientists stand ready to be used, and more than 160 vaccine candidates have already been produced. But defeating COVID-19 won’t be the end of the story: Rhodes describes how discoveries today are also empowering scientists to combat future threats to global health, including a recent breakthrough in the development of genetic vaccines, which have never before been used in humans.

As the world prepares for a vaccine, Rhodes offers a current and informative look at the science and strategies that deliver solutions to the crisis.

For a short book, John Rhodes’ How To Make a Vaccine is surprisingly in-depth. Motivated by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, Rhodes discusses how vaccines are manufactured, along with some of the history of vaccination and the cultural reaction to it. While most of this obviously isn’t new to me (as someone studying for my MSc in infectious diseases), his explanations are very clear.

I did find that after a while he got a little too in depth, towards the end of the book, discussing every single possible type of vaccine and adjuvant. For me, it got a little tedious because I know this stuff in slightly more depth… and I worry that for a layperson, it’s actually a bit too much depth. It’s hard for me to judge, though, as I haven’t been a layperson for a while now!

If you’re curious about the topic, and ready for some of the ins and outs of the regulatory proces, different types of vaccine and adjuvant, etc, I think this would be of interest, all the same.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Blue

Posted February 3, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Review – Blue

Blue: The Science and Secrets of Nature's Rarest Colour

by Kai Kupferschmidt

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 224
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Blue is the most widely beloved color—but in nature, it’s the rarest hue of all. True, physics paints the sea and sky blue, but we can’t bottle this trick of the light. And blue pigment requires such complex chemistry that blue creatures, plants, and minerals are few indeed. Artists and kings have treasured blue dye like precious gold since the time of the pharoahs—and who today can help but marvel at a morpho butterfly in the rain forest or a blue jay at the window?

Science journalist Kai Kupferschmidt has been enraptured by blue since childhood. In his quest to understand the mysteries of his favorite color, he takes readers on a vivid journey—from a biotech lab in Japan and a volcanic lake in Oregon to his native Germany, home of the last blue-feathered Spix’s macaws. Deep underground where blue crystals grow, and miles overhead where astronauts gaze at our “blue marble” planet—wherever he finds this alluring color, it always has a story to tell.

Kai Kupferschmidt’s Blue is a book-length meditation on all things, well, you guessed it. It discuss blue as a pigment, blue as a historical and cultural thing, blue in linguistics, blue in plants, blue dye… you name it, it discusses it. Kupferschmidt is fascinated, and he’s sharing the journey, and along the way he explains some complex things very succinctly and clearly.

The book is also beautifully illustrated, all in colour, and has a section with further reading and sources, including image sources. All-in-all, beautifully presented and a joy to read — exactly the kind of curiosity I enjoy, zooming in on one subject and unravelling the things that touch it.

It’s shorter than it looks, given the illustrations and the full pages printed blue; I’d say it’s meant to be an object you enjoy looking at as much as anything else. I sped through it!

Rating: 4/5

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