Tag: non-fiction


Review – Gene Machine

Posted 22 August, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Gene Machine, Venki Ramakrishnan

Gene Machine is not really about the secrets of the ribosome. It’s rather more an autobiography, mostly but not entirely focusing on Ramakrishnan’s path to solving the structure of the ribosome. Now, as any half-baked biologist knows, the structure of a biological molecule is absolutely integral to its function… a protein’s chemical makeup determines how it will fold, and how it will fold determines whether it has the right pocket for something to bind to, or the right side chain to bind with something else. So I don’t mean to belittle the achievement of finally resolving the structure of the ribosome, but it doesn’t actually reveal that much yet. There is, on this showing, a lot more work to be done to really understand ribosomes. It will be made possible by the work of Ramakrishnan, there’s no denying that.

Still, I’m more interested in that than in the process of taking the ribosome’s photograph, and so I found this book disappointing. It doesn’t help that Ramakrishnan lacks grace when it comes to some fellow scientists, and one scientist in particular. If all he says of Ada Yonath is true, she’s quite a piece of work, lacking in basic politeness to others, willing to steal from competitors to get ahead, and a terrible scientist who cannot accept when she is wrong. However, what emerged for me was a sense of a personal lack of warmth between the two amplifying her perceived faults, and the gossipy way this is passed on makes me think less of Ramakrishnan. He is always gracious to his male competitors, but can never resist revealing a nasty anecdote about Yonath, whether she overran the time for her presentation, left him out of a thank you speech, or allegedly had a student attend one of Ramakrishnan’s lectures to take pictures of his slides. His tone regarding Yonath is disingenuous, a sort of constant damning with faint praise.

Now, maybe she is all the things Ramakrishnan says, but I find it curious she would manage to get a Nobel if so, given the acknowledged politicking involved, along with the requirements of satisfying the committee that your contributions are worthwhile. I’m sure there have been undeserving Nobel prizewinners, and I know there have been prizes awarded for things that actually turned out to be wrong. But still. I don’t think Ramakrishnan’s line on Yonath does him credit.

It is interesting to follow a process of discovery like this, but it can be rather dry and technical — mostly spiced up by those bits of gossip and interpersonal strife. Given that on balance I find Ramakrishnan somewhat less than wholly charming, I wouldn’t wholly recommend this, though if your interest is more in crystallography and the structure of the ribosome than in the function of it, this may be more your thing.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – The Pandemic Century

Posted 11 August, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Pandemic Century by Mark HonigsbaumThe Pandemic Century, Mark Honigsbaum

The Pandemic Century is a look at the last century or so of infectious disease outbreaks which picks up some illustrative examples in order to… well, the stated purpose is to discuss “panic, hysteria and hubris”, but I’m not sure that I ever felt there was a coherent argument going on here. There are a lot of interesting bits, mostly when he focuses on the investigation of what’s causing disease, or the social/political measures taken to ameliorate disease. I didn’t know a lot about, for example, the outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease, and Honigsbaum does break it down well and explain the historical context.

It’s just not clear exactly where he’s going with this. At one and the same time, he decries the panic around certain pandemics, while also showing that the response to many of them wasn’t fast enough. I suppose you can do that and be advocating ever-greater focus on detecting and understanding emerging infectious diseases, but it feels off. Is he correct that we still don’t always understand what we’re looking for? Yes. But… scientists are always working on improving this stuff; it’s not news that the unknown unknown is always going to be a risk. That doesn’t mean what we’re already doing is wrong.

On the level of pure prose, well, I mostly found it readable but there are choice bits like this: “If SARS was a calamity for Toronto, for Hong Kong it was a disaster.” Those are the same thing, Mark. Those are the same thing. One is not worse than the other, which is what that sentence construction requires.

It feels… to some extent, it feels like it parrots the understanding of other writers, without actually driving toward a particular conclusion of its own. And where those understandings conflict, we get that weird juxtaposition of “everyone is panicking too much” and “we’re not panicking enough because there are things we don’t know about yet”. There’s also a bit where Honigsbaum tries to present the understanding that human/animal interaction is a powerful vector for novel diseases as his own and new in some way, when it’s basically a parroting of David Quammen’s Spillover.

There’s nothing new here, ultimately, just some different illustrative examples. I found it enjoyable, and even informative when it came to facts about particular diseases, but there’s no stunning new insight.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Superior

Posted 5 August, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Superior: The Return of Race Science, Angela Saini

As a history of race science and an examination of what people have believed about race from a scientific(ish) perspective, Superior is a good book. It gives a good account of where some of the current beliefs come from, and the ups and downs of race science in the wider science community. She’s sharp on the fact that there are journals, people and most especially funds, like the Pioneer Fund, that are deliberately advancing a racist agenda, and they need to be scrutinised.

It doesn’t really engage directly with the science itself, though, which is where it falls down a bit for me: Saini’s opinion on the material is clear, but I feel that I’m being told I should rubbish the data without actually being shown the data. She presents the work of scientists like Cavalli-Sforza as being inherently racist — in this book, it’s racist to track gene frequencies in populations and how they change over time, because… because it just is, darn it! I don’t think we can hide from facts just because they can be used as ammunition by our opponents, and it’s simply a fact that the human race is not homogenous. You’ll find some genes at a high frequency in some populations, and a very low frequency in others. That’s just inevitable unless the human race has always been geographically contiguous, and breeding has been entirely random across the whole geography, with no local clumps of people who are related to one another.

Now, does that actually mean anything? For my money, no. It can tell us things about history and about the pressures on survival/reproduction in past populations, but it doesn’t predict anything much about people now. As Saini does point out, it’s entirely possible that there is more variation between me and another random white British person than between me and someone from Pakistan (as long as you don’t pick someone I’m actually closely related to). Populations of modern humans haven’t ever been isolated long enough to speciate, as proven by the fact that all populations on Earth can readily reproduce. We’re just not that different, though some populations have developed adaptations to local conditions (like pale skin, lactose tolerance in adulthood, and sickle cell anaemia).

But isn’t it better to argue that from data, look right at what the race scientists are saying and refute their claims, than pretend there are no differences between populations at all? I’m pretty confident their data is rubbish, from my own knowledge and experience, but I haven’t been given any of their data by this book. I’ve been told they’re bad and wrong people, I’ve been told what their motives are, but in most cases here I have no real idea of how they’re trying to prove their points or what they’re arguing, except that they’re wrong. Yes, you’ve told me! But why are they wrong? What proof have they presented?

As a history, then, I’m all on board — it’s valuable to see how race science developed, and the motives of the people using it — but don’t file it with the pop science books, because it doesn’t go there. I feel no better qualified to refute the claims of race science than I was before I read it. It makes a moral argument, but (with a couple of exceptions) not a scientific one. I’m still rating it quite highly, because I think it’s a valuable read, and it’s not the book’s fault it’s been marketed as science, but if you actually want to get your teeth into the science, you’ll need to start with the references and go look at the actual sources.

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Forces of Nature

Posted 30 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Forces of Nature by Brian CoxForces of Nature, Brian Cox, Andrew Cohen

This book mostly poses a smaller question — how are snowflakes formed, how is a rainbow produced — and explains it by delving as deep into physics as possible. I imagine it was very effective as a TV series: at least twice, Cox describes how the series demonstrated a particular principle. It might even be that that would actually finally get some of these concepts through my head, though in book form I’m afraid I still struggle with relativity.

However, Cox does write extremely clearly, and I have to admit that one or two concepts finally slammed home in my head with a clunk after reading this. It’s enjoyable even when I don’t quite follow, and always readable. The section on the origin of life was obviously solidly in my wheelhouse, and Cox rattles through it all in a very pacy way. I can’t help but feel he’s happier once he gets back to physics, though.

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – The Dinosaurs Rediscovered

Posted 21 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Dinosaurs Rediscovered by Michael J. BentonThe Dinosaurs Rediscovered, Michael J. Benton

If you have a keen interest in dinosaurs, it’s most likely this “rediscovery” will hold no surprises for you, though it’s still fun as a synthesis of recent knowledge and understanding about dinosaurs. It’s also a beautiful object, with colour reproductions of dinosaurs and our best understanding of what they looked like, and other helpful illustrations.

There’s not much to say about it, really, beyond that: it provides good explanations of how we know what we know, edges toward the speculative at times, and generally is a paean to science and the way we are beginning to be able to test hypotheses that just had to kind of stand.

(One example being, of course, that we now know what colour some dinosaurs were, due to examination of the shapes and types of cells in their remains.)

Entertaining, and possibly worth keeping around just to be a reference work on dinosaurs, but not surprising. Unless you’re about ten years behind and need an update, in which case I’m sure it serves admirably!

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Brainstorm

Posted 14 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Brainstorm: Detective Stories from the World of Neurology, Suzanne O’Sullivan

This was somewhat of an impulse buy, because I do love neurology and the weird ways our brains work. I hadn’t clocked that it was all about cases of epilepsy and suspected epilepsy, but that doesn’t make it any the less interesting. It’s astounding the things that epilepsy can do — and as one or two of the cases discussed show, it’s amazing what our brains can do to themselves without any help at all from random electrical pulses. Our brains are so interconnected and so versatile, I don’t understand how anyone can fail to be fascinated by the way brains work and the way brains fail.

So, needless to say, I enjoyed this a great deal; I also found myself rather emotional about some of the stories, because O’Sullivan has certainly picked some deeply affecting ones. They don’t always show her in the best light — some of them show her inexperienced, some of them show her intuition being wrong — but that makes the storytelling better (if that’s a thing that matters to you), because you also get to see how a doctor’s interpretations and misinterpretations can shape a case.

They’re good stories, and they’re very good examples of how the brain works; perhaps not surprising, if you’re already into neurology, but definitely illustrative. If you’d rather the science with no human interest, this won’t be the book for you. It’d be a bit shallow if you weren’t interested in hearing about the people as well as the disease.

(Really, for me, if my mother had really wanted me to be a doctor, she could’ve achieved it with a stack of books like this one. That’s not a hint, Mum; I think it’s a bit late by this point. Anyway, the point is that the human interest alongside the illustrations of how the brain work really hit the spot for me — I wish I could do this, and help people like this.)

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Extraordinary Insects

Posted 4 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Extraordinary Insects by Anne Sverdrup-ThygesonExtraordinary Insects, Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson

I am not, as most people know, a fan of insects. In fact, there was a time not long ago when the mere thought of insects practically made me hyperventilate, and I’d still appreciate if they could keep their creepy little feet well away from me. But there’s always a world of things to know, and actual knowledge helps to replace instinctive fear, so I’ve been reading around somewhat, now and then, just as I did with deadly diseases. It’s kind of helping.

Anyway, Extraordinary Insects has some interesting titbits, it’s true. A lot wasn’t surprising to me — I have a biology degree, I think we can take it as read that I can grasp taxonomy — but there were some interesting facts. It was just… kind of thin, in the end; there were a couple of eyebrow-raising points where I quibbled with the facts as presented*, but the most part it was just a moderately entertaining, quick read, suitable for a layperson but not for anyone looking for depth. (Which is a big ask from popular science, perhaps, but I know plenty of popular science books that have been satisfying to me!)

(*For example, she claimed that binomial species names are always, invariably, in Latin. They are not. Many contain Greek as well, not to mention those that contain names.)

So in the end, fairly ambivalent. Meh.

Rating: 2/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Spineless

Posted 24 June, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Spineless by Juli BerwaldSpineless, Juli Berwald

I’m so behind on reviews that it’s been a while since I read this, oops. I’m not a huge fan of jellyfish, but I can be entertained greatly by reading about something I don’t know even if I’m not already a fan, and such was the case here. Jellyfish didn’t particularly strike me as interesting, biologically, and they still don’t hold much fascination for me in themselves — but the book definitely grabbed my interest and kept it. There’s lots of interesting facts, albeit I couldn’t immediately verify the ones I checked up on (the claim, for example, that there’s a jellyfish that zips its mouth shut so tightly that trying to forcefully unzip it simply rips the jellyfish’s face).

It’s a little prone to wandering into autobiography, with some filler chapters like the one about how to prepare jellyfish to eat, but this is pop science: one expects that kind of detail and filler when you’re talking about as vague a subject as this. Going into it with that level of expectation, it was generally entertaining, full of the sort of facts I like to randomly tell my wife, and a quick read.

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – A Short History of Europe

Posted 6 June, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Short History of Europe by Simon JenkinsA Short History of Europe, Simon Jenkins

I’m just going to confess something here: I didn’t finish this. It seemed to be exactly what it purports to be from the title: a short (yep) history (yep) of Europe (yep). It doesn’t try to be particularly exciting about it, and I found that I felt like I was just being hurtled through the canonical key points of European history. Sure, that’s mostly what I expected, but a better prose stylist would have made it more interesting, and an insightful historian could have found some illustrative moments that aren’t in the standard playbook.

As it is, I felt like I was cramming on history for a test, and I ended up letting it go back to the library. More than that, I got the impression that Jenkins is fairly anti-EU, and other reviews confirm that. Given that I still believe in the European Union, me and this book weren’t destined to have a fruitful relationship.

Rating: 2/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Magic and Religion in Ancient Egypt

Posted 19 May, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt by Rosalie DavidMagic and Religion in Ancient Egypt, Rosalie David

If you’re looking for a comprehensive but readable survey of the beliefs of Ancient Egyptians over time, this should definitely do the trick. It’s an overview, not an in-depth dive into all the ins and outs, so if this is actually your area of study, you’ll obviously be wanting to go somewhere else — but I wouldn’t say this is really aimed at the casual reader, either. You need to have an interest in the topic, at the very least, or the level of detail would be too much.

I wouldn’t say the book is brilliant, and its style is definitely not “unputdownable”, but the topic was interesting enough to carry it for me. And I enjoyed David’s approach, which took things in chronological order and looked at the way religion changed with politics (and/or the way politics changed with religion).

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider