Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson
If you’re fascinated by the universe but don’t know/understand much about physics, this is a decent place to get some sense-o’-wonder and scope. Tyson throws a ton of facts at you but in a pretty readable way, and he doesn’t linger too long over the difficult questions. It’s pretty much a taster, without getting into some of the big questions like string theory, or getting too bogged down about multiverses and so on.
If you’ve read pop science on the subject before, I guess it’s kind of thin, but it’s enjoyable enough.
The Naming of the Shrew, John Wright
There’s a lot of hilarity to be found in the Linnaean species names, from Crikey steveirwini to the unfortunate Rubus cockburnianus (named in honour of the Cockburn family, of course – how can you doubt it). I figured a book digging into all this would be interesting, or at least entertaining enough to beguile an eight hour plane ride.
Not so much. The author is undoubtedly – and commendably – enthusiastic. He’s dug around in all the vagaries of zoological and botanical naming, and he’s found some gems. He also tries to explain exactly how these names are coined and accepted. Unfortunately, he’s rather longwinded about it, and it becomes a long list of funny names joined by some anecdotes. Some of them I’m glad enough to know, but I did get rather tired of the idea by chapter four, and started wondering when the light at the end of the tunnel was going to show.
Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong, Angela Saini
There’s a lot of science (and pseudo-science) out there about gender differences and how they affect the way we think. Intelligent people, male and female, often disagree about what exactly it all means, and how evolution has selected for male promiscuity, female passivity, and a host of other stereotypes about the sexes.
Saini has a go at untangling some of this, discussing inherent bias in the researchers looking at this kind of thing, and alternate models that are available for understanding gender differences. She’s definitely successful at making the conversation more complex. For example, a lot of theories have rested on similarities between humans and their close relatives, chimpanzees. Saini points out that other research has shown that bonobos are equally closely related to us, and they have an entirely different social structure.
It seems that easy answers aren’t available, but there are many theories, with supporting evidence, that suggest women have been equally important in forming the human race. That would be my belief, simply because (as Saini points out) pregnancy and childbirth are definitely an important point at which selection will act, particularly in humans where we seem to be dependent on having other support.
An interesting read, but nothing that I think is revolutionary or likely to convince people that male and female brains aren’t physically different in structure. Note: if you think of gender as being a spectrum rather than a binary, be aware that this book definitely treats it as a binary with two distinct sexes. It doesn’t touch on transgender men/women at all.
The Lost City of Z, David Grann
I’ve been meaning to read The Lost City of Z for ages, especially since I read Douglas Preston’s The Lost City of the Monkey God. I’m not here for the exotic diseases and epic endurance of hacking through the jungle, though: I’m interested in the archaeology, and the resolution of the mysteries. Where are these cities, and did they exist at all? The Lost City of Z is interesting in terms of the exotic diseases, larger than life explorers and hacking through the jungle, along with some history of that drive to explore, and less so in actually finding the archaeology. It’s mostly focused on figuring out what happened to Percy Fawcett and his son on their final attempt at finding Z, as well as tracing their lives up to that point; less interesting to me, though it has its moments.
The last chapter, in which an archaeologist who lives in the Amazon actually explains where he thinks the great vanished cities are, is the most interesting to me. There’s echoes of the ritual landscape of Stonehenge and Avebury in his description of the palisade walls and ditches dug around the settlement — combined with the power of the jungle just reaching up and strangling all those remaining signs. That’s the book I find I really want, written by a Francis Pryor or Mike Parker Pearson of the Amazon.
How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, Steven Johnson
How We Got to Now is a reasonably entertaining and easy to read survey of six topics which shaped the world we live in now, in various ways. The main benefit is that Johnson tries to look across disciplines and from different angles, and tries to capture the whole of the picture. The six topics he picked make sense: glass, (artificial) cold, (the understanding of) sound, hygiene, time (and the accuracy thereof) and (artificial) light — they’re summarised under six headings: glass, cold, sound, clean, time, light. That does sound a little odd with the title, since sound is hardly something we invented. Nonetheless, he makes good points about the way science and technology surrounding those topics has made our modern lives what they are.
Not world-shattering, but entertaining enough!
Machiavelli: A Man Misunderstood, Michael White
Like White’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci, I’ll confess I picked this up mostly because Machiavelli is an important character in the game Assassin’s Creed 2 (and at one point he even makes a reference to The Prince in the game). I haven’t read The Prince, but I had a certain idea of the content. White’s key point in this biography is that despite the aura of disreputable scheming around Machiavelli, that wasn’t his intent in writing The Prince, and he served Florence well and faithfully. Mostly, he was a shrewd strategist and diplomat, and an observer of human nature, who doesn’t seem — at least in White’s account of it — to have got the respect he deserved.
White’s biographies all seem to be pretty well sourced, and they’re very readable. I’d recommend them.
A Very British Murder, Lucy Worsley
A Very British Murder is an extremely readable, sometimes gossipy survey of the development of crime/mystery literature in Britain, up to the Golden Age of Sayers and Christie. It examines why people loved a good murder story, and what kind of murder story they wanted, while also reflecting on some of the real murders that occurred and the anxieties surrounding them.
I especially enjoyed Worsley’s sympathy for Sayers and Christie, and her defence of Gaudy Night against a male critic’s boredom about it. Quite right, too!
It’s not deep lit crit, or a totally in depth micro-history, but there’s interesting stuff and it’s entertainingly written.
The Hammer and the Cross, Robert Ferguson
If you’re looking for a dynamic and riveting history of the Vikings, this isn’t really it — Neil Oliver’s book might be more your speed. It’s quite slow and thorough, covering a lot of ground in terms of both time and space. For me, that wasn’t a bad thing, since I know my medieval history tolerably well and my Viking history better. A better knowledge of geography might have served me well, but I suck at that.
From all I know, this is well researched and accurate, and there’s a ton of extra reading and footnoting to back that up. If you’re looking for something to bring the Vikings to life, no, but if you’re looking for something by someone who seems to know everything about the period he can find to cram into a book, then that’s definitely this book.
The Secret History of the World, Jonathan Black
I’m honestly not sure why I have this book — some people have reviewed it as a serious synthesis of all that secret societies have believed, so possibly I ended up with it hoping to read something about that and understand secret societies a little more. Whether the book works for that is arguable: to my mind it mixes together esoteric beliefs more or less at random. The author admits in the first chapter that he’s chosen the societies he thinks had the right idea pretty arbitrarily: “I have also made cavalier judgements as to which schools of thought and which secret societies draw on authentic tradition” — what, in other words your “history” is based on the gut feeling of a single person, you, the author? Hmmm!
It isn’t really a history, though, but a sort of textbook promising to combine all these ancient ideas and show the truth. It handwaves at quantum effects briefly as being part of it, but mostly states that scientists just won’t believe in it anyway. It’s easy enough to read, but just… profoundly wrong and bad scholarship on every subject I know anything about. Hardly inspires confidence, even if it didn’t raise your eyebrows within the first page.
And now I really want a book that actually delves into the why and wherefores of the history of secret societies…
Drawing Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis, Kathryn Lougheed
Or mostly the making of it, since unmaking it has been so far beyond human powers.
If you think of TB as something that happens to other people, in other countries, or even only in the past, then this is a necessary corrective. It highlights the disease burden borne in particular countries (usually where poverty and poor nutrition support it), among particular groups (refugees finding it hard to access care; homeless people in London) and in people already suffering reduced immune function (people who have HIV). TB is still very much with us, and there are already strains out there which are completely drug resistant.
Let me say that again: we’re so far from beating TB that there are completely drug resistant strains out there which can only be treated with a Hail Mary approach of toxic antibiotics like kanamycin or surgical intervention. And there have only been two new anti-TB agents in recent years, and neither of them are ready to deploy on a large scale. Oh, and by the way, we don’t even have sufficient global supply of the current first line drugs.
I appreciated Lougheed’s focus on mentioning the fact that this drug resistance isn’t due to people not complying with their medication schedules. Antibiotic resistance naturally arises in TB, even if a patient is observed 24/7 and every pill or shot is administered on a precise timeline. We can’t just put this down to people being careless, though there’s no doubt that in some cases that could cause antibiotic resistance.
If you’re a fan of UKIP, you won’t like Lougheed’s commentary on racism, etc; she shares my views, as far as I can tell from this book, but she’s very vocal in giving little respect to that area of the public. I found her likeable for it, but your mileage will no doubt vary.
Anyway, all in all, this is an interesting, timely, not too technical history of the science of TB, and it’s a bit of an eye-opener even for someone relatively aware of the state of things. I found it very readable and illuminating.