Dr Jonathan Quick has a bold claim in the title of this book: the end of epidemics? Does he really think he can stop all epidemics, any epidemics, from ever happening again? The answer, in case you were worried, is no: he’s not quite that full of hubris. Instead, his recommendations are focused on avoiding local outbreaks becoming global pandemics, through improving the way we handle emerging infectious diseases in various ways. His ideas rest on improving leadership, infrastructure, monitoring, education, and response time. For the most part, if you’re interested in infectious diseases then his answers are obvious to you: of course we need a leader who will coordinate resources properly. Of course we need infrastructure to get people and equipment to the right places. Of course we need to monitor exactly what diseases might be currently posing a threat.
There are some interesting dissections of epidemics past and the reasons they did or didn’t explode into pandemics, along with healthy criticism of the WHO. There’s a fair amount of worry about bioterrorism, particularly with the advent of CRISPR; this is a threat we haven’t really seen materialising yet, probably because an infectious disease is so hard to control. You can’t make an epidemic avoid the people you agree with, after all. This makes me somewhat sceptical about the likelihood of someone releasing something like smallpox, apart from possibly as a lunatic ‘destroy everyone’ move.
Anyway, as ever there’s useful ideas in here, but it’s probably not getting into the hands of people who could make a genuine difference anyway. I’m not sure what the purpose of releasing this as a pop-science book was, exactly, though I suppose it serves some purpose in educating people.
Arman’s book promises a lot, offering the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. It comes up rather short, and in part this isn’t the book’s fault: the information on everyone of this era is rather scanty, and women tend to be represented even less than your average big man of the time, even if they turned out to be rulers later in life. Books about these women have to lean heavily on interpreting what the locations of charters and charitable establishments mean, and it doesn’t always make for the most riveting reading.
Nonetheless, most of the book is almost entirely speculative. Æthelflæd may have been taught this, Æthelflæd may have gone here with her father, perhaps Æthelflæd did this… Much of the book is framed by what the women in Æthelflæd’s life were doing (her father, her brother, her husband), right up the point where suddenly she becomes the real protagonist and starts leading men and establishing forts. But I didn’t want a book on Alfred, Æthelstan, Æthelred, etc, etc, etc.
Worse, the book drifts off into pure daydream at times. Mentioning the clasp of a book found in Stafford, the author speculates that it might have belonged to Æthelflæd. There’s no archaeological context given — Arman doesn’t even mention a date given for the clasp! — and it seems that Arman invented this spurious connection out of her own head, just to add spice; I can’t find such an assertion elsewhere. She does have a bibliography, but no detailed footnotes to allow her claims to be followed up, so I’ll give this claim the credence it’s due: none. Now I have to wonder what else Arman has imagined and invented — the coins she mentions, perhaps? The firm dating of forts and towns? To be fair, Arman does make it clear the link is speculative, an ‘I’d like to imagine’, but nonetheless… I have questions.
Finally, the book is atrociously edited. It’s common for entire words to be missing from sentences, sometimes making them nonsensical, and sometimes no doubt just altering the sense of them.
It is a shoddy job, and I cannot recommend it as a source of information, though there are some titbits that you can call entertaining fiction.
Darwin Comes to Town examines the action of evolution on urban organisms — the mosquitos of the London Underground, blackbirds worldwide, white-footed mice in LA, bobcats in Hollywood… Is evolution happening because of human cities, and if it is, how does it work? It’s full of examples showing that there is clearly selection at work in the urban environment (a fact nobody should be surprised by), along with an in-depth discussion of one of the classics, Biston betularia, the peppered moth. (If you don’t know that example, basically in areas near industry, a melanic [black] form of the moth began to thrive, and became the dominant form in such areas. Since industry’s impact on the environment has been ameliorated now, things have quickly gone back the other day.)
I found it a fascinating book, though I think it could have been better organised — I have no idea how to find any of the information again, because I can’t recall any clear sections. There’s a lot of good anecdotes, and reference to studies I want to look up, but it is a tad conversational — and prone to falling into reminisence and flavour text about locations.
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, Alan Jacobs
In many ways, I enjoyed reading this 150 page essay on the value of reading, on how to read well (and by well, Jacobs chiefly means “for enjoyment”), on how to get the most out of reading. At the same time, I’m extremely conscious that Jacobs would think me a terrible reader, disapprove deeply of how I read, and despite his belief in the importance of enjoyment and pleasure in reading, is a ginormous snob and doesn’t even know it.
Take, for instance, his advocacy of taking notes while you read. If the book is really worth reading, you’ll need to digest it properly; for that, you should take notes, preferably on the book itself. (Otherwise, you’re not doing it right.) However, when he talks about fantasy and sci-fi novels, he dismisses them (in one fell swoop) as being unworthy of the note-taking approach. That’s not, he says, what they’re for. I think he needs to get his head out of his backside and try Ursula Le Guin, for a start.
He’s very anti-list, anti-planned reading; he holds forth on the importance of whim (or Whim, as he puts it), and yet at the same time denigrates fantasy since Tolkien as being a succession of pale imitators, each with less value than the last. Despite everything he says about encouraging people to read, there’s always that undercurrent of judgemental assumption about what popular literature is, and what it is worth.
He’s not wrong in many of the things he says about how to appreciate a book, how to really internalise it and get the most out of it. I’m way too fast a reader for him: he thinks 1,001 books would take a lifetime to read without leaving any room for anything else, bless his little cotton socks, and he’s a huge advocate of sloooowing doooown and ruminative reading. (Of which I’m capable at even my pace, but you wouldn’t believe it to read this.)
This sounds like damning with faint praise, but I found this book genuinely very readable and even enjoyable. In his advocacy of reading what works for you, and reading in the format that works for you (he’s a fan of ereaders), his enthusiasm is laudable. I just think there’s a beam or two he might want to pluck out of his own eye.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.)