Genomes and What To Make of Them, Barry Barnes, John Dupré
This book is from 2008, so in terms of the science and its impact on the world, it’s a bit behind the times. It’s still a good primer on how the world was changing from a fairly monolithic view on genes to an understanding of the whole genome, “junk” DNA included, and it covers some worthwhile discussions. I found it a bit dry and pedantic at times, though it doesn’t help that the science was well below the level I understand now.
It’s most worth it when it focuses on the implications of the new genomics and the technologies involved. But I might be inclined to say skip it and look for something more modern if you’re not super interested.
Caesar’s Last Breath, Sam Kean
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 18th July
Sam Kean is an entertaining pop science writer in general, and though this isn’t as perfectly up my street as The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons, it’s still fascinating and very readable. It starts by reminding us that we’re breathing the same air as everyone who has ever lived — including Caesar, hence the title — and that there’s a high chance we’re breathing in some of the same molecules that bounced around their lungs. Then it goes on to talking about the foundation of Earth’s atmosphere, the power of gases and the road humans took to discovering that, and finishes with a look at how life affects its environment — of course, the changes in the composition of our atmosphere that we cause, but also how we might spot other species on other planets doing the same.
As you can see, that’s a lot of ground to cover, and Kean manages to string everything together into a pretty logical narrative. The longer chapters are leavened by interludes covering events that illustrate some part of what’s under discussion, like using hot gases to cut into a bank vault…
Overall, entertaining and interesting, especially given that Earth sciences and the study of our atmosphere has never been a great interest of mine.
Personality, Daniel Nettle
I don’t quite see why this is part of the Oxford Landmark Science range. To me, it’s a relatively low level analysis of the factors that go into personality, much of which I’ve read elsewhere in other popular science books which aren’t so tightly focused. It’s not that it’s a bad book, or uninteresting; there are some things I didn’t know, and it’s interesting to see how Nettle explores the two sides to each of the main personality factors identified — the downside to being extroverted, for example, and the downside to ‘openness to experience’.
Still, none of it is revelatory, and he doesn’t spare much time for the criticisms of the whole idea of studying people’s personalities as if they’re a real thing you can test and measure. His conclusion is basically that of course you can, because you can obtain consistent data that falls into particular trends. I don’t think I disagree, but I’m sure there are more criticisms.
It’s an easy enough read, surprisingly light even for pop-sci.
Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People, Philip Ball
Although this is classed as ‘popular science’, more than half of it is essentially literary criticism. It’s all relevant to the kinds of anxieties humans have about artificial people, but if you’re here for cloning, IVF, gene editing, etc, then it’s pretty thin on that. I hadn’t thought about a lot of stuff in the way this book opens it up, but there was far too much waffling before it got to the actual science bit — I’d have enjoyed it more if it’d been marketed as literary criticism/history, or if there’d been more of the science stuff.
At the very least, Philip Ball writes clearly, and it’s not a chore to read except in that it wasn’t what I was hoping for. If you’re looking for something that’s a bit more holistic about the modern science around ‘making people’, including the myths and literature that inform and reveal our anxieties about it, then you’ll probably enjoy it.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth, David Whitehouse
This book uses all kinds of insights from mineralogy and seismology to put together a picture of what the Earth’s composed of, layer by layer. Despite the author’s obvious enthusiasm, this isn’t one of my primary interests, and I did find my interest flagging at times — it seemed like some chapters were just unnecessarily dragged out and like he got off the point some of the time. Nonetheless, if this is the kind of science that enthuses you, it’s worth reading — it deals with the history of the study of our Earth as well as the straightforward facts about the composition of each layer.
The more I learn about all kinds of science, including Earth science, the happier I am. Even if it’s not my field, I’m glad I read this.
A Rough Ride to the Future, James Lovelock
I found Gaia interesting, and if not entirely in line with what I believe, still plausible; it’s obvious that the Earth’s ecosystems are governed by systems of feedback, and that sometimes that has had a stabilising effect — and that life continues to find a way to survive. From this book, it seems like Lovelock believes the ‘rough ride’ is mostly for humanity, ignoring the fact that we’ve severely thrown off natural systems, and that we’re not innocent in this. We’ve known we’re doing it for quite some time, and yet he sort of shrugs it off and says there’s no use feeling guilty. Well, guilt won’t fix the climate, but a sense of responsibility might help.
He’s right that humans have to change and adapt to the changing climate, but I’m not so sanguine that’s going to be enough for life to go on. I’m pretty sure bacteria and archaea will get along fine, but we’re decimating the ranks of amphibians, big mammals, sea creatures, etc. And he’s not always up on modern science: he still seems to believe, here, that the atmosphere can’t be more than about 25% oxygen without causing regular devastating fires. He’s wrong: we know the oxygen saturation has been much higher, and life went on — that’s why there were gigantic dragonflies; they couldn’t have survived in a lower-oxygen atmosphere.
While the Gaia theory has been influential, I think perhaps Lovelock should sit down and stop profiting by it. This book is rather rambling, at times even confused.
The Worm at the Core, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski
You might think that a book about the role of death in the way humans approach life would be morbid, and probably difficult to read. I didn’t find it that way; in fact, I found that it reflected a lot of my own musings about it (said musings being helped along by the fact that for years, my biggest anxiety was about death). As someone with anxiety, this fear and knowledge about death hasn’t been hidden for me, and I wasn’t really surprised by the results of the authors’ research showing that it is a key anxiety for many or even most people.
If you read it without that background, you may feel that it’s rather overstating its conclusions. I think that might be a fair assessment if you try to apply it too literally to everyone. There are some people who’ve dealt with the anxiety, or don’t feel it at all. But in general, I do think that knowledge and fear underlies a lot of human thought and behaviour.
Definitely a worthwhile read, and actually quite smooth and easy too. I ended up reading it all in one Eurostar trip.
NeuroTribes, Steve Silberman
This is a bit of a slog to read, because it spends a lot of time lingering on details that you may or may not feel are relevant. It goes into the lives of the people who ‘discovered’ autism and described it clinically, much more than it goes into the lives of actual autistic people, and there’s one chapter I found rather troubling which follows the family of an autistic child. It focuses on their anguish and confusion, and their increasingly desperate attempts to “treat” their son with whatever unpleasant, pseudo-scientific methods they could find. By the end, I was desperate to hear that someone had actually ever asked the child what effect it had on him. (As far as I can tell, nobody did.) Those particular parents weren’t extreme, but nonetheless, I got very tired of their desperation to have a “normal” child.
It also does some retrospective diagnosing of a couple of scientists and thinkers from days before there was such a diagnosis. I’m always a bit iffy on that: there do seem to be good grounds to make those judgements, but… most of the people I know now don’t know much about what goes on in my head and why I react the way I do. I don’t want them diagnosing me once I’m dead. Still, at least it does provide autistic models and heroes for people now.
I’m also a little leery of the ubiquity of being on the spectrum in Silberman’s view. Lots of fandom, lots of engineers, maybe even most in the picture he’s painting — it’s a stereotype of fandom and of STEM that I haven’t necessarily found to be true. And fandom hasn’t been so very welcoming of actual neurodiverse people, either. If it’s ever been the perfect home for them, it isn’t now.
All in all, though, I did find the book interesting, and the perspective on neurodiversity as something to be accommodated and used productively is one that’s definitely timely. Despite my criticisms, I found it an interesting book — and it definitely treats autism as a spectrum, touching all kinds of people. This definitely isn’t the attitudes of Autism Speaks: instead, Silberman urges understanding, accommodation and respect.
Spaceman, Mike Massimino
I blame (or credit) my mother entirely with my interest in space and astronauts. I’m not the exploring type myself, but I love reading about those who have, and their unique experiences. Mike Massimino puts himself across as a fairly ordinary guy, from a fairly uninspiring background, who made good in the end despite not being the smartest, best prepared, most qualified, etc. Obviously, given the source, one has to keep a grain or two of salt in the mix to counter both self-deprecation and potential self-aggrandization, but mostly Massimino struck me as a straightforward sort of guy.
I actually found some parts of the story extremely touching. The thing that gets me about NASA and like ventures is the sense of family — the way the astronauts are there for each other and one another’s families. That’s definitely in evidence here, not just in Massimino’s accounts of his training and working life, but also in terms of his private life. His father’s cancer is treated with help from NASA people, and from the sound of it, half the staff contributed in terms of giving blood, platelets, etc. That section is rather touching.
Technical this memoir is not. There are a few bits of interest about Massimino’s training and adaptation to zero-G, etc, but mostly it’s about the path he took to get there — trying to correct his vision with lenses, dealing with classes he didn’t understand, etc. Which is not to say it’s not interesting, it’s just not popular science; it’s definitely a memoir.
Death on Earth, Jules Howard
I was hoping for more from this book, I think. It glances into some of the issues covered in The Worm at the Core, which I also read recently — the anxieties we have about death, as a species, and how we handle it — but it backs away from any depth there. It sort of looks into decay and the reaction of other animals to death, but it doesn’t find much conclusive there, either. Honestly, I found it interesting enough to read at the time, but it seemed more like a musing about the process of trying (and failing) to write a book that’s really about death on Earth. I didn’t learn any new science or any cool facts, but I know all about Howard having a panic attack at an anti-ageing conference event and trying to teach his daughter about death.
You might find it entertaining, if that’s what you’re interested in, but it’s not really about death.