I like reading popular science books that dig deep into something serious like genetics or something. But, a book that digs shallowly into something frivolous like the history and recipients of the Ig Nobel Prizes works just fine for me too. It’s light reading, obviously, and some of it is gross, weird, and pretty much all of it is just silly. Which is, probably, what makes it so interesting.
Marc Abrahams is the founder of the awards, so this isn’t exactly an impartial look at the awards, and I do like someone else’s comment that the book “tr[ies] too hard to make it seem like they don’t take themselves seriously”. Yep. It’s all very ridiculous.
What makes it fun to me is that all of the research in this book has been genuinely carried out, and some of it is surprisingly sensible when you learn about the rationale behind it.
My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs, Brian Switek
My Beloved Brontosaurus is exactly the sort of book I wanted about dinosaurs. Chatty, personal, but still closely focused on the creatures and how they lived (and died). I know a fair bit about dinosaurs thanks to another Coursera course, Dino 101, so not a lot of the information was new to me, but it was interesting to read it in another context, and to read slightly different angles on it. Switek’s enthusiasm for the subject is kind of adorable, and actually made me smile a lot.
In terms of the content, it’s not exactly on the cutting edge, or any kind of exhaustive survey of research on dinosaurs. It picks out interesting facts and theories, discusses some of the historical theories that are of interest or contributed to modern theories, and generally works fine even if you’ve never heard of Torosaurus, didn’t know that the Velociraptor portrayed in Jurassic Park is actually Deinonychus, or couldn’t tell the difference between an ornithischian and a saurischian dinosaur if your life depended on it.
I found this book fascinating. When I originally got it out of the library, some of my friends were a biiiit concerned that given my GAD was health-focused, this would just make me have a panic attack. I’m happy to report that I was simply happily curious, digging around with great enthusiasm, stopping to google things, etc.
In terms of the level this is at, it’s perfectly comprehensible to anyone, I would say. Granted, I do have a background in reading plenty of popular science, an A Level in biology, and various science/medical courses online, but I don’t think that puts me much above the layman, really. Where something needs explaining, Quammen does so quite clearly. (Although if you do find this fascinating but a bit dense for you, this course on Coursera might be worth a look the next time it runs. I enjoyed it, anyway.)
So, granted I already find this topic fascinating, but I think this was a good read. It avoided sensationalism, aside from the couple of chapters where Quammen imagined the life of the Cut Hunter from the cut-hunter theory of the origin of HIV, which were a little much for me. That goes beyond adding a bit of human interest into a flight of fancy, which jars with the rest of the book. If you want to think delightedly of Ebola victims as being a sack of liquefied matter, I gather you want to read The Hot Zone (Richard Preston).
It’s well-structured, taking us through various different zoonotic pathogens and their implications. The search for the “Next Big One” (the next pandemic) isn’t the primary focus, despite the title, and instead Quammen focuses on how the diseases are tracked, particularly how they are tracked to the reservoir species that safely harbour the pathogens until they spill over into other species. It’s not hysterical about the fact that there will be another pandemic, but treats it in a matter of fact way. Of course there’ll be another pandemic: we’re overcrowded, highly connected, highly social, and fairly careless.
I know there are people out there who will be complaining about Quammen’s bias when he notes that we are, to a great extent, making the problem worse. We destroy habitats, bring animals into closer contact with us, and thus bring ourselves into closer contact with their pathogens, which may spill over into humans. Not biased, and not hard to understand, just a fact.
A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, Cordelia Fine
If you’ve read much on the subject, this doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, but it’s presented in a readable, well-organised format, meticulously footnoted, and adopts a pretty light tone. If you’re anything like me, you’ll smile in recognition of some of the things she says — in the middle of describing the brain’s unreliability, Fine points out that precisely in line with what she’s saying, your brain is probably insisting you’re different. It doesn’t apply to you. You’d ignore the researcher in the obedience to authority experiments, you can see through your brain’s attempts to make you believe you’re better than you are.
(And if you’re honest, you’ll admit at this point that you do want to think you’re different. My favourite bit was putting some of this together. For example, when it talked about experiments where people were told that extroverts do better at something, they went through their memories and pulled out only ones that corresponded with an extroverted image of themselves. On the other hand, I ruefully thought about all the ways I am a hopeless introvert — thereby illustrating one of the brain’s ways of protecting itself from failure, by providing myself with an excuse, i.e. ‘if I’m less successful, it’s because I’m not extroverted’.)
I don’t think I’m the greatest fan of Mary Roach’s style. It’s informal, easy to read, self-deprecating — but when it comes to a topic like this, I don’t want to hear all about Mary Roach unless it really illuminates the subject matter. Granted, stuff like near-death experiences and the various ideas of what happens to us after we die are things I’ve been interested in for a long time, and don’t really need an entry-level primer on. (I had to memorise the stages of an NDE as described by Kenneth Ring for my religious studies A Level.)
Still, where this deals with facts instead of impressions, it’s interesting stuff. A couple of the studies and anecdotes were familiar to me from what I already knew: I still find the case of the woman who saw the surgical tools being used on her despite having her eyes taped shut an interesting one. (It’s convincing because it wasn’t a typical tool, not something she’d have come across elsewhere, and she didn’t see the instruments before or after her operation.)
Overall, this probably isn’t going to convince you either way, if that’s what you’re looking for, but it’s certainly got some interesting snippets of information.
The quote on the cover calling this ‘gossipy’ is right; ‘insightful’, not so much. There’s a lack of meaningful dates and orientation, and Dennison avoids picking a side so much that he immediately undermines any definite point with something else. He talks about Tiberius, for example, presents him as a little reluctant to take power, and then a couple of pages later presents him as a power-hungry tyrant; he talks about his simple, ascetic life, and then repeats gossip about his sexual proclivities and excesses.
It mostly seems as though Dennison is unsure about what the truths are, and isn’t willing to put in the scholarship to figure out how true or false any particular assertion may be. He just seems to present it all.
So yeah, didn’t find this all that entertaining, really. It’s just so vague about actual events.
I was at the Wales vs England game during the Six Nations in 2013. I know enough about rugby to know that other Welsh people will often want to kick me when I declare this, given that Wales won. Especially when I point out that my grandfather’s seats are just over the centre of the pitch, at a nice height to see everything but still close enough to pick out the individual players and feel the heat from those enormous flares they set off. Apart from all that, however, I pretty much rely on the other spectators to keep me vaguely orientated towards what is actually going on in the game. (The last game I attended was Wales vs Italy with my sister, and she helped me figure out precisely when to scream at the ref, etc.)
Anyway, this book helps somewhat with that, explaining amidst the humour what each member of the team does and a few of the rules. Mostly, though, and unhelpfully, it advocates not bothering to know the rules and just playing it by ear. It’s true that I suspect most teams of doing that, but I would like to acquire a vague idea of why the referee is awarding penalties, assuming he knows why he’s awarding penalties and isn’t just doing it because he doesn’t like the look of the hooker (not that kind of hooker).
It’s funny, and somewhat helpful, but not really substantial.
Basically a book that criticises making concrete judgements on the little data we have available, and then makes some of his own, which is kind of how a lot of this works, so no surprise there. On the technical side, I found his style off-putting: it seems to suggest an intentionality and directionality to evolution that does not exist.
Overall, the basic thesis is interesting: that climate and chance drove human evolution, and determined which branches of the evolutionary tree survived. That’s accepted when it comes to other animals, but in humans we do tend to make arguments about Neanderthals being stupider than humans, etc. And yet, put me in the environment the Neanderthals thrived in, and I’d have a lot of trouble, too — and here I am with bits of paper I can show you to prove my intelligence by our standards.
I did find some things funny, like Finlayson’s self-righteous little comment about people in their comfort zones pretending to care about people in less fortunate conditions and doing nothing. He’s writing for Oxford University Press — that glass house he’s sitting in is very conspicuous.
(Probably this irritation is somewhat prompted by the fact that I am one of those people in my comfort zone. On the other hand, I tithe a portion of my income to various charities, and give up significant chunks of my free time to charity work. I don’t think Finlayson’s research does as much good for the human condition, in the grand scheme of things. For all I know he donates all the proceeds of this book to charity, but still, he also flies all over the world doing his research and spends his time writing books like this. There’s a place for that, but you’d probably best not be making disparaging comments about your likely readers while you’re sat in that place.)
Gulp is definitely light, popular science, with an abundance of footnotes, irreverent comments, and some interesting facts/experiences. I wasn’t grossed out by it, since I can be fairly clinical, and rolled my eyes at some of the humour aimed at being gross; mostly it was an interesting read, certainly a quick one. It’s accessible, no matter what level your knowledge of biology is at, mostly dealing with the various topics in an anecdotal way.
I liked reading it, but now I have and look back, I think it dragged a little. Part of that’s doubtless my sense of humour, which is defective and needs to be returned for a refund. Part of that is the endlessly anecdotal nature of it. I’ve reserved another of Roach’s books from the library, but I wouldn’t buy it for myself; I do have a friend who I think would find this quite interesting.
Also, will people please quit hurrhurrhurring at the idea of faecal transplants? I’m sure it’s all very well to laugh at it from a distance, but a) it’s reinforcing the stigma about diseases like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis which really are not funny, and b) I have high hopes that they will actually find a way to cure or at least greatly alleviate inflammatory bowel diseases as a result of studies into this kind of thing. Several close friends have IBDs, and I cannot wait for the day they can quit feeling that shame/disgust.
It’s hard to figure out how to rate or review this. I mean, do you rate it as art? As a story? Or as non-fiction? As something in between, that nonetheless tries to express the truth? I quite liked Spiegelman’s style: the panels were maybe a little too busy at times, but the drawings had character and life.
More importantly, I think in writing his father’s story, Art Spiegelman managed to capture something we can be prone to forget: the Jews were not necessarily all nice people, all innocent victims and young girls like Anne Frank. There were greedy Jews, Jews who survived because they were quick-thinking and put themselves first, Jews with horrible opinions and so on. Art Spiegelman’s father Vladek isn’t a pleasant character in many ways, but what he goes through and the finer aspects of him show us that it doesn’t matter what kind of people the Jews who suffered and died were, they didn’t deserve Auschwitz and Dachau and all the other concentration camps. We don’t need an idealised innocent young girl to know what happened for the horror it was — that might make it easier on us, but to me it’s equally important to remember collaborators and cowards, the everyman and the rich banker and even the ones who stole each others’ food or lorded it over them to survive. Half of those horrors were created by the conditions anyway.
Which is to say… there were no perfect people. It’s a mistake to forget that, to forget that we’re still talking about humans all their messy glory. Maus reminds us pretty firmly that horrific things can happen to people who aren’t that nice themselves, and remain horrific.
So all in all, I don’t know that I like it much, but it’s one of those things where I have to consider the work that went into it and what it says, what it does, more than my personal enjoyment or not.