Yes, really, and this really is a serious book, referring to studies and discussing them in a sober and mostly non-profane fashion. At times the casual swearing seemed a little much (a bit of a gimmick, rather than me feeling bad about swearing at all), but there’s a lot of fascinating stuff in here. There’s a chapter on Tourette’s, for example: although Byrne explains that it doesn’t really belong in a book about swearing being good for you, because in the case of Tourette’s it ends up being alienating and awful, but it goes into what causes people with Tourette’s to swear, and a little bit about what that tells us about swearing in general.
There’s also a really horrifying (to me) discussion of the fact that women with cancer who swear (due to their cancer but not necessarily about their cancer) tend to lose the support of the people around them, even their close female friends. They’re dealing with something fucking horrifying, they’re probably in pain and exhausted, but they’ve got to watch their language too? I hope Byrne’s hypothesis that this effect will fade with more recent generations is correct.
There’s also discussion of swearing and gender, and my favourite bit, the discussion of swearing in toilet trained chimps. (Teach a chimp that poop is dirty and it will see it as such, act ashamed if caught pooping somewhere it shouldn’t, and start using dirtiness as an insult!)
It’s all pretty fascinating, and while I’m not a major swearer unless I’m doing the final missions in Mass Effect, at which point the brain to mouth filter drops out of the picture, I’m glad to acknowledge that sometimes, it turns out it really is good for you — helping you to bear pain and stress, bonding you with teammates, etc, etc.
I love reading books on archaeology. A lot of the information doesn’t sink in — the names and dates and precise contents of tombs — but the interpretations that come out of it do, and I have a great time reliving my childhood dreams of being an archaeologist. (Blame Time Team.) In the case of this book, it’s mostly based on inscriptions and ruins actually found standing, rather than excavations, and I ended up tiring of the succession of names and vague facts, and of being told over and over again what a linga is (it’s a giant stone penis). There’s definitely magic in the ruins of Angkor Wat, and I did enjoy some of the understanding I gleaned of how that society worked… but it got pretty repetitive, just lists and lists of who was related to whom, the gods they venerated and the piles of treasure and groups of workers they supplied for temples.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s important stuff to know in the interpretation of the site, but it’s a little… bloodless. It all seemed to be summed up rather neatly in the final 20-page chapter, which was the bit where most of the analysis came in.
Ever heard voices? A surprising number of people have, and this book delves into the way we think and how that influences the phenomenon of hearing voices. He’s careful not to stigmatise people who do hear voices, while still indicating what happens for most people and what’s different for people who do hear voices. I’d always heard the idea that schizophrenics hear voices because they’re actually misattributing their own thought processes, but Fernyhough really goes into the pros and cons of that interpretation, and some other alternative understandings.
It’s not just about schizophrenics, though. A lot of it is about the way the average person thinks. What percentage of the time do you actually think in words? How long does it take you to complete a thought? What language do you think in, if you’re bilingual? The book goes into all those ideas and discusses some interesting experiments that do their best to capture the objective facts from experiences which are subjective by their very definition.
It’s really fascinating stuff, and it helps that it’s super easy to read. I polished it off in no time.
Subliminal: The New Unconscious and What It Teaches Us, Leonard Mlodinow
This book was a bit of a disappointment. It covers basically the same ground as dozens of other books which purport to explain the irrationality of the human brain, including the same experiments discussed with more or less the same conclusions. I’m wary of the way Mlodinow decides that certain anatomical areas of the brain are solely and uncomplicatedly involved in specific emotions. For example, he identifies the “ventromedial pre-frontal cortex” as being all there is to it when it comes to preferring Coke over Pepsi because of the brand-name. This isn’t my area (alas) so I’m not going to say he’s definitively wrong, but I’ve read around enough to be cautious when someone decides that a bit of brain anatomy means x or y universally. It smacks of going for a simple, catchy answer instead of acknowledging the actual complexity of the brain.
Anyway, it’s probably a good read if you haven’t read one of the dozens of other books covering the same topic, and in its favour I did find myself snorting in amusement at some of Mlodinow’s commentary. It’s nothing new, though.
If you’re interested in planets outside our solar system, this is obviously going to be for you. It explains how planets form and the different ecosystems (of a sort) that different types of planets form in. Like the other Bloomsbury Sigma books, it’s readable and fairly light in tone. I think it could actually have used some more diagrams: sometimes, Tasker explained something and my brain just couldn’t grab hold because I couldn’t do the imagining she was suggesting. (If you start with “imagine an ellipse”, I’m afraid I fall at that first hurdle, so I’m a bit of an outlier here — but I still think some more diagrams could have clarified the more technical stuff.)
I do also have some issues with terminology, although this isn’t Tasker’s fault so much as an issue with astronomy in general: hot Jupiters and super Earths and so on all start to blur together for me. Once you say “it’s like Jupiter only x and y and z and a and b” then I don’t know why you’re still calling it a Jupiter-like object. Some of the hot Jupiters are pretty close to Jupiter, of course, but… I don’t know, it felt like a meaningless phrase that got in the way of me actually following what sort of planets were being discussed. “A gas giant on a close solar orbit” seems more informative…
Anyway, that’s probably mostly down to personal taste. It’s an informative book with which I have no scientific quibbles.
The cover promises the “wild and wonderful” tale of the founding of the London Zoo, but it isn’t really very wild, though you might decide it’s still wonderful in its way. It certainly was a heck of a task, and the fact that the London Zoo still exists is amazing considering some of the difficulties they had. The style is rather fictionalised — mentioning exactly what Charman imagines the protagonists of the story think and feel — and it doesn’t always stick very closely to the founding of the zoo itself. For example, there’s a whole chapter on Darwin, at least as long as the others, and yet of all of them he has almost nothing to do with the actual business of the zoo.
It’s not all about the zoo, then, but the story it tells is an interesting one, and I did enjoy the stories of men that might have been left out of the story in another time — the first vet, the keepers, etc. The people who did the day to day work on the ground, not just the people who designed the buildings or paid for things.
A little slow, really; it was a bit too fictional to give me the sort of details I want in my non-fiction, but too dry for my tastes as a work of fiction.
If you’re looking for information on the gorgonopsids and their world, this book is rather thin on that. Instead, it’s mostly about Ward’s career and some of his excavations and initiatives. Admittedly, much of that is in the service of getting information about the gorgonopsids, but the book is rather thin on what was actually found. There is some interesting stuff on pinning down that mass extinction and figuring out how fast it happened, but the gorgonopsids in life — how they lived, what they did — are absent.
So pretty interesting in terms of understanding Ward’s career as a palaeontologist, with the appropriate set pieces about how hot it was and how difficult, etc, etc, but low on actual pre-dinosaurian monsters ruling the Earth.
If you’re expecting something based a bit more on humans and how they evolved, remember it’s Brian Cox and think bigger — it’s more about our place in the universe, our understanding of it, and what we might find out there in the vastness of space. It’s not really about us as a species, I think, but about how we see the world around us. So yeah, more physics, less biology. Which makes sense, given the author, and it’s easier to absorb than his other book I’ve read (Universal). It goes into interesting stuff like the Fermi Paradox and the Drake Equation, which is right up my street, and it avoids too much jargon or demands that the reader understand math.
That said, it wasn’t amazing, from my point of view — mildly interesting, but not really my thing.
This is a fairly in-depth examination of the Wall and the archaeology done around it to try and understand what it was used for and at what times. As such, it’s a lot of information that most people wouldn’t expect to hold in their heads after, unless they’re deeply interested in the topic. Which is pretty much exactly why I read this, back during my exam period. I really love reading books like this that sift through the archaeology, present possible conclusions and discuss what is most likely. I don’t expect to remember this or that about the forts — no one expects me to remember it — but all the same I learned about the Romans and the British of the period, and got to connect some dots in what I know.
It’s perhaps not the most scintillating reading if you’re not pretty engaged and interested in the topic, but it’s interesting stuff and they make a good case for their ideas.
Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life, Nick Lane
I read this while I was preparing for one of the final exams of my biology degree, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I found it helpful in revising some of the topics (mostly apoptosis!), but also found that knowledge useful in understanding the book itself. To me, it seemed an incredibly clear and well-written account of the role of mitochondria in life and the origin of life, and I didn’t really find any major holes in it based on what I know. If you’ve read The Vital Question, then a lot of the ideas in it aren’t new — but of course, that makes sense, since The Vital Question is a more recent book by the same author.
And since this is pop science, I should add that you don’t need the biology degree to understand it. It might be slower going and less like pleasure reading if you don’t have a solid background in science, but it should work at that level too.
I do roll my eyes a little bit at the title, which is obviously drumming up excitement by sounding provocative and then like a self-help book, but hey, maybe it’s persuaded someone on the fence to pick it up just through sounding a bit unusual for the section it’s in. It’s worth picking up, definitely.