Tag: science

Review – Immune

Posted January 24, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Immune by Philipp DettmerImmune: A Journey into the Mysterious System That Keeps You Alive, Philipp Dettmer

Immune: A Journey into the Mysterious System That Keeps You Alive is a beautifully illustrated book that aims to make a complex system clear and accessible for a reader who is pretty much new to the topic (maybe you’ve got a GCSE in biology or something, but that was a long time ago). It’s chatty and informal and uses a lot of analogies to make things simple to remember, and it’s often irreverent. (At one point it compares the shape of antibodies to crabs, and then refers to their “butts”, leading to this immortal phrase: “The pincers are for enemies, the cute butts for friends.”)

The author is clearly absolutely bowled over by the beautiful dance that is the human immune system, the various clever ways it protects us and regulates itself, and that shines through in pretty much every chapter. He’s explaining things and being really clear and going into detail because he wants you to see how gorgeous it all is.

Now I already appreciated that (everyone close to me flashes back to my impassioned glee about the membrane attack complex), so it wasn’t new to me — but still, his enthusiasm made me smile. It’s not bad as a revision session for me either, and even though I’ve studied human biology and infectious diseases quite a bit, there were still one or two surprises for me. Just wait until you get to the bit about NETs. Wow.

Throughout, he mentions the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and how some of this information applies to that; it’s not a book about the pandemic, but it can definitely help you understand the pandemic. It also explains why vaccination works, and why there’s no meaningful difference between “natural” immunity and that gained through vaccination — your cells go through exactly the same process. It’s all pretty great, and I’d recommend it to people at all levels of ability. It’s also just beautiful, with a ton of diagrams that make things really clear.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Humankind

Posted January 22, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Human kind: A Hopeful History by Rutger BremanHumankind, Rutger Bregman

This was a really quick read which I found myself really enjoying. It’s a profoundly optimistic book, arguing that humans are generally inclined toward cooperation and care for one another, and highlighting the pitfalls (and manipulations inherent in) certain famous studies that people have relied on for a rather pessimistic view of humanity. We’re talking Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiments, Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, and Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave experiment — “I was just following orders”, “power will inevitably be abused”, “kids will go full Lord of the Flies if left alone”.

The criticisms of these are known elsewhere, based on methodology and skewed reporting (the experimenters put heavy pressure on the subjects of the electric shock studies, and many of the subjects didn’t actually believe there was anyone being shocked; the prison guards were heavily coached to behave the way they did by Zimbardo himself and a hand-picked guard, plus the guy who allegedly went crazy just wanted to get out of there and acted it; the kids were manipulated into fighting, but actually tended toward cooperation and reconciliation when left alone), and Bregman lays out the criticisms well. He’s not some lone voice in the wilderness here: if you read around, there are plenty of critiques of those old experiments, and attempts to reproduce the results have failed or had markedly less success.

He also picks apart the very well known “bystander syndrome”, by pointing out that one of the people who didn’t act in the famous case of Kitty Genovese’s murder was terrified of being found out for being queer, and instead ran to find someone else… who ran out of her home immediately and held Genovese in her arms until an ambulance arrived. Kitty Genovese didn’t die alone, and witnesses did call the police, who gave the reports low priority as the witnesses didn’t know what they’d witnessed was a serious attack.

At the same time, Bregman does acknowledge that these results were obtained and can be under some circumstances. It would be wrong to characterise his point as being that humans are always going to be good. In fact, he points out situations that bring out the worst in us, mostly (in his view) in line with the mismatch hypothesis: humans as a species didn’t evolve for this modern, technological world with crowded cities, neighbours you don’t know, etc.

His answer is not that we necessarily need to go back to pre-city ways of living. In fact, many of his suggestions are about bringing out the best in ourselves in the world that we have, with individual-level suggestions about trust, avoiding the news, not getting swept up in the latest outrage, etc.

I think he’s an optimist and an idealist, and his argument that we can’t be cooperative and good to one another without trust is difficult to refute in a world where suspicion seems like the best option. His most realistic suggestion is to live, as an individual, as trustfully as possible, and reach for the cooperative solution as much as you can. To do good openly, and spread that goodness by example.

Much of what he says is what I’d like to believe, and much of what he suggests is how I already choose to act, so of course the book plays into my bias. Still, I think it’s well-written, spiced with just the right anecdotes to make his point, and a good (and surprisingly quick) read — I tore through it. If he’s wrong, well, I’d like him to be right, and I think little harm will come from believing that he’s right.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Diagnosis

Posted November 28, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Diagnosis by Lisa SandersDiagnosis: Solving the Most Baffling Medical Mysteries, Lisa Sanders

Each chapter of this book is a little précis of a case, with the key details you need for figuring out what exactly happened, should you have the knowledge and experience — and of course some flavour text, because where would we be without knowing that a young girl was an athlete, or a straight-A student, etc, etc? The stories are pretty short, each illustrating a medical mystery (to one degree or another — some of these I guessed, and others I’d have no idea about).

It’s very light, of course, but for a layperson it’s perfect, and illustrates some of the weirdnesses of bodies and diseases. I found that it actually made me a little anxious, partly because of the trappings of characterisation and life situations that were given for flavour — it makes it all too easy for me to imagine the same situation happening to me and my loved ones. Nonetheless, I powered through, and thought it was pretty interesting and well-written for what it is.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Breaking the Chains of Gravity

Posted November 15, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Breaking The Chains of Gravity by Amy Shira TeitelBreaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight Before NASA, Amy Shira Teitel

The problem with the early history of missiles, which came to enable space exploration, is apparently that it’s mostly about Nazis. Wernher von Braun ends up being the main focus of the narrative because he was deeply involved in rocketry all along, and unfortunately the author takes a tone that sees him as a visionary, nobly defending his precious and important project…….. by becoming a Nazi, accepting slave labour to assist in building it, and — she doesn’t mention this, somehow, mysteriously — being accused along the way of actively helping to torture prisoners.

Many ordinary people got caught up in the Nazi party, but most of them wouldn’t try to defend themselves by claiming their project was too important to abandon. Hiding behind the importance of his project is what skeeves me out more than anything with von Braun — and what skeeves me out with Amy Shira Teitel is how little she bothers to grapple with that fact. You’re writing about a Nazi, and that requires careful handling, and for the love of God you should not be suggesting that the ends (protection of the missile programme) might justify the means (the brutal use and torture of prisoners), even inadvertently. You should be so careful about that that the accusation could never arise.

Amy Shira Teitel… was not. Her enthusiasm for rocketry is clear, but her judgement is sorely in question. In addition, because I could not possibly care less about fucking Nazis, I found a lot of the book difficult to read and frankly tedious. Oh! It’s another explanation of how clever von Braun is and how carefully he protected his team of scientists from dying in the war! What a shame he couldn’t do anything about the torture and deaths that facilitated his programme.


Rating: 2/5

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Review – Spitting Blood

Posted November 9, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Spitting Blood by Helen BynumSpitting Blood: The History of Tuberculosis, Helen Bynum

I was enthusiastic for this book, because I’m enthusiastic about tuberculosis, but my actual research for my dissertation only extended to the current state of affairs in the UK (with a sprinkling of context from other countries that helped explain patterns of prevalence). Unfortunately, it’s very dry, and kinda lacking in real… judgements about the narrative. Like it’ll discuss a particular type of treatment, but only historically, without reference to whether it actually worked, what the off-target effects might be, why it might work on the occasions that it did actually work.

It does have some scientific detail, but it’s more along the lines of why people thought x and y. As the narrative gets toward the present day, there are some more details — and some I didn’t know, like the fact that the need for multi-drug regimens was known pretty early on. I thought the reason resistance arose was because monotherapy was used exclusively until quite recently, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

(Part of the complication is that TB is just really very tricky, without any need for monotherapies giving it the chance to mutate. It has great efflux systems to pump most types of antibiotics out of the cell, it gets inside your macrophages and then makes the phagosome unable to fuse with the lysosome so it can sit pretty inside your cells, and it has a whole bunch of potential mutations that allow it to neutralise the main antibiotics in some way or another. This info isn’t in the book, this is from my dissertation, though.)

Anyway, it filled in some of the background knowledge I lacked, but it was dry and lacked urgency. I found Kathryn Lougheed’s Catching Breath far better back when I first read it, when it was the book that got me interested in TB to begin with!

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Apple Orchard

Posted September 29, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Apple Orchard by Pete BrownThe Apple Orchard: The Story of Our Most English Fruit, Pete Brown

Broadly speaking, I really enjoyed this book. I came across it during my sudden random interest in histories about food, and though it’s also a history about cider and farming fruit, it ticks some of those boxes. It’s perhaps a little unusual in that the author can’t actually eat apples due to an allergy, so though he happily tastes cider (which doesn’t trigger the allergy), he’s otherwise stuck with other people describing the flavours (and textures, which always seem to be mentioned when people describe eating an apple).

There are… a few things that drove me absolutely nuts, though, so people would be forgiven for thinking that I didn’t actually like the book at all. The first thing is the firm location of King Arthur stories in England, as an English thing (just like apples are English, even when he’s talking about ones from South Wales). He’s done some half-assed research, like this:

The problem for Celts who want to claim the Arthurian myth as their own is that the details — such as we assume them now — don’t stack up. […] But Sarmartian warriors did ride horses, which were first domesticated on the Kazakh steppe, and they did wear chainmail and armour of overlapping scales. If we look at the customs and legends from the homeland of these armour-clad horse warriors, other familiar aspects leap out. […] There’s even a sacred golden cup in the Central Asian myths that sounds an awful lot like the Holy Grail.

Sounds very convincing, right? Except the man has done the very bare minimum of research, and quite possibly skimmed his theory off the blog of a random Arthurian enthusiast. It’s manifest bollocks from start to finish: he bases his theory about King Arthur being a Sarmartian on the grounds that we imagine King Arthur to have been armour-clad and riding a horse. But that’s just the version of King Arthur that we’re most familiar with, one that wasn’t really codified until much later. Early sources don’t mention anything about horses or chain mail or any of that stuff. If the sacred golden cup of Central Asian myths has any links to Arthurian literature, those links are no earlier in the Arthurian canon than Chrétien de Troyes, who made the first reference to a graal — which wasn’t even a cup.

Meaning, dear friends, that Pete Brown’s imagined parallels are largely way too late to have any bearing at all on whether Celts can claim the Arthurian myth as their own. We obviously can: the Welsh have the oldest sources.

It is a little worrying when I come across research as woeful as this in a book that involved allegedly years of research. Kind of throws the rest in a bad light — as does saying that CRISPR involves turning genes on and off, rather than full scale gene editing. CRISPR, if we can get past the problem of targeting it precisely, can do whatever gene editing we want. Plus, if you’re going to reference CRISPR, then maybe don’t just explain it like that with a throwaway footnote saying “No, me neither” — some of your readers do actually understand what CRISPR is, or are more than capable of looking it up.

(In case you want to edit that footnote, Mr Brown, here’s my suggested text: “CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. It’s a tool adapted from bacterial defences against invasive viruses which can be used for gene editing.” Fixed that for you; not much more difficult to understand than “No, me neither”, and much better at giving context if someone is interested.)

Also, it’s really, truly, incredibly, breathtakingly, moronically irresponsible to write that you are worried about eating “moth bits” in an apple if the tree was gene-edited to include a resistance gene from moths. It’s a piece of DNA; it doesn’t make bits of a moth, you idiot. It makes a protein which has nothing to do with any part of the moth’s lifecycle. If you took that gene and begged it, it could not become a moth, nor could you reconstruct moth DNA from it. If you really want to make some kind of comment about gene editing, I strongly recommend you go and spend at least one more year on your research, because you patently don’t understand a thing about it right now.

All of that said, I realise that makes it sound like I hated the book, but the parts where he sticks to what he knows and has experienced are very pleasant — he waxes poetical about the beauty of apples, the traditions surrounding them, and the events he’s taken part in that involve apples. He should have stuck to that, because overall it’s a really enjoyable read.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – How to Read a Paper

Posted September 13, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How to Read a Paper by Tricia GreenhalghHow to Read a Paper, Tricia Greenhalgh

This is chiefly useful if you’re planning on reading papers in order to apply them to a medical context: it basically teaches you how to use the concepts of evidence-based medicine. However, it can also be useful for those who have to read papers in general, because there is a good discussion of how to read the statistics without getting overwhelmed and weirded out — and it has some hints about what to watch out for in terms of poor methodology and bad data manipulation.

It’s a slow read, of course, but it’s a worthwhile one if that sounds like something you might need to apply in your work or study!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – How Emotions Are Made

Posted September 11, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman BarrettHow Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett

The first half of this book is great. Lisa Feldman Barrett explains her subject well, dissecting previous evidence as well as her own research and synthesising them into her full theory. In summary, she posits that emotions are not something pre-formed in the brain, not something genetic, and not something you can point to on a scan. Instead, each instance of emotion is constructed from all kinds of different inputs, in the moment, and may not look anything like another instance of the same emotion if the subject is put in a brain scanner. This makes sense of a lot of things, and makes perfect sense to me — in fact, it starts to seem totally obvious!

She also mentions the “illusion of free will” almost in passing, in a way that made the lightbulb click on for me. I always hate the idea that I don’t have free will, and that “I” am essentially forced to act in a certain way — or more accurately, have no option to act in a different way — by combinations of my upbringing, culture and biology. But the point is that “I” am constructed by all those things anyway, and there is no real separation into “conscious” and “unconscious”, where the “unconscious” isn’t really me. The unconscious part is me as well, and even if it does things without waiting for the conscious me to weigh in — even though the body starts to act before the “decision” to act is consciously made — then… that’s still me. It seems obvious in retrospect, and is completely in line with everything else I believe (mind/body dualism has never been for me).

Why I never saw it that way before… well. Like Robert Sapolsky says in his book Behave, people tend to imagine their conscious mind as a sort of homunculus directing the brain’s actions, and it’s not really the case — but it’s a powerful illusion. It’s that idea of a homunculus separate from the rest of the brain that makes it feel like there’s a problem.

I’m not entirely sure I’m coherent here, but I really appreciated Feldman Barrett’s aside about that. It made things click into place for me.

The second half of the book is more about the applicability of her theories, and it worked less well. There are good examples there of dissecting how her theory works, but in the end her conclusions are familiar ones. That said, her view of constructed emotion, and the ability to impact how your emotions are constructed, give people rather more responsibility for their brains that scientists like (since I mentioned him already) Sapolsky seem to do. That’s interesting and useful.

Overall, I found this really interesting, but the applicability chapters dragged a bit.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Sirens of Mars

Posted August 23, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Sirens of Mars by Sarah Stewart JohnsonThe Sirens of Mars, Sarah Stewart Johnson

The Sirens of Mars is partly the history of science about Mars, and partly about the author’s relationship with Mars. That’s a bit of a trend in popular science, and to be honest, I’m starting to really dislike it — at least when it veers from the writer’s career and things they worked on (pretty relevant) to things which are not really relevant (giving birth to a child). It’s not supposed to be your autobiography; it’s billed as a book about Mars.

Despite finding that aspect frustrating, I mostly enjoyed this. It is a touch biographical about scientists like Sagan as well, but at least that told me things I didn’t already know (e.g. I hadn’t known about Sagan’s struggle with achalasia). There were some details of the Mars missions and the people around them which were new to me as well — I didn’t remember anything about Phoenix at all, totally overshadowed by Curiosity in my memory, I suppose!

What we know about Mars has been filled with missteps where we dreamed more than we could actually detect, like the canals and Sagan’s dream of fast-moving creatures that we wouldn’t capture with a camera. This book is an interesting, if slightly meandering, recounting of that journey and where it has brought us. It might be unsatisfying to some that there’s still a lot of science left to do on Mars, and we don’t have solid answers to some of the questions Johnson discusses. I love the idea that we always have more to learn, though.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Behave

Posted August 17, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Behave by Robert M. SapolskyBehave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert Sapolsky

There isn’t much new in Behave if you’ve read a few different books about human behaviour, though he does have a very clear way of explaining some basic biological concepts that I initially found really engaging (despite my own familiarity with them). In general, he uses and discusses the same studies and anecdata that everyone uses to explain various aspects of human behaviour, and mostly this book pulls it all together to make some general statements about human behaviour and what causes it. The main takeaway, of course, is “it’s complicated” — but he does a good job of picking things apart, relating them to each other, and putting forward his views.

Personally, I find this kind of book (and this book specifically) challenging because I would love to believe I have free will, and not just in choosing what colour my socks are. Sometimes I get a really good example of how I don’t (PTSD and other anxiety disorders can really demonstrate that), and I don’t like it… and this book is just such an experience. As a scientist, there’s just no room left for what Sapolsky calls the ‘homunculus’ that can pilot you, unaffected by hormones and past experiences and the size of your hippocampus.

And… in the end, for me, it felt like Sapolsky was reiterating a lot of stuff I already knew, at very great length. So if it’s something you haven’t read about or looked into before, I think it’d be a good place to start. The basics are really well laid out! But if you’ve been there and read that, then maybe give it a miss.

Rating: 3/5

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