Tag: science


Review – The Piltdown Forgery

Posted 13 September, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

The Piltdown Forgery, J.S. Weiner

The Piltdown Forgery is a rather old book, reissued after fifty years, which examines the known evidence in an attempt to figure out who exactly forged the famous Piltdown Man. To be more precise, the forger created a collection of remains and artefacts which supposedly proved the presence in Britain of a man with an ape-like jaw and a Homo-like cranium, at such an age to suggest itself as a perfect transitional fossil in the ape to human lineage. It was revealed as a clever forgery by 1953, but interest has since focused on figuring out who the forger was and what exactly their motives were.

The book goes into the detail of the “discovery” and how the fake was unmasked, discussing the various techniques of staining and of later dating the fossil, before trying to work out who had the necessary skills, interest and motive. To my mind, the answer is fairly obvious to begin with, and the evidence presented only makes it more so; Weiner actually holds back from that conclusion, though, rather coyly asserting that surely it doesn’t matter now. Indeed, it’s now been confirmed by DNA testing, so I’m afraid there’s no way out for Weiner, despite the liking he betrays for the chief suspect.

(Not to be coy myself, the man who made the original discovery was always the obvious suspect and the recent tests confirm: Charles Dawson was the forger.)

It’s an interesting overview, though cuts surprisingly short when it is about to reach that inevitable conclusion.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The End of Epidemics

Posted 6 September, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

The End of Epidemics, Dr Jonathan Quick

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.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Darwin Comes To Town

Posted 29 August, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Darwin Comes To Town, Menno Schilthuizen

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.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Gene Machine

Posted 22 August, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Gene Machine, Venki Ramakrishnan

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.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Pandemic Century

Posted 11 August, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Pandemic Century by Mark HonigsbaumThe Pandemic Century, Mark Honigsbaum

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.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Forces of Nature

Posted 30 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Forces of Nature by Brian CoxForces of Nature, Brian Cox, Andrew Cohen

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.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Dinosaurs Rediscovered

Posted 21 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Dinosaurs Rediscovered by Michael J. BentonThe Dinosaurs Rediscovered, Michael J. Benton

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!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Brainstorm

Posted 14 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

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.)

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Extraordinary Insects

Posted 4 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Extraordinary Insects by Anne Sverdrup-ThygesonExtraordinary Insects, Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson

I am not, as most people know, a fan of insects. In fact, there was a time not long ago when the mere thought of insects practically made me hyperventilate, and I’d still appreciate if they could keep their creepy little feet well away from me. But there’s always a world of things to know, and actual knowledge helps to replace instinctive fear, so I’ve been reading around somewhat, now and then, just as I did with deadly diseases. It’s kind of helping.

Anyway, Extraordinary Insects has some interesting titbits, it’s true. A lot wasn’t surprising to me — I have a biology degree, I think we can take it as read that I can grasp taxonomy — but there were some interesting facts. It was just… kind of thin, in the end; there were a couple of eyebrow-raising points where I quibbled with the facts as presented*, but the most part it was just a moderately entertaining, quick read, suitable for a layperson but not for anyone looking for depth. (Which is a big ask from popular science, perhaps, but I know plenty of popular science books that have been satisfying to me!)

(*For example, she claimed that binomial species names are always, invariably, in Latin. They are not. Many contain Greek as well, not to mention those that contain names.)

So in the end, fairly ambivalent. Meh.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Spineless

Posted 24 June, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Spineless by Juli BerwaldSpineless, Juli Berwald

I’m so behind on reviews that it’s been a while since I read this, oops. I’m not a huge fan of jellyfish, but I can be entertained greatly by reading about something I don’t know even if I’m not already a fan, and such was the case here. Jellyfish didn’t particularly strike me as interesting, biologically, and they still don’t hold much fascination for me in themselves — but the book definitely grabbed my interest and kept it. There’s lots of interesting facts, albeit I couldn’t immediately verify the ones I checked up on (the claim, for example, that there’s a jellyfish that zips its mouth shut so tightly that trying to forcefully unzip it simply rips the jellyfish’s face).

It’s a little prone to wandering into autobiography, with some filler chapters like the one about how to prepare jellyfish to eat, but this is pop science: one expects that kind of detail and filler when you’re talking about as vague a subject as this. Going into it with that level of expectation, it was generally entertaining, full of the sort of facts I like to randomly tell my wife, and a quick read.

Rating: 4/5

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